Longtime reader, very rare commenter but I think you generally give excellent advice so I’m giving it a shot. I’ll try to keep this relatively brief – I’m having an existential problem surrounding life milestones, etc. I’m 25 and have generally been pretty successful in my life – I’ve been academically successful, I have a law degree and a good job, and I have a really good group of friends, most of whom have been in my life for many years.
What I haven’t had is a whole lot of romantic relationships. This is generally fine with me. I really value my personal space and don’t generally crave the kind of constant companionship that comes with serious relationships. I’ve dumped people for “liking me too much” (ie, coming on too strong, wanting a kind of closeness I wasn’t comfortable with, etc). I’ve had one relationship that I would classify as “semi-serious” with a much older man that I met several years ago (we are still close and sometimes physically involved but not currently “in a relationship”). This relationship used to cause me a lot of emotional pain but I’m at peace with it now and don’t consider it a source of stress in my life. Additionally, I am kind of wary of men (I haven’t been raped or abused, fortunately, but have had the same experiences as a lot of women – sexual harassment, etc, lots of friends who are survivors) and am generally not one to give men “benefit of the doubt” when I’m uninterested or uncomfortable.
The problem is, certain family members seem to consistently insinuate that I need to “fix” my dating life. I’ve made the mistake of mentioning that I eventually might be interested in marriage/kids, which has apparently given these family members permission to ask about why I’m not dating, give unsolicited advice about my dating life or lack thereof, and critique the way I interact with men. These family members did not approve of my previous relationship (and I understand why, although it’s truly none of their business) and seem to be motivated by a desire to see me “move on” from it. I always feel like they’re trying to tell me there’s something wrong with me for not being all that interested in dating; I’m also a pretty private person and don’t tend to talk about people I casually date/am interested in.
I’m at an age where a lot of my friends are in serious relationships and some are married, and the pressure is starting to get to me. Eventually, a relationship would be nice. I love kids and would like to have some of my own someday. But I need to do it on my own timeline, when I’m comfortable, when I figure out what I want and what I need. I’m not even 100% sure that I’m not bisexual. Scripts like “I don’t want to talk about my dating life/relationships” have only been interpreted as an invitation to “push” harder from these family members, and this lack of respect for my boundaries seems to be fraying my familial relationships that are really important to me. I want to be close with my family but I’m also an adult and need people to mind their own business, and I don’t know what to do. Any advice?
Single and Stressed (she/her)
Dear Single and Stressed,
I wish there were a product you could spray on yourself that would preemptively make people mind their own business about certain topics, but there isn’t. Your family is going to keep asking you about this probably forever, or, until you start dating someone at which point they are gonna ask you when you’re getting married. If marriage is on the horizon, it will be time to talk about your reproductive choices.
When it’s people you love it helps, as much as possible, to think about it in terms of “They care about me and want me to be happy and they are taking an interest in my life and this is how they show it” but you’re not imagining the stress and awkwardness you’re feeling when it comes up. These discussions can feel extremely oppressive especially when:
a) If your desires, identities, and choices don’t follow a monogamous, straight, or otherwise “traditional” model (including not wanting to be paired off in some way at all), any conversation about this personal area of life suddenly involves not only personal awkwardness but potentially bringing very real and vulnerable questions of civil and human rights onto the table. (For one example). Where these conversations are really about Do I Trust This Person Enough To Not Freak The Fuck Out If I Tell Them The Truth About Myself? Do I trust them not to be dismissive? Violent? Am I feeling up for A Scene at this particular moment in time?
Welp, it’s not exactly small talk, is it.
b) The entire process of forming romantic attachments and partnerships isn’t really controllable or subject to schedules. You gotta find someone who you want, who you can build a happy life with, when the timing and circumstances make it all possible, and they have to want you back and want the same things as you and make all the big and tiny decisions to make the things happen. It’s not like you wake up, turn 25, feel ready to be married and start having a family, walk down to the Potential Life Partner and Co-Parent Superstore, run your debit card, and check that accomplishment off your to-do list.
A ton of advice exists in the world on how to speed up or otherwise manage “finding love!” and some of it is okay and a lot of it is plain malarkey. Malarkey or not, if you asked people in your life for advice, along the lines of “I really want to meet someone and settle down, and I’m not sure how to go about that, what do you think?” or “I’ve tried dating but I don’t feel like I’m meeting the kind of people I want to, what would you do if you were me?” or “Hey do you know any great single people I might like I’m willing to be set up and I trust your opinion!” then you’re signing up for at least a polite listen to whatever they have to say about online dating or lip gloss or being “really, really open, like, REALLY open” to new experiences or whatever.
Absent you asking for advice or help or suggestions, hearing “Well, you know what your problem is? Let me tell you, I’ve thought a lot about why you aren’t connecting!” is…what’s the word I’m looking for…
…it will come to me…
INSULTING. That’s the one.
Prying into your private romantic life and then telling you what you’re doing wrong with it is insulting. See also: Patronizing. Rude. Presumptuous. Hurtful. Annoying. Being single isn’t a problem to be solved, and it’s certainly not an open invitation for partnered people to try to diagnose or fix you or anything about you.
So, where does that leave you, with these people who love you and whom you love?
Good news: You seem really level-headed and loving and cool and you know your own value and the odds are in your favor of finding someone awesome someday. It’s okay to have “I really want to meet someone great and fall in love and have kids with them someday” as a goal for your life – that’s not silly or unimportant. You’re a young high-achieving person and you’re good at accomplishing your goals. Also great.
Just, I’ll say it again: Singleness isn’t a problem to be solved. You were in a relationship that brought you a lot of unhappiness and now you’re not and that is better, yes? Yes.
And pairing off with someone romantically isn’t an achievement like passing the bar exam or graduating school or finishing your NaNoWriMo marathon. It’s not an accomplishment. If you put it on a checklist the way you do professional accomplishments I don’t think it will make you more happy with your life. Your friends pairing off and having kids is great – it means they’ve found something that makes them happy, so be happy for them and celebrate their luck and optimism! If you don’t operate on their same schedule it’s not like you fell behind on some kind of achievement test. “Oops, we see that you’re reading well above grade level but your romance scores are in the 40% percentile.” If you never find the kind of relationship you are imagining now or if it takes a long time to find what’s right for you, it doesn’t mean you weren’t worthy of it or that you failed in some way. Your job isn’t to get married (to an opposite-sex partner) by (date), it’s to live life truthfully and happily and the best you can as your full human maybe-bisexual self on your own schedule.
If you can some serenity with yourself and your choices and the timeline you’re on, it will help you weather the inquiries of your folks and it will help you respond to them in a more relaxed way. The more relaxed you are, the more boring you’ll be in your responses, and the more boring you are, the less reward they get for poking you about this topic.
Them: “When are you gonna find someone and settle down?”
You (before)*: “I don’t know, and I really wish you’d stop asking me about that.”
You (now): “Who knows? When I meet someone really great, you’ll be the first to know.”
Them: “Well, are you dating or trying to date?”
You (before)*: “Not really. I haven’t had much luck with it. This conversation is uncomfortable, can we change the subject.”
You (now): “Sometimes!” :shrug:
*Nothing necessarily wrong with the “before” scripts! The questions are nosy and unsolicited advice is annoying and you can tell people to stop! I’m just trying to tweak things a little so that you save them for later in the conversation if you really need them, instead of starting out with them.
These might also suit you:
- “Nothing to tell! How ’bout you, Grandma?”
- “I’d be really happy to meet someone, but I’m not in a hurry.”
- “If you know some great single people, send ’em my way – I trust you to have good taste.”
- “I’m still figuring all that out, but I’ll let you know when there’s good news.”
- “Yeah, I feel wistful sometimes when I see other people settling down, but it’s not a competition or like I’ll be left behind a grade and not graduate with my class if I don’t figure it out this minute!”
- “It would be cool to meet someone, but right now my biggest priority is [subject change to other goal you’re working on].”
Be sincere and kind, not snarky, and practice saying the scripts with someone if you think it will help. Once you find one that works, repeat it over and over like a broken record whenever the topic comes up. If you’re lucky, your relatives will take their cue from you and the topic will breeze by easier than it has been doing so far. They might ask less over time, too, if they know they’ll get nothing juicy out of you either in terms of information or reaction. Subtextually, these conversations can really mean “Should I be worried?” and if you find the right code that says “I got this, don’t be worried!” it might de-escalate things.
Save your fighting energy for if they won’t let it go and for unsolicited advice.
Them: “Well, don’t leave it too long! [Biological clock pseudoscience spinster dried up old maid code words to scare you]!”
Them: “Well, you know what your problem is? [Smile more stop intimidating men with how smart you are change your hair be less picky and other bad advice].”
If you want to de-escalate/move on from the topic as quickly as possible:
- “I’ll do my best. Howabout that [subject change]?“
- “You’re probably right, I’ll get right on it. Howabout that [subject change]?“
- “I’ll think about that. So, [subject change]?“
If you want to send a message that they are out of line, but still disengage:
- “Hrmmm, interesting.” + awkward silence
- “Wow.” + awkward silence
- “That had not occurred to me.” + awkward silence
More direct “back off” messages:
- “I don’t want advice, thanks anyway.”
- “If I saw ‘single-ness’ as a problem, that might be true, but I don’t? Thanks anyway.“
- “I know you’re asking me about this because you love me, but I’m not comfortable with where this conversation is going. Let’s change the subject.”
- “Your interest in this is crossing the line from ‘gentle concern’ to ‘intrusive.’ What would it take for us to be able to change the subject?”
Scripts & sundry platitudes & reassurances for leveling with people when you want to dig a little deeper:
- “I go plenty of first & second dates because I like to give people a chance, but not just anyone gets to meet & be around my favorite people. I promise you that when there’s something to tell, I’ll be really happy to tell you. For now, the best thing you can do is be happy for me and proud of me the way I’m proud of you.”
- “When you keep bugging me about this, it stresses me out because it makes me feel like you think there’s something wrong with me if I don’t figure this out right this minute. I’m only 25 and I’m not in a hurry to settle down with anyone, especially not the wrong person for the sake of checking it off a list! I know you care about me a lot, so, keep caring about me, but please don’t worry about this. Thanks to you and my beautiful friends and family I know a lot about what good love looks like, and I’m holding out for the very best.“
- “You raised me to be happy and to handle things well in my life. I’m doing that with most things, right? I’m going to do that with this, too. Just give me some time and breathing room to figure it out, and don’t worry.”
- “I know you weren’t happy with my relationship with X, but I’ve sorted it out, like I’ll sort this out, in my own time. I love seeing you, but it’s stressful if that time together becomes a referendum on my romantic life. I’ll meet someone when and if I meet them, I’m doing what I can to make that possible, and the rest of the time I don’t worry about it. What would it take to get you to stop worrying, too?“
A script for coming out, if and only if you feel safe and comfortable to do so:
- “I’m pretty sure I’m bisexual, which is one of the reasons I don’t talk about this stuff in casual conversation – it’s complicated, and private, and I’m worried that people in our family won’t be supportive or understanding. Would you be this supportive and encouraging of me pairing off if I brought home a (same sex) partner? Knowing that would mean the world to me, thanks.“
Singleness: Not a problem to be solved. You: Not a problem to be solved. Bisexuality: Also not a problem. Don’t let your folks make any of these things into problems to be solved.