Stigma of Singlehood

“If it isn’t any of your friends, it must be you”. This was said to me by a co-worker who tends to speak her mind. The things on her mind are often blunt and usually make me uncomfortable. Last summer. We were sitting in a restaurant at one of those supposed-to-be-fun-but-mostly-awkward work lunches for someone leaving our department. We were discussing relationships. At the time, I was dating, but single for all intents and purposes, surrounded by married people. More than relationships, we were discussing those people who just can’t seem to stay in one. People who always seem to pick the wrong kind of person, ending up alone, with a broken heart. The married people in the room were exchanging stories about people they knew like this, shaking their heads and sighing. And according to my colleague, I was one of the broken ones. I had been saying that most of my friends from high school were married or in long-term relationships. She said “there’s usually one in every group. And if it isn’t any of your friends, it must be you.”

In that moment, I felt like she had stuffed me neatly into a giant, airless Tupperware container and slammed the lid on. And although I wanted to come back with a witty comment, I couldn’t help thinking that she might be right. I had been in “failed” relationships, I hadn’t “got it together”. Was that me? Doomed to an existence of always broken hearts and loving “the wrong person”? I imagined myself in a tight leopard-print skirt and stilettos at the age of fifty, wearing too much make-up and hanging out at a cougar bar. Because that’s where this was all leading, right?

And yet, that person and that life had nothing to do with me. First of all, I dislike leopard print and rarely wear skirts. Second, I wasn’t a desperate single woman looking for love.  Yes, I was dating, exploring the possibility of being in a relationship again, but I liked my single life. I was having a good time spending entire weekends in yoga classes without having to check in with anyone, taking myself out for movies and dinners. There are definite perks to being single. And although I felt ready to be in a relationship, I certainly wasn’t coming home and crying in my cold apartment from the hollow emptiness I was supposed to be feeling. I was happy. Yet, according to my colleague and the other marrieds at the table, since I hadn’t  achieved a state of wedded bliss, I had failed and was likely emotionally unstable. I can’t really blame my co-workers, they were simply echoing beliefs held deeply in our society; that being in a couple is better than being single, and that if you are not in a couple, there most be something wrong with you.

Why do we put such a high value on being coupled in our society? Or most societies for that matter?

I know that being in a long-term relationship is frequently wonderful.  I know that people (me included) learn valuable lessons in relationships. I am in a relationship now, I’m so grateful for it, and I wouldn’t trade it in for anything. But people can be miserable in relationships too. I have friends who wished their parents had just got a divorce already instead of fighting all the time. I’ve seen people disappear in relationships only to get themselves back when they leave them. Some research has shown that after an initial “honeymoon phase” coupled people return to the same level of happiness they had before they got married. I’m sure we’re all aware of the statistics regarding the longevity of single women. To me, both paths, singled and coupled, are equal, so why are people so judgemental about someone whose life doesn’t look like theirs?

I don’t really have any answers to this. I think it may have something to do with the pervasive idea that we’re never really whole until we find “the one”, perpetuated by any rom-com you’ve ever seen, and which I think is total BS. Was Mother Theresa half a person? Or Jesus? Sure, my examples are a little extreme, but seriously, I’ve never heard anyone say “Oh that Mother Theresa, such a nice person, if only she’d found true love”. Ridiculous, right? So why can’t that apply to everyone? Or maybe it’s just biology, “life’s longing for itself”, to quote Kahlil Gibran. Some part of us recognizes it’s easier to rear children in a couple (queer or straight) and so urges us to find someone to be with. Maybe it’s a belief created by and handed down by our mothers, who just want to see someone looking out for us. Who knows?

What I do know is this coupled=happy, single=miserable belief is not helpful to anyone, especially if you happen to be single. And maybe it’s time to re-examine it. Maybe it would be easier if we could admit that none of us really have all the answers, and work to be a little less judgemental of other’s lives in the process.

What are your thoughts? Do you have any stories about being judged for being single?

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15 thoughts on “Stigma of Singlehood

  1. Congratulations, BH, for adding yet another sparkling dimension and beautifully crafted facet to this jewel we’re creating here. Careers, motherhood, friendship, women’s roles, politics, religion, seasons and baking: it’s all part of the fabric we are weaving, touching, standing back on and reflecting proudly as we do so. (As a relevant aside, I have been looking a little more closely at the background print on the sidebars of this page. Not sure if anyone else has noticed this, but in each part of the tapestry, be it branch, bud, leaf or flower, there is a representation of something else. And also the more I look at it the more I can’t exactly figure out what the material is – a tablecloth? bedsheet? paper towel? wrapping paper? It’s like a shapeshifiting tapestry…. very apt, don’t you think?).

    The other evening I was having a lovely dinner a the apartment of a younger, single friend. She is beautiful, inside and out. She is genuine, complicated, searching, and questioning of everything within her world and beyond it, and the dating world is jarring and painful for her; just as it was for all of us. Now I don’t know this friend very well – it’s my goal to change that – but she said something that evening that left me (inconveniently and unusually) speechless. I can’t remember the actual words, but it was something along the lines of, “…and what if I don’t find someone”?

    The reason I couldn’t find words quickly enough to answer was because I thought the concept of this to be so foreign. Of COURSE this beautiful girl could “find someone” as soon as she opened her door, her email, her taxi door, her internet connection. But could she happily recognize and accept the compromises that inevitably go along with relationship, and that even if the Man of Her Dreams (whatever he’s like) was to present himself before her today, it still doesn’t mean the relationship, or marriage, will be easy. So there is such merit, I think, for a young woman to re-think or think carefully about what it means to HER to be single. For some, it means fear, for other it means freedom. Neither is right or wrong. But panicking over it really is a futile activity.

    I know what it’s like to be misunderstood. I get that all the time when people ask me whether I have children. I’ve been in dinner table conversations where people have directly said that “childless women are the most selfish pepole”. I know what it’s like to be on the outside. And guess what? I bet every one of us on this here little community feel left out, at some point in time. We all feel alone.

    Singleton remains a vehicle through which you can experience life the way YOU want to, and I’d recommend jumping in, two feet at once, if the opportunity (fortunately or unfortunately) presents itself. Explore as much as you can, and get a little bit selfish. If you’re the “marrying kind”, life will head in that direction organically, without being forced. You’ll know. And you won’t give two flying **blanks** what others think. and if you’re not in the market for a partner, boyfriend or girlfriend right now, then I fly the flag for you my friend. Amy Mann got it wrong. One is not the loneliest number, it’s sometimes the most powerful.

    • Thank you Pavlova, for an as-always insightful and juicy comment.

      Yes, we are building a beautiful tapestry, aren’t we? And I hadn’t realized what a metaphorical background we have. 🙂

      You’re right, we are all misunderstood at one time or another, perhaps whenever we stand in a minority position; whatever the minority happens to be at the time. And I am certainly not alone in this. My heart goes out to you for that comment about not having kids. It’s such a personal decision that I’m always surprised when someone assumes they know your reasons well enough to decide that you made the decision for selfish reasons. I heard an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert of “Eat, Pray, Love” fame. She has decided not to have children and had also been called “selfish” for her choice. She wondered, though, why she should have to justify her choice not to have them, when really, maybe people should have to justify why they want them. On the flip-side, I can see that having kids must be such hard work, and people must feel at times that they’ve sacrificed a lot. When they see someone without kids, someone who (in their minds) doesn’t have to make those sacrifices, maybe it seems unfair.

      The story about your young friend. That’s exactly what I mean. Feeling dread that she’ll never find anyone is not worthwhile. Although, maybe if she explores that thought, and really considers that possibility, she’ll find that the future may not seem be as bleak as she may imagine.

      And yes, I too am in favour of enjoying whatever life happens to bring you. I’m very happily in a relationship now and am reveling in this side of life too.

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  4. I love the image of you in leopard print. Too funny! I think I’ve been one of ‘those’ married people who is ridiculously condescending to single folks. I’m sorry for that.

    • Hee hee!

      And – I really admire you for saying sorry for whenever you’ve been one of “those married people” (sorry for “those-ing” married people). (I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that from you, by the way.) I’ve been ridiculously condescending to lots of people in my time too… People with “normal” jobs and “normal” lives (when I was in theatre and thought that being bohemian was the only way to live :)). And I’m sorry for that too.

      • We all do it. Judgement is so insidious. I mean really, if people would just listen to me and do it my way the world would be so much better. Ugh!

  5. BH, I think about these issues often, but from a slightly different angle. I got married at 25, to a man I met at 19, who I am still sturdily and, as they say, happily married to now. I am always curious about the motives of those who have thrown their own barbed judgements my direction (judgements about whether I was too young to get married, whether I made the right decisions in those supposedly fragile first years of marriage, whether I am leading the right kind of married life). Your observations about the attitudes of ‘marrieds’ are not unlike mine: there seems to be, in some people, an inherent defensiveness of ‘how things ought to be done.’ Friends who I’ve always seen as somewhat progressive and open-minded have utterly surprised me in their (quite vocal) disapproval of the compromises and sacrifices my husband and I have chosen to make (especially our decision to live apart for several of our first 24 married months so that I could pursue an MFA in New York and he could dedicate himself to his burgeoning outdoor recreation business in Montana). People told me I was not ‘taking care’ of my marriage. People warned me that I might lose my husband if I didn’t ‘get home to him,’ and suggested that I too was detrimentally selfish.

    Perhaps other married Mothers-Sugar could chime in here, but I am also very careful about who I tell in those moments when I feel like being married is particularly difficult or strange or confusing or challenging. In my experience, many people are uncomfortable with the admission that married life is not always some glowing romantic montage with doves flying and, like, “Everything I Do, I Do it for You” playing in the background. (Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but you get the point.) It seems that there is a general sense that once we are married, once we are ‘coupled,’ as you say, we are happy — and any admission that we are less than ecstatic honeymooners on any given day somehow threatens the strength and durability of our marriages. Hmm.

    In light of your comments here, I think it is interesting that both of our situations — single and married — could elicit similar judgements. I wonder how relieved we would all be if we could simply admit to each other and ourselves that we all need our own models, our own structures for our own lives. It’s wonderful to be single (I think of this often when my husband wants to watch another Arnold Schwarzenegger movie) and it’s difficult. It is both difficult and wonderful to be married, and to be dating. In any case, a certain amount of honesty (as well as a certain suspense of judgement) can be the most empowering ingredient in life, I think.

    • Nicely said. when I moved to the Middle East, at the beginning, I continued to work and would fly to london for two weeks every month. I had a number of women there tell me my marriage would fail, that I needed to care for my husband. I was an alien for them.

      Marriage is work. Good honorable work. Not to be undertaken lightly. Not to be compromised with either.

      • “I wonder how relieved we would all be if we could simply admit to each other and ourselves that we all need our own models, our own structures for our own lives.” Yes, absolutely. And isn’t it true that we all get “flack” one way or another from others who think they know best. Other people’s always lives seem so easy to fix! If only our own seemed to be so easy. I’ve done it to others too, so I’m certainly not exempt. Also, yes, I love that you point out that you are very careful who you share any marital rough patches with. I think that is true – we’d all like to see only “happily ever after”, when the reality may look a little different. I know I’ve looked at marriage that way (too many rom-coms probably) and have been surprised when married friends whisper that they had doubt before they got married, or after they got married, that things are tough sometimes. And yet, they love each other, they work every day to keep that love alive and well. Personally, I’ve been grateful for those moments because they’ve helped me to see marriage a bit more clearly and develop a more realistic image of what to expect – both from yourself and another. I suppose I didn’t really have the best role-models growing up, so I’ve had to glean what I could from conversations with others a lot of the time. This is not to say that marriage or relationships can’t be wonderful, they can be, and are. I don’t mean to focus on the negative, but it would be nice if we weren’t expected to hold an “everything I do, I do it for you” image all the time.

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  7. I just want people to be happy. But it has been mostly my experience that people who are not coupled, would like to be coupled. I rarely come across someone who is brave enough to admit they are content on their own. Perhaps if that were more permissable, there would be more? I don’t even pretend to know how complicated it all is. I met my partner before I really wanted to!

    What you said to PM about the position of being in a minority is so true. I was at a bar b q this summer, feeling awkward. I didn’t speak the language, I was the only lady without kids. And husband said, everyone you see has something. Everyone has something, you may just not know what it is. That sounds a little vindictive, which is not what he meant. It’s just good to remember we’re all human. And all of us can be belittled if we let it happen.

    It is worth pointing out that Mother Theresa did find her true love. It just happened to be God!

    • Yes, I agree. Most people who aren’t coupled do want to be coupled and there are many good reasons for this. Relationships are a unique opportunity to share intimate love and joy with another, they are a unique opportunity to learn about ourselves and others, and these are all wonderful reasons to want to be in a relationship. But, I think that we get stuck in thinking that any relationship at all is better than being single, and I’m not sure that’s the truth. I think a healthy, respectful, loving relationship can be better in many ways. But not all relationships are healthy, respectful and loving. I won’t go into percentages, because I have no idea what they are. There may well be a vast majority of good relationships. But I wonder if fear of being single can drive people into, or keep them in relationships that aren’t so great. And I guess my point is, there is nothing to fear in being single, that’s all.

      Good point about Mother Theresa. I actually realized this weekend that I didn’t write the post that I wanted to. I mean, I did, but there’s another angle I’d like to cover and may re-visit. In short-form though, yes, I think we see singleness as being acceptable if we see that someone has great love in their life. I think the problem is that we put conditions on where that love is supposed to come from. If Bridget Jones had found god instead of Colin Firth at the end of the movie, I doubt it would have done so well. 🙂

  8. “It’s wonderful to be single… and it’s difficult. It is both difficult and wonderful to be married, and to be dating. In any case, a certain amount of honesty (as well as a certain suspense of judgement) can be the most empowering ingredient in life.”

    I really appreciated this. This sounds like truth to me. I also laughed out loud at the “Everything I Do, I Do It For You” comment. In fact, I’m still laughing!

    Yes, I sometimes feel patronized as a single person and I’ve struggled myself with my own preconceived notions of what it means to live a full life. If I do not marry nor have children have I lived an incomplete or lesser life? Have I missed out on the full range of human emotion? Is it somehow my “fault”; the result of a poor decision or a character flaw? Or do I question being single simply because it is outside the norm? Singledom is supposedly trending heavily in the world of relationship statuses as more and more people are apparently choosing to go solo. Maybe if and when it becomes mainstream it will just be another form of normal.

    I think it’s true that most people seem to want a partner but perhaps there aren’t as many unmarried people who wish they were married so much as there are unmarried people who just wish they fit in, seamless and invisible, now and then. Don’t get me wrong, it can be liberating being the only solo girl at the party 😉 but it can also be restful to blend into the background as just another party of two.

    • Your comment has me thinking lots of thoughts. One of which is attached to kind of recurring one I’ve been having about how we let ourselves feel patronized or undervalued or made less. I feel like I am at point in my life where it’s up to me to stop that from happening, that everybody (and I do mean everybody) has their hangups and issues and we are told to express ourselves and be honest and be authentic, so off we go… and inevitably somebody is going to get knocked around a little in that process. Maybe because I’ve been too long away from a polite (or politically correct) community, I’ve started to really believe that saying about how no one can make you feel inferior without your own consent. That as adults, grown ups, we have to get a little thicker skinned cause no one is going to save us but ourselves (single, married or otherwise). This comment is not specifically directly related to you at all, but arises out of a number of things that have come up on the blog. I don’t know, I spent nearly all my life in a position of not fitting in. I was one of very few asian kids in a rather ‘good to be white’ time. I hate to bring up the race thing, but the thing is you get great practice at feeling left out from an extremely early age. And maybe that’s why I am so type A now- some odd form of compensation to justify never fitting into any background.

      But to your questions, which are complex and hard and oddly lovely, these only you can answer for yourself. And I hope you are generous and honest with yourself in the answering.

      There are times I am very aware of things I miss because I am married, things I am certain I would do or try if the MR. wasn’t in my life, because I’ve made a commitment. I’m not talking about other men, but everything from the small (going dancing!!!), to the big (moving, traveling). where it comes out is in the exchange, Net for net, I’d always prefer where I am.

      Not that this makes any of us feel better, but chances are, all of us will be mainstream single when were 80. I vote for pitching in for a farmhouse in Tuscany!!

      Last: I appreciate what you say about how the single may just wish to be hitched so as to fit. I do underestimate this. In it’s inverse, when I went back to school, everyone was single- and that was also wierd to be a kind of museum exhibit for marriage. And I am not sure how i felt about all those married men pretending to be single….

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