Marry? Scary! On Fairy Tales and Fears, 2

Some days the thought of getting married terrifies me. And I’m not talking about the fear of making bad decisions, like inadvertently hiring a DJ who insists on doing the chicken dance in full costume, or the inevitable wacky wedding day mishaps: a dropped bouquet, forgotten socks, a delayed bagpiper (ask my brother about that last one). I’m talking about the actual marriage part, specifically the 24/7 commitment to sharing not only my heart (which I give gladly) but also my bathroom and my brain-space.

I love Steve and always enjoy his company—as well as the company of his two smart and funny grown sons—and it will be nice to have someone else around to take care of scary spiders. But it does make me anxious to think about bringing not one but three people onto my permanent radar, into the closest circles of my heart and head. After all, aside from felines, I haven’t had a long-term roommate since 1995. At times I’ve been lonely, even profoundly so, but on the whole, I enjoy solitude, and as an introvert and a writer, I require a fair amount of it to function. I spend a lot of time in my head, reading, thinking, processing and, well, writing, and I’ve grown used to devoting much of the brain-space and energy not claimed by work to creative endeavors.

I’m also what’s known as an HSP, a Highly Sensitive Person. There are lots of great articles that describe what it’s like to live as an HSP, as well as an online diagnostic tool for the curious. In brief, HSPs are extremely sensitive to and deeply affected by sensory stimuli, which has both advantages and disadvantages. For example, HSPs tend to startle easily and often cannot tolerate loud or constant noise, and they may feel overwhelmed by visual excess. For example, when I’ve visited my brother and sister-in-law’s very full house (2 parents, 5 kids, 3 friends, 2 dogs, and 3 cats, plus grandparents at its peak), the sheer number of people and sources of sensory input—conversation, computer games, clinking dishes, cat meowing,  television, piano music, a Facebook video on another computer—make for an intense experience. There is also much love and warm laughter—a truly beautiful sound and something I feel privileged to share. Still, after a while, Aunt Sandee needs to fold up in a quiet corner to recover and re-boot!

On the positive side, HSP’s heightened sensitivity also increases our awareness of subtleties. We tend to pick up immediately on the emotional tenor of a group of people when entering a room, and we often experience art, literature, foods, and the environments we encounter more deeply. My keen color sense is no doubt attributable to being an HSP. And there’s a somewhat counter-intuitive flip-side characteristic: HSPs may crave and seek out new and intense sensory stimuli that is pleasurable, because it is a powerful natural high. I have an almost physical response to a pleasing color combination or a beautiful line of poetry. I even love wandering down a big city street, absorbing the cacophony of crowds and cars and shops and signs—but only for short periods of time. A little goes a long way.

Thankfully, one reason Steve and I work so well together is because he understands how much I need to be alone. In fact, long before he ever proposed marriage, he proposed something else that told me he was a keeper. “If we had a house together,” he said, “maybe you could keep a studio or an apartment that you could go to when you needed some alone time.” You would do that for me? I thought. You would be willing to invest in something like that so I could have us AND solo time and space? Of course, he would get solo time and space in the bargain, too, which–an introvert himself–he also enjoys and requires. But that’s when I knew he really understood me.

I do think my need for solitude is mostly wiring, though my fears of losing my autonomy in/to a relationship were likely exacerbated by my relationship with my first boyfriend, “Jim.” Jim was a sweet, funny guy I met at a theatre conference in February of my ninth grade year. He played piano and sang in his church choir, and he was active in his church’s youth group, as I was in mine. He attended a different high school, and though he was well liked from everything I could see, he only had one close guy friend. When we started dating, it was so new and exciting I didn’t notice how much he leaned on me for social support. That summer I took on a day-camp job and a regular babysitting gig, and he got mad and urged me to quit one so I’d have more time for him. That’s when I started to worry. Then, after a few months of my going to his church, I said, “You know, I’d kind of like to go to my church sometimes.” He responded, “Sure, we can go to your church.” He wanted us to do everything together, and I just wanted some time to hang out with my girlfriends and my family and be in my own head. His insecurity became suffocating, and ultimately I ended the relationship. But I think the fear of being subsumed by someone else stuck.

A Facebook friend of mine (single and male) posted a version of this meme a few months ago:


It made me laugh—and it made me think. The meme works specifically because we’re familiar with its counter-point, the traditional fairy tale wherein the girl says “yes,” they get married, and presumably live happily ever after. In the male version of the fairy tale, the “happily ever after” is spelled out in detail, though in traditional fairy tales it’s not. The expected, traditional female version, if I might call it that for the sake of simplicity, might, if it were spelled out, look like this:

Once upon a time, a man asked a woman, “Will you marry me?”
The woman said, YES! And they lived happily ever after
and settled into a lovely house with a big yard
and had one boy and one girl and a well-trained dog
and he made lots of money while she cooked perfect dinners
and they held hands every day until the day they died.

Of course, even for women who desire marriage or partnership, not everyone’s happily ever after includes 2.5 kids and a mortgage. In any case, the assumption that marriage per se is every woman’s dream—the assumption the original meme’s humor depends upon—is, if not sexist, at least shortsighted. A good marriage built on true companionship is something I want (even though it scares me in some ways). But I resist the easy equation of single male = happy and married female = happy as a default setting. There are alternatives to both of the above tales. My  own life, prior to Steve’s presence in it, looked a bit like this (and yes, I was proposed to once before, but that’s a story for another day):

Once upon a time, a man asked a woman, “Will you marry me?”
The woman said, NO!  And she lived happily ever after
and moved to Virginia and traveled at every opportunity
read incredible books and drank good wine and tea
and spent money on journals, artwork, and clothes
and had a raspberry-pink sofa and loved her four cats
and farted whenever she wanted.

And no, the last line is not a typo. You think women who live alone don’t enjoy their freedom to fart with abandon (or drink from the jug, or put off shaving, or let the dishes pile up in the sink…)? Right. Now, there’s a fairy tale.

Or here’s another, a composite fairy tale based on some other awesome women I know:

Once upon a time, a man asked a woman, “Will you marry me?”
The woman said, NO! And she lived happily ever after
and traveled to Africa and met fascinating people
took up running and drank cosmos and craft beer
and spent money on marathons and beautiful shoes
and bought a sewing machine and fostered rescue dogs
and (just guessing here, friends) farted whenever she wanted.

Here’s the thing: one person’s sweetened-up Disney fairy tale is another person’s gloomy Brothers Grimm version. And (this is not news): there is no “happily ever after,” at least no single one that applies universally—nor, I would hazard, only one that is possible in any one person’s life. I wrote a few weeks ago about the “infinite variety of paths” we might travel as we wind our way through the world, and, for each of us, I believe, there is more than one route to happiness.

Mine is starting to look a little something like this:

Once upon a time, a man asked a woman, “Will you marry me?”
The woman said, YES! And they lived happily ever after
and traveled together to oceans and mountains
and talked and read books and respected each other’s need for solitude
and spent money on wedding stuff and shopped for a house
and wondered when to introduce her cats to his dog
who farted whenever he wanted.

Yes, getting married after flying solo for so long is scary, but it’s exciting, too. And, after all, as FDR said, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Well, and spiders. But Steve’s gonna take care of those.

Happy Halloween, all!


3 thoughts on “Marry? Scary! On Fairy Tales and Fears, 2

  1. KJ says:

    Oh my. Can I ever relate to this. We are sisters in so many ways. I have asked for a house with a space for both of us. :-). And I am good with the single or married fairy tale. Especially the last two single female versions 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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