A conversation with Wendy Wasson
In the first post in this series, I described the widespread belief that living single only gets harder as you proceed through midlife and then through later life. I also said that my guess, in most cases, is that just the opposite is true. I think that single people are likely to find their lives full of more joy and less angst as they proceed through their adult years. I found a few snippets of research that supported that possibility. Still, I admitted that the most convincing study of this question has yet to be done.
Within just the first few hours of when that entry was posted, hundreds of people had already clicked on to view the post. So I think there is a lot of interest in the topic. That's one of the reasons I am so pleased to discuss this topic with Wendy Wasson.
Wendy is a psychotherapist who, in her practice, has worked with many single women of different ages. She is also one of the creators of the website MySingleSpace, and for nearly a decade had conducted SingleSpace workshops. She has a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Northwestern University, where she was previously on the faculty of the Feinberg School of Medicine. She is also associated with the Cathedral Counseling Center in Chicago.
Wendy Wasson's clinical perspective adds a complementary point of view to the research approach I described in the first post in this series. I thought this Q & A would be one post, but Wendy had so much of value to offer that I'm going to present our conversation in three posts, Parts II, III, and IV of this series. In this initial part of our conversation, Wendy will tell us about her experiences working with single women who are approaching their 30th birthday.
[One more aside before we begin: I know many "Living Single" readers would like to hear more about single men. Previously, I've shared my own frustration with the lesser attention accorded to single men. I promise to return to the topic in the future.]
Bella: Before we talk about single women in their late 20s, let me get your overall take on the question that motivated this series of posts: Is it your experience, in working with singles, that the early adult years of single life are the hardest for them?
Wendy: So many choices and decisions face young women as they explore life on their own, take on adult responsibilities, and develop the initial structures of their adult life. What is my career?, How do I want my relationships to look? What are the "things I want to do before I settle down"? What really matters to me?
And there is a lot of change...new jobs, new apartments; new boyfriends...and then dealing with shifting friendships, as peers begin to choose different paths. All of these possibilities for growth and development can also raise concerns. Am I making the right decisions? Will I be able to handle these things on my own? What will I do without my best friend?
Bella: Let's talk about those younger single women, say around 25 to 30 years old. What are the main worries or concerns that they bring to you in your practice?
Wendy: As they approach their30th birthday, many women (particularly those for whom marriage and children are an important part of their hoped-for future) are attuned to whether they are "on or off time" in relation to their biological clock, their own timetable of when certain events should be happening in their lives, and their social clock- that is, how they are progressing in relation to their peers. They watch friends partnering and are often attending the numerous parties that celebrate marriage (engagement parties, showers, weddings.) Many women that I have worked with begin to wonder: "When is my turn?", "Why is it so easy for others?", "Am I doing something wrong?" For these women, there can be a sense of failure and discouragement, resulting in pessimism and/or urgency in finding or holding onto a partner.
It can also be lonely. It can feel isolating to be surrounded by friends who are discussing details of their weddings, or are sharing with excitement having found the perfect guy. Susan, single and 29, described this feeling as "Everyone is opening presents, and you are the only one who Santa Claus forgot." Another woman described attending a wedding and sitting at a table of mostly couples, feeling like she was disrupting the seating plan. These women are not "complainers"...they are describing the very real sense of feeling like the "odd woman out."
Even those women who are enjoying their single lives have moments of worry and doubt. Are they missing something, and if they do want to consider marriage and children, will it be too late when they are ready? (After all, family and friends and Aunt Jennie keep implying such urgency when they ask, "Have you met anyone yet?") Some women feel that no one believes them if they say they enjoy being single. "You're just being defensive!" It is difficult to feel supported and affirmed in being a single woman at 30.
Another challenge that single women at this age face is managing the changing landscape of friendships. As friends chose different paths and interests (e.g. some moving, disappearing when they date, marry, or have children), the single woman has to grieve these losses and recreate new friendship networks and community. Dealing with loss and recreation can sometimes feel exhausting, tiring, and lonely, even though the resilience and self confidence that ultimately comes from learning to manage these experiences is one of the powerful gifts of being single.
Finally, one of the aspects of being young is that we have less "real experience" to draw on, so we tend to fantasize about the future and are prone to believe that stereotypes and assumptions are true. Many young adult women who feel lonely blame it on being single, imagining with horror what it would be like to be 50 and single. It doesn't matter that there is a growing body of research (thank you Bella for conducting and reviewing such research studies) that indicates that Always-Single women show surprisingly low levels of loneliness (perhaps because they have learned to be confident, take responsibility for their lives, and create strong friendships.)
Bella: So as a therapist, what is your goal in dealing with singles in this age group?
Wendy: Part of the work of therapy is providing perspective, and helping the younger single woman appreciate the many possibilities in being single - one of which is to have the space to reflect and deepen one's self awareness.
It also can be relieving for women to actually voice their fears about being single, and to acknowledge the reality of stereotypes they confront every day. They realize that neither are they alone in their feelings, nor deficient because they are single. This groundwork of accepting and understanding some of the realities of being single (and not the myths) makes it possible to explore what being single (and married, having children) really means to THEM, and how to better understand their own needs and motivations. .
For example, some young women discover (with surprise) that they really want permission to enjoy the space of being single. Jenny struggled with having a "nice marriage-material' boyfriend whom she liked, and her parents and friends adored. However, she became depressed and insecure, because she felt she should love him and should marry him, even though she was constantly annoyed with him. Jenny needed to understand that remaining single was a viable and important option. But she feared she would disappoint her parents, worried she might be wrong in her judgments, and would never meet anyone as good as Brian in the future. Jennie felt considerable relief when she could let go of her fears, listen to her instincts, and enjoy being single. In the space of being single, she was able to hear what really made HER happy and gain confidence in developing her life in consonance with who she is and where she was in her life..
Other young women become confused and discouraged in their wish to find a boyfriend. Either they don't meet available partners, or end up in relationships that don't work. Sometimes they find relief in getting off the "gerbil wheel" of compulsive dating and activity, to see what is really going on for them. They may discover conflicting desires: "I want to meet someone, but I totally act aloof and avoid situations where I might be rejected", or "I worry that I become so focused on a relationship, that I lose Me", "or "If I'm really honest with myself, I see that as the oldest sibling with a depressed mom, I ended up taking care of everyone else while growing up; now I really relish being able to construct my life around what I need. And that's not being selfish!!"
The point of these deeper explorations is to allow the young woman to become more self aware, so that she has freedom to make choices that fit her. Single doesn't become a refuge, nor does it become a place she has to flee from. Being single becomes a legitimate and powerful place to live, love, and build a life.
In Part III, coming next, Wendy will talk to us about some of the most common fears and misperceptions about living single. Then in the last post in the series, Part IV, Wendy will share her experiences with women who are Single-Again and those who are single after the age of 40.