Being Single Is an Ambiguous Loss


Single women often think they are depressed because they do not have a man, but it’s not as simple as that.  In a recent women’s retreat I ran for singles, Monica says something that caused the other women to nod in recognition.

“I’m discouraged with this dating business.  I keep meeting all these awful men. Well, some are okay.  I may even really like a man, but it all ends the same.”  Her voice rises.  “They never call back.  I just feel so depressed.”

Monica, like so many women, questions, “What’s wrong with me?”  After acknowledging she’s not cold, unemotional, boring, or too pushy, she grudgingly concludes even if she were, the men’s behavior towards her hadn’t indicated they’d noticed.

Claudia, listening to Monica but also thinking of herself, laughingly asks, “But what else could it be?  If I knew what my problem was, I could fix it.  That would make it easier.”

We all have things in our life we wish were different – to be taller, shorter, have blue vs. brown eyes, to have musical talent.  But you haven’t spent years trying to change yourself into a 5’9” blue-eyed piano virtuoso.  It would be nice, but…It is easy to give up these wishes because there is no value judgment, no social or family pressure about changing your height or eye color.

Not having a loving partner, though, is an ambiguous loss – that is, a loss for which there is no resolution, like grieving over someone in a coma.  She’s not dead so you can’t grieve and move on.  Nor, though, is she alive so you can move on with your life.  You are stuck in the middle.

Similarly, there is also no resolution for single women; there is nothing you can do; you have no control over making an appropriate man appear in your life. Yet, society, family, even yourself, believe you should be doing something about being single.

The bind for single women is that what feels like depression may actually be de-pressed anger – anger at being single, at an individual man, or at men in general for not being marriage material.

So, are Monica and Claudia (and all the other single women) depressed, or are they suffering from ambiguous loss – not knowing if or when they will even meet an appropriate man?

Another woman, Jennifer, says that having a label for what she’s feeling is helpful.  “I have been saying I was depressed, but I knew it didn’t feel like real depression – which I had years ago.  So I do know the difference.  But what do I do?”  She looks around at the other professional, competent women, and adds, “What do we all do; we still don’t like not having someone?”

These women are anything but losers.  They have lives – good jobs, friends, hobbies and interests.  They have chosen to come to a weekend retreat for always single and single again women because they are hurting about this one aspect of their life – not having a man.

I validate how hard it is to be single in a society that is very subtly prejudiced against singles.  Then I make a distinction between what they do and don’t have control over. “You do not have any control to make an appropriate man appear in your life.  Therefore, do whatever you want  about meeting men, but at the same time, let’s think how you might remove your self-blame and live with the ambiguity of not knowing if you will or will not ever meet him.”

Monica makes a list of all the things she has always said she’d like to do some day.  In looking it over, she adds, “I’d need more friends to do things with; most of my friends are married.”

Claudia sits quietly, looking at her list.  Finally, she asks, “Why do I feel a bit better?  I shouldn’t.  You’ve just told me to prepare for being a spinster?”

“No, I haven’t, really.  I’ve just redefined what all of you are already feeling. You’re not clinically depressed; you’re struggling with the ambiguity of being single, with an “ambiguous loss,’  I’ve only told you to be prepared to enjoy what life you now have while continuing to want what may or may not come next.  And, I’ve reminded you that being single may not be your fault.  It actually shouldn’t make you feel much better,” I smile.

“True.  I could feel real depressed now, couldn’t I?” responds Claudia. “It reminds me of my father; maybe I should learn from him. He always wanted my brother to join his law practice. He’s never really gotten over his disappointment my brother went into sales — although he could change his mind one day.  If he can carry on with his disappointment, I should be able to. But it still hurts.  I don’t think I’ll ever feel good about not having a husband.  I want one!”

“Of course you do.”  I look at her and then all the other women.  “And no, you may never get over being sad you don’t have one AND not knowing if you ever will.  That’s life. What you do have to get over, though, is blaming yourself and calling yourself depressed. You’ve been trying to find something wrong with you to explain why you aren’t married.  You do have to get over de-pressing your anger at their not being enough appropriate men or at a society prejudiced against singles.  And, you do have to get on with your other dreams – while waiting.”

Give yourself credit.  Living with ambiguity is difficult. When there is no clarity, there is no closure.  This makes it harder for Monica and Claudia and for all single women, to grieve the loss of the white picket fence dream and move on.  Remembering that, not blaming yourself, won’t take away your sadness at not having a man, but it will make it easier, for however long, to be unmarried.

If you have questions or comments or want more information, contact me at:

Dr. Karen Gail Lewis

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