If you are single, you have probably gotten that “aaaww, poor thing” look more than a few times. You can judge for yourself how that feels. For me, it feels maddeningly condescending and wildly inappropriate, since I don’t feel sorry for myself for being single. I love living single. But even if you don’t, I’m guessing you don’t love being pitied.
What I want to pose here is a different question: What does it mean about the coupled person who is pitying you? More specifically, what does it tell you about their marriage or romantic relationship?
I found an intriguing example in Dr. Jennifer Taitz’s new book, How to Be Single and Happy: Science-Based Strategies for Keeping Your Sanity While Looking for a Soul Mate. Here’s an excerpt about a conversation Dr. Taitz had with a married person. (Taitz is currently married but has plenty of experiences from her single years. And yes, I do wish that more of the people writing books about single people were single.)
“At a holiday party, Brooke, a friend of a friend, approached me. ‘I heard about your book idea. Do you actually think it is possible to be happy while single?’ she asked, skeptically. ‘My life is so much better with Trevor.’
“She did look pretty satisfied…She’s naturally pretty and lives lavishly…Though she has worked in art galleries in the past, she’s now mostly absorbed in traveling and supporting Trevor’s endeavors.
“‘Researchers who study happiness say that much of it has to do with our actions, not just our circumstances,’ I explained.
“Brooke agreed that women today have more options, but concluded, ‘I wouldn’t feel content without Trevor.’ Then she sighed, ‘I feel sorry for people struggling to meet someone.’”
What’s your guess about the fate of Brooke’s marriage?
As soon as I got to the end of that excerpt, I had a strong reaction. I thought Brooke’s marriage was doomed.
A few paragraphs later, Jennifer Taitz told her readers how Brooke’s romantic relationship unfolded:
“…I was surprised to learn, just a few months after my debate with Brooke, that her beloved Trevor had been caught red-handed in a dramatic affair with someone else.”
I might not have had that immediate feeling that Brooke’s marriage was doomed if she had been talking to a single person who was unhappily single and feeling sorry for herself. In that case, maybe Brooke would have been acknowledging that person’s struggles in a way that could have felt empathic and welcome.
But that’s not what’s happening here. Jennifer Taitz had written an entire book on how to be single and happy, and Brooke was saying, “Nah, that can’t happen.”
This is probably not at all how Brooke anticipated that anyone would respond, but I felt sorry for her. She gave up her own work in art galleries to support her husband. She said she just would not feel content without Trevor. To me, it sounded like she wanted her husband to be her whole life. That struck me as silly and embarrassing – she seemed to have swallowed whole all those silly love songs. Also, her attitude seemed to put a lot of inappropriate pressure on Trevor. Maybe Trevor wasn’t all that thrilled to be cast into the role of the romantic hero who is his wife’s everything. (That’s not to excuse his philandering.)
If you are old enough to remember the first Bridget Jones book, you probably know the phrase “smug marrieds.” Brooke struck me as a little too smug. I wondered whether she was putting down single people not because she was so secure about her marriage but because she was insecure. Maybe she needed the ego boost of feeling like she was better than all those single people because she was married, and they were not.
There is research showing that putting down single people can come from a place of insecurity. Of course, I don’t know Brooke. I have no way of knowing what was really going on with her. The bigger point is that when coupled people act all condescending toward single people, sometimes their attitude says more about them and their romantic relationship than it does about the single person they are pitying.
This is not an anti-couples article. It is an anti-smug-couples article. When couples seem truly loving in their own relationship and can still totally understand that for some single people, single life works best, I think that’s great. One of the ways I know I am single at heart is that I don’t feel envious of couples. It wasn’t painful for me when an older sibling, and then a younger one, got married. Same for my wedded friends. If coupling makes them happy, I am happy for them. They have what they want, and I have what I want.