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Most stereotypes of single people are negative. But there is one way single people are consistently viewed differently than married people that seems mostly positive: Single people – especially if they do not have children – are seen as more independent. In the workplace, when people think of singles as independent, they may also think something else: that single people with no children are not tied to a job the way that a breadwinning parent is. So, if something goes wrong at work, the single person can simply leave.
One time many years ago, when I was teaching at the University of Virginia, I got this distinct feeling of familiarity while reading a student’s paper. I thought I had read the passage somewhere else, but at first, I just couldn’t place it. Then I realized why it was familiar: I had written it myself. After class the next day, I asked the student to stay for a moment to talk to me. I told him the words he has deposited into his paper were my own, and asked him why he did that. He thought for a moment, then said, “Well, it was just so well-stated, I couldn’t think of a better way to put it.”
The very wise and savvy advice columnist, Carolyn Hax, responded to a single person who was experiencing something all too commonplace in the lives of single people: Her friends were disappearing. Increasingly, the advice-seeker said, they have “different priorities.” My guess is that many of them were marrying and having children, though she didn’t say so explicitly. The person who wrote the letter was really missing her friends. She wanted that deep and enduring friendship connection again, not just quick catch-up events that happen less and less often. She asked Carolyn Hax if finding her “one true love” was the only answer.
What would happen if you invited single people to join an online community all about living single life fully, joyfully, and unapologetically, with no discussions whatsoever about dating or mating or other attempts to become unsingle? Would anyone even join? If people did join, would the group last? I issued just such an invitation a year ago (on July 9, 2015), right here at my “Single at Heart” blog.
The beginning of summer is just one of those times of year when it seems that everyone is celebrating. It is wedding season, so friends and family are celebrating their marriages (and, if you are old enough, the grown kids of your friends and family members are also celebrating). It is graduation season, so again, all the graduates you know (or parents of graduates) are celebrating, too. If you’ve never married or had kids, do you feel left out and a little down in the midst of all this merry-making? I think it depends a bit on what you wanted from your life. If you really wanted to marry, if you really wanted to have kids and celebrate all their accomplishments with them, then this season must really hurt.
When Kimberly Seals Allers became a single mother, she discovered that not all single mothers are alike. Instead, there is a hierarchy. Some single mothers are more respected and more valued than others. They are also treated better, and their children are, too. I especially appreciated her essay, because the points she made mapped so closely onto the ones I had made in Singled Out about single people more generally. The hierarchy also encompasses single people who are not parents.
Getting married, we are told, will cure what ails us. Not happy enough? Get married and you will get happier. Want to be healthier? Getting married makes that magically happen, too. Getting married, the prevailing narrative insists, will integrate us into society like single life never could. It will lengthen our lives, too. The act of marrying is presented as some sort of magic potion of yore, one of those mysterious cure-all concoctions with unknown ingredients. It still stuns me, that in this age of skepticism and sophistication, these kinds of claims are so widely disseminated and uncritically accepted. But they are. I’ve debunked the claims about the supposedly transformative power of getting married so many times before that I won’t belabor the issues here. I’ll just mention a few key problems, refer you to more extended discussions elsewhere, then get to the point I want to make here, about why we are pelted so incessantly with such misleading claims. About what is says about the real place of marriage in our lives.
Do you like your single life? Settle into it. Research suggests that it can be rewarding in ways you rarely hear about. There's a lot of angst these days about the growing numbers of people living single, and especially about young adults who routinely reach the age of 30 without ever having married. By one respectable estimate, one out of every four of today's young adults will reach 50 as a lifelong single person. Many of their parents are freaking out. Some of the young adults who want to marry are also on edge. My hope for all of us is that we get to pursue the life paths we want, whatever they may be. But I think we have an overly anxious and pessimistic view of lifelong singlehood, and I say that based on data. There is not nearly as much research as there should be on single life, and not all of it is as up-to-date as I would like, but there are some telling findings.
If you are single and you dare to write about marriage and single life, there is a criticism that will be flung at you over and over again. As a single person, it is yours alone. Married people can write about the same topics and get a free pass. Here's an example of what I'm talking about.
Time magazine, it seems, cannot get enough of telling single people and their children that they are just not as good as married people and theirs. Sometimes Time seems to be in the marriage-promotion business, peddling ideology rather than reporting. Most disturbingly, it does so under the guise of telling us what science has supposedly shown. On those rare occasions when a Time article on marriage lets in a dissenting voice, that voice gets trampled by the end. Time is on the side of married people and their families. I think it always has been.