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Rachel Buddeberg: Single-Minded Change Agent

Rachel Buddeberg leads the next generation of singles change agents

When you are passionate about something, few experiences are sweeter than meeting other people who share that passion. I had the great fortune to meet Rachel Buddeberg several years ago, first by email, then in person. Living Single readers already know her from the many smart comments she posts here, her terrific guest post on whether divorce should be considered a failure, and her thoughtful blog. Previously for this series on single-minded change-agents, I interviewed people with very visible advocacy positions - Nicky Grist, the Executive Director of the Alternatives to Marriage Project, and Thomas F. Coleman, past Executive Director of the American Association for Single People and long-time activist.

I see Rachel as one of the leaders of the up-and-coming generation of singles activists and thinkers. I aspire to keep up with all of the important news and blogs about single life - Rachel actually seems to do so. Sometimes, when it is taking me a long time to find the relevant links to various scholarly articles or books or reports that I mention here, I'll wonder whether I should bother. But then I think of Rachel, because she likes to see the originals. I know she is going to continue to be that person who doesn't take someone else's summary as good enough. Rachel is developing her ideas about singles and singlism in the most rigorous ways - currently, for example, in her advanced academic studies. Even before she went back to school, she was already attending singles-relevant talks and readings and events, and reaching out to scholars of single life. She has also served on the Board of the Alternatives to Marriage Project.

My hope for the future of consciousness-raising about singles lies in people such as Rachel Buddeberg. Living Single readers know that I often rail about scholars who misrepresent the research on the implications of getting married. In a way, though, it is understandable that they are reluctant to change. Many of them have published papers that did not sufficiently challenge the conventional wisdom. It is the people who are learning for the first time (whatever their age) about the science and critical thinking relevant to single and married life who will approach the issues in the most open-minded ways.

Nominations for other single-minded change agents are always welcome. And now, on to my interview with Rachel.

1. Bella: Let's start with the personal. Is there something that happened in your life, or in someone else's, that really brought home to you the need for change? I'm talking about change on any level - the way we think about people who are single in everyday life; the place of singles in the workplace, in the law or in public policy; or anything else that seems relevant. Do you have a story you can tell about this?

Rachel Buddeberg: Before I answer your question I would like to thank you for this opportunity! Admittedly, I felt a bit overwhelmed by being named as a change agent in the company of Tom Coleman and Nicky Grist. Compared to them, I feel that I haven't really done anything yet! I have spent some time on the board of the Alternatives to Marriage Project and I write about singles issues on my blog but most of my agency is still in the future. And a lot of my plans are still rather vague... What is clear to me, though, is that I want to fight singlism - both the internalized and external varieties - more consistently and, hopefully, professionally. My dream is to offer workshops for single people along the lines of Marie Edwards' in the 1970s. In the meantime, let me answer your questions...

I'll start on the personal level... After yet another painful break-up with a boyfriend, close to turning 40, I sensed that there was something in my life that I hadn't noticed: I was happier when I was single. At first I figured that might be because I kept picking the wrong guys but, fortunately, there was one who I am still friends with. I had a counter example to the "wrong guy" theory. I was happier when I was single period. I didn't quite know where to take this hunch, so I started reading. One book I stumbled on was "Single State of the Union," through which I found out about Kay Trimberger and you. I think I read your book over one weekend. I realized that I had always assumed that if I just found the right guy, I would be happy. Instead, I began to understand that not only was I happier single - it was okay to choose to be single! It was an amazing realization. And then I got mad! Why had I never thought about this before? Could I have saved myself a lot of pain if I had chosen this path before? That's when my interest in single's rights became more than personal because I realized that we are taught from very early on to think about coupling as the only life path. Clearly, this has to change!

2. Bella: Is there one particular issue or goal that is especially important to you as you try to create social change?

Rachel Buddeberg: There are two issues I am particularly interested in as an activist and (emerging) scholar: the internalized version of singlism and how the matrimanical narrative undermines our communities. Internalized singlism had whispered into my ear that I wasn't okay without being in a couple. It had driven me into relationships without realizing that I actually had the choice to remain single, to create a live outside of cultural norms that would involve a lot of love and relationships but no The One (nor a search for The One).

I am also interested in the societal implications of matrimania and singlism because I think that both undermine our communities. If we are so focused on one other person that we ignore connections with friends and family, we are not building community. We are building nuclear family nests. The nuclear family became economically feasible in the 1950s, as Stephanie Coontz argued. At the same time social capital - our involvement in our communities - has declined, as Robert Putnam has documented. I don't think that is coincidental: Social capital declined just when nuclear families took off. There is some evidence suggesting that our focus narrows with marriage (for example here and here). I think it is imperative that we look into this connection further!

3. Bella: One difficulty I've often encountered is the misperception that if you have a positive message about singles or single life, that necessarily means that you are putting down marriage or traditional family life. Have you run into that, and if so, how have you dealt with it?

Rachel Buddeberg: Honestly, I am putting marriage down! That is not because of the positive message I am making about singles. It is because the more I learn about the history of marriage and its contribution to undermining community and the suppression of alternative ways of living, including creating friendship bonds, the more I become anti-marriage. We cannot separate marriage from matrimania unless marriage becomes only a personal ceremony - no government involvement, just a celebration between two (or more!) people affirming their commitment to each other. But both marriage and the traditional family are patriarchal institutions that do not benefit women, men, or children. I don't see much reason for supporting either. Now, that said, I am not opposed to coupling or to two (or more) people making commitments to each other. And they can celebrate that commitment! But don't expect any special benefits neither from the government nor from your friends or family because this turns the commitment back into couplemania. (A wonderful book, Here Comes the Bride by Jaclyn Geller, outlines just how many expectations marrying couples heave onto their friends and family. It's pretty outrageous and rather self-centered.)

4. Bella: In your experience of trying to persuade skeptics of the importance of fair treatment for singles, or accurate perceptions of them, is there any particular example or line of reasoning that seems to be especially effective?

Rachel Buddeberg: The only skeptics I have interacted with were from my family. I am not sure if I persuaded them because I didn't hear anything more on the topic. I came out to my family as a single by choice - I wanted to let people know that one can chose to be single. Family members in Germany suggested that I might not want to close the door on a relationship. I am not quite sure exactly why but I suspect that they think that I would be even happier if I were coupled. I realized that an argument from another area of my life could be leveraged here. My favorite definition of atheist is "someone who believes in one less god than you do" (nowadays, believers tend to no longer believe in Zeus, Jupiter, Hera...). If we couple, we chose one person out of thousands or even millions of potential partners! How do we know that there isn't an even better partner out there? We don't. We simply assume we found the best match and just stop looking for a better partner. Well, I just stopped looking a partner earlier than those who are coupled...

5. Bella: So much of the cultural and political discussion around marital status is about people who are officially married compared to couples who are unmarried - whether same-sex or not. I know that many uncoupled singles feel left out of that conversation, and they find that inappropriate. Is that a tension you've faced? What are your thoughts on creating change on behalf of all legally single people, regardless of whether or not they are socially coupled?

Rachel Buddeberg: I faced this very personally when Prop 8 was on the ballot in California. On the one hand, I didn't like the bigotry and blatant discrimination that is obvious in preventing people from getting married. On the other hand, I felt that all of us singles were left out in the rain. I ended up fighting against it when I realized that Prop 8 was imposing a religious dogma on the rest of us. But when it passed, I started to be more outspoken about how same-sex marriage is not a good solution, which, as Michael Warner points out, is also the original position of the gay liberation movement. More generally, instead of increasing the number of couples that can benefit from the discriminatory marital system, we need to step back and ask ourselves what the purpose behind a given law is. This is an approach Nancy Polikoff suggests in her book and the Canadian Beyond Conjugality commission followed. For example, if we don't want starving widows - the purpose, presumably, behind survivors' social security benefits - we need to prevent everybody from starving! Instead of having survivor benefits, we could have a base income - something that would be economically feasible if we'd do a better job of distributing income and wealth. If we want to ensure that people can visit each other in the hospital, maybe we could start a registry. This would allow anybody to decide whom they'd like to see in a hospital. Why wouldn't I want a friend come to visit me? Limiting visitation rights to those that have a normatively determined relationship to me reflects the most dangerous aspect of matrimania: It devalues friendships.

6. Bella: Can you describe an especially positive or memorable experience you've had in your role as a single-minded change agent? It doesn't have to be a big thing - it could be something small but especially meaningful or poignant.

Rachel Buddeberg: A year ago, I went back to school to lay the academic foundation for studying singlism and my guess that matrimania is destroying the social fabric of societies. I openly talk about my ideas to anybody willing to listen. And I am thrilled to say that I have opened some eyes! This fall, I am planning to build on this by initiating a support group for people who want to be single and happy. I still remember the flyer I saw on campus last year. "Single and Unhappy?" it read. It promised to provide training to improve a single person's chances of finding a partner - as if the only way for a single person to be happy is to become unsingle! Even if you don't choose to be single for the rest of your life, coupling just because everybody does it is bound to lead to unhappiness. Singles have a right to know that. I also think that being single comes with a lot of challenges that impede happiness. Learning to deal with them - as Marie Edwards taught in her workshops and her book - can lead to happiness with or without a partner. I suspect that there are many people who don't even realize that not being coupled is an option that we can actively choose - for a while or for a lifetime. So, starting a support group would raise awareness of this option (and be a first step toward fulfilling my dream I mentioned at the beginning...).

7. Bella: Over time, hundreds (maybe even thousands) of people will read this interview, and many of them care deeply about the topic of living single. I want to offer you the opportunity now to say whatever you'd like to them. It could be a story, an observation, a piece of advice, or anything else at all.

Rachel Buddeberg: If you are single and you love it, tell people! Build your life, build your friendships, and be outspoken about being happy. Matrimania and especially singlism thrive on the myth of the lonely, unhappy single person. The more of us singles speak out that this is a myth - and point to our own lives as counter-examples - the more people will start to question couplemania. Raising consciousness is the beginning of social change. We all can be part of raising consciousness by spreading the word that choosing to be single is a viable alternative to coupled life. We can raise consciousness by sharing that we are single and happy!

Bella: Thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts. You've been so fearless and so insightful.Readers who would like to know more about Rachel and her work can click here.

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