If there is a society that values single people as much as married people, I don’t know what it is. There are risks to this derogation of single people (singlism) and over-valuing of married people (matrimania). Single people can internalize those unfair messages. It can be hard for them to realize that single life is a valid life – and for some people, the very best way to lead a life.
This is where psychotherapists come in. They can play an important role in helping people understand what they really want, apart from what other people think they should want. When I was interviewed for Psychotherapy Networker, I was asked two questions about this. Here’s what I had to say.
What would you recommend for a therapist who is seeing a client whose stated goal is finding someone to marry?
Of course, it is entirely possible that marriage is what they really do want. The problem is that everyone knows that they are supposed to want that. What sometimes happens is that single people tell their therapists and their relatives and their friends – and themselves – that they want to marry, but then when it comes to doing what it would take, that ranks somewhere below cleaning out their sock drawer. There could be lots of reasons for that, but one is that they actually like their single lives. They are living their lives fully and with purpose. They don’t actually want to marry but they don’t realize that wanting to live single is a real option.
There are several recent memoirs that have that theme. The author turns 40, has been single all her life with no children, and feels panicked. Ultimately, it comes as a revelation that she actually likes her single life. If you are thinking – these women are just kidding themselves – well, please allow for the possibility that they are not.
I think it is stunning that in the 21st century, smart, savvy, highly educated women such as these authors could get to be 40-years old before they realized that living single is a genuine life choice. One that can be fulfilling and meaningful, and for some, the best possible choice. And I’m saying that in a positive, affirming way. I’m not saying they are damaged, so they may as well live single.
What advice would you give to therapists regarding singlism?
Be careful not to engage in the stereotyping, stigmatizing, marginalizing, or discrimination against single people that I call singlism. Talk about single people and single life in ways that allow for affirming interpretations and life stories. Don’t just assume that everyone who walks in the door wants to be married, and that everyone outside of your office wants to be married, too.
If you are old enough, you may remember when women (well, middle- and upper-class white women) were expected to want nothing more than to marry or have children. If they went to college, it was to get an MRS not a BA. Many did not even consider the possibility that they might love having a career. That’s where we are now about choosing single life. It is not out there as a real, viable, obvious life choice. So it is especially important for therapists to be attuned to choices that are not yet socially-recognized or validated, but that may be the best choices for some people – the ones they would choose for themselves, without needing any help, if only they realized that those options were real ones.
[I’ve written more about single people and psychotherapy in this blog and elsewhere. You can find the relevant links here. A few writings by other people are included there, too.]