The Power of Stories

Telling stories is the best way to teach, persuade, and even understand ourselves.

Compelling Life Stories Don’t Need Conventional Events

What is your life story?

An influential psychological statement about adult development said that young adulthood is a time for a number of life tasks, such as selecting a partner, learning to live with your spouse, starting a family, and raising children.

Does that sound familiar, if not as an identifiable psychological theory, then as an intuitive sense of how adult life is expected to unfold? It is part of a model described in 1953 by the psychologist R. J. Havighurst, and was influential for decades. Now, more than a half-century later, when people tell the stories of their lives, or ask other people (especially women) to tell their stories, too often they still expect the usual stages of finding a mate, getting married, and raising kids to be included.

So where does that leave people who are single, and especially those who are single and have never had children?

A few have tried to write a new stage model for "the single adult life cycle." For example, Schwartzberg, Berliner, and Jacob, in their 1994 book Single in a Married World, suggest this set of stages (p. 56):

1. Not yet married

2. The thirties: Entering the ‘Twilight Zone' of singlehood; emotional processes include "expanding life goals to include other possibilities in addition to marriage"

3. Midlife (forties to mid-fifties); includes emotional processes such as "accepting the possibility of never marrying" and "accepting the possibility of not having own biological children."

4. Later life (fifties to when physical health fails)

5. Elderly (between failing health and death)

I applaud efforts to write new life scripts that do not make single people and adults without children disappear. The Schwartzberg model, though, is not very satisfying. Jill Reynolds, whose book I described in my previous post about dilemmas of people who are happily single but interested in coupling, characterized the model as "bleakly focused on ageing and health." She adds that the model seems to assume that singles need to negotiate "their deviation from the normal progression of family life and child rearing."

Personally, I felt excluded from the Schwartzberg model that was supposedly written to include people like me. My life goals always included possibilities other than marriage. In fact, there was never a time when I wanted to get married. (There were, though, times when I thought I might feel that way in the future - didn't everyone get bitten by the marriage bug at some point in their lives? I never read anything like Singled Out back then.)

In her conversations with singles, Jill Reynolds found that they told their stories in their own ways - sometimes describing the stages of their own lives, sometimes focusing on particularly meaningful events, and sometimes characterizing their adult lives as a progression of growth and change.

Part of the challenge for people who are single and people who have no children is that marriage and family dominate society's assumptions about the course of our lives even as they no longer dominate our actual lives. I suspect that's only part of the problem. Another part may be the assumption that what counts as a meaningful or interesting episode in a life story is something big (in the conventional view, getting married or having kids) or something outside of the usual, whether good or bad (for example, traveling to Belize or facing a health crisis - all of which can happen regardless of marital or parental status).

Recently, I had lunch with a single man visiting from across the pond. I hadn't seen him in many months so of course I asked what had been happening. He noted that the many friends he had seen since arriving in the States had asked him the same thing, and he felt uncertain as to how to respond. I knew what he meant, because in the time since I last saw him, I also did not get married or have kids or travel anywhere exotic or face a health crisis. To my mind, though, that spelled pure joy.

Actually, I have traveled to Belize (though not recently) and loved it. But I also love the ordinary times of my life. Right now, I'm not teaching, I don't have any major deadline looming in the next couple of weeks, I don't have any immediate travel plans, and nothing terribly awful is happening in my life or that of anyone else I feel particularly close to. I get work done without feeling pressured and I enjoy almost every moment of it. I walk the amazing trails around Santa Barbara. I read, spend time with friends, and write this blog (of course!). I shop the farmers markets and make wonderfully fresh and healthful meals and then eat too much of them.

I'm not saying I never feel frustrated or angry or sad. That would be ludicrous. But I'm a savorer. I've now been on the West Coast for 10 years, in my rented home with an ocean view, and not one single day has passed when I have not looked out the window and felt amazed by my great fortune in getting to live here. Sure, I can think of things to feel badly about - for example, before I moved out here, I owned my own home and had a regular source of income. But those aren't the kinds of things that come to mind most often over the course of my everyday life.

I guess that makes a boring story to tell. But to me, it makes a wonderful life to live.


The Power of Stories