Remember this scene in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding:” . Maria’s family is discussing her lack of snatching an eligible husband and cross themselves in unison at the thought she might remain a spinster forever. Everyone in the family crosses themselves as a symbolic protection against the greatest anathema in Greek culture: to stay single and unmarried.
For a woman in a patriarchal society, this is a fate almost as bad as death. Ironically, the polar opposite of losing one’s virginity outside of marriage and jeopardizing the family honor is never losing it. To stay unmarried and celibate into rotten, old age as either a woman or man amounts to failure in Greek culture. The stereotypes of the spinster or the “argeri” take on new twists in the Hellenic family drama. It is inconceivable that someone of sound mind and body would choose to remain a bachelor or bachelorette for life. There is very little room in the schema of all things Greek for someone to remain by will or fate a single unattached entity. “Tell your brother to move out of the house away from your mother,” my father would caution me in private conversations. “He is going to turn out achristo if he stays with her.” Greek society regards the single man or woman as defective, useless, maladjusted, or God forbid “anomalo” (gay), if he she chooses a life of unattachment.
Olga T, a successful trial attorney who just reached 40, makes the argument very forcefully. “You are not considered fully successful in Greek culture if you are not married with children,” she states. For women, it is especially degrading. “If you’re over 30 somehow they think you are “elatomeni” (defective), not to mention expired, you know like milk,,” she explains,”and there’s a different expiration date for women and men.” Men never expire, or at least start smelling funny at 55, but for women 32 is limit of marriage expiration. They can use the excuses that they are developing their careers or finishing education, but these, according to Olga, wear off in the 30s. She cites both overt and subtle examples of having to wear the stigma of singleness as a Greek American woman. She doesn’t receive a separate invitation to social functions because she is deemed a “paketo” with her mother. Her mother subtly pays deference to her younger sisters, married with children and expects her to be the one to take care of her in her old age. Even for peers of her own generation and younger, she notes an unconscious registration of her relationship status in body language and non-verbal cues at parties and other social functions, “She came alone again” is the repeating thought. Once during her cousin’s wedding, her paternal uncle, openly hugged her and loudly exclaimed, “It’s so sad you are going to rot on the vine” to her embarrassment. She waved off the incident as too much wine. And it is not just Greek culture’s obsession to see all single adults married off–most Old-World traditionalist cultures are the same way, she observes.
Her mother places unfair demands on her time and resources as she is seen with more freedom to take care of her family’s obligations. Her family assumes that she has more time and energy because she does not have the added burden of managing a family and a husband dumping her with more of the details. They even drop her nieces and nephews off for babysitting without consulting with her. It is assumed that the choices she has made not to be attached to children and spouses translates to more time and resources to provide for their families. While she does not disagree with helping her extended family out, she resents that this course of things are assumed and expected of her. Why is it that my time and needs as a single person are less important than my sisters who are married with children, she asks herself.
An accomplished economist with advanced degrees from the London School of Economics pits a similar complaint. What are you going to do with all this wealth his mother plagues him on visits to his house in Bayswater and his vacation home in Valencia, Spain. He drives up the subtle stereotype of selfishness for working so hard. It’s as if the individual is given second shrift in our culture. You cannot exist for and by yourself. And what’s worse, you are made to feel like shit if you do. What’s so bad about living for yourself? A person in some cases can contribute far more to his fellows by himself than he could within the context of a family.
Helen T, an unwed elementary school teacher, just about to reach 40, however, sees the other side. “I understand how as a parent you would like to feel secure that your child will be in a stable relationship in case you pass on, “she says. She sees the obsession with marriage as another excess of love, just like mothers force you to eat too much, harping on you to get married is a way for them to guarantee your emotional and financial well-being in the future.
Greek society cannot fathom why anyone in his or her right mind would want to remain single beyond 40. Of course it is acceptable for males to stretch on to the far reaches of adulthood longer without the conjugal yoke. They benefit from the soft edge of the double standard with regards to sexual prowess. While it is acceptable for a bachelor to remain unwed far unto his 40s under the understanding that he is sowing his seeds as freely as possible before anchoring down a roost, for a woman it is a death sentence. She must be if questionable moral intellectual or physical character if she remains unmarried.
Why is Greek culture so obsessed with getting all singles married and living happily ever after? I think there are several reasons. One is the primacy of the family as a unit of identity and legacy. A Greek gains legitimacy, clout, pride, identity and historical orientation via his immediate family. Greek as well as other Semitic cultures are fiercely communal. Someone who chooses not to perpetuate this institution is de facto considered suspect. If you choose not to marry, you are choosing to break the family line. You are in a way sabotaging the strength that family bestows in geography in time and in history. It amounts to a subtle rejection of family when one chooses not to establish a family of one’s own. Staying unmarried becomes an assault on the primacy of this institution.
Secondly marriage for Greek society functions as a right of passage from childhood to adulthood for many young adults. The normal course is one stays owning to one’s parents until he she is able to open his her own house. Essentially then one has a hard time gaining the autonomy and respect of an adult without the institution of marriage. Hence there is a subtle and overt pressures to marry if only to escape parental control. Of course, there exists the psychological underpinning that if one remains unmarried it is a signal that he or she is unwanted, unloved or unattractive. Someone who spurs the conjugal yoke is a reject, a persona non grata. In short there is something damn wrong with you if you cannot get married. Because, the collective logic goes, everyone would want to be married.
Are there always benefits to being married? I would argue, along with those virgin goddesses Diana and Athena, that sometimes and especially if you are female you might be better off unwed. Another factor that contributes to Greek culture’s obsession with marriage is its pro natalistic orientation. For better or for worse, Greeks view children as an inheritance and a source of wealth. They impart status on the couple. Children are treasured and expected in largely agrarian cultures a culture which Greece was for many centuries. Someone who is able to have children is viewed as successful as getting on in the world. He she will be guaranteed a care giver in old age by proxy.
Greek culture also being so gregarious cannot conceive of someone wanting to remain monos. That person is seen as asocial, selfish, stuck up, or maladjusted who does not want to share the glow of the warmth of a nuclear and extended family. Except for small cases of religious commitment a monachos or a monachi everyone is expected to get married in Greek society. However, that is not the case in Anglo Saxon or American culture. If you were brought up in America, the UK, Australia or any other place where the dominant culture emphasizes personal fulfillment, independence, self transcendence and accomplishment, you might find yourself in a cultural clash. Where does that leave the thousands independent successful self driven professionals who for fate or will remain single far into their 40s and 50 s? Can they be bachelors and bachelorettes and still feel validated as Hellenes? So how do these poor misfits and sexual frustrants (because traditionally, one is supposed to remain chaste in the unmarried state) deal with the prejudices against singledom in Greek society? Can someone remain single and feel valuable and successful around the extended Greek family table?
Olga T forcefully remarks, “I do it for myself. Wake up we’re in America–goodbye.”