Relationships: the hottest topic among teenagers and young adults everywhere. When we’re in one, it’s all we talk about. When we’re not, we talk about somebody else’s.
This summer I found myself playing psychologist to many struggling young couples (I do not have a single single female friend on either continent … the struggle is real). With my Russian friends, however, I quickly ran aground because my advice was rarely applicable in their cultural surroundings. My 17-year-old acquaintance here has been dating her boyfriend for three months and he’s already contemplating the possibility of marriage. Although it has recently become more acceptable to live together before marrying, there still exists a questionable gray area (particularly for women) in regards to what young couples should or should not do before officially settling down.
For instance, the great hypocrisy of who is allowed to have sex before marriage still pervades Russian society. Although women are no longer shunned and stripped of all ‘prospective bride’ value for entering into a sexual relationship with a man before marriage, people will still whisper and point fingers. The unfortunate reality is that both men and women shame girls for what may seem to some readers a perfectly responsible lifestyle choice. Why? There are literally not enough men in this country for every woman to feel secure in her ability to procure a husband after the age of 23-25. At least, so the legend goes. The official demographics for 2015 show a sex ratio of 1.05 male(s)/female for the 15-24 years old. Contrast that with the 0.86 male(s)/female ratio for the 55-64 years old and you can begin to see where the urban myth about the ‘deficit of men’ came from. Recovering from the ruin of WWII under the constant threat of nuclear annihilation with an economy that regularly neared collapse, the 1960s Soviet Union was not the most encouraging place to have babies. And among the babies born, there just happened to be slightly more girls.
Yet half a century down the road, mothers still teach their daughters the importance of finding and holding onto a “decent man” as early as possible because, God forbid, the country runs out. What ‘decent’ means is a definition entirely dependent upon your mother, your grandmother, and probably your great-grandmother for good measure. A typical package includes a man who does not drink heavily (think: the American version of “heavily” tripled), does not gamble, makes more money than your family does or at least has the potential to (how one’s mother determines said potential is also a questionable science), and has a ‘decent’ father himself. Granted 25% of Russian men do die before the age of 55 due to alcoholism… I suppose finding a decent man is an admirable goal. That does not change the fact that society chooses to highlight the need for a woman’s purity as a way to increase her market value, so to speak. And with this emphasis on early marriage comes the inevitable question: “Do you have a boyfriend?” They don’t get so far as to ask me if he happens to be of the decent kind because my answer this year is no. Of course the opinion of marriage is far from uniform in the United States. But in the area I come from – suburban northern New Jersey – the mere thought of getting married at 23 brings raised eyebrows, gaping mouths, and laughter. Barely out of college, barely allowed to drink alcohol–marriage is the last thing on people’s minds. I know I will be actively avoiding all talk of romantic entanglements with my Russian friends once I hit 25.