Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Relationship Assumptions

I've been reflecting on the experience of being single and over 30. It's an interesting place to be, partly because there are a lot of cultural assumptions that come with the territory. Two of my students, middle aged women from Ethiopia, asked me today why I don't have a car. I went into the various reasons - to be more environmentally-friendly, to save money, to get more exercise. They weren't convinced, and the one asked the other "Was he born in Minnesota? Is he from here?" After that was confirmed, the other went on to say "You have a family, you need a car. It's important." I then said "I'm single." They couldn't believe that one either. This opened the door to all kinds of questioning about when I would get married, and if, among other things, a rich woman with "a house and car" asked me to marry, would I do it. The whole conversation was pretty jovial, not heavy at all, but you can see some of the assumptions there.

But assumptions about relationships come not only from my immigrant and refugee students. They seem to arrive from all over the place, even from other 30+ single people. Here are some of the assumptions I have run into as a result of being single for at least part of the past three years - post 30 years old.

1. There must be something wrong with you if you're not coupled by now.

Somehow, it still surprises a fair amount of people that you can be well-adjusted and yet not ever married, or even close to getting married, at my age. Even some 30 plus singles have made comments to me like this, which makes you wonder they thought of themselves, given that we were in the same boat so to speak.

2. What about children? Certainly you want or have children, right?

This one seems to be especially true for female friends of mine who are 30 plus and single. And there still seems to be a cultural stigma around either not wanting children, or questioning whether you want children or not. Never mind that there 6 billion plus people on the planet, and hundreds of thousands of unwanted children languishing away in orphanages, group homes, and other places. It's one thing to wonder about someone like me if you're from a war-torn country where children sadly die fairly often, and where childbirth itself is still a fairly difficult, sometimes dangerous process. Or from a country where family and relationship structures are highly controlled and norms adhered to because of what is considered culturally acceptable. I question these, too, and sometimes have "interesting" discussions with my students.

But to have such an attitude in the U.S., or some other post-industrial nation is, in my opinion, a failure to step outside of the reproduction box to see that not everyone needs to get married and have children to be well-adjusted and happy. I say this more firmly because there has been much more talk about accepting alternative or complimentary approaches to living and being in countries like the U.S. We like to tell other nations we are democratic, open, free, etc. And yet, we still seem to really like our white picket fence, two children, car in the big garage fantasy. So much so that many of us go around questioning and subtly or not so subtly go around shaming those who either don't fit that norm now, or who never wanted to fit that norm in the first place.

3. Are you gay? Maybe even just a little bit?

Lines like this reveal so much. The heterosexual norm is so easy to threaten that simply being an older single raises alarms. And notice how there's a not so subtle bias playing out in lines like this, which link "not normal" with being gay. The same may be said when the word gay is replaced with lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or any other sexual minority. I have a friend who went on a date with someone who questioned him repeatedly about his sexuality solely because he works as a hairdresser. She couldn't believe - because she failed to step out of cultural stereotypes - that he could be both a male hairdresser and interested in women.

And what if someone is part of the GLBT community? Somehow, getting a confirmation on such a question teaches you nothing about why someone is single. I have another friend who has spent much of her adult life single, and really quite content being single, and has only in the past few years started dating a bit. Although she has been attracted to both men and women in the past, she often chose to focus on the work and studying she was doing, and really didn't feel she was missing out on something by not dating.

4. Aren't you terribly lonely? How do you do it?

This line of thinking is understandable in some ways. Most of us want a close companion to share our lives with. And yes, sometimes I feel lonely, but not nearly as much as some people seem to think I would given my situation. However, there is still strong assumptions behind thoughts like this. First, that people want to be coupled at all times, and can barely handle it when they are not. And two, that those who say they are just fine without a partner are somehow lying or maladjusted. Or, as a few have suggested to me, maybe "you should become a monk." In other words, being along like this as 30 plus adult somehow is linked with a spiritual calling in some people's minds. This is not to say that such a link is never true, but it suggests the deep split we often have when it comes to sexuality and relational intimacy on the one hand, and spirituality on the other hand.

I find all of this very curious, and yet clearly it's reflective of not only cultural issues with people that don't "fit in," but also an example of how strongly our minds want to pin things down, have solid answers about what reality is and how it works. A single man in his thirties raises a few eyebrows. A single woman in her thirties seems to raise a few more eyebrows. A single person who's gender you can't quite define raises many eyebrows. And this seems more so when these people have no children. Single mothers and fathers get a lot of grief, too, but the children are markers of normalcy for them. I don't have that kind of marker, and I'm not even sure I want to. And saying this, some might wonder what I think of children, as if the two issues have to be linked.


Jennifer Campaniolo said...

Hi Nathan,

Maybe you would do better living in NY! Almost everyone in their 30's--men in particular--are single and enjoy playing the field. Seriously, though, I understand how you feel. I didn't get married until I was 34 but I did live with my future husband for 4 years, which worried my parents because they thought I was settling for just living together. I wasn't. Both of us wanted to make sure it was right. I don't want to go through a divorce, and my husband, who's been married once before when he was 20, also didn't want to jump into things just to shut people up.
Also, we're not planning to have any children, an idea which originated with him (I could have gone either way). But now that I'm 36, I'm feeling OK with my decision. I'm used to my freedom and I don't think either of us are sensible or stable enough to be great parents. That doesn't mean we don't like children (well, there are some kids I don't like!) but I know what you mean--especially for women there's an expectation that you're going to have kids. I have to fight the feeling of inferiority as a woman (which I know intellectually isn't true) because I'm not a mother. Most of my friends have started their families, so there are some times that I have my doubts. But these doubts have more to do with wanting to keep up with my friends and share life experiences more than it has to do with a deep desire to raise a child.
You sound very healthy in your arguments for being single, and I applaud that. If you get married or not, the important thing is that you're content with yourself.


Nathan said...

Hi Jennifer,

Thanks for the comments. I agree with you that it can be challenging to not follow "the norm". I don't plan on having children either, unless something changes. And it would be really nice if we could move past the idea culturally that you have to have a family to be successful. It strikes me that some of us were not put on the earth to be parents, that we have other callings, and that to not pursue those callings really is denying who we are.

I do sometimes wonder if living in the Midwest does make it a bit more difficult to be "outside of the box." That's true anywhere to some degree, but we have a lot of conformity pressure here in my opinion - often unstated, but definitely there.