If you are single, and especially if you are single beyond the age at which some other person thinks you should be married, you have probably been challenged about it. “Why are you still single?” they ask. It is not an innocent question. It seems to suggest that everyone wants to become unsingle, and if you are not there yet, you have some explaining to do. Too often, the real subtext seems to be, “What’s wrong with you?”
So what should you do? I’ve written about possible responses before. Here I’d like to focus on a strategy that works well with this particular question as well as with other insults lobbed at single people.
I was reminded of it when I was interviewed by Peter McGraw for his new podcast with a great title, “Solo: The Single Person’s Guide to a Remarkable Life.” The relevant section started with this from Dr. McGraw:
I have a little story of a woman who I met who even before we went on a date, I told her, “I’m not interested in being married with children.” She’s like, “I want to talk to you about that. I want to find out why you want to do that.” We met for brunch one day and she went, “Why don’t you want to be married?” I’m happy to answer this question. “I want to point out, imagine if I sat down to you and I said, I want to understand why you want to be married. Will you convince me why you’re making this correct choice?”
I told the host that I loved what he did. He flipped the script. She wanted to know why he was single. Well, he would like her to explain why she is married.
I also told him that when I wrote my book, Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, the last thing I wrote was the first page. For the longest time, I didn’t know how I should start that book. Then I got it – I should start with a whole series of flipping-the-script examples.
Here is that first page or so:
I think married people should be treated fairly. They should not be stereotyped, stigmatized, discriminated against, or ignored. They deserve every bit as much respect as single people do.
I can imagine a world in which married people were not treated appropriately, and if that world ever materialized, I would protest. Here are a few examples of what I would find offensive:
- When you tell people you are married, they tilt their heads and say things like “aaaawww” or “don’t worry honey, your turn to divorce will come.”
- When you browse the bookstores, you see shelves bursting with titles such as If I’m So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Married and How to Ditch Your Husband After Age 35 Using What I Learned at Harvard Business School.
- Every time you get married, you feel obligated to give expensive presents to single people.
- When you travel with your spouse, you each have to pay more than when you travel alone.
- At work, the single people just assume that you can cover the holidays and all the other inconvenient assignments; they figure that as a married person, you don’t have anything better to do.
- Single employees can add another adult to their health care plan; you can’t.
- When your single co-workers die, they can leave their Social Security benefits to the person who is most important to them; you are not allowed to leave yours to anyone – they just go back into the system.
- Candidates for public office boast about how much they value single people. Some even propose spending more than a billion dollars in federal funding to convince people to stay single, or to get divorced if they already made the mistake of marrying.
- Moreover, no one thinks there is anything wrong with any of this.
Married people do not have any of these experiences, of course, but single people do. People who do not have a serious coupled relationship (my definition – for now – of single people) are stereotyped, discriminated against, and treated dismissively. This stigmatizing of people who are single – whether divorced, widowed, or ever-single — is the 21st century problem that has no name. I’ll call it singlism.
Maybe the interpersonal dynamics of turning the tables would seem daunting to you. When a married person asks why you are still single, and you respond with – “you first, tell me why you are staying married” – you may not get a gracious answer. If you are reluctant to give voice to this sort of response, it is fine to instead silently remind yourself of what you would say if you dared. You won’t be educating the married person, but you will be protecting yourself from internalizing the singlist belief that if you are single (but not if you are married), you need to justify your life.