For years, I have been reading, writing about, and listening to the stories of people who are single. I’m interested in all varieties of single people, including those who are divorced and widowed as well as those who have always been single. I’ve always been single myself, so I probably can’t help thinking about other people’s stories from that particular perspective.
In some ways, people who have always been single are the targets of the most negative stereotypes. If you are divorced or widowed, the condescending narratives insist, at least you were wanted by someone at some point in time. If you’ve been single all your life, the story goes, you must have issues.
When I listen to the stories of divorced and widowed people, I come to a different conclusion: People who have always been single have so many reasons to feel proud. What they have learned to do for themselves, the many tasks they have mastered (or figured out how to accomplish with the help of others) – all of that is truly impressive.
Many couples in traditional marriages split up the tasks into his and hers categories. She never learns his and he never masters hers. Even in more egalitarian unions, tasks are often split up according to interests and skills. Again, about half of all that needs to be done to maintain a household and a life becomes foreign to the people in the couple. Even if they once knew how to do everything, they get out of practice or maybe new ways of doing things have cropped up since then and passed them by. While a marriage lasts, especially when things are going well, this division of labor is efficient. Everything gets done but no one person has to do everything.
That all changes when the marriage ends. Some people who are newly single find themselves navigating new tasks for the very first time, or for the first time in a very long time. Some of them find that intimidating.
Here are just a few examples:
- Balancing a checkbook
- Booking travel reservations online
- Navigating an airport
- Figuring out your alarm system
- Maintaining the car
- Managing subscriptions and dues
- Creating and sticking to a household budget
- Managing bank accounts and other financial holdings
- Doing household repairs
- Coaxing the computer to behave
- Taking care of the yard
- Taking care of the kids if you have any
If you have been single your whole life, I bet none of this scares you. You have either mastered all of these tasks long ago, or have found ways to get them done by enlisting the help of others or finding competent people to hire. In fact, I bet it took your breath away to realize that many fully grown adults, some of them old enough to qualify as wise elders, don’t know how to do many of these things when they first become single.
But you do, lifelong single person – and for that, you should be proud.
It is not just the practicalities that can be daunting to the newly single. So can the more psychological challenges, such as remembering and understanding what’s going on in other people’s lives, appreciating their emotional profiles, and marking their birthdays and other significant occasions. In traditional marriages, those kin-keeping and friend-maintaining duties often fall to women, just as other more masculine sex-typed tasks fall to men. Some people have remarked, after a divorce or the death of a spouse, that they feel like they have lost their mind. In a way, they have; or at least they’ve lost half of it – the half of the things to be remembered and monitored that used to be their partner’s responsibility.
People who have always been single are the kin-keepers and the friend-monitors. They keep track of the important people in their lives, without counting on a partner to do it for them. They’ve been doing it all their life.
Studies that compare people of different marital statuses often show that people who have always been single do better, with regard to their health and well-being, than people who are divorced or widowed. I don’t like those kinds of studies – they can’t ever tell us what’s really going on, in terms of what is causing what. But to the people who do take those studies too seriously, and wonder about the always-single people doing so well despite being the targets of the most intense stereotyping, consider all that the lifelong single people have to be proud of.
[Note. Thank-you to Psych Central for publishing a review of my new book, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. The review is here.]