Are the Early Years of Single Life the Hardest? Part III: Fears and Misperceptions

A therapist discusses the singlism her clients have experienced.

Posted Feb 13, 2009

Our Conversation with Wendy Wasson Continues

This is Part III of a four-part series on how the experience of living single changes over the course of the adult years. In Part I, I introduced the series. Part II was the beginning of my conversation with therapist Wendy Wasson; we focused on singles approaching the age of 30. In this Part, we discuss the fears and misperceptions facing singles in early adulthood.

Bella: One thing that really bothers me is the conflation of being single with being alone. Sometimes single people are assumed, by definition, to be alone. It is not just in everyday informal conversation that you hear insinuations like this; it is in the media and even in some scientific writings. Is this something that comes up in the clinical setting?

Wendy: Absolutely. In fact this is one of the most important assumptions and fears that is associated with singleness that oppresses both single AND married people. This assumption leads single people to compulsively date (to avoid being alone), and on the other hand, encourages partnered or married people to cling to relationships that are clearly not working.

If you feel secure, you can enjoy being alone, and solitude is a state that people seek to deepen their connection with nature, the spiritual, and their own being. The "being alone" that people dread is that state of being out of connection with others: not belonging, not being understood, feeling invisible, like you don't matter. It's the sense of isolation, being on the outside looking in, feeling left behind. Although being lonely is associated with "single", it actually is not the province of being single. (See Bella's review of research in Part I and in Singled Out).

As a therapist you want to help the client distinguish that single does not, in and of itself, mean you are destined to be lonely. Instead, you want to distinguish what is contributing to the feeling of loneliness. For example, Susan felt lonely when one friend after another fell off the face of the earth when they got a boyfriend, married, and started having babies. Jane felt lonely after she had broken up with her boyfriend of two years. Jessica felt a deep sense of isolation when her friends and family didn't really understand her experience, and she didn't want to burden them with her worries. Erica felt considerable shame about being single when she went home at Thanksgiving and was surrounded by her younger cousins who were engaged or married; she withdrew from others as she felt they were judging her - and she felt very alone.

As a therapist you want to move beyond the explanation (e.g., I'm lonely because I am single) and find out what the experience really means. Why is the young woman feeling lonely? Is she grieving losses? Is she having difficulty sharing her feelings and being authentic with others? Is she convinced that finding a "soulmate" will solve her problems, and doesn't attend to building friendships and going after experiences she wants? Is she feeling shame? Are experiences from childhood coloring her current interpretations of what is happening? Once you establish what is really happening, you can then begin to productively address the problems.

When we feel secure in ourselves and have the confidence that we can build and maintain the emotional connections that are necessary for a fulfilled life, we can manage the expectable periods of aloneness that are part of life, and even relish aloneness and solitude. Many single women talk with pleasure about having peace and quiet, and the ability to read a book all Saturday afternoon

Being single is also seen as an explanation for being depressed. People will sometimes feel that they are depressed because they are single - the fantasy being, "if I had THE relationship I needed, I would feel happy, whole, and complete." Similar to the process of understanding loneliness, it is important to discover the real reasons a person is depressed. Depression is not an inevitable byproduct of being single, but women who have suffered disappointments, loss, and other deprivations as children may feel that being single is yet another experience of deprivation and is history repeating itself. In contrast, women who have good self-esteem, are optimistic, and have good coping skills, can enjoy the space of being single, even though they are still hoping for marriage and children. (See, for example, Marcy Cole's dissertation.)

Bella: One of the reasons I coined the term "singlism" was to put a name to all of the ways in which single people are stereotyped and stigmatized, and draw attention to what all of these inappropriate beliefs and behaviors have in common. Do you find that the stigma and stereotypes around being single are issues for the singles you work with?

Wendy: Stigmas and stereotypes about singleness are very evident in my work, and are problems not only for single people, but married people as well. Being single means "being lonely", "something is wrong with me that I am single", "desperate", "I don't have a care in the world, and I'm out having the time of my life", "I must not want a relationship" etc. Lots of stigmas, stereotypes, and assumptions exist about single life and singles, and it's difficult to avoid them. It really challenges the single woman to be strong in her own sense of who she is. One of the benefits of moving towards middle adulthood is that we are less influenced by social judgments and how we and life are supposed to look.

Stigmas and stereotypes are particularly hard to handle and shrug off when we have our own fears and doubts about ourselves. It is harder to challenge or laugh off Aunt Mary's comments that "we better hurry up, if we want to get married" if we have our own worries. Ideally, it fosters more authentic communication (and education), when the single person can address such questions and concerns directly, and take the conversation to a deeper level. I worry about that too sometimes; but I'm also part of a growing number of women who are single and developing their lives without waiting to find the "right partner."

Thanks again, Wendy, for sharing your insights. Readers, you can learn more about Wendy Wasson and her MySingleSpace website here.

In the next and final post in this series, Wendy will discuss her experiences working with Single-Again women and single women past the age of 40.