Single Life is Contested Turf
Have you heard the expression, “May you live in interesting times”? Well, we sure do, especially when it comes to the experience of living single and the many different takes on what it means to stay single instead of marrying.
In this post, I’ll stick with the Washington Post story and the interest it generated. The story appeared online last Friday, February 10th, and in print on Sunday. Already, more than 1000 comments have been written. I typed some key words into Google to see where the story is being discussed, but got so many results that I gave up trying to tally them.
The Post story was a long article about singles who wanted to marry, but had gotten to their 40s or beyond and had not yet done so. It was followed on Monday by a live chat with Ellen McCarthy, who wrote the story, and Wendy Braitman, a single woman who was interviewed at length for the article. (Wendy writes the First Person Singular blog and she’s a contributor to the Singlism book and the Single with Attitude site.) Then on Wednesday, Michel Martin’s NPR show, “Tell Me More,” included a segment with me and Ellen McCarthy, “Is single life something to lament or celebrate?”
Here’s what’s so interesting (well, just one of the many interesting things): People reading the same story had dramatically different reactions to it. Here are just a few examples from the live chat:
Just, thank you
I wanted to say thanks for this. I’m sick of advice columnists saying “you’ll find someone” or pooh-poohing the fear of being single forever. Being single forever is a reality for people and this is a beautiful article that celebrates these people.
Biased article – what’s the point?
Ms. McCarthy, As a single (by choice) woman, I was disappointed by your article. Even the title is prejudiced against us singletons, implying that there is a “One” and if you haven’t found him/her your life is somehow lacking. What do you believe was the point of your article? As a reader, my takeaway was that you further marginalized people like me who don’t fit neatly into your box. After all, your day job is to write about people who get hitched. I don’t believe you approached this subject matter fairly or dispassionately. As a result, the article was naive and one-dimensional. A disappointed reader.
Differing Interpretations of the Story
I’m a single woman, young enough that it’s not so unusual to be single but coming to the conclusion that I may always be single. I’ve largely made my peace with that, and read this story as hopeful — you featured smart, successful and interesting people who were living full and happy lives. Another single friend my age read the story and said it was the most depressing thing she’s ever read. I was surprised by our radically different interpretations of the picture painted by the story. Perhaps this is some sort of ink-blot test….
Wendy Braitman :
I have a friend (who is a bit dramatic) who said the piece made him want to commit suicide. And I do think what I would’ve liked more of was that the challenges of being single are both unique and utterly ordinary in terms of facing what it takes to get through life with gratitude and grace.
“Lived to tell about it”
First, thanks for taking my original question! “And lived to tell about it” was exactly what I meant about the title being negative. I realize it’s tongue-in-cheek but one probably would not read such a by-line about marriage. I’m finding the chat a really good follow-up to the article. It’s interesting seeing different people’s opinions as well as hearing the insightful answers!
Wendy Braitman :
When I first saw the headline, The Lonely Hearts, attached to my photo, I thought – what would really be interesting is to have that same headline next to the photo of a married couple. That’s when we’ll know there’s parity.
Of course, any story can generate a variety of responses. Still, I think stories about single people, at this historical moment, are especially likely to set off different reactions in different people. I’ve noticed the same spectrum of responses in reviews (both formal and informal) of Eric Klinenberg’s recent book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. (The post, Living alone: 12 things you didn’t know, was based on that book.)
One reviewer marveled at Klinenberg’s ability to explain “with crystal clarity the thrill of making it alone;” another complained that the book “takes the reader down the abyss of lonely hopelessness.”
Why is this happening? Single life is, I think, contested turf. As more and more people live single, all of the dismal stereotypes are getting wounded. They just can’t withstand the onslaught of the actual experiences of so many single people living their lives fully and joyfully.
At the same time, not all single people love their single lives, and plenty of people – single and married and all the rest – simply do not want to give up on the fantasy that if only you marry, all of your dreams will come true.
The old conventional wisdom is teetering, but we do not yet have a new one to replace it.
So what is your own perspective on single life? If you are interested, take the quiz, “Are you single at heart?,” even if you think that you are not.
Man reading newspaper photo available from Shutterstock.
DePaulo, B. (2012). Single Life is Contested Turf. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 1, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/single-at-heart/2012/02/single-life-is-contested-turf/