He meant well, I’m sure. We were at a Washington reception for some minor political cause, with congressional aides and flacks consuming mediocre wine and domestic cheese, eyes darting around to see if there was someone more important to talk to. He was married with children, held a prominent position in national politics and was slightly older than I was at the time (late 40s). I was a reporter, never married, no children, and at the top of my professional field. He didn’t hit on me (that would have been easy to deal with), but instead asked, genuinely perplexed: “You’re so attractive and interesting. Why are you still single?’’
Of all the possible responses I could have uttered, to my mind there was really only one perfect, conversation-ending answer: “You know, I just don’t want to stop sleeping around.’’ The look on his face would have been worth potentially losing him as one of my confidential sources. While the shock value works better for women than men, it gets at the crux of the question, which is not why seemingly “eligible’’ women of a certain age have chosen never to marry, but why married people want so desperately for single people to adopt their lifestyle.
When I was in my 30s, the questions were usually asked out of curiosity, with people wondering why I hadn’t decided to “settle down” yet. But as I approached (and recently reached) 50, the questions became more anxious, especially since I myself didn’t seem anxious. Say what they like, I suspect that the real reason for aggressive grilling about another’s marital status may have little to do with the single person and everything to do with the married ones, who may be experiencing challenges in their own marriages and need reassurance that they made the right decision.
If I object to being put on the defensive, they will tell me they just want me to have what they have (a happy marriage, presumably). But sometimes these questions come from friends who have just finished telling me that their kids are driving them crazy and that their sex lives have gone AWOL. It’s comforting for them, I suppose, to imagine that life would be so much more carefree if they weren’t married.
That’s just one factor. I think there’s another, even deeper thing going on here, though: the illusion that we can and should achieve security in adulthood, a stable (read: married) relationship, own a house, and hold down a reliable job with health insurance.
But people die; houses burn down (or go under water); businesses tank. There is no actual security at any stage of life, no matter how much we try to protect ourselves, financially or emotionally. Of the 40 percent of marriages in this country that end in divorce, how many of those wedded couples ever thought they’d be on the split side of the statistic?
No question, being single has its down sides. The financial burden is entirely on you. There’s no one to pick up the dry-cleaning when you’re working late. But as an unmarried person (a never-married person, in fact), I can make travel plans without having to accommodate someone else’s cultural likes and dislikes. I can spend an entire afternoon shoe-shopping at Ferragamo’s in Rome, for example, instead of taking a city bus tour. I can make changes in my career or move without having to negotiate (as one should) with a spouse. Being single can be lonely sometimes, but married people get lonely, too — and being lonely when you’re in a committed relationship is somehow lonelier still.
So here’s my suggestion for when married friends try to talk you into marriage or obsessively try to fix you up with every cousin, co-worker and random single person they stumble upon. (A friend once encouraged me to date a man I had openly and verbally disdained simply because he was interested in me.) Just the expression is telling: “fix” you up, as if being single means you’re broken.
When your friends smile brightly and say, “We just want you to be happy,’’ what they really mean is they want you to be about as happy as they are (which may mean “not very”) and to reassure themselves that they made the right life decisions. Truly happy coupled-up people don’t need to marry off all their friends. I am perfectly content without a husband, but I’m not trying to break up my friends’ marriages so their lives parallel mine.
You probably won’t be able to get them to see this, but at least you’ll understand what they don’t: that while we can make prudent decisions, we can never be assured of security in any part of life nor can we be certain that other life moves wouldn’t have produced fewer burdens and a more satisfying existence. And you will get to know your most authentic self, rather than the person you are in relation to a mate. You’ll become aware that it’s possible to feel complete without a partner and lead a very satisfying life full of love and fascination. Paradoxically, loosening up on the need for a “secure’’ relationship can lead you to feel more secure and content with yourself.
I didn’t set out to be still single at 50. It's just worked out that way — so far. I’m not against marriage, and I might consider it someday if the circumstances were right. But in the meantime, please don’t try to fix me up.
Susan Milligan, former White House correspondent for the Boston Globe, is working on a book about Congress.