The New York Times recently published an article titled ‘Line Up, Children, Single File‘, discussing the growing number of families across the United States in which all of the adult children are single. According to a survey released by the Pew Research Center in September, 25 percent of Americans are expected to be single into their mid-40s and mid-50s, and are unlikely to have ever been married. As of 2013, there were over 100 million single people in the country. Of that number, 53 percent were women, and 47 percent were men. Today’s newsfeed on all fronts has no shortage of opinion articles comparing the lifestyles, functionality and happiness of single people versus partnered. The topic remains unavoidable, with various countries taking different stances on their citizens’ marital status and proliferation.
A large portion of my mental health practice in the San Francisco Bay Area consists of men and women of varying ages and cultural backgrounds seeking professional help to figure out “why they’re still single.” Even typing that phrase induces an instant urge in me to clarify: there is no reason to believe something is wrong with you, or your life if you remain single or unmarried until the end of your days. Okay carry on.
Mostly, people share with me that remaining single has been a great way to focus on personal goals, explore life’s choices with freedom, and experience a range of romantic undertakings. Undoubtedly, today’s generation of American youth benefit from a longer period of socially acceptable time in which to delay settling down romantically. Even with this cultural shift in marital expectations, many still feel pressured to figure out their romantic future. One young woman’s social media success has spawned from capitalizing on her ‘crazy Jewish mom’s‘ comical text rants about her dating life and overzealous attempts to find her daughter an ideal match. Some of #crazyjewishmom‘s texts to her daughter:
“Happy birthday spawn. Welcome to the wrong side of 25. The expiration date on your eggs is officially in sight. Tick Tock.”
“NO RING ON THE FINGER YOU MUST NOT LINGER”
“Exactly how long have you two been dating? I don’t want you to become the girl who stayed too long and then ‘OMG, I’m 40 and I forgot to get married and have babies.’ YOU WILL GIVE ME GRANDCHILDREN.”
This type of societal pressure can fall especially hard upon women. I’ve had no less than a dozen women of all racial backgrounds come into my office (all well under the age of 28!) to discuss freezing their eggs, panicked about their single status and how this may impact the future of their fertility. They worry: “What if I never find someone I’m attracted to enough to want to marry? I don’t want to end up alone. I have friends who’ve spent years with someone, gotten engaged and then it goes south before they even make it to the alter. Having to start over like that, what a nightmare!”
Many men well under 35, but also into their 40’s come in for professional help concerned that the woman they’re seriously dating or living with “might not be the one.” Guys tend to not dissect their relationships with their friends the way women do, but they still worry. “There’s this expectation that we get engaged; get married. Her friends, our parents, all expect me to pop the question, but doc, I just don’t know if it’s the right thing for me. Especially right now. Maybe my feelings will change in the future, I don’t know. The pressure to be financially ready feels overwhelming, and I’m I’m not sure if my feelings for her are strong enough to make a marriage work well, or last for that matter. I feel guilty because I care a lot about her, and I don’t want to waste her time. She wants a marital commitment now, and I’m just not there yet.”
My perspective as the ‘expert’ in the room is informed by both my personal and professional experiences. I’ve navigated the ups and downs of my own 20 year relationship shaped by racial/cultural differences, bi-coastal dating, completing graduate schools, marriage, and balancing two demanding careers while co-parenting (not to mention other curveballs life has thrown us!) Professionally, I’ve spent 10 years helping people gain insight and direction, inter-personal growth and resilience through virtually all stages of singlehood or commitment. These are some of the most salient tips I believe can help you skillfully maneuver your relationship status, regardless of what direction it takes.
Stop overthinking everything. Constantly worrying about the future or ‘worst case scenario’ will ironically contribute to that scenario unfolding. Whether you’re worried you’ll be #foreversingle or you can’t figure out if you’re with the ‘right person’, focusing your time and attention on that negativity will prevent you from gaining the perspective you’ll need to move forward skillfully and insightfully. Take pause and ask yourself “are my negative feelings based on something that’s actually happening right now, or am I working myself into an emotional tailspin over something that hasn’t even happened yet?” Make a concerted effort to focus on the here and now so your feelings can reflect that reality, instead of a poor outcome that hasn’t even arrived.
The first and foremost task of dating someone new (if the goal is developing a committed relationship) is identifying if you can consistently have fun with each other (especially outside of sex) without constant conflict. I cannot underscore the importance of this. It makes zero difference how this person ‘looks on paper’, ‘looks in a bathing suit’ or ‘looks like to your family’ if you cannot get along genuinely and consistently. Does your relationship stand up to what I call the DMV test? Can you see yourself still wanting to spend time with this person, even if it means you’re just waiting with them to take care of their business at the DMV? Would they do this with you; keep you company? Because real life relationships are not constantly filled with a string of fun, well-planned dates. Long-term relationships are filled with real life, which is often a lot of monotonous, draining tasks. Find someone that can make the tasks of real life still fun and enjoyable because the two of you have fun doing them together. If you primarily only enjoy spending time with someone while being sexual, and/or you don’t have many mutual interests outside of the sexual chemistry, accept this relationship for what it is: a great hook up partner. They will likely not fulfill your needs beyond that, and you will drive each other crazy trying to force this relationship into being something that it’s clearly not.
If the idea of couples counseling has come up between you and your partner before you’ve even managed to fully commit, hear me out. I’m going to share some brutal honesty with you. You should aim to feel like your relationship is mutually satisfying at a near 10 (on the relationship scale, with 10 being total bliss) when you decide to fully commit to someone as a life partner. If you can’t get there without enlisting a professional relationship referee, the two of you are likely not a good long term match. Because life will wear the relationship down. (Watch any of Chris Rock’s bits on relationships; his point is, ‘LIFE IS LONG‘. There are no ‘soulmates,’ there are just mates- basically, choose someone you get along with well.) When you decide to settle down with someone, you both should feel like the relationship is strong and solid. Like “we can conquer anything together!” Because over time, difficult and sometimes tragic things can happen. Parenting demands, job loss, health problems, extended family problems, financial strain, poor choices, and mistakes that hurt each other can happen. Eventually, that relationship that was once a 9 or 10 will settle into a pretty decent 7 or 8 on your best to average days. Even if it drops considerably on the worse days, it’s still strong enough to be a tremendous source of support, love, and consistency to weather the long journey of life. If you start out committing to a relationship that at it’s best is a 6 or 7, life can lead that relationship to gravitate consistently into the lower third on the relationship scale. These relationships that dwindle into the 2’s and 3’s during harder times make for a pretty dysfunctional family life.
Aim to communicate your feelings with the person you’re dating honestly, even if those feelings are uncertainty about the future, or your ability to further commit. You do not have to know how you’ll feel in the future to be ‘fair’ to your partner. But you should communicate how you’re feeling right now, and give yourself and this person a fair chance to make a decision about how to proceed based on the current climate of the relationship.
Lastly, remember that no one’s relationship, regardless of length or marital status is easy all the time. All relationships face challenges and difficult periods. There will be unsolvable differences between you. If you can figure out how to manage these differences respectfully and with the understanding that no one is perfect, you will reap the benefits of all that a loving and long lasting relationship has to offer.
In the coming months, Dr. Christina Villarreal will offer a 2 hour workshop on Women’s Sexual Health, Dating and Relationship Management, to be held in the San Francisco Bay Area. Dates and times TBA. For more information and professional inquires, visit her website at www.drchristinavillarreal.com or contact her directly via phone or email.