When people sign up for my mailing list, I send them a message asking them to tell me about something they are struggling with. This is one way I like to get to know you better. I hear about all kinds of things, you could not imagine the diversity, and I love getting the messages.
Recently, Laura, 49, wrote me a short message about her struggle. Laura is divorced and has been dating. She recently gave up on dating and is settling into a life on her own. Her message stuck in my mind and reminded me of three words that had recently gelled in my mind: “Single Inferiority Complex.” The Single Inferiority Complex describes the often-nagging feeling that single (and sometimes childless) people have that their lives, and even their very selves, just do not measure up to those who are in partnership (or who are parents).
Laura wrote, “Hi Sasha, Convincing married people that I’m just as good as them despite the fact I never found anyone to love me despite my flaws, unlike they who did. I know this is not my job but sometimes it feels like an unspoken task. Laura”
I loved this email. Thank you Laura for articulating this. When I followed up with Laura to ask her more (I was curious about her situation), she wrote, “I just get annoyed at all the married people that tell me to make myself happy and then some guy will want me. Hey, I already do make myself happy but a) does being married make them so happy? And b) if I’m happy why would I want to ruin it with a guy? Sorry I just probably gave you more conflicting info but I guess there in lies the big question. To be single and hopeful or be single and resolved.”
That of course is the quirkyalone paradox, the challenge to comfortably inhabit the space in between contentment and opennes to love. Sitting in that precarious place, it’s easy to think the world is judging you as inferior. In her Laura thought that it is her “job” to convince married people that she is as good as them. Or that she needs to appear “happy” enough to attract a man into her life.
I don’t know Laura’s friends, so it’s possible that they really do judge her, or believe that’s the only path to fulfillment. I also suspect for Laura–and most of us–we tell ourselves that we are not as good as our married friends. We take on an unspoken task to convince ourselves that we and our lives as just as good as theirs.
It’s easy to feel defensive in a traditional culture where marriage is seen as the path toward adulthood, parenthood is seen as the ultimate path to mystery, maturity, and a deeper capacity to love, and being single or not having children is seen as lesser or immature.
But let’s be clear: Being single does not mean inferior. It means you don’t have a partner. Married people are not automatically more emotionally mature, fulfilled, or happy. Single people are not automatically immature, unfulfilled, and unhappy–or lonely for that matter. Anyone can be emotionally mature or immature, fulfilled or unfulfilled, or happy or unhappy, and that can vary day to day, minute to minute too.
This topic of the “Single Inferiority Complex” is a close cousin to the “Single Shame” we have been talking about in our community. Single shame is the deep-seated feeling that something is wrong with you and no one will want you because you have been single for a long time (usually years, sometimes a lifetime).
Many of my coaching clients are coming to talk to me about single shame. I have lived with this issue of single shame myself, feeling “wrong” that I have not had the long-term relationships that most women of my age have had, and come to understood how much my single shame was preventing me from being intimate and vulnerable and deeply connecting. In fact, this issue of single shame is a significant thread in my memoir-in-progress Wet.
The first step with overcoming this unworthiness that prevents connection is awareness. Proper diagnosis. If we can say, oh, there is this thing called the Single Inferiority Complex or Single Shame and it’s infected our consciousness, then we can be aware of it and pick it apart, and start to question how we see ourselves. Perhaps it’s not so true that our friends are judging us. Perhaps it’s not true that we are inferior or that we have anything to explain or defend. Perhaps there is no way of really measuring happiness or maturity and we are all on unique paths, determined in part by how we show up in life, in part by circumstance and luck.
If you identify with the Single Inferiority Complex or Single Shame, what I’ve learned through my coaching practice is this is totally common among quirkyalone types. . . you are not alone. Second, it’s totally possible to turn this around. To fully embrace you and share you are right now, to own your personal history as well as your desires for connection, whatever they may be.
I love every word of this post, Sasha! Every. Single. Word. I hope to lead by example in combating Single Shame and Single Inferiority Complex. I’m so glad you’ll be beside me.
Excellent Jill! Glad you are here with me!
Thanks for this Sasha – totally sums up how I feel about being single right about now! Very comforting to know that I can identify it as a ‘thing’ and label it to create distance 🙂
Hi Kelly, I think so too. Let us know how that goes for you. I think it’s valuable to see that what we think of as our own individual experience is shared–and it’s not just us. We can label it and create some distance, as you say.
Hi, Kelly! I’m here to support you if you need to talk. I’m glad you’re reaching a place where you’re more comfortable identifying and tackling SIC. Ooh, the acronym for Single Inferiority Complex is SIC (sick). Coincidence? I don’t think so. 🙂
SIC! Jill, that’s brilliant. It’s official, that’s the acronym. 🙂
hahahaha LOVE the acronym!
Is SIC making you sick? Don’t let it!
I happened to be talking to two people today, a man and a woman, whose spouses have died within the last three years. Obviously both get a pass on being single, but both admitted they enjoy being single and would not consider remarriage— not because they so cherish the memory of the departed, but because they like the unaccustomed freedom. I’ve noticed that the female traits I dislike are only associated with the marriage quest. My female friends and co-workers don’t scold and snoop and get hurt if I fail to ask how their day was. They are normal in other words. Considering that half the marriages end in divorce and probably half of those that don’t are miserable, I can only suppose that the pressure to marry is of the misery loves company variety.
George, What do you mean by the female traits that you dislike, associated with the marriage quest? Curious to hear about those.
This surprisingly hit a nerve. Nearing 56, I’ve never had a significant relationship, let alone been married. (You want the quintessential hetero QuirkyAlone? I’m here in Chicago.) Especially since turning 50, I’ve finally let go of my longings, accepting that I’ll probably single-single for the rest of my years. What I’ve lacked in romance has been more than made up for in rich friendships. I may have never met a man who appreciated my open heart and gift for intimacy, but my friends sure do. Also, as a dear writer friend put it: I’m very comfortable in my own company.
This summer, though, an unexpected chord has been sounding. I long to get away to a remote cabin, even tent, in the woods, but I don’t want to be alone. Much as I love my friends, that’s not exactly what I’m looking for either. (It doesn’t help that all my friends are married.) As so many friends take off on vacations with their families, I wonder why I must always either travel alone or towards family/friends? Don’t get me wrong – I’ve done lots of solo traveling, and loved it, but it’s lost its allure. Is it too much to want to travel with a loving companion, not a friend who’s left their spouse at home?
Thank you for sharing this, beautiful reflection and longing here. . .
This is a brilliant post and I can totally relate to it. You would think that in this day and age there would be no challenge to living single long-term. I have been living a Quirky Alone life for several years and I’m still surprised by the number of people who question my choice. I’m also surprised that I sometimes question if my life has as much meaning as my coupled friends. I always answer ‘yes’ but the fact that the question comes up for me shows how strongly our culture focuses on being part of a couple.
Absolutely. The bias is so strong it becomes hard to recognize, especially when it’s refracted through our own thoughts. Thanks for this comment Gavin.
I like how you say that it’s often we who tell ourselves (consciously or not) that we’re not as happy as married folks or parents… In those cases, we’re actually projecting our thoughts onto others, assuming that they must be thinking certain things of us when, in fact, they might not be. After reading Sara Eckel’s book I realized that the ‘voices’ telling me I’m “less-than” because I’m single are really my own, and I only imagine others are thinking them because people never really say anything to me directly about being happy or being single. Projections can certainly be strong, given our culture, but it’s good to remember that they’re still projections…
yes I totally relate to what you are saying Topia! I am often my own harshest critic especially when it comes to my dreaded “single” status. It is sometimes hard to differentiate between what I think and what others’ think…I think we can make a lot of assumptions that are not based on fact. x
Having been married and/or coupled from 13-34 years of age, raised a family – and now mostly single for the past 13, I am fortunate to sit in a really neutral comfortable spot. By this I mean I can see – and have experienced the whole spectrum of very married and nestled to the now completely unattached independent woman w/ grown kids in their 20’s. I don’t feel like there is something wrong with me because Im single now – other than my own utter indecisiveness over which state is preferable! I’ve been happily coupled for periods of time, and absolutely miserably enchained for equal bouts. If someone married or attached feels the need to want to couple me up – or support that direction for me, I recognize that it is “just where they’re at”. When I was divorcing, I thought most people who were having a rough patch should divorce. Now, I just tell them the exact truth – that I am single and happy but that I am open to the right relationship. It is really that simple and that is why Sasha’s QuirkyAlone movement has always resonated to true for me. There is nothing inferior about single, married, divorced, children/no children. Nothing. Everyones path is unique and valid and celebration worthy!
So great to see you here Katherine and to read your reflections! Love it.
It’s Paula White. How are you? At first, I thought I didn’t know what to say about this topic because as you know, I married myself less than a month ago and I love my own company. However, I thought about this just now: Try to focus instead on the advantages of being single rather than the people, places or situations that would make you feel inferior.
Personally, I find that both meditation and a regular exercise program helps. Expressing gratitude for the love I do have in my life from family and friends is good.
Also, I found that doing things that I have always wanted to do is very healing. For example, I am currently involved in a nonfiction writing project that requires a large amount of research. I love research. I always have. Even as an undergraduate, I attended a school that had the fifth largest library system in the United States and I practically lived in the libraries. I even asked people how I could do more research because I loved it so much. Now, I am involved in this nonfiction writing project.
To be honest, I am not sure if I would be able to do this type of project if I were in a relationship. It is not just the reading or the writing, but there is also some travel involved. It is very time consuming, but believe me, I am very grateful to have the opportunity. Even better, my attention is less directed towards being in a relationship or even the guilt complexes that people would have me to accept and more focused on the present moment and the fact that I am placing my goals and dreams first.
It may help to make a list of the things you really want to do, no matter how large or how small and see how you can cross some of those items off of your list. There’s more to life than being in a relationship and exploring that can allow for more self definition.
I hope this helps.
Oh Sasha, I am living it right now.
I’m 24 and turning 25 soon and my mother recently told me thay “woman who’s single by the age of 25 have something wrong and that will have some hard work to find a man to get married with”.
I’m not looking for a relationship, but every young relative that gets married is a constantly reminder for my family that i’m not doing it right or behaving like I should. In every phonecall from my relatives “when are you getting marrid?” “I know someone who might like you” and all of this is terrible to live with and for a while I was struggling with the doubt that maybe I should give in and start a family as soon as possible, but thankfully for your wisdom I have been able to just laugh at this situation and to know that I’m better off alone then having a “married status”.
hey Liz – I’m in my late twenties now but I have also struggled with the expectations from family throughout my 20’s. The on-going “when will you get a boyfriend?” questions and “Have you MET anyone YET?” But honestly, 25 is really young and you have plenty of time. We live in a different world now – when our parents were 25 and younger, I am sure life was very different. I think sometimes we really have to be careful what we “choose” to listen to. If you are happy right now and would rather be single than just settle for the next best thing, then that is great and stick with it 🙂
Kelly this is exactly what I’m going to do because yes I’m happy and focusing on keep it going on 🙂
“Convincing married people that I’m just as good as them despite the fact I never found anyone to love me despite my flaws, unlike they who did.”
I know plenty of people in long term relationships who don’t have that. Many people cling and adapt to relationships where they are not fully accepted to soothe their own insecurities. Last year I started dating having been single for 7 years and was repeatedly asked how I could havr been single for so long, implying that I was too nice for that. There seems to be an assumption that the only reason people will be single is because they have to be which encourages people to stay in unfulfilling relationships in order to feel valued.
Personally, I see being quirkyalone as a statement of not wanting to settle fot a relationship for its own sake. I agree that the difficulty is in embracing single life whilst being open to love. I rarely suffer from SIC, but I still struggle with connection.
Hi Dianne, Very interesting comment. Thank you for sharing your perspective. I’m curious, when you say you struggle with connection, what do you mean there? That’s something I have worked on in my own life and with my coaching clients, so I’m just curious what that means for you . . .