I got married -- the first time -- at 25 because of what other women would think if I didn't.
Later, I stayed in an unsatisfying relationship for more than a year because of how much approval I won from other women for the man's financial and societal status -- and because of what those women would think if I wasn't able to keep him.
Until recently, in fact, I did everything from insisting a man post more pictures of me on Facebook to begging for flowers at the office to issuing actual relationship ultimatums -- not because I wanted flowers or Instagrams per se, but (though I didn't realize it at the time) to appease other women.
I don't believe in the Illuminati, but I do believe in the power of What Other Women Will Think.
The rules of WOWWT are like Skull and Bones: You generally know the rules and hazing rituals, but you never fully know-know.
Accepting a last-minute date is bad. Getting expensive presents is good. Marrying a man whom I have known for less than a year, and who has never met my parents and is a twice-divorced stand-up comedian -- as I did with my husband, Pat Dixon -- is "hm, well, that's different."
Terms like "different," "cute," "fun," and "free-spirited" are all WOWWT pejorative codes for those who break the unspoken hive-mind parameters of the ideal romantic trajectory in 2016. The blueprint for an acceptable Mr. Right is: Not beta but not alpha. Not needy but not unaware of his needs. Not neutered but not driven by his dick. He is ... not.
Of course, the coordinates change according to your age, culture, and location. So do the "pain points," which are dependent on a woman's weaknesses (too young, too old, too dried-up, too slutty). But in the end, it's a life-long homecoming-queen competition that shape-shifts constantly but never really ends.
Back when I started dating my first husband in the '90s, a female friend of mine sensed my vulnerabilities perfectly. She narrowed her eyes on February 15 and purred, "So, what did your boyfriend get you for Valentine's Day?"
I looked confused. My face turned red. I didn't know this was a thing. I didn't know this was a subject on which I was going to be audited and judged. I didn't have an answer.
"We just had a nice dinner, and ..." I stuttered.
She smiled the most contented Heathers-esque grin possible. "Oh, really? Because my boyfriend got me this necklace, see, and ..." she said, taking off the emerald jewelry she was wearing -- it turned out to be faux, but it was a tangible thing that she could wear, unlike my dumb dinner.
After that day, I vowed to never be unprepared for such a question again. But even though I had an airtight anecdote for all national holidays, there was one inquiry I could never answer.
It was a smiling, seemingly innocuous little question that came delivered at weddings and baby showers and bachelorette parties, redirecting the event into a competitive fishing expedition about the status of other attendees' relationships.
"So ... what about you? You've been dating, what, five years now?"
Pause. Smile. Raised eyebrows.
"I don't know," I would stammer. I didn't totally understand what was happening, but I knew that somehow I was coming up short: If you weren't engaged after half a decade, you had clearly been deemed permanently unwifeable or something.
"I don't know," I'd repeat when the question came again and again and again. Sometimes I would get confident enough to say, "We're talking about it" -- even though we weren't. If I was really feeling brave, I'd venture a "I don't know if I even want to get married." (I so wanted to get married.)
Thus began the conversation that led toward my first marriage. There was no proposal. No hint of commercially sanctioned romance. There was, however, more than one screaming, crying fight about how we would redefine what marriage meant to us.
I wanted to finally beat WOWWT at its own insidious game. I wanted to subtly scream, "WHAT ABOUT ME? WELL I AM MARRIED ARE YOU MARRIED BECAUSE I AM SO I WIN FOREVER."
Pathetic, I realize. But I was 25, and if people didn't tell me how to feel about myself, how would I ever know?
Even after my husband and I split up, I'd run the actions of other guys I dated up the WOWWT flagpole, checking how every screengrabbed text ranked with what I jokingly referred to as my "Council of Women." But one night, on an awful date out with a heavily vetted dude, I realized that I was the one who had to live my life -- not my board of directors. So I set the bylaws on fire. When I got married a few months ago, I made a conscious decision to not let the mindfuckers in.
But it's impossible to escape the WOWWT tentacles entirely. Here are questions I've been asked by strangers about my husband just over the last few days: "Does he want to have kids?" "Is he taller than you?" "Does it bother you that this is his third marriage?" (Answer key: No, no, no.)
Last weekend, on our first Valentine's Day as newlyweds, my husband went out and got my favorite dessert and a card and said he had a special surprise for me that would come soon.
But I didn't have anything to Instagram. I didn't have an obscene splay of roses to lord over social media. I thought of my boss when I was in my mid-20s, who would get a giant bouquet of roses on all important holidays and birthdays, then smile at the rest of us and say, "You just have to train them."
Later, my husband showed me the present he was waiting to unveil on his web show: a specially cut video he'd hired a pro to create of his proposal to me in Times Square. It was beautiful, and I started to cry.
But several hours later, I read over his shoulder a note to a friend in England updating him on our Valentine's Day. I saw the word "flowers," and spat out, "Don't fucking say you got me flowers."
I could see the disappointment in his eyes. "I'll get you flowers," he said, "if that's what you want."
I didn't, really. But the phantom judgment of WOWWT still had its hooks in, far deeper than I'd ever care to admit.
I realize now exactly whom my boss was talking about years ago. And it wasn't the men.
"You just have to train them."
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