It’s officially not cool to talk about your relationship on the Internet, according to one of this year’s biggest social networking controversies. In late summer — it must have correlated with wedding season — I noticed an eruption of posts by single bloggers who said that web-touting the fact that you’re coupled-up is downright offensive. Why were married couples wearing their relationships on their sleeves by using their Facebook status to shout out their anniversary or express their love to their partner? If your life together were really that great, the critics asserted, then you wouldn’t be on Facebook trying to convince us, would you? I pondered the argument, albeit very briefly, finding these couples’ online activity benign and actually kind of sweet…but I did catch myself wondering: They treat each other this nicely in person too, right?
I started to take loose stock of my friends’ Facebook relationship statuses: the marrieds still seem to be listing their marriedness, and people in a relationship post it occasionally these days (but after a couple years on Facebook, we’ve all pretty much learned that there are humiliating risks that come with advertising a relationship whose permanence is questionable). But the singles … it dawned on me that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen a friend list “Single” as their relationship status. It’s an unspoken trend: most of us believe that it’s better to appear mysterious and potentially unavailable than it is to appear alone.
When it comes to online Single status, vagueness is increasingly en vogue. Surrounded by acquaintances whom we see in person only occasionally, but whose opinions of us affect how much we value ourselves, we paint the most desirable image that a status update window and a few virtual photo albums will allow. And if that’s not exhausting enough, there’s a real-life version of this intense social system that helps each of us determine our individual worth: our families. No wonder the holidays are said to cause a spike in anxiety, depression and loneliness among single people. To appease these symptoms we might consider that maybe their supposition is, “She’s single, and she’s cool with it so we are too. Moving on!” But often we singles sense some stigma; as if our lone-star status transforms Mom’s living room carpet into eggshells that the whole family’s walking on. After her closest cousin got married, a friend in her late twenties told me, “I have no one to talk to at family functions anymore.” Within the family setting there’s a smaller degree of dialogue around singleness compared to being coupled-off, and thanks to that, some of us feel as though not having a significant other is synonymous with actually being insignificant.
Is it worse if one’s oneness puts them at the center of attention? This Thanksgiving, an uncle asked my youngest cousin, who’s a 22-year-old college senior with zero problem attracting guys: “So, why didn’t you bring your boyfriend?”
“Because, Uncle Jim,” she answered sweetly, “I don’t have a boyfriend.”
“Well, do you have a girlfriend?”
Suddenly silence fell across the kitchen, and the crowd lining up to pile turkey on their plates all turned to find my cousin with wide eyes. Then she burst out giggling. “I knew that one of these years, if I kept showing up without a boyfriend, you guys would start to ask me that!”
The whole family erupted in laughs, and I passed her a smile that said, “Welcome to the family’s club of adult singles.” Later, though, it struck me how an off-the-cuff nosy question that could have started dinner on an awkward note actually opened a heretofore closed subject.
Of my 12 cousins, only one of us is married. The other 11 are hardly just killing time: we live in bustling cities, we have jobs we’re passionate about, we have close relationships with friends that may be more fulfilling than some marriages are. We also love our family, a lot. Feeling love and belonging is one of the major the pillars of self-esteem, and today, most single people are experiencing those warm-and-fuzzy feelings outside of romantic relationships. Apart from our phantom Facebook relationship status, nothing’s missing. And thanks to a lot of cultural discourse these last few years, discussions about sexual orientation aren’t taboo for families anymore — not even your camouflage-wearing, bear-hunting uncle.
Are all singles experiencing total satisfaction right now? OK, not everyone. On Thanksgiving my grandmothers, both widows, hinted at feeling some degree of sadness (actually one of them said, “I hate the holidays. Hate them”). But I’ve come to believe that satisfaction with being alone happens on a spectrum: if finding your soulmate is your primary obsession and you haven’t achieved it yet, well, no wonder your happiness falls close to zero, especially this time of year when it looks like everyone else is celebrating life and their bonds with each other. But if you’re occupying yourself with other important undertakings — say, planning a holiday party for friends, volunteering at a soup kitchen, experimenting with a vegan cleanse to detox after Thanksgiving, researching vacations or a spiritual retreat in 2012, or, hey, even joining a dating site and meeting Mr. Right Now for a hot toddy instead of pining so desperately for Mr. Right to show up — you’re going to feel good. Whether you’re a 30-year-old single, a middle-aged married or a 90-year-old widower, all each of us needs is something that makes us pleased to get out of bed every day.
Scientists in New York have been studying a population of Jewish people whose ancestors tend to live beyond age 100, and one of these Jews told a researcher the secret to living a long, contented life, even without a partner: “The capacity to enjoy learning is what matters.”
At this period in our culture — and this time of year that puts relationship status so hotly under the spotlight, if not under the mistletoe — not having a set-in-stone relationship is a happier and more normal prospect than it’s ever been before. Own your singleness while you’re single. You’ve made choices that have advanced your personhood, that have preserved your inner peace. One’s romantic status doesn’t just happen.
And process this: worth is all inside. You’re the only one who can mine your potential. Growing occupied with something meaningful and focusing on something besides ourselves is what makes each of us a magnet for love.
Put that in your status update. If I call you out, take it as a compliment.
[Photo credit: Skreened.com. Purchase the t-shirt here]
Kristine Gasbarre is the author of How to Love an American Man: A True Story and a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. Follow, friend and visit her at www.kristinegasbarre.com