Chapter One: It's a Couples' World
All my friends are getting married. If I have to go to one more wedding single I am going to scream! I feel so out of place with my friends and family because everyone is either married or in a serious relationship. I am starting to hate getting together with them because I leave feeling like a failure.
Ellen, a thirty-four-year-old school teacher
I wish my family would understand that I would much rather be single and happy than married and miserable. Even my friends don't seem to get it. I am open to marriage but I am not hurting for it. I am basically happy and fulfilled. Why can't they see that and stop focusing on why I haven't yet remarried?
Sally, a forty-one-year-old medical technician
Being single isn't nearly as much fun for me as everyone thinks it is. At least not for me. I want to share my life with someone and I want to have kids. My sister and other women I know tell me "at least you don't have to worry about a biological clock!" But I do, especially if I want to be a father. Who wants to be in their sixties with teenagers? Not me. And anyway, it's beside the point. I am lonely and I want to be in a serious relationship. I sometimes think that if I died in my sleep no one would know for days! But I can't figure out what I am doing wrong. I don't understand why I am still single.
Mark, a thirty-eight-year-old money manager
I know it's irrational because I'm still relatively young, but my biggest fear about being single is that I'll end up alone. I feel like I am going to get left behind somehow.
Patti, a twenty-three-year-old student
Whether or not you are longing to be married at this moment, you picked this book up because you are dealing with the problems that come with being single in a couples' world. If you are anything like the people we quoted above, being single leaves you feeling a little alienated from your married friends and family, anxious about your future, and somewhat self-conscious. Or perhaps you are like many people we have come to know who feel miserable and lousy about themselves simply because they are single. Regardless of whether you are a little unhappy and anxious or you loathe the experience, our book will help you to learn why you are single.
It's true that marriage can be a wonderful experience and can make you happy in a number of ways. At its best, marriage promises intimacy, companionship, love, and a sense of belonging. But so can being single. And contrary to what many people think, finding happiness as a single person does not require that you give up on marriage!
What is required is that you uncover the reasons you are currently single. Because once you know, you'll find that you're more accepting of yourself, confident, and ultimately more open to love. Whether or not you then go on to marry is up to you. If that is what you want, it will come easier. If marriage is not high on your list of priorities, or is missing from it altogether, knowing why you are single will clarify how you fit into a world of couples. This book will help you to connect with friends, family, and lovers with confidence and self-respect. Although there are many valuable lessons to be learned in the pages that follow, few will be as important as coming to a more complete understanding of why you are single.
You may feel that you already know the answer. Perhaps you think you are single because you haven't found the "right one." Or maybe you worry that you don't know how to compromise; or that you jump ship when relationships get too close for comfort. On the other hand, maybe you think the opposite sex is to blame for your single status. There is often a kernel of truth in such theories, but they merely describe a small aspect of what is going on rather than explain why it is happening. They miss the forest for the trees, and in doing so they leave the single people who hold such beliefs feeling bad about themselves and the opposite sex.
The real problem is that you are confusing your past with the present. If you take a moment to reflect on it, you will find that you hold a number of expectations about what it will mean for you personally to be married. For example, some people feel they will never be complete as a person or satisfied with life until they are married. Others feel that marriage is a sign of maturity, or respectability: "He's a respectable guy; he's married." Still others fear that marriage will somehow swallow them whole and destroy their independence. Although expectations such as these have developed over a lifetime, they are mostly formed in childhood.
Your outlook on marriage and singlehood comes from a script you learned growing up. Like a script for a play or a movie, you know what to expect at every turn, provided you've committed the parts to memory. You know what motivates each character in the story, what they are supposed to be feeling, their relative importance to the other characters, and whether they are "good guys" or "bad guys." It is vital to your happiness as a single person that you uncover the marriage script you penned for yourself growing up. Because, among other things, your personal marriage script directs you to act, feel, perceive, and think in ways that can make being single either a joy or a misery. If it is making you miserable and keeping you from the things you want, including a good relationship, then it needs updating. But you can't revise your script until you are clear about what it contains.
Personal Marriage Script
Close your eyes and imagine the home you will live in when you are married. Will it be in a city, a suburb, or the countryside? What will the furniture and decor look like? Will there be a yard with a lawn and trees? Children? Pets? Do it now.
What did you see? Even if there is no one in your life that you want to marry, even if marriage is currently low on your list of priorities, you had an image. Where did it come from? If you examine it closely you will find that, more than likely, the image you projected had more to do with your past than your present. Matt, for example, a thirty-four-year-old never-married lawyer, said, "I see a two-story house with a big yard, a white picket fence, and a couple of kids and a dog wrestling together on the lawn." Matt had been living in New York City for the past sixteen years. The only time he had ever lived in a house like the one he imagined was when he lived at home with his parents. When he talked more about his image he had to admit that he couldn't see himself moving to the suburbs because he loved city life so much.
This picture of the home he might live in when he married is but one scene in the personal marriage script that he had unconsciously written down while he was growing up. Because it had been written a long time ago and then locked away in the vault of unconscious expectations we all hold about marriage, it had never been revised. It didn't take into account the life Matt had been living since moving from the home in which he was raised.
But this scene from Matt's personal marriage script is fairly benign. When Matt realized he held it he laughed and said, "I am addicted to this city. I would die if you tried to transplant me to the suburbs!" He easily revised his script so that when he thought about where he might live with a family of his own, he now imagined a large and sunny co-op in the city. But your marriage script describes much more than the kind of home you will live in when you marry. As such, it has a huge impact on your desire to tie the knot -- or not. For example, if your marriage script leaves you fearful of losing yourself when you marry, you'll act in ways to defend yourself from this fate: perhaps you'll shy away from making long-term commitments. If you had a father who was emotionally distant you may have learned to give him your undivided attention to win his love. It worked in that you felt loved, but it left you little if any room in the relationship to voice your own feelings. Or perhaps your mother was depressed while you were growing up and you felt you had to walk on eggshells around her and cater to her moods, just to keep her functioning. The details of each script will vary from person to person, but confusion and heartache caused by following the script's outdated lessons on intimacy and marriage are the common outcomes.
Because the script was written and memorized long ago and is now locked away in the vault of unconscious expectations about marriage and intimacy, it is acted upon reflexively without any conscious effort or thought. It's like driving a car. When you first learn to drive you think about every move of your foot, when and how to turn the wheel, which mirror to look in when changing lanes, and how much gas and brake pressure to apply. In time you stop thinking about the numerous details and steps involved. You just get in your car and go. Single people who have memorized their personal scripts act on them in exactly the same way.
This is how we learn most things. The more experience we have with a given task the less we have to think about how we do it. The problem arises when you try to drive your new stick-shift like the automatic you learned on years before. Much of what you learned before is applicable, but the lessons that aren't lead to shaky starts, jarring stops, and unexpected stalls. The world has changed dramatically in the past twenty years. Your marriage script -- the childhood lessons you learned about intimacy and marriage -- will result in shaky starts, jarring stops, and unexpected stalls if you apply them reflexively. The good news is that you can fix the mismatch between the past and the present by opening the vault and rereading your outdated script. Once you make it conscious, you can revise it to make it more relevant to the world in which you now live.
The Cultural Marriage Script
All of us also learn a cultural marriage script. Our culture's expectations about marriage invariably translate into a kind of prejudice against singles. For example, if marriage is a sign of maturity, respectability, and success, then being single suggests you are immature, reckless, and a failure. The outdated cultural script makes singlehood unappealing in exactly the way that your personal marriage script may be making it difficult to "tie the knot."
The cultural script was first penned in a historical, even genetic, quest for self-preservation. In this case, however, it was physical rather than emotional self-preservation that was at stake. The cultural marriage script that lingers today evolved because it helped to preserve our ancestors physically. Just about everyone has a natural desire to mate. But the very strong social pressures to marry that have evolved have more to do with an outdated script than any natural drive for connection. Indeed, some conservative politicians argue that marriage is a moral imperative. Being single is all right, so long as you are well on your way toward marriage and "family values." We never hear much about "single values" unless it is in the context of warnings: "Careful -- he's a wolf on the prowl," or "When are you going to settle down and get serious?"
Such warnings are sounded by those who have never questioned the present-day relevance of the now ancient cultural script. Although they are not blameless for promoting "single stigma," they are in fact following a tradition of blind adherence to a script that is literally thousands of years old. The dogma of most religions declares that it is your responsibility to get married and that if you remain single you are irresponsible and should feel ashamed. Your part in the play is clear: God wants you to get married. For both men and women the alternative to marriage is disgrace. Consider the following advice found in the book of Isaiah (4:1): "And seven women shall take hold of one man in that day saying 'We will eat our own bread, and wear our own clothes, only let us be called by your name; take away our reproach'" (emphasis added). This one passage overstates a common theme that can be found in the holy books of all major religions: singlehood is shameful and marriage is something to feel proud about. When these books were written, marriage was equated with being mature and responsible; it was an economic necessity and essential to survival. A woman who did not marry made life much more difficult for her father and mother -- she was a disappointment, a burden, and a failure.
Women today have avenues other than marriage to enable them to move from their parents' home. This is one of many obvious examples of how the cultural marriage script has become antiquated. Just as there are many religions and cultures in the world, there are many variations to the cultural marriage script. The scripts also vary depending on whether you are a man or a woman. But the common theme to nearly all cultural scripts is the same: marriage is good, being single is bad.
When you combine your personal script with the cultural script, it's a recipe for misery. On the one hand, you have a personal script that makes tying the knot more difficult than you might like. On the other hand, the cultural script leads you to conclude that you are a "loser" for being single. Friends and family who have memorized the same cultural script reinforce such thoughts, and abet you in your self-flagellation, sometimes enthusiastically, but almost always unintentionally. Because they also have memorized the lines of the culture's script so well, they follow the dogma with little thought as to the pain they might cause their single loved ones. The concerned mother may say, "But you're so pretty, I don't understand why no one has snapped you up!" Or friends will advise you that "If you really tried, you'd meet someone," or "You'll find someone when you're not looking," or "You're too focused on your career, that's why you're alone." These are but a few examples of what we refer to as friendly fire. This problem is so pervasive, yet so easily remedied, that we have devoted chapters 10, 11 and 12 to showing you and your loved ones how to avoid acting out this particularly painful aspect of the cultural marriage script.
Being Single in the Present
The problems created by both the cultural and personal marriage scripts are worsened by living in a culture with a rapidly changing marriage landscape. You no longer have to be married to move from your parent's home, or to have economic security, a sex life, or even children. The gap between the outdated scripts and real life is wider now than at any other time in history. Knowing the antiquated cultural script that you have been following is vital to protecting yourself from the stigma and prejudice that it creates for single people like yourself. Meanwhile, if you can uncover your personal script and learn the reasons why you are single, you will then be able to choose whether or not to stay single with confidence. In this book, we pay special attention to showing you how to unlock the vault so that you can get your hands on your personal script. Because when you do this, you'll find that you can easily revise it. You can stop looking at yourself and your relationships through the distorted lens provided by it and start living your life in the present.
To live in the present means that you are not worrying about who you would like to be or preoccupied by sadness over who you once were. You have learned to accept yourself for who you are now. There is no shame or feeling of being a second-class citizen because you are single. Self-acceptance is the cornerstone to becoming happier and to changing yourself in ways you'd like to. It is not the same as resignation. You do not have to give up on your desire for marriage to live in the present. Indeed, the irony is that the more confident you feel about your place in the world, and the more self-accepting you are, the more attractive you will be to others.
Our basic strategy is "show and tell." Throughout this book we will show you what other single people have come up against in their quest to live in the present and to feel less alienated from friends, family, and lovers. We will also tell you how to discover for yourself why you are single and what it is you expect from being married.
In the next chapter, you will read about Ellen and Sarah, who were feeling bad about being single and were stalled in their attempts to move from the position they found themselves in. Today, single people are up against two opposing forces that spring from the gap between an outdated cultural script and the reality of how our culture has evolved. We focus on women in this chapter because the cultural changes that have widened the gap between the old script and modern reality are easier to see in the case of women. But as you will discover, the gap between what we were raised to believe about singlehood and marriage and the reality of our experience is just as wide for men. In chapter 2 we begin to unravel the confusion these singles and others like them face when trying to figure out why they are unmarried and how to fit into the world in which they live.
In chapter 3 we tell you about the four stages of being single in a couples', world that describe the common experience of single people like yourself. You enter the first stage when you begin to feel alienated from friends, family, lovers, and even yourself. If you find that you are suddenly single because of a divorce, a breakup, or the death of your partner, this experience is all too familiar. It can be like a cold hard slap in the face. In places and with people you once felt you belonged, you now feel like an outsider. If you have never been married, the feeling creeps up on you as you near, then surpass, your marriage milestone: that is the age at which, as a child, you imagined you would be married. In either case you feel alienated from the world in which you live. Not everyone graduates from one stage to the next. It takes effort and knowledge. But the journey is well worth the effort. Because, as you will see, the last stage describes people who are truly comfortable being single, knowledgeable about their marriage scripts, and living their lives in the present.
In the fourth chapter we give you specific steps that show you how to be single in the present. These steps will help you to uncover your personal marriage script and protect yourself from becoming a pawn in the culture's script which casts singles in only secondary roles, and show you how to take your life off hold. Our belief is that after reading this book you will be better equipped to live your life in the present, rather than succumbing to the stigma that springs from the old-fashioned cultural script and the outdated fears that stem from your personal script.
In chapters 5 through 9, we show you how other single men and women were able to accomplish these goals. Each chapter focuses on a common type of personal marriage script that we have seen in our work with single people. In the last three chapters we focus our attention on some specific problems created by the cultural marriage script. We show you how to avoid friendly fire from your married loved ones in chapter 10, and how to deal with the competition and jealousy that this script promotes between single friends and relatives in chapter 11. How to make your needs count with coupled loved ones who sometimes make you feel like a third wheel or even invisible is the topic of our final chapter. Throughout this book, we will teach you the skills you need to live in the present, to find a place for yourself in this couples' world, and to stop putting your life on hold. Turn this page to learn what you can do to start moving forward with confidence.
Copyright © 1998 by Xavier Amador and Judith Kiersky