“You burden me with your questions / You'd have me tell no lies / You're always asking what it's all about, / Darlin' listen to my replies.”
- “Unbelievable,” EMF, 1991
Sitting across from a new client, trying not to sweat through my chambray jumpsuit in the June heat, I had an experience I think many single women can relate to. People put us in situations where they’re unwittingly rude, and rather than make them feel bad about it, we soak up the bad for the both of us. In this instance, my client said, “How are you single?” And that was my cue. Time to perform my act. The role of the sweet, gracious, warm single person who never gets offended by offensive things. Who never makes anyone feel bad for making me feel bad for something that should never make anyone feel bad, but does anyway because society thinks single women are wrong and sad and not finished yet.
Single women are shock absorbers. Invasive questions, casual comments, unsolicited advice, unwanted flirtations, suggestive “introductions,” all of it is assumed to be totally okay to do and say to us because we’re not claimed like a parking space. No one ever really takes a moment to consider the weight of not just their words, but the situations they’re putting us in. Probably because we never ask them to.
Will that be awkward for her to answer? Will she feel like she’s being put on the spot? Will this embarrass her?
We just have to sit there and deal, gripping a wine glass with dangerous torque and then refilling it with great speed. For me at least, the only real societally acceptable outcome in any of these situations is to simply smile and diffuse. Something women of all relationship statuses are all too familiar with. But as it specifically relates to questions about my singleness, and the situations I’m put in as a result, I think maybe I’m done being nice.
Historically, anger and honesty haven’t really been options for me in these situations. Saying what I actually think, compounded with the emotional response to how the situations themselves make me feel would be tantamount to a social shunning. If I tell the truth, if I fire back what I’m actually thinking, what the other person deserves to hear, I’ll be the one to lose. Think about it:
How am I single? I don’t know, maybe because it’s getting increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to actually meet new people socially because our phones are turning us all into microwaves with eyes and circulatory systems. The older I get the more biases are laid against me in both online and IRL dating because women have invisible societal expiration dates on their foreheads. Men also treat us as endless options in a sea of more options, and I think they took the word “manners” out of the dictionary sometime in the late aughts. Maybe that’s it, Karen, I dunno?
And then that would become the attribution, the answer to the question. How is she single? Omg because she’s so angry and bitter and bitchy — that’s why. I can’t tell the truth, I can’t not be nice, because then I’ll have a bad attitude. And I don’t believe a “bad attitude” is why I’m single, or even that being single is something I have to have a why for. But I also just want to avoid hearing other people tell me that my singleness is attitude-based, because I’ve reached my max for people’s bullshit programming about my singleness long ago.
In my earliest years of being single, I was still getting really angry about bad dates, shitty guys, ghosting, all of it. I should have shut up and been grateful for all the people I was meeting on a regular basis, but there was still a “2” in front of my age and I didn’t know shit yet. I’d complain about dating and my lack of success to friends, things that at the time really upset me, and they’d tell me that my “attitude” was the reason I wasn’t having any luck. They’d say I was never going to meet anyone if I was so angry. And in my mind I always wondered, if I’m not allowed to get angry over $8 glasses of happy hour wine with my girlfriends, then where? Maybe nowhere, as it turns out.
When my client asked me, “how are you single?” I did what we all do. I smiled, shrugged my shoulders, sang “I don’t know!” out of my mouth somehow, and felt my stomach muscles (or what passes for them) tighten. She meant it in a kind way, of course. It was an indication that she liked me, that she couldn’t believe nobody had “caught” me yet. But these casual questions and compliments that are often posed to single women are invasive and embarrassing, and impossible to answer in a way that’s going to satisfy anyone in the room. But instead of saying so, I absorb impact. I play my part, rather than getting angry, saying what I want to say, and potentially offending someone who just made me feel really bad. Instead I’ve learned to take my anger to the internet —the exchange rate is better.
The questions couples get typically have answers that are societally positive.
“When’s the wedding?”
“When are you due?”
“How long have you been together?”
These questions are no one’s business when you think about it, but they’ll be met with a warm, accepting smile, not the frown, head tilt, or sad arm pat. How am I single? I haven’t met my partner. That’s really how. And it’s only sad if society keeps thinking so — I certainly don’t. I see optimism in my answer. I see what I have to look forward to someday. But that idea is still pretty new, and often very hard to sell. Rather than try to sell it, and be forced to defend my single mindset, I put on a show full of niceness.
Why am I so scared to offend someone who has already offended me? What’s the best way to respond to questions and comments that make you feel bad about yourself for simply being who you are? In my mind, we should never feel bad about being single in the first place, but I know my ideal scenario might take some time to catch on. I’m working on it.
I think, as a single woman, I spend too much time absorbing the impact, and too much time calculating the “nice” way to respond. I want to be more confident in responding to questions and scenarios proportionally. At the same time, I also want to respond with respect, because at the end of the day, I think it will breed more of the same. I don’t know what this looks like in real life yet, my solution is out there somewhere, probably hiding between the cushions of the couch my future partner is Netflixing on as we speak.
What I know for now is that I don’t have to provide a safe landing pad for other people’s single curiosities and societally programmed ideas. I’m not on display, I don’t have to explain my life, or anyone else’s, to all who happen to wonder. And in my search for confidence, for a way to respond in situations that make me uncomfortable, it’s my hope that I make other women feel a little more seen and understood in these situations, too. Because they happen all the time, they suck all the time, and maybe if we all find a little more confidence in dealing with them together, they’ll stop happening. That would be nice.