Going Solo

Posted on Thu, Jan 17, 2008 @ 04:12 PM
Living the Single Life
Katie Couric and Condoleezza Rice

Continuing on from yesterday’s post, Bella DePaulo, author of Singled Out, has made it clear that contrary to popular stereotypes, singles do have family. But what about a life? Surely singles don’t have as many commitments or extracurricular demands as couples do—so doesn’t that mean their lives must be unfulfilling and drab? Don’t they sit by the phone waiting for someone to call and relieve the unrelenting boredom of their existence?

These are further steroptypes that, DePaulo says, are hard to break. But it doesn’t matter whether singles have large families, many friends, numerous commitments or none of these things—busy or not, they are likely to be seen by others as not having a fulfilling life. One compelling example DePaulo uses to make this point is that of the 66th Secretary of State of the United States, Dr. Condoleezza Rice. DePaulo isn’t saying that singles need to aspire to Rice’s profile in order to have a life. In fact, she makes the point that from the perspective of some observers, even such a profile isn’t enough to constitute a real “life” for a single person.

On CNN’s Larry King Live, December 11, 2002, Bob Woodward told viewers that Rice is such a key figure in the Bush administration that “she has no personal life. She is in the White House or with the president continuously.”

But what if Rice feels like part of the Bush family? Perhaps all those weekends she spends at Camp David or at the Texas ranch with the Bush family are down-time—family time—a pleasant and fulfilling part of her personal life. It’s certainly possible.

Nevertheless DePaulo concedes, let’s assume becoming only the second woman ever to be named as Secretary of State is grounds for being considered life-less and ask what it would take for onlookers to admit Rice might have a personal life beyond the White House. Perhaps having a life can be defined as “pursuing personal interests”?

If so, there is much to be gleaned about Rice’s interests from interviews and media stories.

For starters, she likes to read, travel, watch sports, play tennis and tinkle the ivories on her Steinway piano—a hobby she seems to be rather good at. At least, the standing ovation she received from the audience at Constitution Hall gave some indication her duet with Yo-Yo Ma wasn’t a complete failure.

Rice, who received her BA degree at the age of 19, holds a doctorate in International Studies, has authored or co-authored several books, served on numerous boards, and earned two of the highest teaching awards while on staff at Stanford University. She has also posed for Vogue magazine. If it’s possible to describe anyone’s existence as being, in DePaulo’s words, “filled with friendship and passion and marvelously developed talents and stunning achievements,” Condoleezza Rice’s life certainly qualifies, and her example thereafter remains the highlight of Singled Out.

Unfortunately, DePaulo’s well-taken point that singles do have fulfilling lives, wonderful families and rich relationships and that they make vital contributions to their communities is unnecessarily diminished by the fact that she fails to resist the urge to treat couples as superciliously as she accuses them of treating singles.

Says DePaulo, “When couples have children, they often settle into the comfort and privacy of their own home. They might slip out now and then for a baseball game or a pizza, but like the cliché says, the home is their castle. With a moat around it. They practice what I see as intensive nuclearity. They act as a tight, self-contained unit.”

I admit I’m coupled with children, but we rarely have the opportunity to settle into the “comfort and privacy” of our own home. There is no moat, and each member of our household is out connecting with numerous others of varying ages and situations for the larger part of almost every day. We’ve had, at various times in the life of our “intensively nuclear” family, elderly people, young adults and teens living in our household who were not genetically related to us. And we aren’t unusual among our friends.

Several of DePaulo’s other assertions about the motivations and beliefs of couples and nuclear families are similarly wide of the mark, which is regrettable because many of the people who could benefit from her main point will have difficulty getting past some of the stereotypes and straw couples she erects along the way.

Still, those who do manage to keep track of who is stereotyping whom in Singled Out will at least take away the understanding that a strong community requires interactive relationships across all generations and family situations. There will always be singles and there will always be couples, but all are connected to the larger social fabric by family ties as well as ties of friendship. All of these relationships are important and in need of nurturing. Sadly, despite all intentions and potential to the contrary, the approach taken in Singled Out seems more likely to further polarize these groups than to reconcile them.

Tags: Condoleezza Rice, Singles, contentment, couples, marriage

Feeling Single but Seeing Double

Posted on Sun, Jan 13, 2008 @ 04:14 PM
Do people always go two by two?

Singled  Out, by Bella De Paulo, PhDAs mentioned in the last post, break-up season should be in full swing right about now. So what’s a single person to do? Rely on married friends to find them a new dating prospect? Find a hobby? Take a class? Bury themselves in their work?

These questions bring to mind a book by Bella DePaulo, PhD, titled: Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. Published just over a year ago, DePaulo’s book uses humor and sometimes stinging sarcasm to explain (to singles as well as couples) that singles can be just as happy as their married friends.

What? A post about singles on a family blog? Singles don’t have families, do they?

“To be stereotyped is to be prejudged,” DePaulo reminds us. “Tell new acquaintances that you are single and often they think they already know quite a lot about you. They understand your emotions: You are miserable and lonely and envious of couples. They know what motivates you: More than anything else in the world, you want to become coupled. If you are a single person of a certain age, they also know why you are not coupled: You are commitment-phobic, or too picky, or have baggage. . . . From knowing nothing more about you than your status as a single person, other people sometimes think they already know all about your family: You don’t have one. They also know about the important person or persons in your life: You don’t have anyone. In fact, they know all about your life: You don’t have a life.”

Image by David BlaikieSome of DePaulo’s basic accusations may have more merit than the average “coupled” person would like to admit. After all, we barely blink when we see a book titled, If I’m So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Single? We may even buy it as a gift for one of our single friends. But, DePaulo makes the tongue-in-cheek proposal, what if the title was: If I’m So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Married? Would we understand the implications then?

And what if government entities also recognized that single people have relationships and lead productive lives? What if singles, like couples, could leave their Social Security benefits to the person who is most important to them, whether that’s their elderly mother or their brand new nephew? What if, instead of feeling sorry for them, others recognized their ability to contribute as productively to the family community as anyone else?

Fortunately, DePaulo stands ready to shatter every preconceived notion anyone may have of single life. “I am happy,” she says, “I have a life, and there is no way I will grow old alone (a matter that has little to do with having a serious coupled relationship or even living by yourself).” One has to concede she’s right here. If you’re the type of person who reaches out to build relationships, you may find yourself surrounded by friends even when you’re single. These people will not die alone—whether they ever get married or not. Alternatively, the reclusive couple rarely dies in each others’ arms. One of the two goes first—statistically this is usually the husband—and the second is left to die completely alone, not having nurtured the friendships that will stand by them at the end.

DePaulo contends, “The conventional wisdom about people who are single is a mythology, a gloss. It is not an accurate description of the textured and varied lives of real people who are single.”

Though readers may find areas of disagreement and some of her assertions don't quite seem to come from the happy place DePaulo insists she's in, it’s difficult to argue with the over-arching point. Singles can live happily ever after, all the while enjoying fulfilling relationships and accomplishing great things on the way.

Image by  Dave McKeagueFortunately DePaulo makes some (though not enough) qualifications. “I’m not against coupling," she insists. "Coupling itself . . . is in fact timeless. The kind of interest that people have in coupling cannot be manufactured from whole cloth the way a sudden intense desire for a Cabbage Patch doll can be. It is based on something real. So, my problem is not with our current interest in coupling or our valuing it.”

Instead, says DePaulo, her problem is with society’s tendency to undervalue the contributions and potential of singles, and to under-define terms like “family.”

For example, while the conventional question, “Do you have a family?” is often proposed in order to find out whether an adult is married with children, DePaulo remarks that “There are, of course, other meanings of family.” This leads her to question why we don’t often hear responses like: “Oh, yes, I have a family: I have a mother and father.” Or perhaps, “Yes, I have a brother, a sister, three cousins, a grandmother an uncle and two aunts.”

When we realize that sibling relationships are some of the longest-standing relationships any of us will ever have in our lives, and that there are long-time friends with whom we may have sibling-like relationships, we understand that the term “family” is meant to have implications that do not leave singles out in the cold.

Tags: Singles, couples, marriage, family, dating, siblings Bella DePaulo

National Break-Up Season

Posted on Thu, Jan 10, 2008 @ 04:21 PM
Four out of ten people likely to think twice about their relationships

Image by Khalid KhalilAccording to a new dating study by Yahoo!, the period from December to Valentine’s day should be known as "National Break-Up Season." Far from a scientific study, the report suggests that the promise of a new year often leads people to reassess their relationships as they think about the future.

Says Yahoo!, "The two primary reasons leading to a break-up were not having a shared view of the future with a partner (48 percent) and feeling unfulfilled or in a rut (41 percent)."  Most often, the report says, it's the more mature daters (aged 30-39) who reconsider their relationships on the basis of conflicting views and goals.

While this study may not present any earth-shattering revelations, there is no question that the two reasons for break-up offered by Yahoo! are often cited by those who are unhappy in relationships, whether they are simply dating or already married. 

Of course, that's what dating is about, isn't it?  People obviously need to spend time together to discover whether their views of the future are compatible enough to ensure they can commit to working together toward a common goal for the rest of their lives. There's no surprise that the lack of a common vision leads to break-up during the dating phase, or that the lack of a common vision would lead to a stale dating relationship that is unfulfilling or "in a rut."

Image by SpiralzWhat is a surprise, however, is that it happens so often during the marriage phase. Apparently, a vital discovery that should be made while dating often goes undetected until the commitment has been made and rings exchanged. 

Why is this such a common mistake?  Many blame it on the fact that Western society and culture idealizes romantic bliss. But is the perfect relationship simply a fantasy, or is it possible to attain? And what is a perfect relationship?

This question brings to mind the recent post entitled "Doing Well versus Feeling Good: The Self Esteem Debate."  If "doing well" is more important than just "feeling good" on an individual basis, what happens when this same concept is applied to each human connection: marriage, family, community and beyond? Could doing well be more important then feeling good when defining the perfect relationship?

For instance, beginning with the connection between just two people who feel some initial attraction, which comes first? Working together toward a common goal?  Or feeling fulfilled? Learning about the common vision you share with that other person (a "doing" aspect)? Or feeling romantic?

Just as the right kind of self-esteem comes from working through problems and mastering them, maybe the right kind of relationships don't just happen automatically. Maybe instead of giving up on a marriage when it doesn't live up to ideals of Hollywood romance, couples could find fulfillment in working through and mastering their problems, and from coming out on the other side of them with a higher regard for the marriage and their love for one another.

Of course it takes two. It's very difficult to make a marriage when only one partner is doing the work. So perhaps a "Break-Up Season" where dating couples take a hard look at their ability to work through problems together is not a bad idea.  Better to do it during the dating phase than exchange the rings and find only one is willing to work during marriage.

Tags: marriage, dating, David H. Olsen, National Break-up Season

Getting to the Heart of Good Relationships

Posted on Sun, Dec 30, 2007 @ 04:27 PM
Can negative family relationships literally make us ill?

Image by  KalandrakasA 2007 study by researchers at University College in London has found a correlation between negative relationships and coronary heart disease (CHD). "Negative interactions increase the risk of incident CHD," says Psychologist Roberto De Vogli. "The effect is independent of sociodemographic characteristics, biological factors, pychosocial factors and health-related behaviors." De Vogli received his PhD from UCLA, and has worked for an impressive list of institutions, including the World Bank and the World Health Organization. Most of the more than 9,000 civil servants in this study were married, and De Vogli concentrated on the primary relationship in his analysis.

His overall finding may not seem so surprising, considering the large body of literature that shows that good relationships are associated with positive health and well-being, but this time there is an interesting twist. Apparently, the negative effects of negative relationships are stronger than the positive effects of positive relationships.

Image by Andreas D"The possibility that negative close relationships are more powerful predictors of health than other aspects of social support is consistent with previous research findings indicating that individuals tend to mentally replay negative encounters more than they replay positive ones," says De Vogli. "It is possible that negative aspects of close relationships are more important for the health of individuals because of the power of negative close relationships to activate stronger emotions (worrying and anxiety) and the consequent physiological effects."

Does this mean we should simply avoid those relationships that bring conflict into our lives? Is that where this finding leads?

In the absence of violence, there may be other alternatives. In their May 2007 analysis, "Transformative Process in Marriage," three American researchers note that when psychologists have studied marriage their dominant focus has usually been on conflict. However, this may be changing. "The study of supportive behaviors within marital relationships has been illuminating," say Frank Fincham of Florida State University, Scott Stanley of the University of Denver and Steven Beach of the University of Georgia. "Many researchers and clinicians believe that forgiveness is the cornerstone of a successful marriage, a view that is shared by spouses themselves. Although attempts to integrate forgiveness into broader theories of marriage hardly exist, forgiveness can be seen conceptually as falling on a dimension of positive coping responses, such as social support."

Fincham, Stanley and Beach also point to commitment and sacrifice as two related "self-repair" processes in marriage which scholars have begun to examine. "Those who report more willingness to sacrifice also report greater satisfaction, commitment and relationship persistence," the researchers noted, as they also asked, "Is there an inherent capacity in many relationships for marital self-repair and relationship-generated change, even in the absence of outside intervention? . . . Can naturally occurring marital self-repair processes be harnessed to improve existing treatment gains over time?"

Naturally, even with the benefit of self-repair processes like forgiveness, commitment and sacrifice, it would take two to tango. But couples in high-conflict relationships could do worse than give these principles a shot. One might even say it could be good for the heart.

Tags: family relationships, marriage, heart disease, negative relationships, positive relationships