A few years ago, a friend told me she was worried that she’d never find a partner. She had been single for a long time and didn’t see much chance that this would change.
I apologized immediately, embarrassed by the asinine comment. I had been single throughout my 20s and 30s, and always hated know-it-all proclamations from coupled friends. Now here I was, uttering the same words that pissed me off so many years ago. It was easy, I realized, to become the smug-married enemy.
Like my friends before me, I had good intentions. When I said I “just knew,” I meant that my friend was attractive and smart and sane, so I could see no earthly reason why she wouldn’t find a partner. The problem was, I didn’t “just know” anything — no one does. Worse, my little math equation — having terrific qualities = finding a relationship — was grossly flawed. There are lots of lovely and kind single people who struggle to find partners, and there are plenty of long-married people who are selfish, petty and mean.
I knew all of this; I’d written an entire book about the unfair and condescending way society treats singles. And yet, those stupid cliches popped out of my mouth.
My reason isn’t a good one: I was uncomfortable. It’s hard to admit that you have something you don’t deserve any more than the nice person sitting across the table from you. So instead, the mind rushes to make it okay. In my experience, it’s typically done in one of three ways. The first is to declare yourself an oracle, sagely assuring your troubled friend that all will be revealed in time.
The second way is to offer suggestions that could help your pal transform into a more appealing package.
The third way is to tell your friend about online dating. These comments may vary in obnoxiousness, but they’re all displays of arrogance. The assumption is that because the coupled person has found a loving partnership, therefore she holds the secret code for how others can find one, too.
Couples are weird. Relationships — happy ones, anyway — put you a strange bubble, a closed loop of positive reinforcement.
“I love you!”
“I love you, too!”
“You’re the best!”
“No, you’re the best.”
And so forth. It’s like Fox News, except in this case, the propaganda re-circulates between your party of two.
The mutual adoration can make for great relationship harmony; the problem comes when you leave the house. Head swollen, it can be easy to forget that you are not the most wonderful person in the world. Your spouse may think you’re hot stuff, but that doesn’t mean everyone else concurs. (A point many realize after going through a breakup and all those imagined suitors fail to appear.)
Even when couples hit rough spots, we still find ways to turn those into assets. Instead of being humbled by marital discord, we congratulate each other for “working through it” and stomp around making statements about how “marriage is work.”
Contrast that with how a single person is received when she says that being alone is tough. The problem isn’t just that single people can’t win in our culture; it’s also that married people can’t lose.
Unless we lose each other, that is. Happiness is fragile, and no one knows if they’re doing marriage right. If couples act like know-it-alls, that’s partly because we desperately want to believe that our fortress of a relationship cannot be breached. It’s scary to allow that something as unwieldy as luck plays a part — luck can change. Better to attribute your relationship success to your hard work, character and/or hotness.
Naturally, all of this can bleed into conversations with friends. The mistake married people make when talking to single friends is assuming that they are asking us to solve their problem. The smugness is a presumed authority.
When I was single, I knew that I didn’t understand what it meant to be married. But I noticed that married people often believed they understood the single experience, no matter how brief their solo stint. There was little distinction made between, say, the woman who was between boyfriends for six months in her 20s and the one who had been on her own throughout her 30s.
I know what it’s like to be single for a long time. I know what it’s like to go on online dates and experience life as an unattached woman in her late 30s.
But I don’t know what it’s like to be single in my 40s, or to date in the age of Tinder. When my husband and I met, I had never been on Facebook or sent a text message. The longer we’re together, the more clueless I become.
So here’s what I resolve to do when talking to single friends about dating: Shut up. I’ll offer opinions when asked, but overall I’ll put my responses in the form of questions. It’s not my job to dispense wisdom or make grand pronouncements. It’s my job to listen.