It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a certain number of years, must be in want of a husband. Either that, or she’s a lesbian.
At least, that’s what people like to think. One October, when I was about 23, I went over to my aunt’s house for our Monday night tradition–dinner and CBS. I was a comfort eater, and she had made me a big pot of macaroni and cheese. Seemingly out of the blue, while I was delightedly digging into a bowl of creamy orange, my aunt asked, “Guess what day today is?”
Spoon halfway to mouth, I stared at her. “What day is it?” I asked, feeling wary for some reason.
“It’s National Coming Out Day!” she informed me in a perky tone, as though this were information that would help me immensely. When there was only silence as her response, with me continuing to stare at her, she prompted, “So if you have anything you want to tell me, today might be a good day.”
I didn’t have anything I wanted to tell her, despite her heavy-handed hint. I wasn’t a lesbian, though my best friend at the time was. I was a late bloomer romantically, but that certainly wasn’t anything I wanted to be forced to share with my father’s sister over a bowl of Kraft noodles.
She was disappointed in my response. She had wanted me to be a lesbian, because it would have been easier for her to understand–that I was not with a man because I was attracted to women–rather than the reality, which was the messy, complicated relationship I had with intimacy and with men and with the world around me. In my aunt’s eyes, there should be a simple reason for me to be single, and she felt she was entitled to know that reason.
We love to label. Applying categorical labels to the things around you helps your brain sift through the onslaught of information it receives. Unfortunately, along with those labels come the subjective meanings we subconsciously apply along with them–and the value calls we make about those things.
A woman labeled as “single” in our culture is also stamped with a variety of societal assumptions, the majority of which are negative: she’s too picky; she slept around when she was younger and now no one wants her; she’s sad and lonely; she focused on her career and neglected her personal life; she’s “crazy” or broken in some way. Adult single womanhood is treated as an extended adolescence, as though “real life” doesn’t start for a woman until she gets married and has children. In our culture, women are defined by their relationships, and the single woman is defined by what she lacks, not by what she is.
Being Single and The Scarlet A (for Alone)
When you’re unhappily single, there is the feeling of being ever spotlighted for your (lack of) relationship status. Every meal at home is a reminder that you’re cooking for one with only Netflix to keep you company. April showers bring taxes and your status as Single Filing. Even seemingly mundane activities such as going to the doctor or joining a new gym require an emergency contact, and you must choose between your mother or your friend who lives down the street.
You might see yourself as a sort of 21st-century Hester Prynne. Our singleness feels branded onto us, public and shameful. In the words of Beyoncé: if he liked it, he shoulda have put a ring on it. But he didn’t and it’s the first thing (we think) everyone notices about us.
A century ago, 92.3% of women were married. It was the rare woman who wasn’t in a relationship, and that deeply-ingrained understanding of single women as oddities still resides in our collective memory. There is always the underlying assumption that a single woman needs a mate. A week ago, a neighbor told me, “A single doctor moved in down the street. He’s a lot older than you, and I have no idea if he’s even straight, but I was thinking I’d have you both over for dinner so you could meet him.” Though I passed on the offer, the underlying message that I should be on the lookout for a man–even one old and possibly gay–was crystal clear.
And that message, my friend, is everywhere. Having spent the majority of my adult life single, I can tell you that there’s a social validity to be had within the sanctuary of a long-term relationship. There’s an implicit inference that you can’t be that bad, because at least one person on the planet is willing to put up with your bullshit. For the long-time-single woman, there’s no inference of okayness, and you feel the people around you wonder what’s wrong with you.
A 2010 study of never-married women in their 30s aptly entitled I’m a Loser, I’m Not Married, Let’s Just All Look at Me found that single women have an overwhelming sense of being both invisible as well as highly visible. We feel invisible when we’re made to think our lives don’t have value because we’re not on the traditional path, and we have a sense of shameful exposure at events where we need a plus-one, at holidays, or–worst of all–at the truly horrific bouquet throw at someone else’s wedding.
Though my parents’ marriage was anything but happy, I still grew up soaked in this message that “a single woman is a woman in need.” Family comes first, and you can only have a family of your own if you have children.
My mother’s sister, bucking this model, never married. My parents, though both as miserably married as it’s possible to be without physical abuse, still managed to view my aunt with pity. My father once remarked that my aunt was an amazing person, and he wished he could set her up with a guy, but all his friends were losers.
At the time, I found this to be kind of him. Looking back, however, it’s completely insulting. Why in the world would her feel bad for an amazing woman, especially when his own marriage sucked the life out of him–and all the men he knew would just drag her down? Why wouldn’t he think, “Lucky woman, she’s doing great and she’s dodged some real bullets,” and view her with envy instead?
It’s because we don’t have any role models for happy single womanhood that aren’t nuns. You could become a career women ball buster if you wanted, but general wisdom is that you’ll regret it on your deathbed. We just can’t imagine a single woman actually thriving, because women are supposed to “want it all.” Our few shining bastions of single womanhood eventually settle down with a man: Bridget Jones and Mark Darcy work it out in the end, Carrie Bradshaw gets swept off her feet by Mr. Big. Even that anthem of single womanhood, All the Single Ladies, is about making an ex jealous by dancing with another man. The message is clear: things don’t “work out” for a woman until they work out with a man. We aren’t okay until we’re okay with a man. We aren’t okay.
Most self-help articles about “how to be happy single” manage to blithely ignore this panicky sense of worthlessness and helplessness in the anticipation of a long unsatisfying life. We’re doing all that we can and we don’t–and can’t and won’t–have any real hope for a happy future. And what do these damn articles offer us? Chirpy advice like, “Focus on the positive! You get the whole bed to yourself!”
Who really gives a shit that I get to sleep spread-eagled if I’m not okay–and never will be?
The Most Terrible Poverty of Being Single
Being single affects more than just how you feel about your romantic life. In a 2017 survey on the State of Women’s Wellness, compared to women who are in relationships, single women report 20% lower rates of feeling loved, supported, or special to someone (read: anyone) in their lives. I have to imagine rates of friendship and family are high amongst this demographic, but apparently some women doesn’t feel as supported by the people in their lives when they doesn’t also have a mate, our mental filters refusing to feel the love of the people around us.
Why does the lack of a significant other cut us so deeply? (It’s definitely a cut, like one of those nicks you get shaving your leg that just won’t stop bleeding and really burns when you put lotion on.) For me, the thought process–and subsequent emotional spiral–has always goes something like this:
People in relationships are loved by their significant others > I am not in a relationship and do not have a significant other > I am not loved. I am not loved. I am not loved.
If you didn’t already know, this kind of all-or-nothing thinking is rarely helpful.
Intellectually, we know there’s more to life than our romantic relationships. I like to think that a life is like a diamond1 with multiple facets–career, friendships, family, hobbies, finances, etc. There will be times in our lives that some facets will catch sunlight and outshine the others. Sometimes your romantic life won’t be the shiniest part of your diamond. From this perspective, the thought process should go something like this:
Some people in relationships are loved by their significant others > I am not in a relationship right now but might be someday > I am fine and really need to stop obsessing about this.
But when we’re home on yet another Saturday night wondering how many glasses of wine is too many to drink alone, that’s not how we think–because it’s not how we feel. We feel like lonely losers, so we emotionally reason that we must be. In the State of Women’s Wellness Survey, when ranking singleness against other fears such as cancer, being in debt, losing their rights, mental illness or living with pain, 17% of women ranked being single as one of their biggest fears. 4% of women feared being single above all else. In what world is being single scarier than facing cancer?
I’ll tell you: in the world in which you honestly believe that being single means you are alone and unloved–and possibly will be for the rest of your life. How is that not terrifying? In the words of Mother Theresa, “The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.” For some of us, being single becomes this most terrible poverty.
Being Single and Likely to Stay
Or at least… we allow being single to become the most terrible poverty. On a scale of 1-10 (with 1 being “Getting caught in a bear trap” and 10 being “Having Sean Connery read you a bedtime story”), the reality of daily life as a single person isn’t actually that bad. Sure, the holidays can suck, but that’s true for lots of people in relationships as well. In general, research has found that getting married doesn’t result in increased happiness, no matter what our culture might like us to believe. I sometimes have to remind myself that being in a relationship is no guarantee of things not sucking, or else the divorce rate wouldn’t be 50%.
There’s even evidence to suggest that you’re better off as a single woman than a married one. At least one study found that single women are healthier than their married brethren (having lower BMIs, waist sizes, and risk associated with smoking and alcohol). And some studies suggest that 61% of single women are happy to be single.
Why, then, do some single women feel more hopeless and helpless than their married sisters (as reported in the State of Women’s Wellness survey)? For me, at least, this sense of hopelessness has come from the times I’ve been my own fortune teller, staring into the murky crystal ball of my mid-thirties and not seeing anything to look forward to. There are zero traditional milestones for those of us who fear we’ll be single our whole lives: on my best days, I believe that there are no bridal showers, bachelorette parties, weddings, baby showers, or anniversary parties in my future. On my worst days, I believe I will have nothing to celebrate for the rest of my life.
Here’s the real rub: having been raised in a house where marriage felt like that bear trap for everyone even peripherally involved, I don’t even want to get married, and I don’t have any strong desire to have children. But I have often struggled to imagine a satisfying and happy life that doesn’t involve something akin to a biological family. In the words of Charlotte Brontë, “The trouble is not that I am single and likely to stay single, but that I am lonely and likely to stay lonely.”
The Life of Being Single
As a woman, you always feel as though you should have someone to take care of, because in our culture women are socialized to be caregivers. In the State of Women’s Wellness Survey, 76% of women reported that they’re more likely to put their needs last rather than first–but whose needs are you supposed to prioritize if you’re single and childless? Being single feels as though you are subverting your only available role as a woman. I wobble like a two-legged stool, forced to prioritize my own needs and desires–how fucking selfish, ammiright?–with nothing and no one upon which to rest my value and values.
Even advice to “focus on yourself” is generally followed up with the sage aside that it’s the right thing to do because men are attracted to independent and interesting women. Now’s your chance to lose weight! Focus on those things you don’t “get to” do in a relationship, because pretty soon you’ll have a man and won’t be able to spend so much time doing things you love! (For some reason, we never seem to be disturbed by the notion that women aren’t capable of fully exploring their interests and passions within a relationship, because the relationship must suddenly take up all of her energy and mental space.)
While this advice has some merit (after all, a single woman probably has more available alone time than a married one), it doesn’t take into account just how exhausting it is to be single. I have often joked that I wish I had a wife to take care of the pesky details of my life, because when you’re single, everything that needs to be done must be done by you. Every bill that is paid, every appointment made, every errand that is run is taken care of by you. If you order something online that weighs 300 pounds, it must be carried inside by you (unless you arrange for a friend to help you, which I recommend you do. Make sure you both lift with your legs). I often worry about my ability to do all of this when I am old, and I have accepted that I’ll need to pre-emptively enter some kind of senior care facility where I plan to die alone while I still have the energy and ability to move myself there.
The other challenge with single womanhood is even more gritty and sobering: the possibility of the most terrible poverty resulting in actual poverty. When you’re coupled, it’s easier to imagine you’ll be able to buy a house and go on European vacations. When you have to make a single income stretch to cover both your rent and your dreams, it’s more likely you’ll feel as though you’ll never be able to even afford that preemptive nursing home–let alone happiness. Even if you find financial security, it may feel fleeting, something you can’t actually hold onto without a partner to level the riskiness of reality.
Successfully Being Single
While you may feel lonely, you’re not alone. 31% of women in 2011 were never-married, with an additional 26% separated, divorced, or widowed. You’re part of a systemic change, of a generation of women who for whatever reason are choosing their own path over the only one that was offered to us a century ago.
As single women, we have plenty of good things in our lives–flexibility, autonomy, the ability to hear our own thoughts because they’re not being drowned out by the people around us. Remember, not all relationships are good, and there are plenty of couples worse off than you. (I know from personal experience that it’s better to be alone than to be with a man who can’t carry his own weight and isn’t taking care of his own baggage.)
But even if we assume that a relationship would be a good thing in your life, the lack of that single good thing doesn’t mean that you or your whole life is bad. While it’s ok to prefer that some parts of your life were different, it’s not okay to assume that your whole life is meaningless because of that. There are things you can and should be passionate about, that can light up your life in ways that a single romantic relationship cannot.
Say, for a moment, that you won a vacation to either the mountains or the beach, and you really really wanted to go to the mountains. But when you won your vacation, you were disappointed to discover that you are going to the beach. You have two options: sit around at the beach and mourn the lack of the mountain getaway you’d hoped to win, or dive in (both literally and figuratively) to the opportunity you’ve been given. There are a lot of great things you can do at the beach that you can’t do in the mountains. You can’t go snorkeling in the mountains. You can’t hunt for seashells or go deep sea fishing or learn to surf.
Every path chosen has an opportunity cost, no matter the path. There will always be things you won’t be able to have, simply because that’s how choices work. There will be things you don’t like about your life, because a happy life is not the same a carefree one. Better to focus on what you do have rather than on what you don’t. Better to move towards what you want than regret not already having it.
Don’t let one dim facet ruin your whole damn diamond. You have so much to be excited about and for. In the words of my current favorite poet,
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.Mary Oliver
This is Your Life
Here’s the thing: if you’re unhappily single, you’re probably expending a lot of energy mourning your lack of an intimate romantic relationship. You probably think that if you had an “other half,” your life would feel more full and complete. You may even attribute the majority of your problems to your relationship status, as though a ring on your hand would magically help you hate your job less or lose weight or balance your checkbook or whatever else it is you think you need to do to be happy.
The thing to remember, though, is that while romance can be nice, the most important intimate relationship in your life is the one you have with yourself. If there are things that are making you unhappy, it’s only the way you relate to and treat yourself which can fix those things. If you hate your job, only you can find another one. If you want to have a better relationship with food, only you can do that. A boyfriend or girlfriend doesn’t actually solve anything–it just complicates things and throws someone else’s needs into the mix, which may actually make it harder for you to do the work you need to do to fix the relationship you have with yourself.
Being single requires imagination and creativity and grit. It requires thinking outside the box. It requires bravery. But all lives require this to be well-lived, though our culture likes to pretend that marriage is the final answer. If you were to get married right now and raise 2.5 kids, you might be able to distract yourself with the needs of your family for a couple of decades. But in the quiet nights when everyone else in your life was asleep, you’d still be asking yourself who you are.
As Mary Oliver says, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”2 Being single won’t stop you from finding your passions. Being single won’t stop you from exploring the world. Being single won’t stop you from making connections and being loved and making a difference, if that’s what you want to do. You’re the only stopping yourself from doing those things.
This is your life. Go live it.
“Being Single” Foot Notes:
- Can we talk for a second about the fact that I’m so sensitized to any mention of marriage or weddings that even MY OWN USE of the word “diamond” in a metaphor can be triggering? My brain: Men buy diamonds for women they love > I don’t have a diamond > I am not loved. ADVERTISERS ARE EVIL GENIUSES. Don’t let those assholes win.
- Apparently I’m in a Mary Oliver phase. Go read The Journey. And then go kick ass.