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The Single Stigma: Real or Imagined?



Artwork by David Foggo


44 comments for “The Single Stigma: Real or Imagined?”

  1. Gayle says:

    Love the artwork for this! it evokes how i fee. and it is very true after a certain age it is ‘weird’ to have never married or not be in a relationship with a man at the moment. Especially the ‘never married’ part 🙂 No one including myself wants to be ‘odd’. It is human nature

    • wendy says:

      Statistics about number of people not marrying and living alone are really changing. Popular culture hasn’t caught up yet. We’re not odd, we’re fabulous!

  2. RS says:

    I am not sure if stigma is the right word, but it is something. Just in the past week two people who I met in a business context asked me, “so, do you have a family?” The questions were meant kindly and clearly were intended to be conversation starters, but both times they made for an awkward moment. What do I say? “Well, yeah, of *course* I have a family! Doesn’t everybody? My mom and sister live up north and. . .” But, of course, that is not what they meant. What they meant was do I have a wife and children. After a moment’s awkward hesitation I just said “well, I am not married.” There is an awkwardness to it, and it seems like it is usually a conversation killer when it is intended to me an ice breaker. I assume that anybody who would ask, “so, do you have a family?” probably assumes that you do (doesn’t every “normal” person? And you seem normal. . . ) otherwise there would not be that awkward silence when I inform them that I have neither wife nor children. I think that a lot of people just don’t quite know how to parse that or make sense of it.

    • wendy says:

      When I first started this site, friends would say, “you’re so brave.” As if coming out to the world that you’re single took courage.

      • RS says:

        My sister (who has also never been married and is still single) and I have often discussed how we know that there are people who behind our backs assume that we must be gay. Because, there *must* be *some* reason why we are not married (though that is now less a reason with each passing year). The idea that a person would remain single by choice is unfathomable to many people.

        • wendy says:

          For years, my family was convinced that I was gay. Unmarried, with short hair and living in San Francisco. The trifecta.

    • Gayle says:

      I can totally relate to this. Makes one feel weird, and judged you know,

    • Kathy says:

      RS: I wonder how many people in our parents’ generation were happy with the “typical life”?

      I enjoy that moment of awkwardness after responding that I’m childfree and (now) partner-free by my choice. Hopefully it will
      result them asking better icebreaker questions in the future. I quickly end the discussion though if their next
      question is about work.

      And as far as I know, I am only “supposed to” live my life to my liking, hurting as few people as possible along the way, and pay my taxes.

    • Len says:

      I defy anyone to define “normal,” especially when attempting to apply it to people. There is no such thing.

  3. Stacey says:

    I was having dinner with a friend the other night, and he was going on about how, now that he’s close to 50 years old, his life “isn’t the way it’s supposed to be”. I asked him what he meant by that, and he talked about how he’s supposed to be married and supposed to be getting his kids ready to be launched into the world (he’s recently divorced and his wife got custody of their almost-grown kids). Then he went on how people are supposed to get married, stay married, raise families, then grow old and retire with their spouses and enjoy grandchildren. Oy. Sure, in a “perfect” world where everything works out… I said to him, “You do know that life doesn’t always happen that way, don’t you?” And he said to me, “yes, I know, but it should. It did for our parents. It’s traditional.”

    Maybe it did for his parents, but it sure didn’t with mine (and he KNOWS that). Nor did it happen with a LOT of people I know. And many of them torture themselves with those same kinds of assumptions and make themselves even more miserable. “Traditions” are left behind for a reason.

    • wendy says:

      People are “supposed to….” That’s so tired.

    • Gayle says:

      I think was he is talking about is we (myself included) ‘expectations’. I had an expectation too that i would be married and have kid(s). I will turn 50 in a few months. So I fee the stigma not having done so. My sister is married my brother engaged…
      But really I have to tell myself life is to short to dwell on it…

      • wendy says:

        Even during tough times, I try to remember that waking up every morning, being of sound mind and body is really a privilege.

        • Gayle says:

          This is true! everyone has problems/issues and many have worse than my own.

          • wendy says:

            One of my favorite expressions from a best friend/therapist: Don’t equate your insides with someone else’s outside. We never know what problems lurk beneath the shiny veneer.

  4. Len says:

    Want the ultimate stigma? Reveal that you’re not only single, but have never had a relationship, never been able to get a date, and are still a virgin. In your 40s. Dating, relationships and sex are so obscenely taken for granted in this society in this day and age, that it is absolutely impossible for people to process the concept of someone not experiencing them, even if it’s by circumstance (my case), not choice. The best the can manage is mouthing the same patronizing platitudes: “Don’t give up”, “Any woman would love to have you” (Who is this “Any Woman,” and would you introduce me?), “You just haven’t met the right one” (Meaning what? Those who have many dates and relationships have met lots of “right ones”?) And for the virginity? “Well…sex isn’t really a big deal.” (Never have asked if they would be willing to give it up themselves. The verbal tap dancing would probably be dazzling.)

    Used to be that dating a lot and having sex outside of wedlock carried a stigma. Why is the opposite true now?

    • Petra says:

      You’ve raised some interesting points about additional stigmas. And that “don’t give up” (a variant of the old “you’ll find someone when you least expect it”) line is so tired.

      • Len says:

        Not just tired–it’s dropped dead of exhaustion and then stench is overwhelming because nobody wants to bury it. (And at the age of 46, I’ve completely given up. Really, who wants someone who hasn’t even learned how to kiss, right?)

        Another “favorite” is, “There’s someone for everyone.” A friend who knows my situation used a variation on me last year: “There’s a lid for every pot.” When I asked her why there are so many lonely people (like me), she started saying, “Well, some people just emit…”, but didn’t finish her argument. Probably because, like all the lucky ones, she never really gave it any thought.

        It’s been my observation that the “haves”–whether it’s relationships, money, whatever–find it very easy to lecture us “have nots.” (Example: listen to what the last bunch of Republican presidential candidates spewed.)

    • wendy says:

      The aspect that never changes (even with the modern twist) is that people make assumptions that the abundance of sex and sexual partners has a relationship to being loved. Then as now, no correlation.

      • Len says:

        You’re right, sex doesn’t equal love. And I wouldn’t want the former without the latter. Otherwise it would seem pointless and sad. But that’s moot, because I’ve accepted that I’ll never have either. And you have no idea how alone and stigmatized that makes me feel(Latarsha’s example and kind words notwithstanding).

  5. Petra says:

    I hesitate to vote because the answer is Yes AND No(ish). Certainly for some populations and places it is (and I’m living in one of them–if you’re not married with kids or you don’t go to church [and it has to be CHURCH, not temple or the like], it’s tough to find your tribe here). But I’m sensing a change in the younger demographic. They are the ones who’ve grown up with a wider world and culture at their fingertips (thank you, Internet) and seem to have less of a standard blueprint for life (i.e. graduate, get married, get a job, buy a housem have kids, retire to the Sunbelt). They’ve had gay characters on TV, they know the concept of polyamory (even if they don’t accept or practice it), etc. Maybe they need to be more open to more possibilities–they probably face a future more fraught with uncertainty (in many areas, such as employment, access to untainted food, debt). Their life script has changed. This is probably more common in urban areas, but they also are more likely to settle in urban areas. Anyway, I may be wrong, but to me it seems like they are not following those old rules anymore.

  6. Helen says:

    The stigma is profound. I am routinely excluded from social occasions and am often left out of hybrid professional/social events because I am unmarried. I think much of it is unintentional — it simply doesn’t occur to people to include me, because my lack of a man renders me utterly invisible. And no, I don’t live in a backwards small town or a repressive community — I’m a lawyer in New York City! I know countless heterosexual professional middle-aged women here in my situation. The long-awaited passage of the same-sex marriage laws here in NY a couple of years ago, and subsequent victories in that battle on the Federal level, ironically made many of us feel even sadder and more disenfranchised. Now don’t get me wrong; I was and am in favor of those initiatives. However, the exaltation of marriage as the be-all and end-all by activists in that arena pushed us never-marrieds even further into the fringes. I, for one, feel very much on the social scrap heap, and I’m not just talking about dating.

  7. Latarsha says:

    Yes, being single carries a stigma but it’s not always a negative one. For example I think married people think single people are just yucking it up partying all the time, what with all that extra discretionary cash laying around and all. I’ve been talking to a man I met online and he (47, divorced, two teenage kids) has been going on and on about his “commitments” and how having kids makes it really hard to have a relationship and oh the kids the kids the kids oh the commitment and so on but since you don’t have kids you might not understand. I told him plainly “just because I don’t have children doesn’t mean I don’t have commitments of my own that are important to me. The thing is, when I like someone I want to spend time with them so I make accommodations to make that happen. People parent and have dating lives all the time, it’s about finding balance.”

    As for Len, I’m so sorry you’re having such a down time. You are in fact not alone. One of my best friends is a 40 year old virgin. I doubt she’s ever been kissed either. She grew up a preacher’s kid and was probably a little more “God will provide”-like when we were in our 20s and 30s. She’s settled down a lot more since then. I think a lot of that came from her having gone to a Christian university where there was an expectation that a woman would marry a man from the school. When she didn’t, I think she thought her guy was just a little late to the party but that he would come and to not give up hope. I’m not certain I’d say she’s given up hope now but instead of focusing so much on why she still isn’t married or has kids, she’s focused on creating a really rich life for herself. She left her previous career (where she and I met) and went back to school. She’s going for her Ph.D. and wants to teach journalism when she’s done with college. She’s written academic papers that have been published in noted journals, she’s traveled overseas, presented her work at conferences, is still actively involved with her family, is a doting aunt and just putting her fingerprint on life. I’m really proud of her and really impressed with the shape her life has taken.

    I know it’s ease for a stranger online to say “hang in there” but yes, hang in there. It’s hard for everyone, all of us. Let the focus be on living a rich and fulfilling life and I just believe the rest will fall into place. Just my 2 cents.

  8. Stacey says:

    I’m sure this isn’t going to make anyone feel any better, but it does make me feel better about being single in my 40’s:

    Earlier this week, I went out on a first date with a man I met online. He spent part of the evening telling me about his previous girlfriend. Something he said really stood out to me: he told me about a time he gave her a scarf, but she “wasn’t excited enough” about it.

    About 15 minutes after he told me that, he told me that once, while they were shopping, she saw a shirt that she thought would look nice on him, and tried to buy it for him, but it wasn’t the type of shirt he usually wears so he wouldn’t let her buy it for him, and he didn’t like it when she looked so disappointed, like she was trying to “guilt him into letting her buy it for him”.

    After he had told me this, I brought in his first story, then put it next to his second story, and asked if maybe, just maybe, he was being a little too hard on her. He gave me a blank stare. So I clarified, wasn’t his reaction to the gift she wanted to give him similar to her reaction to the gift he gave her? And if she’s supposed to be more excited about his gift, shouldn’t she expect that he’s supposed to be more excited about hers?

    He secured his status of not getting a second date with me when he said, “but a woman is supposed to be thrilled with whatever he brings her. What she wanted to give me was just impractical.”

    Stigma or no, I think it’s better to be single than to be with someone who is so chauvanistic.

  9. Latarsha says:

    I still can’t get over the number of people that start out a first date or first phone conversation with some version of “let me tell you what a bitch/asshole my ex is.”

    • wendy says:

      I’m nervous at the beginning of a first date, as I’m sure most people are. So I think it’s good to be generous with ourselves and others. Up to a point.

    • Stacey says:

      I think it’s usually just nervousness. Once you get past the “what do you do for a living” part, it’s sometimes really hard to know what to talk about next with an almost complete stranger. The thing about us single folks is that we all have some sort of past relationship crap that we can all relate to. While I agree that it’s always a bad idea to go into any of that in depth on a first date, I’m usually able to cut the guy a little slack on that, at least to a point. Besides, sometimes he’ll say something that gives me some idea of what he’s expecting in a girlfriend without intending to, and that helps my filtering process, lol.

  10. pechke says:

    Hi, what a great conversation! I am single and never married, 38, a straight woman. I have spent most of my adult years unpartnered. I very much feel the stigma of being single, but it has really stepped up since I 35 or so. I feel like I deal with it OK – much of the time I feel quite content. As Stacey said above, it is much preferable to be single than with the wrong person. In fact, lately I question whether I want to give up living independently at all – I have come to realise that I really prefer having my own, solo space!

    I wanted to say though, I wonder if us never-married probably deal with our status much better than others? I have a coworker who is 38 and just getting divorced. Her partner moved out in July. Previously, she had a serious timeline of partner up-move in-buy real estate-upgrade cars-buy summer cottage, etc. Lately, she seems obsessed with the disruption of her timeline – she seems downright ashamed to be single! She is dating now, but it doesn’t seem to be fun for her. Rather, each date seems a serious interview to determine if the next one is “the one.”

    I used to feel a bit irked by her, since she would grill me about why I am not trying harder about finding someone. But I feel pretty sorry for her lately. She told me that until now, she has NEVER lived alone. She is only just now starting to think about the single stigma, if all those old myths are valid (e.g., all single people are lonely weirdos, etc). I feel pretty grateful now that I don’t have as many hang ups as I could about it.

    • wendy says:

      Great to hear from you, Pechke. My most desperate time of being single was at 37. It really hadn’t bothered me until then. I think mid-to late 30’s is an especially vulnerable age when a lot of women marry the wrong men. I’m glad I made it through.

    • Stacey says:

      Sounds to me like your coworker really isn’t really recovered enough from her divorce to give any serious thought to a new relationship. A lot of newly divorced people try to jump back into the dating pool before they’re really ready for a new relationship. They’re more concerned about their perceived “timeline” than they are with the stuff that really matters in a relationship. They think they’re ready, but they’re really not. And to make it worse, they never see it in themselves until after they’re on the other side of the recovery, so there really isn’t anything you can say to them without them getting defensive about it.

      A lot of married people have never truly learned HOW to be single, which is why they so often get so bent out of shape about it. It really is a life skill. It sounds to me like you’ve mastered it, Pechke.

      • wendy says:

        Whether married or single, most everyone’s going to be alone at some point in their life. It’s a good muscle to flex.

  11. Ellen says:

    Just found this fabulous website! I’m a single, straight woman in my 50s and I can relate to so much that has been said! I remained a virgin through my 20s waiting for God to “provide” a mate. I was one of those who went to a Christian University, dated quiet a few men but didn’t marry any of them. I guess I wasn’t crazy about the role of subservient wife.

    Turns out I didn’t really want that lifestyle so in my 30s I left the church, dated and had a few serious relationships. As a teacher, I found myself sort of married to my career more and more so now I suppose I fit the description of what my parents used to call a “school marm”.

    I do feel there is a stigma with those who, like my mother and very conservative siblings, think there is something wrong with me because I never married, had children, etc. I hate when someone asks me why I am not married with no children. I can’t even answer that myself, other than: “My life just didn’t work out that way.”

    Anyhoo, thanks for sharing all the positives about being where we are at this time in our lives.

    • wendy says:

      It’s great to meet you, Ellen, and to hear your story. We have to fight the stigma. Today an honest married friend of mine in the midst of dealing with a difficult mother-in-law said to me, “I envy your single life!”

  12. Laurie says:

    I just discovered your blog and I really like your writing style. I’ve been married 2x, both to men who were not worthy of me. At 51, I have no more hope that the right guy is out there. So, at present, I keep going to counseling to learn how to create a life alone, but I still hate being single. I’ve tried every dating site out there and even joined a matchmaking service which was a colossal joke and very expensive. I try to be grateful for what I have, friends, supportive family, very good job and decent health…but New Year’s Eve and Valentines Day are the worst. I’m trying to practice gratitude but it is so difficult. I just long for a loving partner. You seem to have created a nice life for yourself and that’s what I’m trying to do. I have never felt stigmatized for being single, but sometimes, the sadness I feel just overwhelms me.

    • wendy says:

      Laurie, I’m so glad you found us. I’ve had my share of sadness about being single, but through the years, I eventually understood deep in my bones, the challenges that everyone faces regardless of marital status. Just in the last week, I’ve had 2 friends diagnosed with breast cancer. And when I hear that kind of news, it’s such a reminder to appreciate every day. I’m glad that you’re doing what you can to have a full life. But if you’re certain you want a partner, keep trying those dating sites. And in the meantime, stay connected with us on the site, and know you’re in good company. Be in touch!

  13. Tess says:

    Why are almost all of these comments so old? Did everyone get married??

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