Maybe it was after seeing Up In the Air and An Education, both of which—SPOILER ALERT!—have the same reveal: one of the main characters is, oops, married—but a related phenomenon has been bothering me lately.
We've reached the age where we look for wedding rings. When we meet someone who doesn't wear one, it's fair to assume they're single... right?
"I met him at a friend's birthday party," says a thirtysomething New York woman we'll call Liz. He was an artist we'll call George. They talked all night. "It was a level of flirtation I don't normally go to. Like, we basically discussed how we need to make out. He was cute and nice and funny and laughed at all my jokes, and had on a good outfit and seemed really smart. I was smitten."
George asked for her number and texted the next morning. "I'm like, 'wow, this is how it works!'" Liz says. "You meet someone and they like you and it's easy! I'd forgotten it can work like that. So we exchange texts but he's a bit wishy-washy on actually hanging out, like keeps mentioning being busy with work. Meanwhile, I'm thinking, wow, this is going to be my next boyfriend—he's sending me these super-romantic texts."
Then Liz saw a mutual friend and mentioned George. The friend said, "Him? He has a girlfriend. That he lives with."
Liz did end up hanging out with him. It was awkward. And he still didn't mention his girlfriend. "I thought he was going to have some grand explanation," she says. "I kept trying to give him opportunities to mention his girlfriend, but he never did. I felt so naive! But how could you know, if this is how guys represent themselves?"
I wondered what Liz thought George's motivations were. He didn't seem to want to take it to the level of an actual affair, but he clearly enjoyed Liz's attentions. "I think that's what it's about for most of them," she says. "Some might actually want to sleep with you, but these guys were all probably nerds growing up, and now they're in New York surrounded by beautiful women, many of whom are single, and they have their pick. Why not have their egos stroked at a party when their girlfriend isn't there?"
Why not, indeed. Another acquaintance, a 25-year-old woman we'll call Nadia, has been on both sides. "The plural versus the singular is the dogwhistle," she says. "Because even if you know the person is in a relationship if they use a lot of 'I live here,' 'I traveled here,' 'I like to do ____' then it's common knowledge that they are signaling to you that THEY HAVE A PRIVATE LIFE AND MIGHT BE DOWN FOR DALLIANCE (BLOW JAY). Usage of the PLURAL is a statement that signals a) I am off the market, b) I am not good at flirting and will feel guilty about whatever goes down after, and c) I haven't cheated before."
Not long ago, Nadia—then newly single—got drinks with a work acquaintance. "After 2 hours of SINGULAR statements it slips out that he has a live-in girlfriend of like a decade or some shit. The tone and mood of the conversation changed and it was fine, but we haven't hung out again. He clearly wanted to see me to flirt for two hours then go home. Which hooray for him but is irksome for me. But you can't get indignant about it because as much as I want to be like "I SHAVED MY LEGS FOR NOTHING!" I'm still kind of flattered that he snuck out of his domestic gulag to see me."
Another young woman we'll call Svetlana admits that even though she's in a relationship—she's lived with her boyfriend for over a year—she still thinks of herself, and likes being thought of, as single. "It's not because I'm permanently on the prowl, but because I just have a romantic idea of being a rugged individual, or something," she says. "I am an army of one, at least in my head, even when I have a boyfriend. I recognize this is totally ridiculous, but it's a habit that's been tough to break. Part of it might come from feeling that men pay less attention to me when I have a boyfriend, but not in the obvious, sexual sense. I genuinely like hanging out with dudes and the fantasy of being 'one of the guys,' or whatever, and I've found that when men immediately know you have a boyfriend they're less likely to want to hang out, even if it's in an office environment. So they won't even want to be 'friends' with me if I am with a guy, and while I know that's lame on their part, it also kind of bums me out."
And Nadia herself has been on both sides. "I was really into my professor in college," she says. "And of course I totally went out of my way to be the biggest smarty in the 12 person lecture class on British literature. Any time I made a personal reference it was always in the singular. So anyways, this professor and my parents and I all ended up at the same book party. Somehow—MUCH TO MY DISLIKING—my dad mentioned my BOYFRIEND OF 4 YEARS, to which my professor said: 'What? Who? Why didn't I know about this?' To which my mother responded, "Because Nadia doesn't tell men about her boyfriend. It makes it harder to flirt."
I would like to believe that this is a function of being young and naive and needing attention. I know when I was in my early twenties, mention of my boyfriend (if I had one) didn't always make it into conversation, which eventually led to several sort of not-dates with guys I'd met at concerts or parties or whatever, which probably ended with them just being confused. At the time I justified it by telling myself that they had never specifically asked if I was in a relationship. But now that I'm older and wiser, it's easier to just mention it. Casually! No need to make anyone feel awkward! Here, try it with me:
Lady: I'm from LA.
Dude: Oh, cool. My girlfriend and I just got back from there.
See how easy that was?
But wait, I hear you saying! It's awkward and weird to "casually" drop mention of your significant other into conversation with everyone you meet! Isn't it a little presumptuous and possibly condescending to just assume that every single person in the world wants to bone you?
Well, yes, it is. "I have this theory that single, straight men do not own dogs, and it's constantly proved true," says Liz. "I'll be walking my dog and chatting with some dude fellow dog owner and maybe he even seems flirty? But I'm usually dressed like a hobo so getting asked out is not on my mind. And he will always make sure to mention his girlfriend! That he lives with! And shares a dog with! And I want to be like, dude, I get it. It's okay. I'm not in love with you, you're wearing a stained Brandeis sweatshirt."