Give me a single woman over the age of 27, and I will show you a culture that is all too happy to pick away at what’s wrong with her. It’s fact: We seem to be concerned — very concerned — about single women of a certain age. Shouldn’t they have just found someone by now? They probably are too picky. What happened to that nice guy they dated when they were 24? It’s probably because they don’t have any confidence/are too intimidating/too demanding/not demanding enough/aren’t social enough/are too social/aren’t looking/etc., etc. The worst part of all this? Single women? We are our harshest critics.
So thank god that there was someone out there to share their own struggle, not with single-hood, but with the “baggage” of single-hood. Meet Sara Eckel, author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single, a book that debunks the mythology around single women of a certain age with equal parts social criticism and Buddhist insights. Eckel has penned a comforting letter that challenges the idea that a woman is still only as valuable as her relationship status and that while men are single by choice, women are single because no one wants them. A full-time freelance writer since 1997, Sara’s essays, arts criticism and reported pieces have appeared in The New York Times, the BBC, Salon, The Daily Beast, Forbes, The Shambhala Sun, Nerve, The Village Voice, Bookforum, and most famously (which is also where It’s Not You stems from) her Modern Love contributions.
I’m so happy to have been able to talk with Eckel more on her book, on singledom, and what the eternal chase for “happiness” is really all about.
Persephone Magazine: So, just a personal aside: I was given your book after my 5 ½ year relationship ended, right as I turned 29. I almost didn’t read it, mostly because my thought was, “Oh God, not another book on how I’m going to die by not being married by 30” diatribe that was going to tell me how it was all my fault. But your book is so thought-provokingly empathetic and honest. It’s comforting because it poses the idea that it’s really not about you and there is no sense in changing you. Can you talk about what prompted you to write the book and why you think this message is one that needs to be heard?
Sara Eckel: Well first, thank you — I’m so happy to hear the book was helpful.
I got the idea for the book after publishing a few essays about the fact that I was single for most of my adult life, and spent a lot of time trying to “improve” and figure out what’s “wrong” with me.
After I met my husband Mark, I saw that “oh, I’m fine. I just hadn’t met the right person.” And I noticed that whenever I wrote on this topic, the world opened up. Usually you write something, put it on Facebook, eventually get paid and that’s it. But when I wrote about longtime singlehood, I always got lots and lots of letters. And they didn’t say, “I admire your prose style,” they said, “Thank you for saying this.” So I realized that there was a real need for single people, especially single women, to get a message that was different from “You need to fix yourself to find love.”
I noticed that most books geared toward single women were usually either these sassy manifestos about how great it is to not share the TV remote, or else had this very scolding “buck up” tone to them. So I thought there was a place for a book that treated the complexity of the single experience with honesty and respect.
PM: There is this idea you push that you imply deserves destruction, which is “Men are single by choice, women are single because no one wants them.” Can you talk about how that belief really plays into the pressure and social stigma of being an unmarried or unpartnered woman?
SE: I was out recently with a couple who were in their 40s and had only started dating a year or two earlier. The woman had recently moved to a new town and met a group of women, who were all married. She told these women that she had just gotten out of a relationship, even though actually she and her ex had broken up seven years ago. She just didn’t want to deal with the scrutiny, with having to explain herself. The guy, on the other hand, who had also been single for a long time, said he never felt that way, that people just assumed that he chose to be single.
There’s just a funny curiosity about women who have been on their own for a long time. And it leaves women feeling like they have to explain themselves when it’s really no one’s business. Though I also think that we contribute to it. We want to assure people that we’re okay so we go on about how great our career is or whatever, so then it becomes, “Oh, she made a choice.” As if not having a job is an option — or would make us sexier somehow.
PM: What’s also really interesting about the book is that it channels a Buddhist approach to singledom and perhaps finding a relationship. Why did this resonate with you in writing this book?
SE: Well, Buddhism and particularly the writings of Pema Chodron were immensely helpful to me when I was single. The fundamental idea that helped me was realizing that I didn’t have to be ashamed of my pain. If it was Saturday night and I was feeling lonely, I didn’t have to compound that pain by judging myself. I’m lonely — therefore I’m a loser. I could realize that actually loneliness was a normal human response, that everyone felt it sometimes, so I didn’t have to make a big deal about it or turn it into evidence that there was something wrong with me. I could just sit with the actual feeling and ride the wave of that emotion, which helped me see that it wasn’t solid and it certainly wasn’t personal.
Then when I was sending out my book proposal I had a meeting with several editors at Perigee, my publisher. They were interested in a slightly different book than what I proposed, and asked me how I would handle an inspirational book for single women. As it happened, I was enrolled in a fairly intense two-year Buddhist studies program so all of these concepts were at the forefront of my mind and they very naturally applied to the idea of navigating a life of unchosen singlehood. The editors really responded to that so I rewrote the proposal and that became the basis of the book.
PM: In relation to that, you stress self-compassion and being kind to yourself. I think what I took away from the book is that women deeply internalize the fact that they are single and somehow that equates “wrongness” or “unworthiness,” where as men just see it as this kind of state. How did you develop your own compassion to yourself during the time you were single and how do you suggest that readers develop compassion to themselves?
SE: The big shift for me was when I stopped trying to improve myself and started taking care of myself. And the funny thing was, that often meant doing the exact same thing — but I went to yoga because it made me feel good, rather than because it would make me look more attractive or radiate some kind of sexy blissed out energy. That’s the thing with a lot of women who do this stuff — we get it half right. We read books and go to therapy and try very hard to make our lives better, and that’s great. But we also add this layer of judgment to it, as if the pre-yoga person was not enough. And that’s the part I’m suggesting women drop. So instead of trying to distinguish yourself — “See how special I am! Do you love me now?” instead connect with the fact that you’re pretty much like everyone else — a flawed person who is worthy of love.
PM: What’s interesting to me is the concept of “happiness”: That one day we will reach this point and bing! Everything will be ready for that next step and meeting the perfect person. Why is it that this unattainable idea of “happiness” seems so linked with what we deserve and when we deserve to have it?
SE: Interesting question! Yes, we seem to see happiness as a reward for good behavior, and it can be, of course, but there is a way that we equate happiness with virtue that I think is very unkind. It drives me nuts when someone is seriously ill and people ask, “Is he in good spirits?” No, he has cancer! He feels like shit, actually.
So then if you are facing something less grave — like it’s Sunday night and you are feeling a little aimless and blue, it becomes this indication that you have a problem. As opposed to sadness is just a natural part of life and you’re allowed to feel it, even if no one died. And of course the great paradox is that if you don’t freak out and judge your negative emotions, you usually are happier. Because you are appreciating that life has many colors and shades and flavors, and it’s actually a lot more interesting than this jacked-up “I’m so happy!” thing we do. It’s also completely separate from anything you’ve achieved or any good luck that might have come your way. It’s just appreciating whatever is happening.
PM: Your book is predominantly aimed at women, but do you feel like your advice could also be used towards men? I feel like for the most part, the majority of relationship advice skewed towards women is about fixing yourself, where as relationship advice skewed towards men is almost like talking to a baby.
SE: At a reading, a women asked me why books of this sort are always geared toward women. And I told her — and my editor and publicist backed me up on this — it’s because women buy the books. If there was a market for books telling men that there is something wrong with them, that they need to fix themselves to find love, they would exist. But again, the fact that women might have a stronger impulse toward personal growth isn’t an entirely bad thing.
I was at weekend retreat at a popular spiritual wellness center and it was like 85% women and I had this derisive thought of Oh lord, planet of the middle-aged women… And then I realized I was buying into our culture’s idea of what’s stupid — namely things that women do that men don’t. And actually, it was great that all these women were seeking wisdom that could make them feel more peaceful and compassionate. So again, the problem isn’t trying to grow or evolve. The problem is thinking that you need to do these things in order to be worthy. You’re already worthy, even if you never go to the gym or never pay a therapist to help you work through your shit. You were born worthy and it never changes.
I’m not exactly sure what you mean about relationship advice to men that treats them like babies, I think because I so rarely see men get relationship advice at all. But I do notice that dating guides geared toward women tend to paint men with one brush, and it’s not very flattering. They’re these doofuses on the couch who think about nothing except sex and football. And while they are presented as having all the power, they are also bizarrely insecure and are emasculated by women who can fix a leaky faucet or change her bike tire. I have a much higher opinion of men than that.
PM: Another issue you bring up in the book is the idea that marriage is not the top goal — that just maybe finding a bit of inner peace and someone to share that with might be enough. How do you see social change, whether the legalization of LGBTQ marriages or evolving roles of men and women as an influence on your work?
SE: I use the world “marriage” loosely in my book — I am basically talking about long-time committed monogamous relationships, but that’s a mouthful so marriage is just an easier way to say it. My husband and I moved in together less than a year after we started dating, and we married four years later. To me, meeting Mark was the major life change, followed by living together, with marriage as a distant third. So I am personally more interested in the different between being single vs. being in a couple, rather than married vs. unmarried. I have friends who are married and friends who live together but aren’t married and I don’t see any substantive differences in those relationships — though obviously this is just an outsider’s perspective.
One interesting thing about the fight for marriage equality is that it has highlighted all the goodies that we bestow on married couples, like Social Security benefits and health insurance. But this also shows how unfair the system is to single people. Why should I get a better deal on health care or car insurance just because I found love? It makes no sense.
PM: I think my largest regret is looking back at relationships I was in and how much I contorted and bent over backwards to try to please this other person or fit what it was they wanted, and yet, even when I did the “supposedly everything” that most guides suggest, those relationships still ended. It’s like, what the hell was I thinking? When did you first have that light bulb thought or did you ever? What would you say to your younger self now?
SE: Well, yes, you are encouraged to do that — work on your relationship. And if it ends then it means you just didn’t work hard enough.
I think I was lucky that I had one relationship that was very unhappy when I was in my early 20s. And I convinced myself that staying in this relationship was the mature thing to do — because he was a good guy and he loved me. But he also resented the hell out of me for not loving him back in the quite same way. By staying with him I wasn’t being mature — I was just being cruel and making us both miserable. So during my many, many years of unwanted singleness I would sometimes ask myself Would I go back to that relationship? And the answer was always no.
What I didn’t know was if I was capable of having a long-term relationship — maybe there was some fundamental issue with me that was keeping this from happening. So that went on for a long time and really the heart of what my book was about — the way that I and so many single women torture ourselves with this question, “What’s wrong with me?”
The shift for me came after an argument with a friend. I was visiting her and just being pretty unbearable in my complaining on and on about how I couldn’t find someone. And she said, “You’re not going to find anyone until you get right with yourself.” And at the time it just made me mad but later I thought about it and realized it just wasn’t true. Because there are lots of insecure people who are happily married and I actually didn’t have to meet any standard of self-actualization. I just needed some damn luck.
And from that point out, I just looked at it that way. It’s not what I want, but I don’t need to see this as evidence that I have spiritual or psychological work to do. It just means I haven’t met the right guy — it really is as simple as that. It wasn’t this completely overnight thing — I backslid a lot — but it was the start of it. So in a way I did start to get right with myself, though that didn’t mean I magically met my husband the next day — as movies and dating books often suggest will happen. But it did mean that the three years before I met him were a lot more peaceful. I also don’t think that “getting right with myself” had much to do with meeting Mark, because I think he still would have loved my more neurotic, less confident self.
PM: What is it that you want readers to take away from your book?
SE: I want readers to decide that they are the best experts about their lives. Sure, it can be useful to get feedback at times, but romantic love is so personal and so strange and there is really no one else who can tell you the right thing to do. So I’m hoping the book will encourage readers to trust their instincts and be more gentle with themselves.
PM: Any final thoughts of wisdom?
SE: If you are a single person who would rather not be and you find yourself asking the question, “What’s wrong with me?” I’d suggest a different question: “What’s right with me?” Single people are often portrayed as desperate, which has never made sense to me. Choosing to be single even though you’d prefer to be in a relationship isn’t an act of desperation; settling for a mediocre relationship is.
To find out more on Sara Eckel and It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single, visit her website: SaraEckel.com