Psychotherapist Wendy Wasson and I wrap up our discussion of single life at different ages
Bella: Let's talk about women who are single-again. What are the main issues for them?
Wendy: Many women come in for therapy when they are anticipating or experiencing the break up of a marriage or partnership. There is often panic and feelings of failure as they contemplate re-entering the world of being Single-Again. And here again, it's common to hear some of the same fears we have discussed: (e.g. single means lonely/disconnected/isolated; people are going to think that I'm a failure; how can I manage on my own?) In addition, women grieve the loss of what they hoped their marriage would be, and in addition have to face the loss of many of the friendships and structures that they had built during their married years. Ironically, once they get over the fear of being single-again and grieve these losses, in my experience, most of these women reorganize their lives and friendships, and thrive in the space of being single. They savor the possibilities that open up to them in shaping a life built on who they now know themselves to be.
Bella: That is such an intriguing point. It reminds me of something I remember from right after my father died. Among the many condolence notes I received were several with the same theme: They were from women who said that when their father died, after the grief period, their mothers actually thrived. At the time, I thought it was a really odd thing to find in a note in a sympathy card - and especially to see it appear out of the blue from more than one person! That was before I started studying single life.
Wendy: Well, I think that speaks to how we gain and give up certain possibilities in the life paths we choose. Many widows who have been happily married say that they are not interested in marrying again, not because they didn't enjoy marriage, but they appreciate that now they don't have to consult a partner about decisions, or cook dinner every night. While they miss their partner, they can explore other ways of living life. Similarly, women who have enjoyed being single for many years and then marry, may miss the adventures and freedom they had, but enjoy some of the comforts that come from being with a partner who will pick up the dry-cleaning. There are pros and cons in the choices we make.
Bella: What you said about the widows underscores something else that surprised me when I first started talking to other single people and reading their life stories. I heard the same thing you just mentioned - that among the women who were single and wanted to stay that way were people who were previously married, and HAPPILY so. At the time, that was news to me. I thought that people who liked being married would want to remarry after their marriage ended.
Finally, let's talk about the over-40 singles. Tell us about your experiences working with them.
Wendy: For whatever reason, I see fewer single women over forty, and when they do seek help it is to work on a particular area of their life where there is a problem (e.g. work, difficulty with a child), or they are coping with some kind of change or crisis that has befallen them. Although content in being single, some women who really long for partnership continue to work on removing any barriers they have blocking intimacy while also accepting that they may not meet an appropriate partner to marry. They learn to live more comfortably with the ambiguity of "will I meet someone or not." (See Karen Gail Lewis, With or Without a Man, p. 137, for an important discussion of "ambiguous loss.) Finally, if a serious health crisis occurs, some single women who have highly valued independence and self reliance may need help overcoming barriers to accepting or seeking help.
But "being single" is rarely a primary focus of concern. Indeed, several women I have worked with evidence humor and acceptance about being Always Single, or Single-Again..."I don't actually think much about being single, I'm just living my life."
It also seems that the feeling of being "out of step" as "the" single woman in the group fades as the reference group for older single women swells to include Always Single women, Single-Again women, and widows. In addition, it may be that the Always Single woman's strengths (e.g. confidence, autonomy, social abilities) are valued (especially among women who are on their own for the first time).
Indeed, Carol Anderson and Susan Stewart in Flying Solo (1994) wrote of "Midlife's Gifts to Single Women." Based on 90 intensive interviews of single women from age 40 to 55, they found that these women described an increase in clarity, vitality, and agency. "No longer bound by societal prescriptions of how their lives should be lived, they are finally free to write their own stories" (p.39). Similarly, E.Kay Trimberger (The New Single Woman, 2005) found that the 27 Always Single and Single-Again women over the age of 40 in her study had created satisfying and fulfilling lives. Women in both these studies appeared to have found effective ways to meet their needs and express who they are in the structure of their single life. For example, women who might have wanted children had found ways to nurture nieces and nephews or nurture future generations through their work.
Many thanks, Wendy, for your generosity in talking to us in such detail about single life across the adult years. Readers, you can click the relevant links to learn more about Wendy Wasson and her website, My Single Space.