Most people don’t like to wait. Who wants to be stuck in a line instead of being at the place you actually want to be? Waiting often seems like a waste of time. It makes us restless and impatient. If we are waiting for news that can turn out to be very good or very bad, that’s stressful. Sure, there are positive versions of waiting – as, for example, when you are expecting something good to happen and you are savoring the build-up – but most often, waiting just seems frustrating, annoying, and boring.
There is a subfield of sociology called the sociology of time. That perspective is more structural. It reminds us that waiting is linked to social power. More powerful people go to the head of the line or skip the line altogether. Less powerful people are kept waiting – often by more powerful people.
Israeli sociologist Kinneret Lahad believes that in Israel and the U.S. (and probably other places, too) singlehood is regarded (or “culturally constructed”) as a time of waiting – especially for single women. Consider some of the ways people talk about single women:
Some popular songs about single life, Lahad suggests, also underscore the theme of waiting. An Ira Gershwin song (also performed by artists such as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday) includes these lyrics:
Someday he’ll come along
The man I love
And he’ll be big and strong
The ma I love
And when he comes my way
I’ll do my best to make him stay
That’s one of the positive takes on waiting. Eleanor Rigby, of course, is something else entirely:
Ah, look at all the lonely people
Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?
The two songs suggest different ways that singlehood is culturally construed when experienced by younger single women as compared with older ones:
“…at the earlier stages of the single woman’s career waiting can be construed as romantic and a positive tension-builder, [but] as singlehood threatens to turn into a permanent status, waiting can become imbued with dread, fear, and uncertainty.”
In the conventional wisdom, then, single women are waiting. The wait can be particularly painful because it is not clear when – or if – it will end. The longer the single women wait, the more behind schedule they are perceived to be. They are tardy and not sticking to the prescribed timetable for life events. (In my writings, I describe the concept of the developmental life-tasks model. If you stay single “too long,” you get stigmatized. If you marry but wait “too long” to have kids, you get stigmatized again.)
Another psychological characteristic of waiting that makes it stigmatizing in enterprising cultures is that it is passive. People who are waiting for something to happen are not taking initiative. Stereotypically, they are probably lazy.
The theme of waiting also plays out at weddings. The bridesmaids are next in line, and then after them come the single women who gather for the bouquet toss, supposedly hoping that their turn is coming soon. There is no comparable ritual for the single men.
I learned from Lahad’s article that there is a popular “blessing” offered at Israeli weddings by married people to single people: Bekarov Ezlech!, meaning “soon at yours!” Lahad quotes a popular Israeli advice columnist who has this to say about the blessing:
“I want to ask why these aunts, who in certain cases have not seen me since my Bat Mitzvah, think they know what I want in my life right now…To be honest, I don’t know if this blessing is intended for me or for the aunts themselves.”
What most bothers me about the stereotype of singles as “waiting” is that it is presumptuous. People who view single people as just marking time until they find The One are assuming that all single people want to marry, and that they regard their single lives as transitional. The belief that what all single people want, more than anything else, is to become unsingle, is a myth.
Of course, there are single people who do want to marry, and who really do experience their single years as unwelcome times of waiting for their “real lives” to begin. The point I want to make is that for many single people – especially those who are single-at-heart – single life is their real life. Living single is, for them, the most meaningful and authentic way to live. They are not marking time – they are living life fully.
Lahad, K. (2012). Singlehood, waiting, and the sociology of time. Sociological Forum, 27, 163-186.
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Last reviewed: 8 Oct 2012