A recent story in the Guardian went viral almost from the moment it was published. “I’m a relationship virgin: I’m 54 and have never had a boyfriend” was the most popular article in the lifestyle section and the third-most popular across the entire site. It inspired more than 1,000 comments by the end of the first day.
The relationship virgin at the center of the story was saddened and distressed by her decades without even one boyfriend. Perhaps because she felt shamed by her lack of romantic relationship experience, she never revealed her name.
By the end of her story, the relationship virgin takes heart from my TEDx talk, which I opened by saying, “I’m 63 and I’ve been single my whole life.” (See also Alone: The badass psychology of people who like being alone.) Still, she doesn’t embrace single life the way I do. Instead, she says, “I actually think I would have made a great girlfriend or wife: It is sad that no one gave me the chance.”
I wanted to push back against the feelings of shame that too many relationship virgins experience, so I wrote my own take on the matter for the Solo-ish blog at the Washington Post: “Why is there shame around being a ‘relationship virgin’? I’d be proud to be one.” I can’t republish the entire article here, so if you want to read about my own emotional take on romantic relationships, or my personal relationship experience, or the research Wendy Morris and I did on perceptions of relationship virgins, see it over at the Post.
Here, I’ll just share with you the part I think is most important. It is toward the end of the article, when I ask why we single out for shaming people with no romantic relationship experience:
"We don’t shame people who have never lived by themselves, gone out to dinner on their own, traveled solo, or even sat alone with their own thoughts for extended periods of time by choice.
"We don’t shame people who never made a friend in childhood and stayed close to that friend all the days of their life. Why don’t we call them 'relationship virgins'?
"Why don’t we shame people who have never cared passionately about anything or anyone except a romantic partner? What if you’ve never lost track of time because the project you were working on or the cause you were pursuing or the skill you were developing was so totally absorbing, you just didn’t notice anything else? What’s wrong with you, you passion virgin?"
My point was not that we should be shaming other people, but that we shouldn’t.
Here I want to add another point I think is significant: That special value we bestow upon romantic relationships seems so pervasive and so relentless that you might think it is universal. It is not. At other times and places, other relationships and other life pursuits got their due.
I discussed this in Singled Out:
“….Humans have probably always nurtured close ties with other humans. What has changed over the course of history is the place of the spouse as the object of an adult’s intense and exclusive affections.
“In medieval through early modern times, to describe the love for a spouse as the greatest love of all would have been sacrilegious. The most special place in anyone’s heart was supposed to be reserved for God. Over the years, many kinds of people and entities have been deemed deserving of love and affection. They have included spiritual figures and ancestors, immediate and extended family, friends and community.
“Even when the love for a spouse was compared only to feelings for other mere mortals, it did not always come out ahead of all the rest. As Coontz noted, during the 1800s Westerners believed that 'love developed slowly out of admiration, respect, and appreciation,' and therefore 'the love one felt for a sweetheart was not seen as qualitatively different from the feeling one might have for a sister, a friend, or even an idea.'
“Intense feelings did develop sometimes—often between two men. I’m talking about American men here, including men with wives. Until the turn of the 20th century, many men spent vast amounts of time in men’s clubs and fraternal organizations, and married men often shared closer bonds with their best friends than with their wives. Men with wives and children typically spent more time over the weekends with their male friends than with family, and they even vacationed with other men. None of this was stigmatized.
“Women did the same. They traveled and vacationed with other women. The feelings of married women for their sisters and friends, and for their children, were often deeper than their affection for their husbands.
“This all-too-brief romp through bits and pieces of the last few centuries in Europe and America suggests that people can get their needs for emotional intimacy met outside of marriage and coupling. For most of history, they probably have."