A two-year old named Kennedy recently became a viral video sensation after she lost her damn mind at the suggestion that she didn’t have a boyfriend. Kennedy was insistent that her uncle’s roommate Jared was her boyfriend and being informed otherwise left the darling Southern moppet in abject misery. I must confess that I feel a kindred spirit in this young soul. I want a boyfriend too. And the fact that I don’t have one has indeed brought me to tears on more than one occasion. It is terribly unfashionable to admit such things aloud. Women are told that we seem desperate if we admit that we want to have committed partnerships, that high-achieving women have so much else to be excited about.
The single life is so often revered for its freedoms and lack of commitments that the thoroughly modern woman is supposed to accept her singlehood with gratitude for the gift of liberation. But my graduate degree cannot go buy me NyQuil when I’m sick or listen to a panicked screed about professional failure in the middle of the night. My feminist ideals can’t be the big spoon. I have nothing but the best wishes and greatest admiration for the women who enjoy the single life as a gift. But I am frankly tired of being told that unhappy solitude is something to be treasured, that my lack of romantic companionship and consistent sex are marks of liberty rather than loneliness. And worst of all, I must never speak of it.
My graduate degree cannot go buy me NyQuil when I’m sick or listen to a panicked screed about professional failure in the middle of the night.
A recent story on WNYC reported that there are 100,000 more college-educated women in the under-35 age range than men in Manhattan and that the numbers nationwide are fairly similar. In the United States, there are four college-educated women for every three college-educated men. The gap is even greater between African-American men and women. While host Brian Lehrer and guest Jon Birger noted that college-educated men were more likely to care today that their spouses were college-educated than in years past, they did not address the possibility that men without degrees or with otherwise lower outward markers of success would be willing to date women with degrees. Lehrer and Birger took calls from women offering advice on how to beat the odds in a numbers game that was decidedly stacked against them, but they also suggested that it was women who needed to be more open-minded. Contrary to their testimonials, it has more often than not been my experience that I am happy to date a man with fewer academic credentials than me, but such men are almost universally unwilling to be with me.
On Twitter, I invited single women who wanted boyfriends but were too embarrassed to admit it publicly to email me their stories. The most notable characteristic of the women who emailed was that they did not want to be identified by their real names because of the embarrassment associated with admitting to wanting a relationship. Secondly, the women shared a sense that people around them assumed their independence and success made them invulnerable to the desire for a relationship. “I've definitely found that if you're going to be single as a young woman, people are much more comfortable with it if you're somehow like, sassy and independent about it,” writes a 25-year-old writer and Web producer in New Zealand. “The thing is, though, I would absolutely love to meet someone and fall in love. But admitting that feels like saying I need someone, that I'm not enough by myself. People want you to be either coupled off, or happily single—either way you shouldn't be any burden on anyone else. It's individualistic, neo-liberal trash, I think.”
Morgan, a 23-year-old Princeton graduate is unique in being the only person with whom I corresponded that didn’t mind being identified by her real name but she too feels discomfort at admitting her desire for a relationship. She is also put off by the pressure to do most of the heavy-lifting of finding a partner. “When women are pressured to keep putting themselves out there, dating seems less like fun and more like a job. It's hard for me to admit that I want a boyfriend because I don't want to appear desperate,” she writes. “As a black woman, I feel more pressure to find someone before it's too late. We're bombarded with statistics that the more educated we are, the less desirable we are. I feel ashamed to admit that I want love and romance and kisses and hugs and whatever.” A 23-year-old reporter had similar feelings: “I'm told that as someone who loves her career, apartment, city, family, life, etc., I shouldn't need someone else in my life. But why not? Why are emotions always viewed as wrong, as something to be ignored?” There’s a misconception that women who have achieved success in their jobs or universities are somehow inoculated against a need for tenderness, connection, and love.
I spent more than nine months dating someone who admitted that he was too intimidated by my success as a writer to consider something exclusive, for fear that I would leave him for someone more successful. I wondered if his experience was common, so I did similar outreach for men who do not want to date women who are “ahead” of them professionally or academically. The men who replied were not nearly so fragile about their own standing as I anticipated.
“I don't want to ‘take care of my woman’ nor do I want a woman to take care of me,” writes a 30-year-old without any higher education degrees, and who works as an assistant while living with his parents in Arlington, where he says he is surrounded by the kind of intelligent women he wants to date but feels intimidated by. “I don't feel like I have enough to offer, at the moment, to be an equal partner to the kind of woman I find attractive.... I tried. Repeatedly.” He might be an outlier in his candidness, but he is likely not alone in his belief that he doesn’t have something to offer in a relationship with a high-achieving woman.
What was notable from the dozen or so women I heard from was that none who expressed a desire for a committed relationship noted that they just desperately needed someone to talk about literature or philosophy or the state of the stock market with. Instead, they wanted things like affection, understanding, and intimacy. Men with lower salaries and less advanced degrees can offer all of those things to women whose achievements have not left them without basic romantic desires. We need to make clear to men that, for many women, a man’s worthiness as a romantic prospect is not in his alma mater or written on his business card but in his ability to see beyond the achievements of a woman to her core emotional needs. Because while kids like Kennedy have a long time to go, a lot of us are already facing down the abject misery of long-term loneliness and are tired of hiding our fears about it.