I have an “ask me anything” policy when it comes to single life. (Well, anything except questions about dating or other attempts to become unsingle.) Recently, a journalist sent me a list of questions that were nearly all about the social pressures of being single. She wanted to know how I dealt with pressure from friends and from my mother and other relatives.
I realize this is a big issue for many single people. They are endlessly fielding those inevitable and unwelcome “are you seeing anyone” inquiries. Or they are batting away those subtle and not-so-subtle digs about how they are not getting any younger. Or they are offered unsolicited advice to stop being so picky or to try changing their looks or their style of dress or their attitude or their personality. Sometimes other people volunteer to “fix them up,” as if they were broken.
Even though I have been single my entire life (and will continue to be single for the rest of my life), I have experienced very little of that pressure. At this point, people who know me know that I embrace single life, so they would never pressure me to marry. But even before living single became the topic of my professional life, before I started writing about it for publications that people outside of academia might read, I rarely got hassled about being single.
I think it was because marriage never interested me, and I did not try to pretend that it did. There were times in high school and college when I went through the motions of dating and going to dances and proms and such. I even had some good times. But my heart was never in it.
I was never the kind of person to engage friends in conversations about the hot guy across the room or the cute butt of the one in front of us. I listened if friends or relatives wanted to talk about their romantic lives but never tried to make it the center of our conversations.
In contrast, I loved talking about their interests and passions and their work and their friends and relatives – and my own. So they knew. No use pressuring someone to do something they have no interest in doing.
In retrospect, I guess it is remarkable that even my mother refrained from pressuring me about marrying. That was not because she had anything against marriage. She and my dad married in their twenties and stayed married for 42 years, until my dad died. She said she was open to remarrying but only if she found someone who was at least as good as her Joe. (She never did.)
The first and only time my mother said she wished I would marry was when she lay dying. There was no one else in the room at the time. She broached the topic by saying, “I worry about you.” What she meant was that she was concerned that without a spouse, I wouldn’t have anyone who would be there for me.
That was in 1998, when my study of single life was still in its early stages. I don’t remember what I said to her – probably something to the effect that I wasn’t worried.
She should not have been worried, either. I was in my forties at the time, and she knew that I had friends who had been in my life for decades. I had siblings. I had other relatives. I made new friends fairly easily every time I moved to a new place for college or graduate school or a job or a sabbatical.
And another thing: I loved my time alone. I never wanted to share a home – not with a spouse and not with anyone else, either. Solo living did not mean that I was lonely; it meant that I got to have the solitude that I cherished.
If I knew then what I know now, I would have told her that there are some grown children that parents should fret about on their deathbeds. They are the ones who get married and then focus overwhelmingly on their spouse, relegating their friends and relatives to the back burner. They are the ones at risk. Sure, things may be great for them when their marriage is humming along smoothly, but when it hits rough patches, or if it ends, then they are in trouble. Having marginalized all the other people in their lives, they cannot be so sure that those people will welcome them back.
Parents should also worry about their grown children who never learned how to be alone, or who just don’t like it. For those offspring, it could be a bit too tempting to jump into the arms of an unsuitable partner, just to avoid being alone. Those are the people at risk for feeling alone, even though they, technically, “have someone.”