Interpretations are everything.
Being single doesn’t simply mean that you aren’t in a romantic relationship; it often connotes much more. When people complain about being single, they aren’t purely grumbling about not having someone to share Valentine’s Day with; their conceptions of singleness are deeply entwined with each individual self-image. So, as a culture, we use love and romance, weddings, engagement rings, and even children to feel good about ourselves. If human value is tied up with nuptials and offspring, then guess what happens in their absence?
When a client bemoans his single status, I respond by inquiring about its meaning. Inevitably, he’ll tell me that it means he’s unattractive, unlovable, alone, and unwanted. Single doesn’t mean single; it means alone forever. And how many relationships were formed through desperation, with partners who weren’t so desirable because you wanted to stop feeling like shit about yourself? Even worse, how many awful humans have you dated because you believed it was better than being single and that you could simply hide the awfulness from others? The fear, or rather sheer terror, of being single can engender horrible choices, so the question I ask my clients is: do you prefer to be single or in a terrible, or at least lukewarm, relationship? Most people say the latter, but act as if they preferred the former.
Our families and friends make the choice of being single difficult. They mock us, tell us that they worry about us, and constantly ask why we haven’t tried harder. To be a human, it seems, or at least one worthy of some dignity, you need to have a family, or just a boyfriend. If you’re wondering why your daughter keeps finding herself in codependent relationships, desperate for attention, it’s partially because you made her feel that she wasn’t good enough on her own. Imagine being an athlete, let’s say a football player, and throughout most of your life, you’re told that being one is your destiny. Even though you’re good, and you may even play for a Division 1 college team, you know that you’ll never cut it in the NFL. Now what? How do you cope with knowing that, even if it weren’t explicitly stated, you’ll eventually shatter your father’s dreams?
Although seemingly irrelevant, that example paints the image of life for children whose parents constantly harass them about their lifestyle choices. Even though most parents don’t expect their children to become NFL superstars, they do expect them to get married and, when you’re single, the sense of disappointment when you aren’t is palpable. With respect to being single, your parents believe exactly what you do. No one wants to think of their child as unwanted, and no one wants to explain to friends why their kid is still unwed. Thus, they resort to pressure. Have you tried dating apps or to ask some friends? Their desperation mimics yours. And all for what?
Most of my relationships kind of sucked, and most of yours did too. Your parents’ marriage is likely just as good, or as bad, depending on your viewpoint. And too many marriages stem from desperation rather than affection. Yet, because of how we see ourselves and how we believe others see us, we decide to damage our lives. We can damage them by settling for a less than stellar partner (with or without idealizing them) or by pining for some ideal romance. In reality, take away the fears and interpretations and you’re left with a life that resembles the one from before, back when you were in love. Research indicates that we suck at predicting what will make us happy, and even worse, we suck at recalling how happy something made us. (I refer you to the work of Danny Kahneman for more on those phenomena.) So, if and when our attempts are aimed at capturing some ideal state, we invariably fail.
We waste so much time due to our irrational beliefs. Imagine if you accepted that romantic love is nice but being single is about the same. Imagine accepting that your life is full with or without a marriage. And imagine deciding not to care so much about external perspectives. Relationships, love, marriage, and having a family are all nice things. But will they drastically alter your life and self-conceptions? Dubious.