In a conversation with author and scholar Jill Reynolds, a single woman described herself as "both wanting to be positive about women on their own, including myself, and yet having a yearning not to be."
It seems to be in the air - this in-between feeling of being happily single (or wanting to be) and yet also wanting, eventually, to be in a serious romantic relationship or even a marriage. The quote in the previous paragraph is from a book, The single woman: A discursive investigation (by Jill Reynolds), that I'll be discussing in this post and at least one future post. Readers of this blog have been asking me, in the comments sections or in personal emails, to address the in-between sensibility. A person who asked to interview me said that she was currently single by choice but thought she might later want to marry; she wondered if that made her a hypocrite. (No.)
Jill Reynolds' book is an academic book, and not always a quick or easy read. It made me think, and it made me want to study it rather than just read it.
Reynolds talked at length with 30 single women from the UK, between the ages of 30 and 60. (As always, I wish single men were included, too.) She told them she was single, hoping they would be less likely to feel the need to explain or defend their own single status. Her discussions were structured more as informal conversations than as formal interviews.
The author's primary interest was in how these people thought about and talked about their lives and their identities as single women. The specifics of the conversations were considered significant. For example, Reynolds asked each woman whether she had a partner. The women were invited to participate because they were single, yet in none of the 30 conversations did the single woman simply answer "No" and move on. There was always some explanation, some conversational back-and-forth, as if "no" were simply not a sufficient answer. Often, there was noticeable hesitation in that part of the conversation - not just when the participants were speaking but also when Jill was.
Reynolds identified four different ways of thinking about single status. (She called them "interpretive repertoires of singleness.")
1. Singleness as personal deficit
2. Singleness as social exclusion
3. Singleness as independence and choice
4. Singleness as self-development and achievement
The women who talked about singleness as a personal deficit were not necessarily saying that they felt deficient because they were single. Rather, they recognized that women who are single - especially past a certain age - are often viewed by others as deficient. Their hesitation in saying that they don't have a partner (even though they already said so in signing up for the research, and even though they were talking to a woman who told them she was single, too) could have been an indication of their sense that their single status was something that needed to be explained. As Reynolds put it, "Single women in effect always stand accused."
In other ways, too, the single women seemed to find it troublesome to call themselves single. For example, one woman said, "‘single' sounds awfully alone and I don't think of myself as being alone."
The theme of singleness as social exclusion was illustrated by comments such as these two:
"...couples favor other couples and it can make you feel left out and odd"
"I had three friends and...they all wanted partners really badly and they found them and in all three cases the friendship finished after they found partners. So I was no longer required, you know?"
The other two ways of talking about singleness, as independence and choice, and as self-development and achievement, are, of course, more positive takes on single identity. Some women talked about singleness in only these two positive ways. No one discussed singleness in only the negative ways. Most mentioned all four themes.
One of Reynolds' most intriguing suggestions is that there are dilemmas involved in all of the different perspectives on single life, not just the negative ones. Of course, it is painful to be viewed as damaged goods and to be excluded. But women who describe their singleness as independence and as a choice they have made are not home free. For example, others sometimes see them as selfish. Or, people tell those contented single people that they are just rationalizing.
The single women, as I've noted, seemed to feel the need to explain and elaborate when asked if they had a partner. Reynolds found it even more surprising that the women were apologetic when they said that they DID want a partner in the future. Why should that have been so difficult to admit? Why even think of it as an admission?
The dilemma, Reynolds thinks, is that when women "talk unashamedly about their desire for a relationship," they "risk being constructed as deficient and ‘desperate', and marked by their failure to already have a man."
Sure, but what's the problem if you think of your single life as matter of choice and independence and achievement and self-development? Well, if it is so great, then what do you say if and when you decide that you want to be coupled?
Reynolds does not try to pin down a definition of singleness. She notes that it has changed over the course of history. Too, our sense of what it means to be single can change over the course of our individual lives. Singleness as part of our identity is not a constant either. Sometimes our status as singles is salient, other times it seems irrelevant.
When I discuss this book in a future post, I'll take on the question, "How do you tell the story of your life when you are single?"