'Being Single Is Not A Failure'
Anyone who is single knows how easy it is to start feeling like a “freak” or a “failure”. Even if you can stay positive most of the time, there are probably those moments when the rug gets pulled out from under and you are back to berating yourself and/or wondering if there is something wrong with you. It is simply a fact that, in our culture, being single can feel pretty lousy.
Fortunately there are many philosophers, poets, spiritual seekers, academics, psychotherapists, and other voices out there, both modern and ancient, who can inspire us to think more constructively. I have referenced several of these sources here to help challenge four patterns of distorted thinking that are common among singles:
- Marriage represents success.
- We should be happy all the time.
- Suffering is always counter-productive.
- We should be married by now.
Distortion One: Marriage Represents Success
We tend to assume that marriage automatically represents “success”, even though we have heard that about half of all marriages end in divorce. Actually, the divorce rate is even higher than that.
John Gottman reports that “the chance of a first marriage ending in divorce over a forty-year period is 67%”, and that “some studies find that the divorce rate for second marriages is as much as 10% higher than for first-timers” (in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work). And Jerry M. Lewis and John T. Gossett (in Disarming the Past: How an Intimate Relationship Can Heal Old Wounds) note that only about 25% of their volunteer couples qualified as “healthy” relationships by their criteria.
So, whether we are single or not, we must remember that the vast majority of people still are struggling to create healthy, satisfying relationships.
Distortion Two: We Should Be Happy All the Time
Another way that single people fall into distorted thinking is to assume that whatever unhappiness we experience as a result of being single is an indictment against us; we must be doing something wrong or we would be happier. So, not only do we label our “single” status as a “failure”, we also label our moments of unhappiness and struggle as further proof of failure.
M. Scott Peck, famous author and psychiatrist, believed that one of the “biggest lies” in our culture is the implication that “we’re here to be happy all the time”. In The Road Less Traveled, Peck begins with the following: “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult — once we truly understand and accept it — then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”
Distortion Three: Suffering Always Is Counter-Productive
It may feel liberating to know that suffering can be thought of as essential to human development — a necessary and important part of the process of facing and solving the problems that we are presented with in life. So, even if we do not wish to remain single, our experiences as single people (including our setbacks and dark moments) are not wasted time. Rather, they are experiences that we can utilize in our efforts to grow and come closer to our goals.
Carl Jung distinguished “legitimate suffering” from “neurotic suffering”. Our painful lessons as single people might qualify as “legitimate suffering”, particularly if we are facing up to our problems and allowing our experiences to contribute to our psychological growth and development.
But labeling and punishing ourselves for being single is clearly not “legitimate” and is totally counter-productive. We don’t need that extra layer of punishment, the “double whammy” as I call it; being single (and being human) is challenging enough without that.
Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun, is another author who speaks with refreshing clarity and wisdom to challenge conventional beliefs. In her book When Things Fall Apart she comments on how we tend to judge ourselves for feeling pain: “When something hurts in life, we usually don’t think of it as our path or the source of wisdom. We think the reason we are on the path is to get rid of this painful feeling. At that level of wanting to get rid of our feeling, we cultivate a subtle aggression against ourselves”.
Peck shares her view that pain is not just a troublesome by-product of life, but often the “path” itself. In the Road Less Traveled and Beyond he states, “The truth is that our finest moments, more often than not, occur precisely when we are uncomfortable, when we’re not feeling happy or fulfilled, when we’re struggling and searching”. This is how we overcome old patterns and let life teach us.
Distortion Four: We Should Be Married By Now
Maybe you will be less inclined to feel like a “freak” for being single if you realize that married couples actually represent less than half of all American households — and that this proportion has been declining for decades. (In 1930 married couples accounted for 84% of households!) A New York Times article (10/15/06) references a Census Bureau finding that only 49.7% of the nation’s households are made up of married couples, with and without children. And the proportion of married couples living in Manhattan is only 26%!
Nonetheless, you may still protest that being single is a “failure” because even if we are growing and processing our disappointments and even if there are lots of others like us, we still have not reached the goal of finding the right relationship.
So, for single people who want to be married (and, of course, many do not and are quite content to remain single), how can we frame our position in the most constructive way? The answer, I believe, is that we must take pride in approaching our goal in a way that is uniquely our way, trusting our best instincts and following our wisdom, wherever that leads us.
That does not mean that we congratulate ourselves for staying stuck or that we don’t reach out for help or take risks where that is called for. But we are entitled and in fact required to approach finding love in a way that resonates with what we need and who we are at the deepest level. We cannot expect to just conform to what we imagine our culture expects of us in some predetermined way at some designated time.
The bottom line is that, for most of us, the journey to finding a healthy, fulfilling relationship is a challenging one and can take some time. We may first need to recognize and give up old patterns of longing and “not getting” that were established in our original families.
And we often need to learn more about the “hidden” or “shadow” parts of ourselves in order to approach a relationship as whole, integrated individuals who know how to love our complete selves and who know how to identify and describe our emotional needs. Without our pain, why would we ever be willing to undergo the difficult but ultimately transformative process of letting life change us?
Robert Kennedy captured this message about pain and wisdom in a now famous moment when he was giving a speech to a largely black audience in Indianapolis and had found out, just prior to that, that Martin Luther King had been shot. As he spoke to the unknowing audience, he announced the sad news. Joe Klein of Time Magazine (4/17/06) describes the screams and wailing from the audience — “just the rawest, most visceral sounds of pain that human voices can summon”.
After the screams died down, Kennedy began, “Martin Luther King... dedicated his life... to love... and to justice between fellow human beings, and he died in the cause of that effort”. Klein describes how Kennedy went on speaking to the audience, “laying himself bare for them, speaking of the death of his brother”.
Kennedy continued, “My favorite poem, my favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote, ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart... until... in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God’”. The moment, as Klein described it, was “stunning”.
So, even when we feel lost and appear to be going nowhere, we must remember that it is often our pain, not our “will”, that can deliver us the wisdom that we need. And rather than see ourselves as “failures”, we must recognize that we are heroes on our own unique and courageous journeys to uncovering that “awful grace” that can guide us to love.
Elizabeth Dickson, LCSW | Relationship Realizations™
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