The Pressure of Being An Unmarried Woman in Your 30s

While the number of single people in the United States is increasing (it’s now 50.2% of Americans…wowza!), the stigma attached to being a single woman in her 30s has not lessened. This is according a study that was done at the University of Missouri in 2009.

Here’s one of the study’s authors explaining how the pressure feels for women:

“We found that never-married women’s social environments are characterized by pressure to conform to the conventional life pathway. This pressure was manifested in women feeling highly visible and invisible. Heightened visibility came from feelings of exposure and invisibility came from assumptions made by others.”

-Larry Ganong, co-chair of Human Development and Family Studies in the College of Human Environmental Sciences.

Apparently, unmarried women feel the pressure most acutely between the ages of 25 and 35. As an unmarried 33 year old woman, I can definitely relate. Nothing shocking in that study. But for me, the pressure is less about conforming to a conventional way of life, and more about these silent judgmental feelings I think that other, married or older, people are thinking about me – the big WHY of me not being married yet. WHY haven’t I been “found” yet? It’s like the first round of a football draft – and having this feeling of not being a first round pick.

It takes a lot of self-work to get over those feelings, especially if you are someone who consciously wants to find a life partner and get married.

Another interesting tidbit from the study is that after age 35, the pressure dies down a bit. I guess that’s when the hub-bub of engagements, weddings and  first babies dies down, and the collective societal pressure relaxes a bit.

If the trend of ‘singledom’ in American continues to increase, do you think the stigma will lessen? Or is the stigma biologically and evolutionarily ingrained in us so that we can continue desiring a mate and ultimately, children?

 

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How To Be a Third Wheel

The other day I went to a Barbecue in upstate New York. It was hosted by a close friend of mine and her boyfriend. When I got there, my friend said to me apologetically, “you’re going to meet a lot of people you don’t know.” What she didn’t mention was “you’re going to meet a lot of people you don’t know…and all of their significant others who you also don’t know.”

Once I went inside, I figured out that everyone at the BBQ was either married or engaged. And I felt very, very single. And very much like a third wheel.

This made me want to hide.

This made me want to hide away. At home. Somewhere inside my hoodie.

I didn’t realize that married and engaged couples would become the majority once I turned thirty. When I was in my twenties and would go to parties, I seem to remember a fair mix of singles and couples present. I also remember lots of alcohol being thrown down, and lots of stumbling home at 3am…or later. Was it a different world back then? After the BBQ this month, I caught the Metronorth back to Queens at the wee hour of 7pm (!)…with a nice newlywed couple who held hands as they told me the story of how they met.

To be fair, I was half of a couple for just about the entirety of my twenties…a serial monogamist from 21 to 29. And I basically saw the world of my twenties through ‘couple-eyes’ (yes, this is a thing)…which for me then meant: half of a couple = the definition of who I am.

So I didn’t totally get the whole third wheel stigma thing.

When I was part of a couple, I actually loved hanging out with single friends. I mean, it was fun to double date, but when I had a single friend hang out with me and my boyfriend at the time, I loved it just as much. All I wanted was for my friend to feel welcome and comfortable, single or not. A third wheel has this strange solo definition- they’re an extra piece- suddenly we have… a tricycle? A whole new entity. But that entity doesn’t have to be bad. I never thought it was bad before.

Of course, I very much understand the third wheel stigma- ‘couple-alone-time’ is important (as much as regular alone-time)- and a third person tagging along uninvited to a date night walk along the beach would probably not be the best. But the key word here is ‘uninvited.’ When you’re a third person invited along with a couple, you’re not a tag-along, you’re a guest. You’re a friend.

But when I first became single again, a few months ago, I didn’t feel like a guest. No matter how much a couple tried to make me feel included, I felt like I was invading their space and time. I felt like a lonely half who needed another. A missing piece. An extra part.

It took me awhile to remember how much I enjoyed hanging with single people when I was half of a couple…how much I wanted them to NOT feel like third wheels. It took me awhile to remember that they weren’t third wheels to me then…I saw them as full people- totally complete on their own. It’s weird how hard it is to see yourself the way you see others. Why would a couple be better than a single? What does that even mean?

I didn’t end up having a bad time at the barbecue. I’ll admit, I felt sad at first…wistful for coupledom. But then I started to have fun, once I settled in. I began to ask questions. I talked to my friend…and her boyfriend. I relaxed and ate barbecue. And I started to let go of looking at myself as an extra. I listened to stories… how couples met, where they lived, what they did. I enjoyed my ride home on the Metronorth with the newlyweds, who had a great first-meeting story and were both super nice. And I stopped feeling like a third wheel. And I stopped feeling alone. I didn’t feel like half a couple. I just felt like me.

 

 

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