Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Gay Mormon Boy said: [My colleague] is a single man in his fifties living in Utah. When he goes to a restaurant alone, people assume he's waiting for a party and don't seat him. They also say, "It's so sad" that he doesn't have anyone. (...) He believes that women in Utah have more body issues than elsewhere due to the unreasonable to marry at an early age. If one isn't married, the reasons are tied to physical appearance because they are confident in their spiritual selves and not encouraged to develop in other areas as men are.
I've been thinking lately about the societal prejudice against being "alone" (alone, not "lonely"). In this context, I am going to refer to alone as synonymous with single, which I define as not being in a committed relationship (or in a Mormon context, not being married).

I recently traveled to DC alone. I had no real plans, other than to spend time alone at a B&B and have dinner in town, maybe read some books and take a hot bath. When compared with how I had spent the previous 5 days caring for my sick son, the quiet alone time was desperately desired. Still, there are some activities that are inherently social, and are inherently awkward to do alone. I tried to savor eating out that night, but it was weird to be placed next to a large family with three kids of their own. I felt uncomfortable ordering a beer, wondering whether it was a faux pas to drink alone in public.

I had a family friend once remark to me, I went to the movie theater alone once. It was during one of the lonely periods of my life. Personally, I don't find much discomfort in going to the movies alone, although I do agree that it is generally considered a pack activity. Even attending church alone can be uncomfortable, particularly in family-dense congregations (e.g., Mormon family wards).

Women are mourned as being "off the marriage mart" long before men are so labeled. Phrases like "old maid" and "spinster" make me think of a smelly gray-haired great-aunts with loads of cats and chin hair. In contrast, "confirmed bachelor" makes me think of a 48-year-old man living it up and being a slob. None of these are good images, but the labels for unmarried women seem much "lonelier" than those for men. However, the stereotypes against unmarried men aren't kind, either. At least unmarried women generally get the benefit of the doubt that they aren't pedophiles!

It is particularly difficult to be unmarried and a member of a community that values young marriage and absolute celibacy until marriage. I use unmarried individuals within the LDS Church as my example here; however, it should be noted that my comments would apply equally well to many conservative religious communities. Such individuals have the double whammy of being discriminated against by both society at large and their own community.

Halted in her progression, a single Mormon can't move forward without a spouse. An LDS girl views her entire life through the lens of future marriage; the emphasis is always on looking towards the temple, thinking about their future eternal companion, etc. The emphasis is never on self-fulfillment or determining God's specific plan for your life. Your life plan is already determined - the most important, noble, and fulfilling ideal is to be married in the temple and raise up righteous seed to the Lord. You will be a wife and you will be a mother; everything else is secondary.

You might ask, Why does it matter is marriage is the goal, rather than schooling or career or personal fulfillment? I've known too many women, myself included, who have considered career and other life decisions primarily in light of how those decisions would affect their marriageability. An unmarried friend made the choice to forgo on her life-long dream of being a veterinarian, based on the fear that it would negatively affect her marriage chances. She already considered herself "old" (at 26) and feared that it would be "too hard to find a man who was willing to be saddled with her vet school debt" once she had children.

The "one career fits all" approach to life hurts women who never marry or conceive. It also places an impenetrable barrier in the way of those who don't want to marry or have children, who know they wouldn't be good at parenthood, or who simply have other primary goals and ambitions in mind.

More importantly, making marriage the be-all-and-end-all places the entire onus for one's sense of personal fulfillment on someone else's agency. Instead of teaching women that they need a man to be complete, why are we not teaching individuals that they alone have power over their own sense of self fulfillment? Men and woman both can be fulfilled without the approval of anyone else, male or female. Both men and women can be unhappy and unfulfilled even with a spouse or life partner.

And we wonder why Utah is the most depressed state in America.

Of course, most people want to be understood, to be loved, to have sexual fulfillment in their lives. But discriminating against the single state only makes those who are single feel misunderstood, unloved, and sexually unfulfilled. No one likes being the object of scorn or sympathy.

I read a quote recently on a feminist blog, which stated:
It is my strong belief that the sexes are equal as human beings, not complementary as male and female, not somehow two halves of a whole, but autonomous and complete, just as we are. Notions of superior and inferior have no place in my world-view of humankind, whether the supposed superiority is purported to be due to sex, ethnicity, or any other point of difference.
How different the world would be if we viewed women and men as whole and complete in and of themselves, rather than as missing a piece!

8 comments:

shenpawarrior said...

This hits on a lot of my interests... First of all, it should not be a "stigma" or a bad thing that people happen to be alone... Fact is, for sure, we are social animals. We go insane with contact. We need connection. Also, the more safe and secure that connection is, the MORE INDEPENDENT and separate we can be. The less secure that bond is, the less separate we can be. For people who are "single" by their own doing (great!) or for reasons out of their hands, we ALL need to reach out and build relationships with them. Single people need connection too!

On a smaller note - I've been looking for stuff on the "Utah is the most depressed" thing, as it comes up all the time. Do you know where this idea originated?

Also, I once quoted Sappho in a paper I wrote for Hx of Psych class: "Afraid of losing you, I ran fluttering, Like a little girl,
After her mother." I was talking about attachment protest/separation distress, etc. :)

Chandelle said...

Love, love, love! I totally agree. Personally, I love being alone. Going to movies alone, sitting in a restaurant alone, drinking alone, traveling alone -- it's all good by me. I'm married, I have two kids, I adore my family, and never (okay, rarely) get tired of them, and I have plenty of friends, and don't consider myself the least bit lonely -- but I never hesitate to sit in a coffee shop or bar by myself or take a trip alone. I love having that time to myself, and I think it's strange that anyone should consider that strange! (That video really appealed to me, needless to say.)

And I agree -- viewing men and women as "complementary" has never made much sense to me. I wouldn't even remotely characterize my partnership as "two halves of a whole." We're complete in ourselves and where the other person fills in some gap, it's really just in promoting our own growth in that area (like my partner is very quiet and diplomatic, and I've learned some of that from him -- he doesn't do it FOR me).

I think shenpawarrior has it right on, too -- it's all about security. I feel extremely secure in my relationship with my partner, so I happily take time alone without worrying that it says something negative about us. My kids are extremely secure in us, so they're also very independent. It's all connected.

Madame Curie said...

Adam- I think that the comments about Utah being the "most depressed state" harken back to a study done by Mental Health America in 2007.

The original report can be found here: http://www.nmha.org/files/Ranking_Americas_Mental_Health.pdf

The PR release on the report can be found on MHA's website, here:
http://www.nmha.org/go/state-ranking

And yes, I agree. Security absolutely leads to more independence. Like the toddler who learns to walk when he knows mom or dad will be there to help them up, we can be more independent when we already have people in our lives who accept us for who we are. Like Chandelle, I feel much more able to be independent since being married, because I feel secure in my husband and son.

Chandelle: I'm getting a lot better with eating out alone. I love love love being home alone, walking alone, and exploring unknown cities alone. None of those interests negate my love of being with my husband and son.

Carla said...

So I have to say, after finding my husband, I really did feel complete, like this was my destiny. I never had any aspirations in the way of career or romance. I thought I'd end up a nun. And then I met Joe, and everything turned upside down, except it was more like things were right-side up for the first time in my life.

However, I've also always been a loner. I didn't really mind being alone, pretty much all the time. In college I spent a lot of time alone in my room, even though I loved the people I lived with and had many friends whom I loved.

So this sense of completeness that I got once I was in a relationship with Joe ... is this implying that it's not real, or at least not innate? That it's a cultural construct that I was trained to feel?

Now I'm really questioning everything ...

Madame Curie said...

Carla, If you feel completed by your husband, then I don't think that feeling or your individual experience is diminished in any way by whether there is some cosmic reason for it. There really is no way to prove or disprove a cosmic reality.

The sentiment that human beings are complete in their own right is a pretty unromantic notion in general. However, I like it.

shenpawarrior said...

Thanks for the link... I'll look at it.

cc said...

A couple years ago I went on two separate trips by myself to Vancouver for medical conferences. I occasionally went out to lunch with others, but for the most part dined by myself. On the first trip, I made sure I had a book or newspaper with me so that I wouldn't feel so awkward.

But something about this bothered me. I wanted to feel confident in being alone, because even though I enjoyed the time to myself away from the demands of home and children, I didn't feel that it was acceptable to be alone as a women (noticeably pregnant at the time) and so my confidence was lacking. Snobby maitre d's can do that to you.

On the second trip, I made sure not to bring reading material out with me to be tempted by. For some reason, reading made me feel like I was hiding. So I ate by myself and acted as though it was the most wonderful thing in the world to sit and enjoy a meal (I had some really great meals) without even conversation taking my mind off of what I was eating and what I was learning by being away from home. It didn't make the experience more enjoyable (it already was), just more enlightening.

I wish I had more opportunities to test out what I've learned.

Donna Banta said...

Excellent post, thank you. Not only do Mormons marry to quickly when they're young, they also remarry too quickly. In my in-law's all Mormon community it is not unusual for a person to lose their spouse of 30-40 years, then remarry within a year. That can't be sensible or even healthy.

A couple of years ago I was at the Art Institute of Chicago by myself. I decided I wanted a nice lunch, and asked to be seated by myself in their upscale restaurant. The hostess gave me a condescending smirk, as did the waitress who came almost immediately to take my food order.

Soon a party of 4 was seated next to me. The same waitress approached them asked them what they wanted to drink, then came back with their drink orders and began telling them about the specials. (I'm thinking, gee, those sound good, I might have liked to have ordered one, along with a drink besides water.)

While Mormons take it to a new level, this sort of prejudice against singles -- especially single women permeates society.