Sunday, May 04, 2008

Unmarried Untruths

Take a moment to consider virtually any word that commonly carries the “un” prefix. The condemnation conveyed by the combination of these two letters is unavoidable. From tacit disappointment to bitter disgust, the speaker feels superior when uttering an “un” word. Most “un” words derive their meaning from referring to what they are not, and they are negative almost without exception. There are dozens of them – unhappy, unfashionable, unfeminine, unsatisfying, unworthy, unsuccessful, unattractive, unfulfilled, unappealing...unmarried. Coincidence? I doubt it!

Gender, race and age are just about the only characteristics that precede marital status in our identities, and none of these have an “un” form. A woman may be described as female, but not as “unmale”. An African-American person may be described as black, but not as “unwhite”. A senior citizen may be described as old, but not as “unyoung”. Yet with marital status, married is quickly and easily altered into its opposite, unmarried. While you can say that a person is single, once they marry, they do not become “unsingle”.

Clearly, married is the standard whereas unmarried is the deviation, the failure, the problem. If you are unhappy, it goes without saying that you would rather be happy. If you are unhealthy, you do what you can to become healthy. If you are unmarried, of course you want to get married. However, any single woman knows all too well that there is an inherent double standard in this belief.

For a straight man, being unmarried generally makes him sought after, fawned over and revered as if he is on the brink of extinction. He is intriguing and his unmarried status is enticing, like a mystery waiting to be solved, a question begging for an answer. Who’s the lucky girl? Many plausible explanations are offered for his unmarried state. He has not found his better half so he is still searching for The One – an incurable romantic, Romeo. He is not ready to settle down – adventurous, sexually desirable, a real James Bond. He is a career man – ambitious, driven, the next Donald Trump. The unmarried brand might as well be an “S” for Superman emblazoned across his chest because he is perceived as just that. He has his whole life ahead of him to find a bride in a sea of ready, willing, and eager women who are perpetually hoping to find the proverbial needle in the haystack: the unmarried, heterosexual, emotionally available male.

For the single woman, however, the unmarried brand is quite the opposite, a scarlet letter “S” for spinster! Face it; describing yourself as unmarried, particularly as you age, is akin to announcing that you have decided to join a leper colony. You know that look you get when you describe yourself as unmarried. It starts off complimentary – a slight tilt of the head with an inquisitive smile, as if to say “You are such a great catch, why are you still on the market?” However, in the absence of a satisfactory explanation, the look quickly transforms into a perplexed, furrowed brow with pinched lips, clearly conveying “Wait a second, what’s wrong with you?” or, more likely, “Something must be wrong with you!” They try to figure out what that something could be – Lesbian? Frigid? Infertile? Abusive childhood? Depression? Drug addiction? Man-hating? Feminist? Man-hating feminist? Promiscuous? Lazy? The possible diagnoses are endless. As an unmarried woman, you are mentally unhealthy, unbalanced, unfeminine and unchaste.

The look then becomes one of pity once you offer an explanation (because, of course, you always offer one) and your questioner then tries to comfort you with lame clichés of encouragement (“Don’t worry, there’s a lid for every pot!”) or to hook you up with some male misfit (“I can introduce you to so-and-so’s nephew’s stepson’s cousin once removed from a wasteland.”). You often play into this ridiculous game by saying “unmarried” like an apology for being unfinished, uncooperative, unconventional.

Even unpatriotic and un-American! The government has contributed to the stereotypes that continue to plague the single woman. Politicians unveiled strategies to address the surplus of single women throughout the 19th century – from shipping them off to other states, to literally selling them to other countries. In his pre-presidential heyday, Theodore Roosevelt accused the unwed woman of contributing to the demise of the Caucasian race by failing to produce healthy white infants while the immigrant population continued to rapidly multiply. Later, during the Depression Era, it was widely believed that jobs were only for men. Thus, the single working woman was seen as a job thief – uneconomical and unprincipled to say the least, rather than a resource.

Today, the government still actively promotes proposals as public policy. Attempts to force marriage on the population at large are commonplace. The Family Protection Act of 1981 sought to promote marriage and motherhood as viable career goals for young women, and the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 touted matrimony as being the antidote to welfare dependency. The not-so-subliminal message is that marriage is normal and anything else is deviant.

Talk about history repeating itself! It is not just you. You are not paranoid. The bottom line is that there is a historical basis for the unfair stigma associated with being an unmarried woman. This brand places unfair, underserved and unrealistic expectations on you and then you are left to deal with it, unsupported, unsure, unwanted.

"Husband-Free" is starting to sound pretty good, isn't it?

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Rivkah said...

Found your blog on Zimbio - thought it was FANTASTIC! :-) I'm sharing it with all my fellow singleton friends. Keep up the fight for beautiful, successful, smart single women everywhere who are sick and tired of being given the "so what's wrong with you?" look! (I even went so far as to write my own article about being a single woman in the religious community!) God bless the single woman! :-)

Friend in Buffalo said...



Ungainly (from where does that derive?)

Unimpeded by the thought process (nod to Tom & Ray of Car Talk).

Love the blog, H. Keep it up!