I have noticed some thoughts brewing in the back of my mind lately. Thought I’d pen them down and maybe make sense of them. Disclaimer: these are just thoughts stemming from my life, observations, my internal dialogue, rumblings. Please note, none of these are intended to judge or criticize anyone.
Okay, so let’s see. Hmm. The first question that comes to my mind is why is it that as soon as we form an exclusive relationship, get engaged, get married, there seems to be a shift in the way you are perceived, the narrative of who you are, your value, and your worth, both internally and externally?
Externally, the shift happens within our social ecosystems. The news is happily welcomed, widely accepted, and thoroughly validated by society – family, friends, work, even strangers. The news (and you) are welcomed with warmth and openness.
We casually use descriptives such as “off the market”, perhaps not knowing, these may carry subtle implications. Is the implication here that we are products on sale, seeking, no, needing a buyer? And only having found a buyer, do we somehow become valuable, or worthy, and our lives, purposeful.
Now, let’s turn the table a little bit. Talk about the other end of the spectrum. Is there a similar shift when the opposite occurs, i.e. marriage/relationships ends? A shift in the evaluation of our self-worth, and value, both intrinsically and extrinsically. Do we give or receive the same warm response to someone who is single, or ending a relationship/marriage? Do we congratulate them on making this choice? Do we welcome and support them with the same vigour? Do we offer compassion because maybe the decision was made to work on themselves? To become independent? To leave abuse, or addiction? Is there a celebration? If we’re lucky enough to have some genuine friends, the answer might be a yes. But for the majority of people, the response is a dejecting no.
Unfortunately, when you decide to be single, by choice or circumstances, you are placed in the “other” category, the socially disapproved category. We see a single person and immediately there are judgments. Over 30 and still single? There must be something wrong with him/her. It can’t be by choice. They must be lonely. God forbid the person is divorced. Oh the stigma. If it’s a woman, oh she must be crazy, insecure, emotionally unstable, unworthy, can’t keep/make someone happy, or commit. If it’s a guy, he must be abusive, a cheater, anger issues, commitment phobe, so long and so forth. As though making someone commit or being someone’s entire reason for happiness is part of our job descriptions and failing to achieve these is some sort of a character flaw.
The announcement of a relationship ending or the decision to be single is often met with gasps, silence, shock, denial, anger, anxiety, worries, and murmurs of “but you’ll be alone now”. It’s seen as personal failure. Sure, the ending of a relationship can bring a sense of loss, grief and sadness. The problem is societal disapproval that comes with it. The shame, blame, gossip, stigma, silence, ostracism, leads the individual to eventually withdraw from the social sphere altogether. And this withdrawal is met with more judgment. They disappeared. Flaked. Ghosted.
Do we ever pause and question why this may be happening? Why they might be reacting this way?
We live in a society where the narrative is set for us at birth. Narrative of what life needs to look like for us. There are set timelines for milestones. Must get married by 25/30, have kids, have hundreds and hundreds of friends (emphasis on quantity over quality). If you follow the timeline because you want to, great. It’s when there’s an imposition that not following this narrative, this timeline, somehow will make you broken, or unworthy. This imposition is where things become problematic.
An individual making the decision to go against this narrative, set their own timeline, choose to be single, divorced. live life the way they want to, pacing themselves in accordance with readiness, is often not accepted. Ostracized, even. They have to fight against the odds stacked against them, the stigma, and often they find themselves in this space alone. I know this, because as a therapist, I have been that sole support for someone in that place. And as a human, I know this because I have been in this place.
Part of it is culture. Society. I see women (and men) trying to attain their desired goal of commitment and once achieved, subsequently trying to keep it. Even if there are red flags, concerns, deal breakers, and unhealthy dynamics. Why? Because the central goal of our existence seems to be coupledom – chasing it, attaining it, and then, keeping it.
So let’s unpack this further. Why is it that socially we feel our most important goal is to be partnered up? Why our inherent value is derived from labels such as engaged, married, large circle of friends? Why is our worth, approval, value dependent on these labels?
I’ve noticed there seem to be these groups in our social circles. Friends who are single. Friends that are couples. At some point a divide occurs. Maybe it’s a falling out. Or a losing of touch. The division happens silently. Couples start sticking with other couples. Singles with other singles. We hear and say things like “we just have more in common”, “we’re in the same phase of life”. Why does this happen? Should this happen? Is it only natural? I’m not sure. Whatever the reason might be, there comes a time when a divide occurs.
Let’s peel another layer here. Shift our focus to those who are in the socially accepted end of the spectrum. You’d think the approval seeking would stop once the goal set by societal expectations has been achieved. No. It is replaced by this pressure to create and maintain an image of perfection, absolute happiness, both in real life and on social media.
If you’re lucky, you have made a wise choice in picking the right partner for yourself and this might not feel labourous or better yet, you don’t succumb to the pressure. You are present. Grounded in reality. The good with the bad. You feel no pressure to prove anything.
If not, well now you’re in trouble. You have an incredibly difficult task in front of you. To prove to the world how happy you really are, when in reality, you may be stuck in this cyclical spiral of escalating conflict with your partner. The unhappier you are, the harder you must work to build and maintain that image. But you must keep going. Posts after posts of happy smiles hiding sad hearts.
Unfortunately, this perpetuates a sense of disappointment, desperation in anyone that sees and believes the image you have created, particularly those who are in the “other” category. Socially cut off, they see the perfect story you have created on social media, leaving them feeling horrible about their lives, and even question their sense of selves. What’s wrong with them? Why are they unable to create/live the perfect ‘reel’ life they see on social media? And here comes the internalized anger, sadness, blame and shame. It must be their fault, they think. There must be something wrong with them. Not understanding they are seeking a mere illusion. That reality is actuality is full of challenges, ups and downs, on both sides of the narrative. Sharing this truth, openly and honestly, is the antidote to this dilemma.
So instead of chasing these labels, the illusion, people pleasing, social approval, what if we paused to just “be”, and reflected on our personal happiness, our individual paces, goals, timelines, readiness, listening intently to that gut instinct? Wouldn’t that be more mindfully and authentically living? Being who we are, where we are, proudly and shamelessly. Happy, unhappy, divorced, single, married, unmarried, childless, being present with and sharing our truths, without the filter of perfection.
As a therapist, I often feel privileged that people feel safe and want to share their real stories, their raw, vulnerable truth with me. If I could share something with you – the you, running in that race of finding perfection in life, work, love, I’d say I have spoken to hundreds of thousands of people, from severely distressed, to mildly symptomatic, and found not a single person who has lived a perfect life.
Instead, with the curtain of perfection lifted, every single person spoke about experiencing challenges, ups and downs, grief and loss, hardships and happiness. No one goes through life without the highs and lows, so why push, strive, so hard, to chase, and obsess about creating an image of perfection? Why not let go of societal labels, timelines, approval seeking, and live authentically? On your terms. Your timelines. Your ups and more importantly, your downs.