Bella’s intro: When I write about single life, I do so from the perspective of having been single all my life. I always like hearing from others who have also lived single all their lives. But I also really appreciate hearing from those who have crossed the marital line and come back again. It is like your own personal experiment. You see how you are treated when you are single, then when you marry, then when you become single again.
I don’t know Leslie Jones, but in an email she sent to me on another topic, she mentioned that she had written an essay called “A Table for One.” I asked if I could read it. She kindly agreed, then also agreed to let me share it with all of you. Personally, my favorite part is the paragraph beginning with, “During the time that I was married…”
I also asked Leslie if she wanted to tell us a bit about herself and she sent me the paragraph below. (Also see the paragraph at the very end of the post.)
While attending college (for the 3rd time), I wrote this piece as a reflection on some of the reading I had done for a class and inspired by my introduction to Bella DePaulo’s work on the price of being single in this world. When I read Bella’s work I breathed a sigh of relief, finally someone was talking about what I go through almost every day. The “You’re STILL single?” remarks are a little easier to take now, and the “Why does a girl like you not have a man?” comments are now answered with just a smile. Sometimes I will now say “I am single by choice,” that really throws them! Thanks Bella, your work has been of great support and value to me.
Bella again: Thank-you, Leslie, for sharing your wonderful insights in this essay!
A Table for One
By Leslie Jones
Before I married at the spinsterish age of 36, the question everyone asked was: “When are you going to find a man and settle down?” After I divorced at 41, the question was given a brief respite only to resume less than a year later with: “Are you dating anyone?” My new single status was greeted with enthusiasm only until too much time had passed. I was expected to conform to society’s ultimate measure of success; a relationship. While this obsession with coupledom has always perplexed me, the very real discrimination against single people just infuriates me. The assumption that single people are lonely, unhappy, irresponsible, unattractive or weird and are less deserving of the rights given to married people is absurd (Jenkins). All the attention given to gay marriage lately has enlightened me: Shouldn’t we all have the same rights, gay or straight, married or single? What about the right to remain single but enjoy all the benefits that married people have, what if I don’t have or don’t want a “domestic partner”? Although the stigma attached to the single or unmarried person is still negative, the times are changing. Marriage is no longer a social requirement and it is time for the government, the workplace and our entire culture to start making the changes necessary to catch up.
There is a common perception that single people need less, which is ironic because we usually end up paying more for the same service (Solo Parenting). For example: The average hotel room cost is based on double occupancy and there is no discount if you are sleeping alone, sometimes there is even a surcharge for single people traveling alone (Jayson 1). Pension plans, family medical leave laws, tax codes, auto and health insurance rates all benefit married people (Miller). If you are single, some of the common benefits don’t apply and this is in an age where federal laws “outlaw most forms of discrimination except those based on marriage” (Miller). It is of little wonder why gay marriage has become such an important debate, but where is the advocacy for the rights of the single person not wanting to marry? With everyone having the right to marry, there will be the inevitable divorces and then, gay or straight, you’ll be single again. The benefits that come with being married stay with the married.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, “more singles are opting out of marriage [but] American society has not adjusted to the growing legions of the unmarried” (Gabriel). “In 2005 unmarried households became the majority of all U.S. households”, this statistic includes all people who are unmarried: divorced, widowed, never married, gay, straight, and all races (Statistics). There are currently nearly 93 million “single” Americans over the age of 18 making up this majority (Statistics). This number includes the more than 6 million cohabitating couples who are also considered single (Jayson 2). 40% of the workforce is unmarried and single people “contribute more than 2 trillion dollars to the economy”; with numbers like these, we singles should be getting big benefits instead of being marginalized the way we are (Statistics).
Cultural conditioning tells us we need to marry in order to be “complete” and many people believe it; I did, although I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time (Miller). I thought that I needed to at least give marriage a try, that and I had aging wealthy grandparents with promises of big matrimonial checks pressuring me to walk down the aisle. I have nothing against marriage as an act of commitment for two people who want it, but to me it seemed an outdated fairytale with a not-so-happy ending for most of the people I knew. I did it anyway, got a big fat check, bought a house and had a baby. The marriage lasted 5 years. Some people don’t do so well within the confines of marriage; my husband was one of them. He likes the freedom that comes with being single and was determined to claw his way out. After enduring a five years of his seething anger, I willingly set him free.
During the time that I was married, I noticed that my world had changed. I had entered into a club, an elite group of peers who had all done the “right thing”. As a married couple, we were invited to all kinds of dinner parties and other “couples” events. We, in turn, entertained married couples at our home or dined out with our favorite (married) friends. Most of my single friends were married now and I made some new friends too. After I got divorced, the invitations stopped coming. Some of my new friends disappeared and I clung with ferocity to the friends I had who were still single (or divorced) while most of my married friends turned away. I was out of the club. My newfound single status felt very different from my single days before marriage; I had gone to the other side and back. Being younger and single was very different from being in my 40’s, divorced and now a “single mother”… a social pariah.
Bella DePaulo, the author of the book Singled Out has studied the stigma of being single for years (Miller). Her writing is an attempt to “debunk all of the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that single people are dismissed, marginalized and denigrated,” an issue social scientists often overlook (Miller). DePaulo found that most people view singles as “lonely, envious and selfish” when compared with married people (Miller). Her findings are consistent with the research done by Tobias Greitemeyer on the “Stereotypes of Singles” (Greitemeyer). According to Greitemeyer, married people are simply viewed as better than singles, male or female, he states: “However, no study to date has provided empirical evidence that single and partnered individuals differ [at all], apart from relationship status” (Greitemeyer). Interestingly, Bella DePaulo found that “among married and single people, single women are the happiest” suggesting that men may be more affected by this social stigma than women (Miller). DePaulo’s Singled Out is one of a growing number of self-help books designed to encourage the “solo-is-fine theme” instead of the plethora of books out there trying to teach us “how to become un-single” (Jayson 1).
Often, my friends will try to set me up with men in an attempt to “un-single” me. Their assumption is that I want to be partnered, why wouldn’t I? If a woman remains single for too long, many will assume she’s too choosy about men or that (gasp) she’s a lesbian (Solo Parenting). A single man might have friends who are envious of his freedom or love having that buddy who is always available but if he’s comfortable or even happy being single then he too might be labeled as commitment-phobic or (again, gasp) gay (Solo Parenting). It always amuses me when people assume that singles, who heretofore have been nothing but heterosexual, will suddenly spring into homosexuality if left alone too long. I also find it interesting that single people aren’t seen for what they are – single, for now – and if that changes, then no big deal. Except it is a big deal; public perception changes when you are partnered and your rights change when you get married.
Many people stay in bad marriages to avoid the stigma of being single, especially when coupled with the perceived “failure” at marriage, others feel panic at the thought of being “out there” without a partner (Solo Parenting). For years I watched my sister and her husband quietly loathe each other until one of them had an affair and the marriage imploded. Many single people stay single because of this; they want to avoid becoming a divorce statistic or they feel that the benefits of getting married don’t add up for them (Gabriel). Being single isn’t anything to be afraid of, though it can be challenging at times; more often it is interesting and exciting, especially to my married friends.
Jeanette Winterson has a brilliant and very poignant line in her essay “The Semiotics of Sex”: “[Who] you fuck is much more important [to other people] than how you write” (Winterson 643). The same can be applied to the lives of single people. Often, my married friends are far more interested in my sex life, who or if I am “dating” than they are in my work, school or family life. This perpetuates the relationship-central approach to living: Boyfriend/Husband = happiness, success and fulfillment. I may one day have another partner, but I doubt I would ever marry again. Regardless of my future status, I would like to ensure that my rights as a single person, both economically and socially, are equal to those of people who do choose to marry.
Cornell West’s “Race Matters” is a passionate but clear and powerful essay on racism, its causes and resolution. While I don’t presume to equate single-ism with racism, there are some distinct similarities, especially when it comes to fear. Not fitting in to common stereotypes, or being different and therefore not accepted, creates a certain distrust or fear in our society. West encourages us to “learn a new language of empathy and compassion” before it is too late (West 631). Understanding and acceptance will spark change. Recognition of injustice can turn the tides, requiring new legislation and re-visiting the old and outdated laws we live by. I may sound high and mighty here but this issue involves me, my life, and the lives of many people I know. I may be single, but I am not alone.
American society is not a “fixed society”, it is constantly changing, forcing us to re-define ourselves as Americans with each step we take (Baldwin 107). We are always adjusting to new ways of thinking and new ideas which require tolerance. It is what makes our society unique but it is also what hinders change. Adjusting to change takes time, so change is a slow process. I am a patient person. I am also a single white female; attractive, educated and financially secure. I understand just how privileged I am compared to women and men in other countries or in other situations; dare I ask for more? Yes, I dare and I hope others are just as daring. We all deserve to be on the same, equal ground and have the same rights and respect, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or marital status. The number of single people in America is growing, let’s hope American social awareness and our ability to change can grow right along with it.
Baldwin, James. “The Discovery of What it Means to be an American.” Encounters: Essays for Exploration and Inquiry. Ed. Pat C. Hoy III and Robert DiYanni. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2000. 104-108. Print.
Gabriel, Dan and Elianna Marziani. “One by One.” Insight on the News Newspaper. Findarticles.com. CBS Interactive, Inc. 30 July 2001. Web. 17 Mar. 2010.
Greitemeyer, Tobias. “Stereotypes of Single: Are Singles What We Think?” European Journal of Social Psychology. 39, 368-383 (2009). EBSCOhost Databases. Web. 17 Mar.2010.
Jayson, Sharon. “Free as a Bird and Loving it: Being Single Has its Benefits.” USA Today. USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. 4 Dec. 2007. Web. 17 Mar. 2010.
—. “Census Reports More Unmarried Couples Living Together.” USA Today. USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. 8 July 2008. Web. 18 Mar. 2010.
Jenkins, Maureen. “Redefining Single.” Chicago Sun Times. UnmarriedAmerica.org. 4 Dec. 2005. Web. 17 Mar. 2010.
Miller, Lisa. “The Single Stigma.” San Luis Obispo Tribune. Unmarriedamerica.org. 23 May 2005. Web. 18 Mar. 2010.
“Solo Parenting.” Divorce.co.nz. Divorce.co.nz. 25 Oct. 2007. Web. 17 Mar. 2010.
“Statistics.” unmarried.org. Alternatives to Marriage Project. 23 May 2005. Web. 17 Mar. 2010.
West, Cornell. “Race Matters.” Encounters: Essays for Exploration and Inquiry. Ed. Pat C. Hoy III and Robert DiYanni. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2000. 626-631. Print.
Winterson, Jeanette. “The Semiotics of Sex.” Encounters: Essays for Exploration and Inquiry. Ed. Pat C. Hoy III and Robert DiYanni. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2000. 643-650. Print.
ABOUT LESLIE JONES:
Leslie Jones is a single mother of one and lives on the East Coast. She will be attending graduate school in the spring for guidance counseling. This paper won 1st place in the reflection category in a writing contest (2010) at the college Leslie attends.