Our quirky chat about single shame last week was so amazing and deep I needed to let it settle into my body and soul to write up this post for you. I feel so blessed that we were able to have this healing conversation. I chose the topic because I have noticed the question as a theme in my private coaching and in the questions that I get from readers:
“I haven’t had a boyfriend or girlfriend in five (or ten) years (or ever). what does that say about me? When I start dating someone, how do I talk about my relationship history (or lack thereof)?”
I invited the genius Sara Eckel to join me because she’s written so beautifully about this dilemma in her Modern Love essay and her book It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. When she was first dating her now-husband Mark, Sara agonized about when to tell him “the truth.” (She hadn’t been in a relationship for nine years.) In the end, he didn’t care. He was happy he hadn’t had a boyfriend because she was available for him.
Watch the video and you’ll see her read from the beginning of her original Modern Love essay where she reads about always hating that question, “How long has it been since your last relationship?”
She writes about the feeling of being grilled with such beautiful precision: “It seemed so brazenly evaluative—an employment counselor inquiring about a gap in your résumé, a dental hygienist asking how often you flossed.” I shared my own story of trying to spit out the truth to a boyfriend that my longest relationship had been nine months, and it took me a full half hour to get those words out of my mouth. When I did, he was shocked that was the thing I had been trying to tell him.
Our discussion was beautiful and we had great questions from quirkyalones around the globe. I knew this chat would strike a nerve and be healing and it was. I want to share with you my biggest takeaways from this deep chat and I hope what you will take from it. My intention here is that all of us quirkyalones shed the shame and own our stories.
We are the harshest judges of ourselves.
Shame is so heavy for us.
When you tell someone your shameful “thing,” there’s a good chance that person will likely shrug their shoulders and say, that’s it? (Or maybe they won’t. They judge you. So that’s not the person for you.)
Sara’s advice, “Whatever you are feeling ashamed about, sharing it with someone really helps.”
We also need to realize how we are buying into a societal idea that something is wrong with us if our lives don’t follow the prescribed path, and it’s our responsibility to evaluate that idea and discard it if it actually doesn’t serve us.
Ultimately what we are talking about is owning your story. Brene Brown teaches us about the courage that is required to be vulnerable (and live a joyful life). She writes, “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
Don’t be like the writer who believes only the one bad review.
If a clueless stranger or friend makes a hurtful comment like, “How is it possible that you’ve never lived with a man?” or “I don’t get it, you’re great, how come you’ve never had a long-term relationship?” Don’t take that to mean that everyone thinks that way—or that no one will want you. Sara and I are both writers. We know that tendency to believe the one bad review. Don’t generalize and read into people’s minds thinking you won’t be wanted.
Women and men both feel this pain, but more women feel it.
One great question that came in during the chat was from Andreas in Germany. He asked if single shame affects women more deeply. I wrote in my book Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics there are more positive archetypes for male aloneness like James Dean and Odysseus.
Women tend to be more deeply worried that lack of relationship experience. However, both Sara and I get emails from men, and I have male coaching clients. We know men feel this pain of being judged too. The Internet is full of posts with headlines like: “Red flag, is it a bad sign if someone was never married by middle age?” “Is there something wrong with a man over 40 who has never married?” But it’s also true that for men singleness may be viewed more simply as a choice. Men simply don’t have the same level of sexist junk aimed at them, whether that’s the “old maid” stereotype or the virgin-whore dichotomy that leaves a sexually expressed woman worried if she’s a “slut.”
People often assume the fulfillment of a woman’s true identity comes through relationship (marriage and motherhood) whereas for a man his first fulfillment comes through purpose (work). So if you’re a woman and you haven’t had much long-term relationship experience so far, it’s easy to feel you have failed at being a “woman.” Women also tend to be more self-critical (women are almost twice as likely as men to develop depression) and women internalize societal messages more deeply. So our job as women is to question those societal ideals and not let them affect the way we view ourselves. We need to investigate the ways in which we are buying into messages that are just going to make us feel bad—and choose new mantras and messages for ourselves.
Open yourself to believing the opposite can be true.
One of the most powerful tools I use in my coaching practice is derived from the work of Byron Katie.
Byron Katie encourages us to always ask whether the opposite could be true of the things we are deeply invested in believing. In this case, I encourage you to question your belief that being single for a long time makes you unattractive.
Perhaps there are many Marks out there who would be happy you are available.
A male quirkyalone friend delighted me with his perspective (so different from what many quirkyalone women assume): “While it’s a generalization, and everyone’s different, I really don’t think any men I know would care that a woman hasn’t lived with a man or had a long-term serious relationship with someone before, and it would actually be a turn-on that they haven’t. No one likes to picture past significant others of a person they’re dating, plus if it works out you get to experience something for the first time with someone. I can’t speak for the women’s point of view re: a man’s history of singledom, but I’ve never had a conversation with a male friend where we were at all concerned about a *lack* of significant history of someone we’re dating.”
Remember everyone has their “thing.”
I always remember an episode of Ally McBeal where Ally and Robert Downey Jr.’s character are falling in love. She feels the need to spill all her flaws in a waterfall of self-criticism. “You know I’m vain, and self-absorbed, and difficult,” etc. etc. etc. Somehow we feel the need to confess this stuff about yourselves. You better know my flaws!
Daniel Jones, the editor of the Modern Love column, and author of the new book Love Illuminated: Exploring Life’s Most Mystifying Subject (with the Help of 50,000 Strangers) has read a mountain of personal stories about dating and love. One common theme: people worry that something about them is deeply unacceptable. Sara met a woman on book tour who thought that “thing” was being vegan. For me a long time the “thing” jumped from my long-term singlehood to the fact that I like to travel. Or that it was that I let dishes pile up in the sink.
Funny how creative the mind can be with coming up with an unacceptable “thing” about ourselves!
We are “thing” machines. What’s yours? Name it and set yourself free. If you confess your “thing” to someone else, they might laugh at you thinking it’s unacceptable. [You could even post it as a comment here.]
Sara’s advice: “Remember your date probably has a ‘thing’ too that they are worried about.”
You don’t owe anyone an explanation.
You don’t have to explain yourself. When random people ask you why are you single you can say “I don’t know.” Part of self-respect and owning the worthiness of your own story means practicing a kind of containment where you share what you want to share.
You have nothing to confess to a new date either. When you start dating someone new, you don’t have to “hide” your relationship resume (or lack thereof), but you also don’t have to confess it in the first, third, fifth, or seventh date. Confessing implies there is something wrong with you. It’s natural that someone wants to know about your story, but their interest doesn’t mean they are prodding for your “fatal flaw.” Online dating may encourage a consumer mentality, but that’s not the way it works when you are getting to know someone who is really interested in you IRL (in real life). You can let your history come out and unfold as you get to know each other as the facts and intimate stories of your life emerge.
You could even be proud. Or at least view your history neutrally.
Long-term singlehood is a relatively rare phenomenon in part because few people still make the choice to say no to a mediocre or not so amazing relationship at 29 or 31 or 36 and hold on for what they really want. It’s easy for most people to call this “picky”—maybe it means intuitive. Maybe it means high standards. Maybe it means you’ve been busy. Or maybe you have no idea why. Being quirkyalone isn’t a higher calling than being a serial monogamist or a committed single, all paths are equally valid, but you have permission and encouragement to see your choices as courageous.
On the other hand maybe you have been single for a long time and it’s not completely by choice, it’s because you walled yourself off or didn’t have the courage to put yourself out there. Maybe there’s something very deep from your childhood that you didn’t quite figure out yet or you never saw intimacy modeled in your family life, so you have no idea how to create an intimate long-term relationship. That’s challenging, but there’s nothing wrong with that either. We all have issues to work through. Learning how to be intimate and to be in a healthy relationships is the work of a lifetime. No matter where you are, you’re on a journey.
You can see your history neutrally as what has happened, nothing more nothing less. Mindful meditation can help you with this process, as Sara mentions in the chat. If it’s your desire to date, you can make the choice to learn how to date and be in a healthy relationship and practice relationship skills. I emphasize this with my clients in my my private coaching that you can develop these skills no matter where you are in life and use them to improve all your relationships, most fundamentally your relationship with yourself.
This chat was cathartic!
Here’s an email I got after the chat. I’m sharing this with Susan’s permission because she wants to own her story and so you can get the vibe of how emotional this topic is for her and many people.
Just want to say thank you so much for the Single Shame chat. I will admit the tears were flowing at times, but in a cathartic way. I wrote that first question (Sue C.), and the answer was healing—to realize that I am the one heaping the shame and feelings of inadequacy onto myself. I think it’s time for me to stop doing that.
I found it funny how when Sara was answering my question, she referred to mindful meditation. I just starting taking a meditation class last month (and am about to leave for class in a few minutes). If feels like I am starting a new personal journey, and I love it when the different threads come together.
By the way, my name is Susan, not Sue – again, that’s me trying to hide lest I be exposed as that perpetually single person. But as you said, I have to own my story. So Susan it is.
Another women left this message:
Hi Sasha! I just watched the Spreecast chat. Wow. So real. So honest. Thank you. I felt like I was having a deep conversation with good friends.
In the first part of the video I felt like saying: “But there IS something wrong with me.” Because I feel I know why I am single, it has a lot to do with how I was brought up. There is a lack of trust and fear of risking my heart only to be hurt, and shame for being imperfect. So I just haven’t bothered. But maybe it’s not that simple, maybe the story I have been telling myself is quite heavy-handed on the self blame, a bad habit. The facts are that I have been single for 7 years. Be it circumstantial or my own doing.
As the conversation went on, the perception of my situation morphed a little in my brain. “Maybe it’s just something that happened” doesn’t sound so implausible anymore. This new outlook is one of the roots to the self-acceptance you mentioned in the video. It makes everything (my damn story) so much more palatable.
I LOVE the idea of the group coaching! I am signed up to your list already so I will hear about it 🙂