Monday, February 15, 2010

Eternal Hope and the Long-Term Single Life

"You coming back to me is against the odds, and that's what I've got to face."
--Phil Collins...hee, hee

(Note before we get rolling: I'm using the term "marriage" a lot in this post, but for my purposes here, it could refer to any romantic relationship where you're no longer single. A lot of people aren't too keen on marriage these days, but that doesn't mean that the tyranny of coupledom has dissipated much. Anyway...) I can't begin to count the amount of times I've read or heard a romantically frustrated asexual be told:

"There are asexual couples who've gotten married! Don't give up hope!"

I briefly touched on this topic in this long-ago post, but I'm hoping to take the idea a little further now. That yes, asexuals marry is not an incorrect answer. There are, indeed, asexual couples who've gotten married, although you can count the number that we know of on your hands. There are also, of course, asexuals in "mixed" relationships and asexuals in romantic relationships that aren't marriage. But is this answer a productive one? Does it really make the person feel any better? Maybe in the short term. But in the long term, I think that the prevalence of this response takes our focus away from unique matters that the asexual community could be pursuing. Personally, when I get told that others have found "the one", so "don't give up!", it just makes me think, "Well, I can't find a partner, so what's wrong with me?" People tend to not blame systems, but blame themselves.

There's this insidious assumption, possibly an American one, that if it's humanly possible for something to be accomplished, then you can do it, too. These are usually the "bootstraps" stories-- if one poor kids can get out of the ghetto and become a CEO, then you can, too. Of course, these stories ignore the panoply of social factors and issues that affect people. That said, this "bootstraps" type of assumption often plays out when people talk about relationships. The problem with "bootstraps" is that if ours malfunction, we feel worse than we did before. Yes, it's possible for asexuals to marry. But holding up romantic relationships as objects of eternal hope (to everyone but especially to asexuals) puts us in a place where it's too easy to feel like we're inadequate if we can't achieve what others have done.

In our culture, there is always hope that a single person will marry, regardless of the situation. "Don't worry, you'll find someone." But will we? Asking that question can feel like staring into a cultural abyss. If I was "holding out hope" for doing anything else that has the same odds of two asexuals marrying, I'd be called crazy. But when it comes to romance, it seems, no odds are too small. Most of our entertainments and forms of media support this idea, or rather, sell it with an intensity that is almost nonsensical. Maybe other single asexuals feel more confident about their romantic prospects than I do, but that doesn't change the fact that a lot of us are likely to stay single...if we're holding out for true love, that is. And let's not leave our aromantic brethren (of all orientations) out of this, either. Going back to our old friend The New Single Woman, E. Kay Trimberger writes:

Feminists in the vanguard of changing norms in the 1970s did not connect their commitment to finding idealized love--their belief that they did not have to settle-- to an increase in the probability that they would remain single. Today, young women may be just as unaware of the connection. But any attachment to this cultural ideal also means that women who are well into midlife may continue to search for a soulmate, with harmful results, I believe, for their well-being. Psychologist Karen Lewis, who is single, articulates some of the personal costs of a culture that values the couple above all other intimate connections: "At no point do single women know for sure that they will never marry. The ambiguity always leaves room for hope: Maybe the right man will come along during the next week or next month, on the next vacation, at the next business meeting, during the next walk with the dog. And as long as there is hope, there is the pain of ambiguity." (16-17, emphasis mine)

I know that single women deal with this; I would imagine that men might deal with something similar, although I can't speak for the guys on this one. The solution, to Trimberger (and to me) is to allow people to "envision or find support for a long-term single life" (4) and to " alternative vision" (17) to the eternal soulmate quest. And these alternative visions, to me, are something that the asexual community could really help to develop. I've always thought that as asexuals, we could use our differences for the greater good. Of course, some asexuals will marry, but I think it behooves everyone in our society to have more choices than either to be married or to be always seeking a mate. The asexual community, full of people who might remain single for long periods of time, is the perfect group to take on that project. As it is now, if you imply that another person will remain single for any length of time, it sounds like you're cursing them with a fate worse than death. I think that mindset is something we need to change.


Anonymous said...

I have been evaluating my own beliefs about the cultural pressure to entwine oneself with another person. I have never been in a relationship and in my 30's, I realize how abnormal I must be perceived by others. My circumstances are a lack of chemistry with people I cross paths with, so I simply remain single. I find myself asking with more frequency, "What do people who never couple with someone else do with their lives?" The fact that I ask this shows how steeped I am in American culture because the logical answer would be that they continue to live full lives without romance. American culture puts tremendous emphasis on romantic love and I find myself, possessing the unattractive status of single in a couple focused culture, feeling adrift from the majority of my peers. I like this subject you addressed as I think it's important to examine what people such as myself do who fall outside the norm.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, great post. I think that I'm about as close as a person can be to knowing that they'll never marry. The topic doesn't often come up, but when it does, people at least seem to think that it's "too bad." And I don't know how to respond, usually, except to say that I don't think so, but the fact is I'm trying to construct my life along altogether different lines.

Quantum Moon said...

Since marriage is seen as an achievement it is a means of gaining status and admiration. For people in that kind of relationship to admit that other lifestyles are just as good would be to remove their own privileged position, I feel this is going to be an uphill battle.

Siggy said...

I'm pretty guilty of eternal hope myself. I have two major goals in my personal life. One is to be satisfied with long-term single life, and the other is to stop being single.

Last year, I feel like I made progress towards both of these goals when I dated someone and subsequently had an unhappy breakup. So it's all good.

Anonymous said...

First of all--well said!

But...I do have to disagree with you here:
"In our culture, there is always hope that a single person will marry, regardless of the situation."

I think that Mother Theresa would have disagreed with you. Sister Wendy Beckett, too.

Maybe what the asexual community needs is the secular nun option. I'm not religious, but I felt more comfortable with a group of nuns who were friends with my aunt than with any other group of people my own age. They didn't ask me if I was single. They weren't the slightest bit interested in whether I wanted to get married. Marriage wasn't even on their radar.

A lot of media (tv, movies) that portray women who favor career over relationships tend to make the woman a "business woman". What exactly do those women do anyway, apart from wearing "business suits" and attending meetings? Far be it from tv or movies to portray a woman doing something tangibly interesting or worthwhile--Physicist? Explorer? Artist?

Can you imagine how that would go down--making a romantic comedy about an artist who is wooed away from her art into doing something more important, like having sex?
I don't think Hollywood could ever have imagined someone like Emily Carr.


Ily said...

Thanks for the comments, all, keep 'em coming!

Oh, I'm pretty guilty of eternal hope myself, about quite a few things for that matter.

Maybe what the asexual community needs is the secular nun option.

Hmm, this is an interesting idea. There's a lot of reasons why I couldn't be a nun, like I'm Jewish and not a morning person. But if there was some group of secular nuns who were allowed to wear whatever they wanted (that's a biggie for me), I might join. If they did cool stuff, that is. What that would be, I have no clue. This is why we need a whole group of people working on the "long term single life" project...

I guess it all comes down to community like every other point that I make on this blog. In my experience, it was much easier and less of an issue to be single when I was part of a close-knit community. And Trimberger says the same thing in her book. I guess some sort of secular nun (or monk!) thing would provide this kind of community.

Ily said...

(Also, if we did have such nuns/monks, I think anyone should be able to be one, not just aces :-)

The Impossible K said...

Excellent post, Ily! I agree wholeheartedly with you. I never really imagined myself marrying. I was happily pursuing my alternative vision when I met my husband, and even if he hadn't come along, I'd be happily pursuing it today. Marriage or romance of any sort can't be predicted (unless, I suppose, you're in an arranged marriage) - it can come when you least expect it, or not at all. Either way, our sense of worth or happiness should not rely on our status. There is so much more to life.

Becky said...

Ily, thanks for writing this. I've been chewing over this same idea the last few days, having just gotten out of a brief fling with this amazing amazing person... that ended for the same old asexy reason... and dispairing of ever being able to "make it work."

Anyway, that's not my main point. I was recently involved in a political campaign. Working there was the first time since college (10 years ago) that I remember feeling okay--even happy--being single. I was surrounded by a community who knew me, enjoyed me, and supported me. What else could I need? But the campaign ended and things are noticably emptier. I wish there were more ways of creating that community for yourself long-term.

I love the idea of an order of secular nuns! What's more, there should be secular church. My parents' church is a supportive community--and I like how people go there to openly talk about making themselves and the world better--but as an atheist I am only an imposter.

Can we make this nun order (or church) be coed? It's not that (though from time to time I'll be weak) I secretly aspire to scope out the men for that fairy-tale romance we can't seem to let go of. Just that I like men, and I enjoy being able to have a community with them.

Rebekah said...

I am wholly in support of starting a secular nun/monk system (as an Anglican, I cannot become one within my religion - boo protestantism's-lack-of-nuns) - in fact, when I was nine I really, really wanted to be a monk. I kind of still do.

This is always an interesting conversation, and I enjoyed the excerpt from the book that addressed the feminists' assertions that they could hold out for someone person and end up coupled. It's always seemed to be a bit ridiculous how polarized the issue is - either settle for the first disgusting option who'll have, or hold out for Mr./Ms. Perfect and end up alone. This dichotomy wouldn't even necessarily be a problem, though, if singlehood weren't so violently opposed - it's seems a much better option to become happy in your singlehood while searching for someone, which applies to everyone who wants a partner, and not just asexuals (although for us it applies perhaps more, assuming you're opposed to having to satisfy the sexual needs of your partner).

Carolyn said...

I think another issue with our current American social view is this intense individualistic pride that causes us to see finding a mate as a badge to be earned. Finding a mate may be hard, and may be impossible (we can certainly help by abandoning some of these traditional "dating" ideas), but the more hope we have for it the more we can look outside ourselves and realize that partnering with someone can help you be a great service to a fellow human being, it's not just a prize to be won for yourself. Maybe relationships have been insanely over-valued because they're hard and not always fun, but traditionally it has helped communities widen and bond together.

Ily said...

Thanks guys, I'm glad people are relating to all this. Last night I was seriously thinking about secular nuns n' monks (I lead an exciting life), and if the group was secular, there'd be no reason for the people in the group to be unmarried. So the dynamics of the group wouldn't be all that different from the dynamics of any other group. That's not to say it wouldn't be a cool group, though.

I was also thinking how it's socially acceptable for married people to hang out only with other married people. I know a lot of people aren't like this (thank goodness!), but it's a real phenomenon for some. However, there's no real space for single people to talk about their experiences with each other outside of events where people are attempting to date. It's okay to complain about being single, but still kind of weird to talk about other facets of it. So one idea, a lot easier than the secular nuns/monks, would just be to organize discussions about supports for singlehood. Just brainstorming!

Becky, what you said about feeling down after your campaign was over sounds a bit similar to how I felt when the pride parade was over. I've heard before that politics or activism can be a really good way to bond with people, but for a newbie to those things like me, getting involved can seem super intimidating. One of many things I keep "meaning to do"...

Carolyn, I think I finally understand why you don't like Facebook! Relationships do resemble "badges" there.

partnering with someone can help you be a great service to a fellow human being

When I read that I thought, hmm, if you get married someday, you should write your own vows :-)

Inhuman said...

I like what you said about finding an alternative goal than long-term partnership.
Though, it seems to be like this: eventually all your immediate family and friends will get busy and leave you, then you get married for company, then you have kids and your family is your life until you're old, then you die. But what else is there to do without that marriage? Where do you start for life-long companionship without that? Friends get married, get jobs in different towns, move away. Spouses and sons/daughters do not.

I have always envisioned my future to be with several other people and we would play the roll of a family (sort of like the Cullens from Twilight!) even though we're not romantically involved or related through blood. But where would I EVER find people who would like the idea of this as much as myself? Aromantic asexuals don't grow on trees you know. Celibate Christian gays? Meh. I'd probably end up convincing them the bible doesn't actually condemn them, then they'd go off and get married. Monks? Nuns? No, they live in churchy buildings or something, not with their friends.

But I have a hard time imagining how a life of being single could be as rewarding as a family and marriage. It seems that everything in life seems to build up to that.

What to do, what to do.

Ily said...

Thanks, you might be interested in this book, which I haven't read, but the concept sounds similar to what you're describing:

I think the key to "what to do" if you're not married is "community". That, or following your interests and other passions. Much like "bend your knees" is the advice given in every single sport ;-)

NancyP said...

There are lay brotherhoods in various national churches in the Anglican Communion and USA.

Try asking any of the bloggers aggregated at to find out more.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I don't remember the last time I read anything like this that resonated so much with me. Aside from that, what Inhuman wrote is pretty much a mind-read for me.

Ily said...

I'm glad to hear that! Love those moments...

Anonymous said...

Tip: look to the 'spinsters' of yesteryear for what they did with their lives outside of getting married. After the first world war there was a literal man shortage, and many women never married, so turned to community service. I'm mid-thirties and unmarried. While I'm not asexual I do live alone, and have been single for twelve years, as I'm an introvert and very independent. All my friends have fallen away to look after their babies and husbands - single women (e.g. completely without a partner) are on the bottom rung of the social order in society after the age of 30 even in urban environments that pretend to be hip and progressive. In many ways it's freeing because I have permission to be completely myself, but in other ways it's terribly hard to let go of the possibility of meeting someone to share emotional intimacy with in a partnership, and have children with. I also find that because society disregards single women after a certain age, I'm preyed on by married men who imagine I must be desperate, and do often wish to have some of the social status afforded to women with partners. Married or partnered women are suspicious I want their man, too, and single women see me as competition. I mostly keep to myself which is why I'm writing this on a Saturday night! I spend my time doing creative things and I'm going back to uni next year to do what I've always wanted. Why not? I have no one to support, no one to tell me I can't, and I've already got a 'career' to fall back on if I ever need the money. But I'm taking the route of being poor and content from now on.

Ily said...

Thanks for the comment! I agree that being single is freeing in some ways, but can be pretty hard, too.

Mage said...

I'm fascinated (actually just annoyed) that marriage is held up as the hope of hopes for aces who are down on themselves. Part of the reason why I have been so glad to come out as asexual (to myself and to others) was that I finally have a reason to be like, "screw marriage and normative relationships, I'm doing this MY way!" I never wanted marriage anyway and I have always been totally incapable of being in a normative relationship, and realizing my asexuality made me feel righteous rather than pathetic.
I think that we should encourage each other to feel righteous about alternative life paths, rather than cling to the last vestiges of normativity open to us.

Ily said...

I think that we should encourage each other to feel righteous about alternative life paths, rather than cling to the last vestiges of normativity open to us.