September 9, 200, / Psychology Today
By Jeremy Sherman, Ph.D
I’m single again and so am inclined to come back to this blog’s original topic, ambigamy– ambivalence about sex, love, and relationships, being on the one hand, deeply romantic and on the other, deeply skeptical.
The timing for this blog’s launch a year ago was awkward. I had just partnered and was leaning way over toward the romantic. It was a hard time to express the skeptical side. Still, I wrote some columns early on to define ambigamy and to express its core, if conflicted values. I got a few angry letters from married people who read me as a player. Other readers came to my rescue clarifying that I was raising questions that could come up for any of us, married or single.
I know many solidly married ambigamists, male and female. Married ambigamists seem to cope with their ambivalence in either of two ways, one is by disclosing it: “It’s hard work, and sometimes I wonder why we bother, but no, I’m sticking with it,” or by denying it, “It takes dedication. We’ve been together for 27 years and we’ll be together for another 27. Married life is great. We aren’t going to let this fail.”
Years ago, when I was married, I accumulated reasons why marriage was right and good and best. Marriage was success and divorce was failure. I looked on my single friends with a little pity. I didn’t resist when the thought entered my mind that it meant they were undesirable, unstable, self-centered, too picky or simply maladjusted to reality.
I didn’t accumulate these reasons consciously. I think we all naturally accumulate the stories that affirm us in what we’re doing. It was during my divorce that I noticed the accumulation. I had to renegotiate my commitment to these reasons. All right, maybe single wasn’t failure. Now that I’m single again, I’m noticing its virtues, or you could say I’m accumulating reasons why it’s right and good and best.
That may sound like pitiful rationalization, like sour grapes even: “Hmmmph, I didn’t want to be in a partnership anyway.” But does it sound any more like sour grapes than the reasons I accumulated when married for thinking that marriage was best?: “Hmmmph, I didn’t want to be single anyway.”
I can’t think of one positive landed-sounding name for flying solo, which is why I’m calling it flying solo. We’ve got widow, spinster, dowager, old maid. We’ve got player and ladies man, loose, unwed.
“Single” can sound neutral but even then it’s a title for someone in transition to a better state. It’s like grad student, or medical resident, hospitalized in critical condition, or recovering alcoholic. Single is treated as a wannabe-something-else state.
The one thing singles event attendees have in common is a desire to stop being attendees. The one thing singles club members have in common is a desire to cancel their membership. Why aren’t there singles events for the contentedly single? A couples event is not an event for people hoping to transition to singleness.
An easy explanation is that being coupled is simply more fun than being single, so of course singles would be looking to transition to the better state. A lot of evidence bears this out-there are plenty of singles who would rather not be single. But there are also an increasing number of singles who are fine with it. They like their own company. They get as much social interaction as they need.
Yes, they’re nomadic. They don’t know where they’ll quench their thirst for good company next. They haven’t put down roots next to an artesian spring. But they’re OK with that. There are good people everywhere they go. They don’t need to have one at hand all the time. They’re like nomads in Minnesota. Land of lakes-there’s water everywhere. It’s not hard to quench a thirst for company.
Most don’t treat sex as the big gulp either. Most nomads aren’t bed-hopping. They do other things with people. They play music or cards, they hang out, they gossip, they dance. Sex is music for non-musicians. Music is so sensuous and frankly you can do more with an instrument than you can with even the hottest pair of lips.
I predict a single’s uprising comparable to the gay uprising and for similar reasons. Consider this parallel: If most people are at least modestly bi-sexual, people in heterosexual partnerships would welcome ways to ignore their homosexual side. They would naturally accumulate reasons for thinking that being straight is for winners and being homosexual is for losers. We call it homophobia and we suspect that it’s primarily a projection of the homophobe’s own ambivalence. The Gay movement has worked hard to reposition gayness as a positive thing, not something for losers. And to straights it can still feel threatening. The campaign to ban gay marriage in California last year hammered away with the threat that gay teachers would be dangerous role models to our children tempting them into a gay lifestyle. It worked, but when you stop to think about it, it assumes that kids have the potential to grow up to swing both ways. Homophobes admitting to that much innate bisexual ambivalence is really pretty wild.
Maybe, in a similar fashion, contented soloists pose a mild threat to married ambigamists. Maybe some partnered people are simply solophobic. Happy singles may be a source of cognitive dissonance. Loose women and men can be threatening to married couples because of the potential for cuckoldry, but even the most non-promiscuous single can subtly erode resolve that marriage is success and singleness is failure.
I know the reverse is true. When I’ve been contentedly single, I’ve experienced the cognitive dissonance generated by married folk crowing about the virtues of partnership, or expressing sympathy over my disadvantaged situation. Their declarations are perfectly understandable though. We all say what we need to hear. In the stormy seas of ambivalence we tie ourselves to the mast with stories that affirm our chosen path.
With bi-sexual ambivalence there are two masts. There are people who have committed to hetero relationships and need to remind themselves why that’s the good path. There are people who have committed to homosexual relationships who need to remind themselves why that’s the good path. And conversations between people who have chosen opposite paths can be difficult. The stories aren’t just as different as oil and water. They’re mutually erosive. Either party’s argument can eat at the resolve of the other’s. It’s telling that bisexuals report that they’re seen as a threat by both hetero- and homosexuals. They’re not tied securely to either mast.
I think there’s a parallel in the relationships between soloists and married people. Two masts: The married have to be able to say “I’m committed and that’s great,” but the soloists need to be able to do the same for their commitment to not partnering. And as has been the case for gays, the soloists haven’t had as much room to express confidence in their chosen path. They end up feeling the urge to say “And it’s not what you think. I’m not single because I’m a loser, or a degenerate.” I think they’ve been at a disadvantage in our couple-dominant society.
It’s always a little dangerous for “authorities” on psychology to use their own lives for labs. For one thing it kills credibility in academic circles where most think that they keep their research objective by operating in a clean room uncontaminated by exposure to personal feelings. And to some extent they’re right. The ideas I express here could have much less to do with reality than with my present reality, having just come out of a relationship a little hurt, a little sadder but perhaps not as much wiser and I’d like to think.
Still, I’m committed to shameless self-examination. I don’t think the academic’s claims to be operating in a clean room have proven all that successful at keeping their personal emotions out of it. I think disclosure is more supportive of academic rigor than denial. To put your feelings on the table where you can keep an eye on them, and to reason carefully seems the way to go.
Besides, I can’t see the advantage of ignoring this great lab I’ve got here in my own body. So I’ll disclose and hope that readers will bring to my assertions healthy skepticism and careful reason. Where I stand is, no doubt, part a function of where I sit. This week I’m disclosing that I’m now sitting on the sidelines of partnership.
I don’t have credibility as a soloist yet. I’ve been in and out of relationship over my life and this time only for a matter of weeks. Every time I come out of relationship I talk about the virtues of flying solo and then I end up back in a partnership again. My married friends think it’s amusing to watch my futile little orbitings. “Oh, you’ll be back. You know you want it,” they say. They even place moneyed bets on how fast.
And maybe they’re right. Maybe I’m the partnership equivalent of bi. I certainly see the advantages. It’s like yoga. You stretch yourself to reach some partner’s standard; you relax back into your own standard. And with each different partner, a different standard. Acting out one’s ambigamy through parallel monogamy is not a bad way to live as long as you don’t go around damaging people (children most importantly) or accumulating more alimony commitments than you can afford.
So why am I going on about the advantages of being a Soloists? Why am I talking like I’m at the vanguard of a soloist revolution? I say what I need to hear. I’m thinking there are a lot of advantages to soloism for me. I’m trying to tie myself to that mast. I’m a wannabe-something else. And maybe this time it will stick. In coming week’s I’ll explore what it might take for an ambigamist to transition.
If you’re into this topic and like some good long articulate entertainment, download a zipped MP3 copy of George Bernard Shaw’s Play “Man and Superman.” It’s hours long but I find it totally engrossing and it’s on exactly the relationship between single and partnered.