Monday, January 28, 2013
Bella DePaulo's SINGLED OUT #OneBookAtATime
For yea, I am one of those, unashamedly in my 40s and not only unmarried but uninterested in changing that, and I've been the target of every single (heh) one of the crappy remarks, employment practices, interrogations and dismissals Bella DePaulo calls out as a sneaky form of prejudice she names "singleism." But I did not turn to Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After for a categorical list of injustices to get steamed up over, nor did DePaulo intend the book as any kind of call to arms (though she does devote a chapter towards the end to imagining, maybe a little wistfully, what an America that did not discriminate against the never-married, the divorced or the widowed might look like); that last bit of the subtitle, in white lettering on the cover, is key. For while we do get a laundry list of ways in which daily, if not hourly, encounters with "smug marrieds" can be emotionally and psychologically draining, in which popular media (fictional and "reality") dismisses categorically the idea that choosing not to hunt down a spouse is in any way valid (or possible), in which the government denies singles the right to designate a beneficiary for their Social Security checks in the event of their deaths but lets widowed spouses keep on getting paid for life, in which businesses routinely demand that singles pay extra to subsidize their cheaper-per-person couples rates for travel and dining and entertainment, in which employers assume that just because one is not married one is always free to work the extra hours or take the unwanted business trip (and not only that, but really owes it to married co-workers not to tear them away from their all-important families) -- that is not, by a long shot, all that we get.
What we also get is someone who doesn't take media reports of half-assed scientific studies at face value (DePaulo is herself a scientist). She looks at the data herself, shows it to us, and in the process debunks most of the popular mythology that says marriage is better for one. For instance, she finds in study after study purporting to "prove" that married people are happier and healthier that the data was "cheated" -- those happy healthy people who got counted as married were only the ones who were still married. All those divorced and widowed people got clumped in with the never-marrieds, and, let's be honest, dragged our numbers way down. When the data was broken into four, rather than two, categories (still-married, never-married, divorced, widowed) the still-marrieds come out on top, but by a negligible margin (and, interestingly, in one study that did not, as most of these do, look at just a single snapshot of time but instead over a good long period of subjects' lives, on average those "still marrieds" had started out marginally happier to begin with). Who's next happiest? Oh, look, the never marrieds. But all those "how to find a spouse" and "case for marriage" and "single people suck" crusaders rarely, if ever, mention that.
And, too, the book is loaded with anecdotes about unmarried lives, with or without children, which positively brim with unrecognized quality of life -- Condoleeza Rice's, for instance; David Souter's (the book was written before Elena Kagan joined the Supreme Court, but I bet she is a part of DePaulo's pantheon now!); Ralph Nader's; Barbara Walters'. What would our world have been like without them taking on the demanding and challenging roles they did?* And how do you think it feels in interview after interview to always be asked (usually by a "smug married" journo) if it doesn't all feel kind of hollow without a special someone to share it with? And if the high-achieving single in the hot seat says something along the lines of "anything but hollow" well, he or she is just in denial or doesn't understand what he or she is missing, and probably isn't mature enough anyway.
Unsaid, most of the time, is that hey, the married person doesn't understand what he or she is missing, either.
But so, once again, I'm part of the choir being preached to, here. I am sometimes lonely, I'll admit, but it's not the lack of a spouse I feel so much as the lack of intimate friends in close proximity; the city in which I live is a profoundly heartlandish one, in which life is centered around the spouse and kids and offers little to those without them but doing time in a bar, and I've had difficulty establishing relationships in which I'm anything more than a casual once-in-a-while pal, someone to see a movie with once or twice a year but otherwise on whom it's perfectly okay to cancel last-minute because hey, I didn't have to hire a babysitter or whaever. I have wonderful friendships all over the world, even in other parts of Wyoming, but the city where my job is considers non-marrieds like me to be all but lepers, and that's even before it's discovered that I'm "not even trying." Which, contrary to smug married belief, does not mean I've given up; just that I've never really considered OMGGOTTAFINDAHUSBAAAAAAAND just for the sake of HAVINGAHUSBAAAAAAND to be much of a priority. Should I actually find someone who makes me want to give up my single life, that's fine, but I find the idea that I should devote my time and energy to finding someone who wants to shackle me to be patently absurd. To say nothing of finding someone who wants to knock me up; that's easy (and anyway, there's such a thing as Zero Population Growth, in which I fervently believe and furthermore believe I should practice what I preach).
Someone, and I'm pretty sure it was Theodore Sturgeon in his wonderful novel Godbody, once observed that people who hate being alone do not consider themselves good company. I first read that book when I was a teenager, and I think I probably took this message (one of the many many wonderful and wise things Sturgeon shared in that and his other writing) very much to heart; I have cultivated myself to be good company for myself -- and I have also developed a talent for enjoying strangers -- some of my favorite memories are of random conversations in airport bars or on trains or in line at a coffee bar or walking my dog. I seem very good at reading people and finding common ground with them, enough to make them smile for a moment or a few hours. Would I have this talent, I wonder, if I'd spent most of my life hunting down and then focusing to the exclusion of everyone else on a husband who must be, by contemporary dogma, "my everything" (and will expect that of me in return)?
Would I have the time and attention to spend on my friends' children when they need a break from being someone's spawn or student and just want to be a person for a little while? Or just need a little help with some science homework?
And this is not even mentioning the online relationships I've established, many of which go back decades, that I value deeply.
Is there a tinge of whining to DePaulo's book, as some have complained? Yes. But she is very careful not to even appear to equate singleism with all of the serious civil rights/discrimination issues that have beset us as a society (racism, homophobia, misogyny, etc), and seems more interested in teasing out why treating singles as they so often get treated is still okay (perhaps the last remaining prejudice it's still okay to have, though fat shaming is still awfully common even among people who consider themselves enlightened and tolerant), and what the cumulative effects of these subtle annoyances and expectations might be over a life time -- and how remarkable and awesome it is that single people manage to be happy anyway. It takes more guts and fortitude, she says, to be single in a "matrimaniacal" society than to do the expected, conformist thing and get married. Which, now I just want to race home to my worrying (still married) (to each other) parents (both their daughters are now gleefully in their 40s and unattached) and crow to them about how their lack of grandchildren and sons-in-law is actually proof of how awesome they were in raising us; we both grew up self-sufficient, brave, strong, capable and emotionally mature enough to enjoy life without the need for A PARTNER. And anyway, from a ZPG standpoint, our family is already in the red (our cousins have not only replaced themselves, but the two of us, too, and one more to spare).
But so anyway, the next time you see a couple of early middle aged broads yucking it up at a riverside diner or in the local hot springs or having coffee and none of us happens to be wearing a ring on that finger, maybe withhold your certainty and judgment -- and your humblebragging pity -- for a moment. There are lots of ways to live a life. And lots more ways to be happy than just sharing a bed with somebody for a few decades. But if you must make a faux-friendly remark about it, be prepared to be patronized back in return. Poor little marrieds, like Linuses and their blankies, will they ever grow up? We don't really want to bust out rhetoric like that, but push us and we just might.
Go, Bella, go!
*DePaulo has some somewhat tart remarks about some what-might-have-beens that the choice to put spouse above country/public sphere duty prevented, namely: President Colin Powell.