While browsing around the Psychology Today website today, I came across a profound interview by Bella DePaulo on her “Living Single” blog. In the entry, DePaulo, a Harvard-educated social psychologist who authored Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, speaks with her friend E. Kay Trimberger (author of The New Single Woman) about the implications of being single in different cultures, focusing primarily on women in India since Trimberger has spent considerable time researching there.
Early in the discussion, Trimberger describes three major “cultural factors” that she says make it “easier to be single in India”. First, singledom doesn’t have the negative connotation it does in many Western cultures; celibacy is regarded positively. Next, she says, arranged marriages, which predominate in India, take the woman’s “worthiness” out of the equation. That is, if a woman remains unmarried, there could be many factors at play: not enough dowry on the part of her family, trouble finding a good match, and so on. In the U.S., however, we still tend to view older singles, particularly women, with suspicion, assuming there must be something fundamentally wrong with the person.
Trimberger’s third cultural factor, and the one I find most interesting and relevant to the life experiences of Western readers of this blog, is, as she puts it, “the cultural imperative in the U.S. that being coupled is essential to human happiness.” Take a moment to really consider this. As a culture, we have fantastically unrealistic expectations about our relationships, as any fairy tale or breathless tabloid wedding account will show you. Haven’t you been socialized from day one, either outright or more implicitly, to pity singles older than their late twenties, operating under the assumption that all of them would rather be married and were simply unlucky in love or not desirable enough? When was the last time you read a fairy tale whose plot ventured beyond “…And they lived happily ever after?” The message implicit in these endings is simple: finding and landing a life partner is the tough part, and married life is nothing but sunshine and blue skies, with nary a screaming baby or round of marriage counseling on the horizon. Trimberger elaborates:
Marriage in India is more highly valued, but its purpose is family ties, not coupled happiness. Compatibility between spouses is not linked to finding a soul mate, but is seen as the result of patient work, along with family support. As a result, single women in India are not pitied because they are not coupled.
To illustrate the implications, let me quote from a one of India’s feminist intellectuals, Urvashi Butalia, a publisher who founded the feminist press Kali for Women. She says, “Oddly enough, the first time I really became conscious of my singleness was in, of all places, England. . . . [I found myself] in a culture that so privileges relationships, especially heterosexual one, that if you are not in one (and even if you have been in one that may have broken up you are expected to jump into another almost immediately), there has to be something wrong with you. So I was always the odd one out, the one without the man, the one to be felt sorry for. And it always bewildered me, because I did not feel sorry for myself, so why did they? It wasn’t a nice feeling.”
I spent a semester abroad in the predominantly Hindu nation of Nepal, India’s neighbor to the north, and noticed many of the points Trimberger makes firsthand. Perhaps the biggest difference I observed between married life in Nepal and in the States was the amount of time people seemed to feel obligated to spend with their spouses. In the U.S., we expect our significant others to fulfill our every need: spouse, confidant, lover, friend. Couples hang out as couples; the rare pairs who maintain separate apartments or bicoastal marriages are met with pity or disbelief. Conversely, in Nepal, I noticed much more separation between people’s married lives and their circles of friends; women spent time with other women, men spent time with other men. The undercurrent of desperation and possessiveness apparent in so many of our romantic relationships here in the West was, for the most part, noticeably absent.
Whether you’re single or coupled, I hope you’ll spend some time considering the questions raised by the work of singles researchers like Kay Trimberger and Bella DePaulo. What did your parents and society as a whole teach you about singledom and marriage? How does this affect your relationships, and/or your contentment as a single person?