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How to Break Out of the Box that People Try to Stick You In

What needs to be reimagined if you don’t want to follow the expected life path

If you are an adult who is not interested in getting married or having kids or owning a home in the suburbs or chasing the highest-paying job or pursuing any number of other goals that may be expected of you in your culture, you are up against some challenges. You will face resistance to forging your own path. Things aren’t set up to accommodate you or even acknowledge you or the important people in your life.

How do you break out of the box that other people try to stick you in? Mia Birdsong’s new book, How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, Community, speaks to people who want to connect with other people, and with themselves, in ways that are more imaginative and more fulfilling than the celebrated American Dream.

The book isn’t about single people, specifically. But it speaks to them and about them nearly every step of the way. And Birdsong’s sensibility about single people is exquisite.

The best example is how she thinks about relationships in the biggest, broadest sense of the word. To her, romantic relationships don’t get to sit atop a hierarchy because there is no hierarchy. But I’ll say more about that some other time.

Here I want to share some of my favorite singles-relevant perspectives from the book, starting with some specific examples and ending with a whole mindset that may need to be discarded if you are going to commit to the life that is best for you.

“Are You Seeing Anyone?”

Some day I am going to compile a list of all the mindless and clueless questions and assumptions that need to be reimagined if we are to understand what it really means to be single, especially for people who choose single life. Maybe I would start with the question, “Are you seeing anyone?”

Mia Birdsong starts with that question in her chapter, “Love is abundant and every relationship is unique: The Queering of friendship.” She is quoting Alok Vaid-Menon, who wrote “Friendship is Romance” in a February 15, 2017 blog post at Alok:

“I want a world where when people ask if we are seeing anyone we can list the names of all our best friends and no one will bat an eyelid. I want monuments and holidays and certificates and ceremonies to commemorate friendship.”

I, too, want a world in which friendship and the other important relationships in our lives are valued at least as much as romantic relationships.

Celebrating Milestones that Are Not Just about Marriage or Children

A few years ago, in the Community of Single People, we discussed the kinds of milestones that single people might like to celebrate. Mia Birdsong thought about that, too. Here she is talking about a single woman who was a college professor and had just gotten tenure and a new apartment:

“A few months later, she planned a tenure/housewarming party. Some older, also single, women in academia gave her advice about the importance of celebrating milestones, outside of the traditional weddings and baby showers. They explained that there are ways single, child-free women get financially punished in a culture that celebrates marriage and motherhood.”

What Employers and Economists Get Wrong about Relocating for a Job

If you are looking for work and there is a promising job elsewhere, shouldn’t you just move? If your company needs you to move somewhere else, shouldn’t you just go? Mia Birdsong believes those assumptions miss out on something important:

“Whenever I hear economists talking about where jobs are with the assumption that people will move to those areas, I think about how they are ignoring what it means for people to uproot themselves from home and go someplace where they don’t know anyone. They are underestimating the hardship caused by leaving community.”

I think employers and others often assume that it is especially easy for single people to pack up and move. After all, the assumption goes, they “don’t have anyone.” But that’s the kind of clueless thinking that regards spouses or their equivalent as the only people who count. In fact, though, single people are often more connected to more different people, and contribute more to the vitality of the places where they live, than married people.

The “No Plus-One” Rule that Isn’t about Privileging Couples

Mia Birdsong wanted to incorporate the old-fashioned practice of “dropping by” into her life without completely opening her home to random visits by anyone at any time. So she started what she called the “Drop by Dinner.” She sends emails to a select group of people, a few days in advance, letting them know that they are welcome to drop by, or not, on a particular evening. She created a set of rules for these occasions. I was particularly taken by this one. I wasn’t so sure when I read the first sentence, but then I became convinced, and I loved the last sentence:

“You can’t bring other adults. If you are getting this email, it’s because I have a level of comfort with you that I want to deepen so we can be more real, vulnerable, and connected. I’m not trying to do that with all my friends or with your best friend who’s visiting from out of town or with the lady you just met on Tinder. I don’t even want to do it with your spouse.”

She is disrupting the expectation that some couples have that an invitation to one is an invitation to both. Sometimes I do want to see both people, together. But other times, I care much more about one of the two people, and I want to be able to spend some time with that person only. Without feeling guilty about it.

Breaking Out of Those Boxes that Just Can’t Hold Us

I’ve been collecting life stories from people who are single at heart. They are people for whom single life is their best life. They aren’t single because they have issues or because they never found The One. For them, living single is the most authentic, fulfilling, and meaningful way to live.

Recognizing that you not only want to be single, but to stay that way, can be a challenge. That’s not how we are expected to live our lives. There are not very many celebrated role models or heroes in popular culture who are single at heart.

A powerful theme of How We Show Up is the value of forsaking the expected life paths if they are not the ones that work best for us. What Birdsong says about this more generally nicely captures what some people who are single at heart have told me about their experiences:

“So often we believe that following the traditions we know is an easy path because there are fewer decisions to make and there’s less friction with other people’s expectations and society’s rules of acceptance. …so many of us end up in relationships, locations, jobs, routines, etc., because it was the only option we saw or we were afraid of not doing the “right” thing. But there’s no ease here. The dissatisfaction, depression, and sense of loss people feel in spaces or norms that don’t work for them can be devastating. And when we don’t see or encounter other possibilities, it can take such a long time for us to figure out that we want something else.”

“…many people told me that discarding the picture they had of how their lives would be – sometimes joyfully, sometimes through grieving – was necessary in order to fully embrace something better, or at least accept something different.”

For the single at heart, committing to single life is always about embracing something better, not just different. It is like coming home to who they really are.

Facebook image: Rocketclips, Inc./Shutterstock

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