Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Not-So-Awful Truth About Being Single

"If you're lonely when you're alone, you're in bad company."  Jean-Paul Sartre

In yesterday's Globe & Mail, Margaret Wente claims that people can get to a much greater depth of understanding and "perfection" of self through a married relationship than they can possibly do if they remain single.
"...the road to self-actualization isn't through perfection of the independent self, but through imperfect, messy, long-term relationships.  Everybody needs someone else to nurture, and someone to stand up for them, and someone to plan the future with, and someone with whom they share a past."  
Wente stumbles into one of the most annoyingly common false dichotomies surrounding this issue:  either you're married or you're alone.  And she continues that single people are lonely implying, of course, that loneliness never ventures into a marriage, that it's solely a quality of aloneness.  I've never been married, yet I know too well the messiness of relationships with myriad friends and colleagues whom I nurture, stand up for, and with whom I share a past.  We don't plan a future together in the same "until death" way that some married people manage, but that shared future in marriage is often illusory.  The future is unknowable.  Shit happens, and happily married people can still end up on their own.  

Her anecdotal samples reveal that all single women would rather be married, and married men pity single men.  She goes so far as to insist on an essentialism that relegates any outlying happy singles to the pages of the DSM-5.
"The only people who escape these yearnings are people (usually men) who are in some way autistic, or asexual.  We are born and bred to be pair-bonded."
It's the false-consensus effect that compels her.  She realized in her 30s that she didn't like being single, therefore anyone who's single and over 30 must be similarly miserable.  And afraid.  She insists that people in their 20s won't get it yet, but will understand as they mature just like she did.  I'm almost 50, and I still think she's wrong.  But maybe I'm just too immature to really get it.

She also sets up a straw man by suggesting that single people think self-actualization has to do with perfection and self-love - a mistake she condescendingly sets straight as a far more knowledgable married person.  Where does that come from?

But the biggest problem with her argument is that she doesn't get that the journey she alludes to - that struggle to come to grips with the authentic self - is necessarily a solitary venture for all people, the single and married.  We definitely learn a lot about ourselves from our relationships with other people.  I'd say I learned the most about myself from my on-going and ever-changing relationships with my three kids.  Nothing mirrors you back at yourself like subconscious imitations by your children.  But there's a difference between learning about our specific nature and getting at the essence of the human experience.

We are alone.  Even if we're joined at the hip to the love of our life, finishing one another's sentence,   no matter how much we distract ourselves from the reality of it, we are alone with ourselves.   We are here without a clear purpose, and that path towards finding ourself, towards figuring out what we're doing here, can be approached through great debates and discussions among friends and lovers, but the conclusions we come to about ourselves, we necessarily come to alone. "The destiny of man is placed within himself" (Sartre's Existentialism is a Humanism).

Marriage is a delight to many people, but for many others it's an unnecessary burden.  Insisting that one condition is preferable and to write-off people who disagree as just young or, in her eyes, defective is to narrowly define human pleasure on the basis of the desires and lifestyles of a few.  Human pleasure is vast, and we do ourselves no favours by discriminating over which preferences are superior.  

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