By Dr. Bruce Fisher and Dr. Robert Alberti
Why it’s more than okay to be single.
Singleness is a time to emphasize investment in your own personal growth rather than in other relationships. A period of singleness enables you to build confidence in yourself so you can experience and enjoy being single as an acceptable alternative lifestyle, not as a time to be lonely. Living as a single person is an affirmation of strength and self -- not an embarrassing admission of failure. At this stage in the divorce process, you’ll find yourself feeling more relaxed in the company of others – and no longer wasting emotional energy being a social chameleon. Post-marital guilt, self-doubts, and questions like "Will I ever love again?" are greatly diminished. Now is the time for some introspection about why it’s perfectly okay to be single.
Were You Ever Really Single Before?
Many people never learned to be single persons before they married. They went from parental homes to marriage homes, never even considered that one could be happy living as a single person, and never questioned the myth that one married and lived happily ever after.
Mona lived with her parents until she married Joe. She went from pleasing one man, her father, to pleasing another man, her husband. When Joe first talked about leaving, she clung to him because the thought of living alone was terrifying. She had never learned to please herself. She had always been a dependent person, and now the thought of being independent, although challenging, was frightening to her. She was embarrassed because it really sounded silly to her that a woman of 25 did not know her own mind, or know what to do with her life.
Only gradually did she adjust to being alone. At first she searched for other relationships, something/someone to lean on. As she became more and more confident, she began doing more things for herself and enjoying it. She wallpapered a whole bedroom; sawed the boards and pounded the nails for a new patio fence; went to a movie by herself one afternoon while the kids were with Joe, and even enjoyed stumbling alone in the dark trying to find a seat. She invited the whole neighborhood in for a party. These activities left her feeling exhilarated, knowing that she did not need anyone. She became a good example of what it means to be an independent person.
Jim represents the male side of this same coin. He had been well cared for by his mother. The clothes were always washed and ironed, meals were on time, and even his room was kept clean. He could devote his time to school, school activities, and his job. When he entered college, he lived in a dorm. Again his meals were provided and he had a minimum of housekeeping chores. When he married Janet, she took over all the things his mother had always done. He felt independent and didn't realize how dependent he actually was. He found out when he left Janet. He was helpless in the kitchen, even in preparing the simplest meal, and had very little understanding of how to wash his clothes! You can pay for car maintenance, but it is difficult -- and very expensive -- to hire a full-time cook and housekeeper.
Gradually Jim's self-prepared meals improved. Finally he got brave enough to invite a female friend to his home to eat, and she was delighted with the meal he prepared. His clothes began to look more cared for. He was very pleased and proud when he learned to iron his own shirts! Learning to care for himself was like growing up -- and each accomplishment gave him a feeling of success and achievement.
"Me and My Shadow"
But the singleness I am talking about is much more than learning to do the tasks that someone else has done for you. It is a whole way of life.
Dating and love relationships are a good example. A typical comment from a recently-separated person might be, "I'll never make it as a single person; I need another love relationship." During the singleness stage, the same person might say, "Why get remarried? I can come and go as I please. I can eat whenever I feel like it. I don't have to adjust my daily living habits to another person. Being single sure feels good!" Before the singleness stage, one may be looking for the "lost half." But during this stage one reaches the point of comfort in going out alone. No longer is a "date" necessary to avoid embarrassment or a feeling of failure. The quality of relationships improves: now you're choosing the person you go out with, rather than taking whoever seems available. And the whole evening out may be spent sharing rather than needing. Other persons may be encountered and enjoyed for who they are, rather than as potential lifetime companions.
Single and Loving It
Many people spent their free, recreational time in the past doing what the spouse wanted or what they had learned to do with their parents. The assignment now is simply to take the time to develop a new interest, or to pursue something you may have wanted to do for a long time. It might be to learn to play the guitar, to paint, to drive a car, or to play a new sport. Participants who take this homework seriously find many new activities that they really enjoy; they no longer settle for what someone else enjoyed.
Singleness is a time for being a responsible adult. Because the roles we act out in our relationships are so closely related to our internal attitudes and feelings, we change inside as we change our external roles. It is easier to do this in the singleness stage than when we are in permanent love relationships. A neutral environment facilitates both internal and external changes. The singleness stage is a key period to make the internal changes in attitudes and feelings necessary for personal growth.
"I'm Glad To Be Single Again . . . Or Am I?"
Not everything is rosy in the singleness stage, of course. Research shows that single people may still not fare as well economically. Single persons are passed over for promotions, looked upon as fair game romantically and sexually. Despite recent laws prohibiting sexual harassment, single women in particular may be pressured or feel discriminated against in the workplace. There are other situations that make single people feel uncomfortable. Alexa complained about her child's Sunday School class. When the teacher asked the children to draw pictures of their families, Alexa's son drew a picture of himself, his sister, and his mother -- which was his family. The teacher made him draw a picture of a man in the family because, "We all know that a family consists of both a father and a mother!" Alexa expressed her negative feelings by talking directly with the minister of the church.
Ursula went to church on Mother's Day and the sermon was about marital love. Although she was a mother, she felt completely left out of the sermon. It was a depressing day in church for her. She wrote a letter to the minister explaining her feelings.
Schools are often an irritating problem when you are a single parent. The PTA chairperson calls and asks that Johnny's parents run the dart show. The single-parent father explains that he is single but would be willing to come alone. The chairperson informs him that it takes two to run the show and she will ask someone else to handle it. PTA meetings themselves are often couple-oriented; you can feel really single and alone when you attend without a partner. You come alone to a parent-teacher conference, and the teacher informs you that "all of the problem children in the room have just one parent," and that's why she wanted to see you. Your child may not be getting "the parenting she needs," and perhaps that's why she is doing so poorly in her school work. What's more, your daughter is "so boy crazy for a fifth grader!" It is implied that if Mom had a "permanent" relationship with one man, Janie would have a better attitude toward males. You feel angry, vulnerable, and defenseless. What can you say?
You can develop some assertive responses for the most common put-downs and discriminatory acts. You can help to educate others, while maintaining your own integrity, by responding firmly. You'll feel better inside, too, rather than going away fuming!
Here's an example: in response to the teacher who insists Janie would be better off in a two-parent household, you might try something like this, "You're right -- being a single parent isn't easy. But Janie and I are doing fine these days, and I don't agree that her school performance is suffering because of my divorce. I'll be glad to work with you on special homework or tutoring or other efforts to improve her schoolwork. What suggestions do you have for her study habits? Will you give her extra assignments?"
That way, you're not accepting her put-down, or letting her blame your personal life for Janie's school problems. The responsibility for school work is focused back where it belongs -- on teacher-student-parent cooperation, not on your love life.
It often takes a great deal of inner security to handle the singleness stage successfully. Much of the discussion in this article concerns the internal feelings present in the singleness stage. If you have worked your way through the prior stages, it is likely that you will be able to experience the peacefulness and calmness that occurs in the singleness stage. You may become slightly upset about the attitudes of others, but you'll be strong enough to handle them. Learn from the external prejudices and use them to become more secure in your own internal feelings.
Singleness can be one of the most productive stages you go through, in the sense that the old wounds can really be healed. Dealing with the external discrimination may help you to become stronger inside.
One caution: Singleness is an easy stage in which to become stuck. If you have not worked through all of the leftovers concerning marriage and intimacy, you may use the singleness stage as a place to hide. It may sound like the singleness stage when you hear someone say, "I'll never marry again." But in many ways that is the opposite of genuine singleness. Fear of intimacy, avoidance of feelings, and opposition to marriage as though it were the worst institution in our society -- all indicate that the person is stuck. The goal is to be free to choose singleness or remarriage, not to stay single forever.
Singleness has become an acceptable alternative in our society. When I was a child, a single person was looked upon in our community as somewhat weird, one who just did not quite make it to the altar. After all, the family was the cornerstone of society. Attitudes are changing; at a talk I gave on love relationships, one woman wanted to know why we had to keep talking about relationships. Was not it just as valid to talk about remaining single? Did we have to keep looking toward being in a relationship as the ideal? The fact that there are approximately a million divorces in the United States each year makes singleness more acceptable for many. The large number of formerly married people in our society has brought about many changes in attitudes toward singleness. Perhaps we are becoming more accepting of individual differences? Let's hope so!
Children and Singleness
Singleness is an important rebuilding block for children, too. They need to learn to be single, individual, independent-from-parents people before they marry for the first time. If children can see and understand the importance of singleness, it will give them a much better chance to develop successful love relationships in their futures.
Parenting is different during the singleness stage. In earlier stages parents frequently bend themselves out of shape trying to make sure they are lovable, datable, and okay in many other ways. The kids often suffer; their needs are put on the "back-burner." In the singleness stage, parents usually are more responsive to the needs of the kids. They have begun to rise above their own emotional needs.
How Are You Doing as a Single Person?
During the singleness stage, you can see the real world much better. You can know yourself much better. You understand people, and your interactions with people, much better. Your viewpoint of life is much broader. Before the crisis occurred, your vision was limited. Now you see and understand concepts never before understood.
Ask yourself these questions to gauge your progress:
- I am comfortable being single.
- I can be happy as a single person.
- I am comfortable going to social events as a single person.
- I see being single as an acceptable alternative lifestyle.
- I am becoming a whole person rather than a half-person looking for my other lost half.
- I am spending time investing in my own personal growth rather than looking for another love relationship.
- I can look at my friends as people I want to be with rather than as potential love partners.
- If I have children and family, I can spend time enjoying being with them rather than begrudging the time they take from my personal life.
- I have found internal peace and contentment as a single person.
From Rebuilding: When Your Relationship Ends, 3rd edition © 2006 by Bruce Fisher and Robert E. Alberti. Adapted with permission of Impact Publishers., P.O. Box 6016, Atascadero CA 93423. Further reproduction prohibited.