Many singles feel defined by their status – when they shouldn’t be. Gain some insight into why this is and what you can do about it.
It’s common for “older” singles in the Devout or pious orthodox Jew. To be frum (Yiddish: פֿרו... More community to feel defined by their single status. Just by virtue of the fact that they aren’t married, many talented and accomplished people feel like second class citizens. The identity of “being single” often seems to overshadow their positive traits and many achievements; it’s like they’ve been given a “single” nametag.
I’ll be honest, it’s not easy to write this article. By defining the issue it seems like I’m buying into the generalizing and negativity; that I’m validating the name tag that we give to singles. My goal here is not to condemn or hand out more labels. Rather, I hope to explore this issue, understand how and why this happens, and attempt to see if I can lend some insight and, hopefully solutions.
Let me break this down a little bit. The struggle of not being married is comprised of two distinct parts. First, the direct consequences of being single. These can include loneliness, wondering (wondering, “Will I ever find “The One” and have a family of my own?”), the constant energy it takes to be “out there” on the a Jewish arranged marriage. The Shidduch (Hebrew: שִׁד... More scene, and the emotional roller coaster that comes along with all of it. The second part of the challenge is the label of “being single.” Often it feels like those who are not married are unfairly labeled or are judged by a reputation that precedes them.
People may look at singles and focus on this one aspect – their single status – instead of seeing the many pieces that make up who they are. It’s instinctive for people to wonder why the single isn’t married and make assumptions or judgements that are wrong and unwarranted (i.e. that someone is single because s/he is “picky,” or that s/he has less life experience and is then given less respect than his or her married peers).
Additionally, when people bump into someone someone who isn’t married – be it at a simcha, in the grocery store, you name it – they want to hear what s/he “is looking for.” They will try to set them up with this person or that, or simply try to sympathize how “hard it must be.” People forget that this is a person made up of various characteristics, and there are many other parts to him or her. S/he doesn’t want to always focus on the fact that s/he’s single.
Why Being Single Has Become An Identity
Why does being single often become the identify of singles in our community? In attempt to answer this question, I want to introduce two concepts here: stigma and shame. There isn’t enough space here to go into either in depth, so I’ll just talk about them briefly as they relate.
There is a practice within the orthodox Jewish community of everyone following a specific path (as delineated by Torah), as well as a particular focus on family life. When someone’s life doesn’t follow that road, this creates stigma. Stigma is when people view others negatively because of some perceived deviation from a norm. Meaning, when it seems that someone is different from “normal” or “how things are supposed to be” people look at them unfavorably. People who don’t, or can’t, conform to “how everyone else is” are stigmatized. They are at the mercy of others’ prejudices and are often judged, pitied, and/or scorned. As a community we’re used to things being done a certain way – as related to our topic, people marrying young – and when someone doesn’t follow this path, s/he is labeled as “different.” This is stigma.
Stigma leads to shame. When people are on the receiving end of stigma, it tells them that they’re different, they’re not good enough, they don’t fit in. We’re used to using the term “shame” in the context of someone feeling like they did something wrong. It’s not just about doing something wrong though. The APA Dictionary of Psychology explains that “shame” is a painful sense of feeling “less than” or unworthy, as connected to an event or circumstances. In other words, the circumstance of not being married has the potential to create a shameful feeling of being different than one’s peers and consequent feelings of not belonging.
The feeling that the individual is different than the people around him/her fues the shame. It’s sustained by the individual comparing himself to others and believing that he can’t meet their, or his own, expectations. In essence, shame breeds further shame.
The Label Maker: A Stigma-Shame Cycle
This stigma-shame chain is a vicious cycle, and this is how one piece of who someone is becomes an entire identity! When we focus on what is different about someone as compared to his or her peers, most of the other factors of his identity pale in comparison. Even if outsiders are concentrating on this fact so that they can help the single, it becomes a label, a “single” nametag. People see what makes the person “different” and have a hard time looking past that at the other parts of the individual. Furthermore, for the single himself, the feeling of being different or “on the outside” gets internalized, and it can become something s/he focuses on as well. It becomes who s/he is, a name tag.
Interestingly, it doesn’t matter if people are truly looking at the single differently or if s/he just thinks they are. If s/he thinks people are stigmatizing her, s/he will feel different. Singles sometimes struggle not to blame themselves for their singlehood because of how other people view and relate to them, or even just because of how singles have been conditioned to believe people see them. Not focusing on this fact that the single isn’t yet married can require hard work. They may live under the tremendous pressure of needing to prove themselves to others or themselves.
What Can We Do?
Onto the million dollar question: What can we do about this? It almost seems like an impossible equation.
Brene Brown, who has written extensively about shame, vulnerability, and belonging, discusses shame at length in her book, Gifts of Imperfection. She proposes some ideas of how we can overcome shame.
Beat Shame By…
- Understanding what it is. In this case it’s the single feeling “less than” because of not meeting society’s expectations of being married. It helps to understand that this feeling originates from this stigma/shame combination instead of just accepting the feeling of being “not good enough.” Singles are not “less than,” this is stigma.
- Working on recognizing what is triggering it. The specific factors causing the individual to feel stigmatized can vary slightly from individual to individual. Notice what specific factors are causing stigmatized, shameful feelings. Perhaps it’s a particular relative who constantly asks about one’s dating. Maybe it’s demeaning interactions with specific shadchanim or well-meaning friends. When someone can pinpoint exactly what is the trigger is, this can help them deal with it. Perhaps you need to avoid certain people or events. Maybe the guilty friends have no clue that what they’re doing is hurtful, and it can be helpful to tell them. In situations that cannot be avoided or changed, it can help to remind oneself that this stigmatizing behavior is born out of ignorance. Positive self-talk, like reminding oneself that being single isn’t a flaw and isn’t an identity, can help as well.
- Connecting with others, sharing our story and our struggles. By sharing one’s experiences with others it helps to bridge the feeling of not belonging and of being in this shameful place alone. When people can talk about what they’re dealing with as a single, they no longer feel so isolated. Because shame teaches people that they don’t belong, we beat shame by connecting with others. Sometimes connecting with others and just focusing on other successful parts of life is helpful too. Both methods can accomplish the same goal of beating the isolation that comes with shame.
Keys to Resilience
Brown draws on current resilience research to sum up what makes people resilient in the face of shame. Her list can be helpful for us here as well:
- Resilient people are resourceful and have good problem-solving skills. Feelings of helplessness and powerlessness greatly contribute to whether one focuses on a hardship and wears it like an identity. Realize that you have a lot more control over how you feel than you might think you do. You may not be able to always stop unhelpful thoughts or feelings, but you do have control over choosing to seek help.
- They are more likely to seek help. Therapy, support groups, self-help resources, and the like can all assist with the stigma and shame that comes with being single in the religious community.
- They believe that there is always something they can do that will help them to manage their feelings and cope with adversity. It could be as simple as changing one’s inner dialogue. For example, instead of someone who isn’t married wondering what s/he’s doing wrong, perhaps s/he can work on recognizing that not everyone needs to follow the exact same path and reach milestones at the same time.
- They have social support available to them. Just recognizing that one is not alone can make a big difference.
- They are connected with others. Knowing that they have a network of supportive people, a place they belong, as well as being in the practice of reaching out to others even just to take one’s mind off of things, can be immensely helpful. One can successfully get rid of the label when s/he shifts her attention to other productive parts of her life, recognizes that s/he has many things going for her and that s/he is not defined by a relationship.
Take Advantage of the Tools
We have to realize that there are always tools to help someone get through something challenging. We cannot always fix the problem, but we can connect with others and gain support. Think about this: rarely does any specific response from anyone make a hardship one is going through better. But connecting with other people and knowing you aren’t alone helps lessen the shame of the stigma.
The Bottom Line
A shift in our focus can make a huge difference in the community. Not focusing on the fact that someone’s not yet married will help peel of the single nametag. Instead, see him or her for who s/he is as a person, and all s/he has to offer. Talk to him about his job, his vacation, or any other topic. Don’t allow the conversation revolve around who you want to set them up with or other talk of being single.
On the single’s part, the tips outlined above can be very helpful. In short, seeing the stigma/shame for what it is and trying to stay connected with others can help get rid of the misplaces name-tag.