"So, How's Your Love Life?": Down the Rabbit Hole of Single Shaming
"How's your love life?"
That's the first question a friend asked me when we sat down to coffee this time last year. I hadn't seen them in a while, so the blatant prodding was a surprise, perhaps more so considering we weren't that close. I’ve noticed this is a conversational pattern in our society. We all do it.
At this point, it's a social norm.
It's the inquiry lurking around the corner of ‘How are you?’ as if those two always correlate. Forget "How's school? How's your health? How's your family? How's your living situation? How's your spiritual journey?" Even though those questions are far more important—and far more relevant—in my opinion, the love life question seems to be first and foremost on people's minds, and it's not just me. It's a cross-cultural exchange. "You gotta boyfriend?" is a placeholder for a proper introduction to many men around the world, and I thought perhaps the intrusive line of inquiry ended there: curiosity on attraction's leash. So I was surprised, upon speaking to my girlfriends about it, that they suffered the same prodding, but from other women, in a mind-boggling comparison game, that with further thought, has been going on for centuries.
But back to the cliffhanger.
My companion asked the silly question, before I even had the chance to blow on my coffee, and I immediately became defensive. I think most women have experienced this situation enough to have instinctually premeditated a go-to reply: a "but I'm honestly happier this way" or "I'm getting so much done" that can only lead to a bout of pitiful nodding. I was crafting one such reply, but then did something I had never done before in moments like these, essentially pulling a Brené Brown, before I had read any of her work: I stopped and asked myself why I felt what I was feeling. Then, over about twenty seconds of awkward silence while my inquirer stared at me paternally, I realized that I wasn’t getting defensive because I was ashamed of my singleness. I was getting defensive because I knew that once I gave my answer, I would be made to feel ashamed for it. Sure enough, I said I wasn’t seeing anyone, and they responded, with underlying condescension, “That’s too bad. But don’t worry. Someone is out there for you. You’ll find them. You just have to wait for the right one.”
Let the record show: My shame was immediate, as I had predicted.
I smiled derisively, knowing that two things that were not on my very long to-do list were 1.) Go find someone or 2.) Wait for them. I fought the feeling, because I had no reason to be ashamed of the life I genuinely enjoyed living, but it eventually won out. So from one question, by being asked in priority over a thousand others that yield far more meaning, and by being delivered in such a way that my self worth was immediately undercut, I felt an emotion that was foreign to me, and one that I did not willfully seek out for myself. I realized, after the conversation finally shifted to another topic, how many times I’d had that same conversation, question and reaction verbatim, with countless others, oftentimes strangers.
It indicated to me how often individuals in our culture commiserate over singleness, as if it’s something to be pitied, and in doing so, perpetuate the long-held stigma of “The Extra Woman."
What’s an “extra woman,” you wonder? It’s perhaps best defined in the book by the same title, authored by New York-based cultural historian and literary critic Joanna Scutts. It was gifted to me over the holidays and I thought a nonfiction nose-dive into the sparkling 1920s would be entertaining, at the very least, but I found many of its themes strikingly familiar: a single woman, a successful life, and the world around her critiquing her every twirl through a foggy pince-nez. She’s “extra” because society doesn’t know where to put her alongside all the couples. Does she require a table at a restaurant with one chair or two? Do you pity her or attempt to falsely empathize? After all, how could a woman live alone and how could she possibly like it?
From Disney’s Prince Charming with his perfectly coiffed hair rescuing Cinderella from her evil stepfamily, to Hollywood’s rendition in the form of the “Wedding Planner,” when the good doctor rescues the helpless Jennifer Lopez with her heel caught in a storm drain, the list goes on and on, in patriarchal monotony, and most of us don’t even realize the message: Women can’t save themselves. A man has to do that for them. Ergo, singleness is bad. It’s an archaic mentality, but it’s seen and indulged in nearly every day by men and women of all ages and backgrounds. Even I am guilty of swooning when Fitzgerald’s Gatsby tries to save Daisy from the life she chose without him, because apparently he can’t be alone either.
But if there’s one thing I’ve found in the past decade in which I've willfully chosen self-exploration and aloneness over someone else's companionship, it’s that the only human person capable of "fixing" and "saving" and "completing" me is me. I’m it. I’m stuck with me, so I might as well get along with me, and while I’m at it, I might as well genuinely like myself and my life.
As cliché as it is, we come into this life alone and we leave it alone. During that time, if we cannot manage to carve out an understanding of self love and why we’re worthy of it, the kind of self love that overpowers the notion that we’re not capable of being alone and being okay with it— more than that: grateful for it—then we’re wasting our own time. I’ve known so many beautiful people who view their lives as one big waiting game until a significant other in a perfectly fitted suit and shiny loafers walks through the door. It pains me to hear them talk about it because all they're doing is living their life at someone else’s leisure, someone who may or may not exist. And then they enter what I like to call the "rabbit hole of single shaming."
Let me expound on that.
A single woman is conditioned to believe from an early age, by cultural norms, social media pressure, and verbal shaming, that she is not adequate as a single person—she needs to be "completed." So, crippled by the weight of this pressure from the world, she begins to tell herself the same narrative: aloneness needs to be remedied. Due to her circumstance or her environment's limitations, she goes hunting for "the one," rather desperately, forsaking her own self worth and unspoken expectations of common decency, respect and appreciation, and winds up with someone who has been conditioned to believe being "bad" is manly. She becomes so eager for this person to be "the one," that when they're not, and they disappoint her now-inflated expectations of what "the one" should be, all hell breaks loose. She feels hurt her expectations, or rather, the white horse expectations that society imposed upon her, are not met by this unsuspecting stranger, who then makes things worse by calling her "crazy." Hence "rabbit hole."
And it all started from single shaming. It all started because culture told her that if she's alone, something is wrong with with her.
I wish I could say this for everyone in the world, as much as I say it for myself and my friends: You have a right to happiness in your aloneness. Don’t let culture take that away from you. Don't let it make you anxious. Don’t jump from relationship to relationship or stay in one you’re not meant to be in because you’re afraid of being the girl who answers “not currently” to that love life question. Being single is not a promise of loneliness. Being alone and being lonely are most often portrayed as being mutually exclusive—they’re not. If you’re alone right now, it’s for a purpose. Whether it’s so you can learn something about yourself or so you can help others or so you can effect change in the world, there is a purpose, and perhaps that very thing is to teach you, to teach us all, that our individual purposes cannot be found in someone else.
Being alone has taught me many things, too many to list here, but the one I find most important is that I’m keenly aware of the space I take up in my environment, the energy I put out and the energy I take in. It gives me the opportunity to understand the nuances of my own humanity. When no one is around you to absorb your focus, you begin to understand the full weight of who you are. You begin to see the littlest things you do that you don’t realize you’re doing and how your presence has the power to hurt or help the world and everyone in it. Without the silence to contemplate those things, it’s far less likely you'd be able to recognize them. That’s the beauty of being by yourself: your eyes are often opened to the beauty around you, if you’ll stop thinking about the fact that you’re alone long enough to notice it.
So what am I really saying here, in a condensed version?
Just because you’re alone, it doesn’t mean you should feel lonely. Just because you’re single, doesn’t mean you’re half in comparison to someone else’s whole. Just because you’re capable of loving yourself enough to the point where you don’t need someone else to do it for you, doesn’t mean that you have the slightest thing to be ashamed of. You’re an inspiration to me and likely many others. And this is not to say that people who are in healthy, loving, enduring relationships should have anything to be ashamed of either. It’s just about respecting our individual journeys through life, supporting one another on those journeys, and recognizing the importance of loving yourself—on your own terms—so that you can properly appreciate others when you have the good fortune of being able to welcome them into your life.
At the end of the day, it's about choosing to love yourself enough.
Enough to not feel the pressure to get on Tinder or Bumble or whatever other dating apps society tells us we need in order to stimulate our lives, unless it’s something you truly want to do. Enough to recognize and take hold of the opportunities your aloneness offers you, whether it's to help yourself or to help others. Enough to redefine what "being alone" really means to you, because you might find your life is filled with many different kinds of love and you’re not actually alone at all.
The next time I encounter “How’s your love life?” because I will encounter it again (and so will you), I’ll have a very different answer ready: I’ll tell them I’m in an incredible relationship with the person whose opinion matters most to me, the relationship we all should’ve started with: myself.