The Word “Single”
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First of all, I want to say a huge thank you to everyone who read my 30 and Single post. I had NO idea that so many people would be interested in tuning in (and chiming in) on the topic. Nor did I honestly consider the possibility that you all would respond with such thoughtful comments, emails, tweets, texts, etc. I’m totally humbled and grateful, still a little freaked out about it all, but I definitely look forward to hearing more about what you may have to say. So thanks for making this a conversation!
Ok, back to the topic at hand…
I have to admit that there’s something about hearing/talking/writing/reading about the topic of singleness this past week that has felt really odd to me. Sure — awkward, vulnerable, a little uncomfortable — I knew that was to be expected. But I couldn’t quite put my finger on what felt so strange and out of the norm for me until a friend pointed it out.
I quite simply don’t say the word “single” all that much!
First of all, I pretty much never use the word as a noun. (Hi, I’m Ali, and I’m a single!!) Mmm, yeah I’ll let Kraft cheese and awkward church mixers keep the copyright on that one.
But even when used as an adjective, the word “single” is not one of the first words that I use to describe myself. Friend/daughter/sister/neighbor? Of course. Food blogger/photographer/entrepreneur? Definitely. Traveler/book-clubber/musician/dog-owner/egg-drop-soup-lover/obsessive-Parenthood-watcher/pour-over-coffee-drinker/Jacobs-Weller/mayonaisse-hater/ballet-dancer/proud-KC-dweller? You’d better believe it!!
But single? Meh, rarely.
Outside of tax forms, that weird little descriptor on my Facebook profile, and placing an order for one pump of sweetener in coffee at Starbucks, I just don’t find myself having the occasion to identify myself with the word “single” all that much.
I think it’s mostly because being “single” is simply not the main topic of conversation amongst my friends. Actually, when I think of it, the topic of singleness only comes up occasionally — when one of the single friends in our crew is having a really empowering or rough day with being single, when relationships begin or end, when we’re at weddings or showers, or — you know — when one of the girls in the group writes a very public blog post about being 30 and Single. ;)
Sure, I’ve had my years in the past with various friends and groups when the topic came up all the time. But nowadays, being single just seems to be the context for how I and my single friends are living (and enjoying) our lives. And since most of us are in our thirties and it’s been that way for awhile, we honestly usually have more exciting things to talk about!
The Old “Single”
But that said, I think I’ve often been reluctant to say and embrace the word “single” because the word has been given a bad rap over the years.
Don’t get me wrong — I’ve heard it used in tons of positive ways. Or even better, just neutral, NBD, non-dramatic ways. (“Oh you’re single? Cool.”) But I still feel like there’s usually a more negative than positive connotation to the word when it is said in American society, which takes many shapes and forms, both spoken and unspoken.
There’s the stereotype of single people being not enough, not successful (a failure), or not worthy. There’s the stereotypes of single people being bitter, jaded, too picky, depressed, wistful, sad, or selfish. There’s the stereotype that single people are basically treading water while waiting for their real lives to begin with marriage. There’s the stereotype that single people are all wanting to be married, when many may not. And the list goes on…
As I was typing these out, though, I thought it would be interesting to go back to the dictionary and look up what the actual definition of “single” has to say. So since I long ago gave away my dictionary, I turned to the almighty Google, and couldn’t believe what I found:
As G.O.B Bluth would so aptly put it…
Talk about defining something by what it is not. Look at how many times they use the prefix “un-“, or the suffix “-less”. And how they frame a person’s options as being single, married, or in a “stable sexual relationship”? Or my favorite — a spinster?! Gah, I could write a whole blog post on this one, but I’ll spare you (for now). Bottom line…
Google — and everyone else — I think we can do better.
And I think we need to.
The New “Single”
So here’s my proposition.
Instead of shying away from the word “single”, I think we need to do the opposite and reclaim it for good.
Instead of using the word “single” to describe everything that single people are not (unmarried, unwed, unattached, etc.), or what single people lack (partnerless, husbandless, wifeless), let’s use the word to celebrate who single people are (quite simply, solo).
Instead of using the word “single” to describe the occasional hard moments (sad, bitter, jaded, depressed, wistful, selfish, etc.), use the word single to realistically describe the many normal everyday moments (confident, happy, strong, content, empowered, optimistic, capable, grateful, etc.). Any of my married friends have tons of those moments in their days and in their marriages, and I imagine would want the word “married” to connote these as well.
Instead of using the word “single” to describe a passive, reactive time of waiting for life and marriage to begin, use the word single to recognize that it is a proactive choice. Some of my friends are choosing to be single for their entire lives. But even my friends who hope to be married would tell you in a heartbeat that they view their current relationship status as a choice. Given the options they have, they are choosing to be single, rather than spending their lives dating or married to someone who is not the best fit. Just like my married friends are choosing to be married to someone who does seem like a great fit. Both choices are proactive and respectable.
Most of all, instead of using the word “single” to describe what is not, use it to celebrate what is.
A Little Challenge…
Ok, I’m totally that girl who loves to leave meetings with action steps. So feel free to take or leave this last part.
But one thing I would offer and encourage us all to consider is how we respond to hearing the word “single” in the next few months.
If you are single, how do you physically and mentally respond when you say the word about yourself? I know that for years when someone would ask if I was dating or married, I would kind of sheepishly shrug my shoulders and plaster on a wistful smile and say something to the effect of, “Oh, I’m still single…” And then dread the awkward cliches or assurances that so often came. I now marvel at why this seemed like a good response at the time, but I think the people-pleasing side of me worried that people might be turned off by an overly-confident single woman. So meekness seemed safer.
But recently, I’ve decided that is (a) ridiculous, (b) adding to the woe-is-me single stereotype, and (c) totally not reflective of reality! So I’m trying to re-train myself to develop a default response that is much more true. When someone asks the question, I want to be be able to genuinely smile and say, “Actually, I’m single!” I don’t want to go overboard and be overly confident, but I do want to hold my head high and say that yes, I’m totally single and really love my life right now and am damn proud of all I’ve accomplished on my own. I may still hope to be married someday, but for now, my life is filled with plenty of cool things!
If you are not single, how do you physically and mentally respond when you hear others say the word about themselves? Is it different than how you respond to people who say that they are married?
I’m going to do two posts soon offering some thoughts that I have been gathering on what to say, and what not to say to single people. But my basic advice is this: just be sensitive, and don’t feel the need to default to sympathy. If someone tells you they are single and are feeling great about it, by all means, cheer them on! If they’re having a rough time, listen and remind them of why you love them. But regardless, when someone says that they are single, I think the best thing you can do is to physically and verbally respond with respect and love. (Isn’t this how we hope to treat one another anyway?) And if you do want to encourage, give props to the single life that they are currently living, rather than giving assurances that their fairytale ending is just around the corner.
All That Said…
I want to note that I recognize I am incredibly lucky to be living as a single woman in the United States in the year 2013. Many living in other countries around the world, or in different generations throughout history, have not been given nearly the freedoms and resources and credit that we single people get to enjoy today. So this whole conversation comes with a grateful, perspective-aware grain of salt.
But that said, I do think that there’s always room for improvement.
So Google, I love you, but there’s WAY more exciting ways to rock out the word “single”. :)
Once again, loving this series! Totally agree with the need to reclaim “single” and the way we tell people we are. I’ve taken to answering the small-talk question, “Do you have kids/a family?” (similar to, but not exactly like “are you married”) with an enthusiastic “I have a golden retriever!” Sure, I might sound like a crazy dog lady, but at least that gives the small talk a direction. And then we usually end up trading instagram pics of our pets, and then we are friends. ; ) More and more, people seem to be sensitive about small talk questions and not ask things that make it sound like they’re trying to define someone by their relationship/kid status. Thinking of trying to make “What are you into/excited about/passionate about right now?” the new small-talk standard. Would something so skip-right-to-the-good-stuff catch on, or is it too risky?
i’m all about that kind of small-talk. and i think that part of the start-with-relationship-status-etc is more a midwestern thing than an in general thing. at least when i was in LA, small talk more often began with “so what are you working on these days?” definitely a more wide open and interesting question to answer.
You are amazing. That is all.
Both articles are GREAT, Ali. When I hear the term “single” it’s met with neutral thoughts and feelings. It doesn’t come with a plus or minus for me. I was divorced for over 10 year and, yes, “single.”
I had 4 kids, all adults, and while I dated, it was never much fun. First, I found the rules had changed since the late 70’s. A lot.
When I met my wife it was totally by accident. She was where my regular coffee group met, my daughter knew her and an introduction was made. She’s has 4 kids, all much younger, living with us and I’m thankful I’m no longer single, but only because of the love and fun within the relationship. From someone not too concerned about ever getting married again, when the right one comes along, it changes a lot of things. You may even be willing to take on 4 more kids and raise them all over again, even if you’ve already been there.
I never viewed “single” as a negative, in fact, it comes with a million and one positive points. I didn’t think I would marry again and was more than willing to remain single.
On balance, I totally agree with you. It doesn’t define who you are and can be as positive as anyone wants to make it.
Really enjoyed your perspective on it; thanks, you do some great stuff.
I love Sarah’s suggestion to open up small talk conversations with, “What are you into/excited about/passionate about right now?” It allows those who are married to share about their spouses (or other exciting things they have going on in life!), parents to share about their kids, and those who are single to share about work, pets, or any other exciting things they have going on in life!
I haven’t given it much thought until now, but I realize that I’m not eager to identify myself as “single” either, for many of the above reasons you mentioned. I love the idea of redefining the term – my hesitancy to use it only reinforces the negative connotation!
I think mentally I wonder if they are going to pity me and physically I just respond as if someone would ask me if I have a college degree or I drive a car or something basic… I don’t really care, being single right now is my choice, as I’m sure it is yours, because you don’t *want* to settle for anything less than amazing. What’s the point in spending the best years of your life with someone you really don’t care about or particularly like?
One thing I’ve taken to doing, mostly to friends, is referring to myself as a bachelor. I think we tend to associate bachelor with “freedom” and “independence” (granted, we assume they can’t clean or cook, but I’d rather someone think of me as a poor cook than a sad lonely sack).
Interesting… to me, bachelor also conjures an image of success. I’m not sure why exactly, what I saw or experienced in my past that embedded this concept in my head, but it evokes the idea of someone who has been incredibly dedicated to their career, and is therefore highly successful and in a position where they can have adventuresome travels, living on the edge, meeting and knowing people seemingly everywhere they go… immaculate primate orbs, did I just describe Ali???
Skimming and reading in between actual work, but you made my day with the G.O.B. reference!!! Anyone not reading your blog has made a HUGE mistake!
I love that you call google out on it’s definition of single. We may be single but we are by no means alone, solo, or unaccompanied. Being single has opened up my life and given me opportunities to surround myself with loving, caring, supportive people. I am constantly in the presence of others and rarely alone. There are times when I look around and think that I could actually use some alone time! My life is so incredibly full (and dare I say, very much absent of “less” circumstances) and I can’t imagine it any other way! Thanks for your encouragement!
As I reflected on your post, I realized that I often say “oh, I’m not married,” rather than identifying as single. As if single and married are the only two relationship statuses?! I think this happens because I’m often the only single person in my groups of friends, so when meeting new people, they all introduce themselves as Ann & Dave, or “I’m Ann and this is my husband, Dave.” So I’m the only one without an “and.”
First of all, I love this blog! I too am 30 (well soon to be 31) and single and living in the Midwest. Now that those facts are established, I pondered that thought of how do I physically or mentally respond to the thought of being single. Here’s what I came up with, we have been so trained to believe marriage completes us that most of us clam up when people ask our status. I know I personally get all flustered and stumble over my words. I think we as single women should start feeling empowered by singledom, I think it says a lot about our characters. We are strong, independent and comfortable in our skin.
ballet-dancer! heck yes! :D
I am 37 and have been married for ten years. I get excited when I meet girls who are single…more so than meeting married ones. IMO best friends are not married, and I feel I have more in common with single ladies. I think it has a lot to do with my age and the fact I don’t have kids. Women my age tend to have kids which seems to translate to “no time to be friends.” Bleh. I also don’t have they type of marriage where I am checking in constantly as to whether or not I am available to go out, etc. my husband and I have a great relationship and enjoy spending time together, but we really value the other person hanging out with other people regularly. For me, single girls are up for that. My friends with kids…I never really see them. There is no girl time san kids. Except for the fact that I happen to be married, I relate so much more to single girls: I have interests; I am into my career; I don’t have things to tie me down, and if you called me last min to go out for a coffee, I would be able to say yes!
I appreciate your acknowledgement that “choice” is involved in being single at 30+ (or single at any age really). I recently made a choice to end my relationship with my fiance (and obviously call off the wedding) because he did something that so deeply hurt me, I knew this could not be the best relationship for me. I left, even though he wanted me to stay, and the choice to leave a situation that was not right for me has lifted me in a way that I have never experienced before. But there is the other side- the side of course where I am grieving because I ended a relationship with a person I was in love with. The side where I am 31 and have chosen to be single. There are no guarantees now. But there never have been, and I am happy to feel that I am strong and brave enough to face the uncertainty, the social stigma, the “spinsterness” (My hair dresser actually told me that in Illinois, a woman over the age of 27 is a defined as “spinster.” Thanks.) with the knowledge that I do not have to be in a wrong relationship just to be whole. Even at 31. Thanks for writing about this topic!