When singles express wistfulness with their unattached state, they risk being branded with that deadly word, “pathetic.”
Several years ago, I was dining out with a friend when he asked about my love life. I confessed there was nothing to report—I hadn’t dated anyone in ages. So he did the thing people do when confronted with a person who is single-not-by-choice. He asked what the problem was.
If you’re a romantically unattached person who’d prefer not to be, you’ve probably had some form of this conversation: the earnest, well-intentioned attempt by a friend or family member to solve the riddle of you. Are you afraid of intimacy? Do you have low self-esteem? Are you so self-sufficient you’re not leaving any room for love? Or are you so desperate to find a partner that your raging neediness is repelling all prospects?
On this particular night, I had been on my own for about six years, and I was fed up with these kinds of questions.
“There’s nothing wrong with me!” I said, a little too loud, waving my hand and knocking a salt shaker off the table.
My friend raised his eyebrows and picked up his menu. “OK, Sara, whatever you say.”
Cut to: 10 years later. I have just published a book, It’s Not You, in which I address all of the irritating clichés singles confront on a regular basis. I’m also married.
At my readings, I’ve met many intelligent, thoughtful singles who have clearly experienced the same frustration and doubt that I did. They have asked interesting questions, but one in particular has stuck in my head: “Would your book be different if you wrote it when you were single?”
The answer: Not really. And that’s a problem.
The premise of my book is that most single people don’t have to fix themselves to find love; they just need the good fortune to meet the right person, the one who adores them even if they still get anxious at parties or hate their thighs. I reached this conclusion when I was single myself, after many years of reading self-help books and answering workbook-type questions about my emotional baggage and my fear of commitment. At a certain point, I realized this was silly. There was nothing wrong with me, or any of the single people I knew—or at least nothing so wrong that it was keeping us from a relationship. There was no standard of self-actualization that separated the single from the married. It was just dumb luck.
The observation was liberating, but I mostly kept it to myself. I was quite sure the general response would be like my friend’s: Sure, sweetie, you believe whatever gets you through the night. I worried that by revealing my heartache, self-doubt and—yes—anger, I would disprove my argument in many readers’ minds, prompting the age-old refrain “No wonder she’s single!”
So I stayed quiet.
Many years later, from the safe perch of my happy marriage, I published a book firing back at all the inane comments singles hear about being “too intimidating” or “too available.” For the most part, the book has been received warmly. Of course, I’ve had detractors criticizing my writing or my ideas, but overall it has been very civil.
There is one interesting exception. After I published an excerpt that challenged the perennial idea that intelligence, independence, and career success hinder a woman’s chance of marrying, I received a lot of criticism. Many readers challenged my logic or my research, which is fair enough, but there were also comments like this:
“Sounds like the author’s mother called again today and wanted to know when she’d get to be a grandmother.”
“If these ladies are so smart, why is she telling them this? It sounds to me like she might be trying to convince herself.”
“It’s quite obvious that the author needs some [expletive deleted].”
I’m sure you can guess the detail that was not included in the excerpt. For the first time since publishing It’s Not You, I didn’t make clear that I was married. And for the first time, I was attacked personally, my ideas dismissed and attributed to my unhappiness or insecurity.
This, I believe, is why single people often go to great lengths to assure everyone around them they are completely delighted with their solo life. Of course, we all know that many single people are extremely happy, just as we know that many married people are utterly miserable.
But only single people are compelled to present their life satisfaction as evidence that they’re worth listening to. When couples experience marital discord, we accept it as a normal cost of being an adult; we even admire them for their willingness to stick it out and do the necessary “work.” But when singles express wistfulness with their unattached state, they risk being branded with that deadly word, “pathetic.” As opposed to, say, human.
At my events, readers often ask me very personal questions about their dating lives, and I sometimes find myself in an awkward role—the married advice lady. The single people who attend my readings have been patient as I stumble through my responses to the 45-year-old who just quit Internet dating or the college student who wants to know how to get her crush to answer her texts.
Conversations like these might have been easier if I was still in the game, still navigating all that uncertainty myself. And sometimes I wish I’d had the courage to publish my book when I was single, but mostly I’m glad I didn’t. To be single is to subject oneself to an outrageous amount of scrutiny, from the well-meaning to the trollish. The single person must constantly field queries and gentle prompts about why she is alone.
So I did the best I could: I said nothing.
This post originally appeared on Daily Life.