Dear Sara: I read an article you wrote [about being single for a very long time] last year while house-sitting a married friend’s cats–as only a single girl can do! Then I ordered your book. I have read EVERY SINGLE book on the market on “What was wrong with me?” Well no more! Your book made me realize for the first time in my life that I am fine as I am.
I was just wondering though–what about those of us unmarried girls who DON’T have a career as such or tons of great girlfriends? I related to everything you said, except when you talked about your career (which sounds so good!) and you have ALL those nice friends to have dinner with AND they listen to you! The few friends I have, I DO NOT share anything about ‘my situation’ with because they just pity me (or plainly just don’t care). So that’s a whole other level of failure for me to think about! No man AND no career or many friends! Have you heard from many of ‘these’ girls? —C
Dear C: Yes! I hear from many, many women and men in your situation. When you’re single, there is so much pressure to assure everyone around you that you’re okay that it’s easy to fall into the reflex of saying “My career is amazing!” and “I’m having such a blast with my friends!”
But the truth is, most people—married and single—don’t have that. A few years ago, a Gallup poll found that 70% of Americans aren’t engaged at work—they are either sleepwalking through their days or actively dislike their jobs. And a Cornell University study found that nearly half of U.S. adults (again married and single) reported having only one person that they discussed important matters with, and only 29 percent said they had more than two close friends.
So if you don’t love your job or have tons of friends, you’re not an outlier—you’re a member of a substantial majority.
The problem of course is that many of us measure our lives against the sit-com fantasy, rather than reality.
I hope I wasn’t perpetuating the myth of the ‘fabulous’ singleton in my book. I’m lucky to have several close friends, but that wasn’t always the case. When I first moved to New York City in my twenties, I actually used to dread the weekends, and mostly spent them wandering around the city by myself, looking at the people hanging out with friends in cafes and parks, wondering if I’d ever get to be like them.
It took a long time, but I did manage to build an active social life. I did this by joining a few groups that met on a regular basis—a book club, an acting class, a summer-house share, etc. Gradually, I got to know the friends of my friends. I also started throwing parties and organizing small outings so that my new friends could meet each other.
As for my career—well, it has had its ups and downs, but it has almost always been engaging. But paid work is not the only source of engagement, so if switching careers isn’t plausible for you I’d suggest brainstorming other ways to bring meaning to your life.
This is another blind spot in our culture. We mostly talk about “meaning” as a product of either work or family. But there are countless ways to contribute, and countless good people and organizations that could really use our help.
I’m not saying you have to work at a soup kitchen. I’m suggesting you find something to do that interests and challenges you—something that will feel like time well spent. This might help you find some of the other things you’re seeking—friendships, interesting work, a relationship—but of course there is no guarantee. You can never know where any one experience will lead, but I do believe that if you consistently take steps to make your life as rich and meaningful as possible, then you can’t help but be headed to a good place. If you meet some nice people along the way, all the better.
One final thing: You joked about cat-sitting for your married friend as being a classic single-woman situation. I used to regard myself in a similarly self-deprecating way, and that’s something I now regret. It’s hard enough that our culture often regards single people as the subordinates to marrieds, but it’s even worse when we buy into it. If you’re being asked to do things that make you feel like a teenager or a servant, just politely say no. As you say, oftentimes friends in different situations don’t understand what we’re going through. That doesn’t make them bad people—it just means they don’t understand. It’s your job to quietly show them how to treat you. Not by arguing or complaining (believe me, I’ve tried that) but by simply by responding with dignity to whatever condescension comes your way. If a friend makes your feel slighted, try giving her a quizzical look and changing the subject. When you demand respect, you don’t necessarily change the other person’s opinion or behavior, but you do slowly start to change the way you regard yourself. Yours, Sara