Thursday, June 19, 2008

What does 'single' mean to you?

I'm always curious about how and why people define 'single' the way they do. That is, I think that for most people, when they meet someone who identifies themselves as single, that means something specific, but what it means varies from person to person. To me, it just means not being in a serious relationship; I guess I equate it with 'available'. But I know that for some, it distinctly means 'unmarried' (so for example, my aunt would be considered single because even though she has been living with the same man for about 30 years, she never married him). To others, it means NEVER married - apparently, Dear Abby falls in that camp, since she told a divorcee that calling herself single would not be appropriate. I'm guessing she'd say the same to someone who was widowed. As with many 'rules' of etiquette that haven't kept up with the times, that bugs me. If someone wants to call themselves single, who in the world has the right to tell that person he or she is 'wrong'?

But what I find particularly interesting about the multiple definitions of 'single' is that it means single women have a choice about how to identify themselves and, to me, that choice can be telling. That is, single is uniquely a state of being, in and of itself, whereas divorced, widowed and unmarried are all associated with states of not being (i.e., they are all states of not being married). And I think that people who aren't comfortable with their singleness are more likely to avoid identifying themselves as being in the single state, choosing instead to associate with the married state. So if you choose to call yourself single, when you could just as easily say 'divorced' or 'widowed' or 'unmarried' or whatever your options are, that seems to convey two things: 1) you are not currently married, whatever your past status might have been, and 2) you are OK with that. Similarly, I think that people who don't want single women to call themselves single are partly conveying their discomfort with women who are OK with being single. Does that ring true to anyone else?


Robin said...

Although I appreciate the usefulness of labels, I generally try to avoid them on a regular basis. In other words, I work hard (and it is work!) to see people as just that - people. For instance, when I was engaged and later married years ago, I rarely referred to Ryan as my fiancé or husband. It was more like, his name is Ryan and that's what you can call him. I usually only used a label if I needed a temporary way to define his relationship to me.

I think I see terms like single, divorced, and widowed in the same way. Like you said, "single," to me would mean available. But I think "available" only matters in certain contexts. Having been a widow, I only used that term for as long as I felt the need to define myself by my loss. Similarly, I would take "divorced" to mean that person is still somewhat close to that major life event, and possibly not ready for another intimate relationship.

The same holds true for me in terms of a man I dated for about 5 years. Although he is technically an "ex," not only does that connote a negative status in mind, it does not accurately describe our current relationship as simply friends. After all, how important is it to identify him as someone I've been "that close" to?

Given that I view many of these labels as temporary, I suppose I could argue the same is true of being single. Single/Available could imply "looking" (or willing to be looked at :-) with finding or being found changing that status. Perhaps there's no good word for someone who simply "is," without defining them by their sexual relationship (which ties right in to your intriguing post about single-sex marriage is still marriage - heh).

Cleocatra said...

I too think labels have value, at their base, they help my brain organize a world that is way too complex.
I'm fascinated by the way identity plays out in conversations like these. Some of us talk about it in terms of identifying with x, but most of us seem to just say "I am x."
Although I've always resisted and even rebelled against labels as identity markers, I'm very prone to using them. I do it more now than when I was younger, I think, because these identities we all live, inscribe themselves on us, whether we admit it or not. They describe a lived experience. One of my pet peaves is when I meet women who are also mothers, who then have no conception that motherhood is an identity, a lived experience that someone like myself does not share. Conversely, adore it when I meet women for whom motherhood is just one of their identities. It's interesting how this plays out differently for men and fatherhood.

I feel very entwined and invested in being Me. I've come to realize though that I can do that and have shifting identities, as they're appropriate to situations, without feeling like I'm being fake/notMe.

The idea of seeing "people just as people" is foreign to me because it tries to de-identify human experience. I just don't believe it's possible or desirable.