Whether or not you have a man is not a measure of your worth.
Pride and shame are powerful emotions. They have tremendous influence over decisions we make and how we act.
Professor emeritus of sociology at University of California, Thomas Scheff, stated that, "Pride is a signal that you feel accepted just as you are. Shame is a signal that you feel rejected and not accepted just as you are."
For much of my early adult life, I felt shame about my single status. Clearly, I was a loser — an "un-chosen" woman. Never mind that, at age 22, I called off my engagement to my college boyfriend because I knew I wasn't ready to marry. Never mind that I had some long-term committed relationships (some even live-in) — I wasn't married.
My own shame became heightened every time a well-meaning person would ask me, "Why aren't you married?"
Some would even add the knife-twisting comment, "What's wrong with you?"
Nowadays it's more acceptable to go through your 20s and 30s without tying the knot, but a decade ago it was still a big deal to not yet be married by your late 20s.
I ended up exchanging vows for the first time at age 43 (my husband — also his first trip to the altar — was 45).
When a colleague asked me why we got married, I responded with certainty, "Because we love each other." But she pressed me, "Yes, but given that you're not going to start a family, why did you get married?" My response was shocking, even to myself, "It's what you do!" Social pressure had played a huge part in my desire to have a legally recognized union.
I'm not alone in my thinking. When my co-author, Vicki Larson, and I were researching modern marriage for our book, The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, we interviewed several engaged couples. We asked them why they were marrying, rather than cohabiting — particularly because cohabiting is so acceptable today. One woman responded by saying, "It's what normal people do." Another couple said, "It's tradition," which is just another way to say "it's normal."
On the flip side, much of my work in the past 15 years has been with the divorcing population who also feel a great deal of shame, not having been able to keep their marriage together. They say things like, "I feel like a failure," "I have a failed marriage," or, "My kids come from a 'broken' home."
It seems that the only people who feel pride about their marital status are the ones who find their soul-mate, best friend, ideal co-parent, trusted business partner, and monogamous sexual partner, marry him or her and stay married until one of them dies.
The problem with a one-size-fits-all model is that we're not all cut out for this type of relationship. Why, then, do we make those who go this route feel ashamed?
There's no doubt that marriage is changing and expanding, along with the modern family — which has grown greatly within the past generation alone. There are many configurations of marriage today, including gay marriage, that were once unheard of.
This is good news. But, we're not quite there yet.
We'll know we are there when every adult, regardless of whether they are single, married, or divorced — gay or straight, old or young, can feel pride about their status. We'll know we're there when people don't even think to ask, "What's wrong with you? Why aren't you married?"