How To Know If You Can Be Happily Unmarried For The Rest Of Your Life

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Blonde woman, happy about being single, in front of pressed flowers and old paper clippings

I had always assumed I would marry and have children. Yet, well into my thirties, I had noticed two things. First, I tended to choose unpromising involvements with unlikely partners. Second, I did not observe any marriages I hoped to emulate.

Even in my parents’ healthy, committed marriage, I noticed the women did most of the maintenance work.

Mom was the interpersonal force as well as bridge to other people. She also worked, led community projects and went to night school to complete her degree. As an electrical engineer turned teacher, Pop was a good provider and loyal, with a fine mind and effective capabilities in constructing and fixing things. They both continued their educations, formally and informally.

My basic challenge was to confront my own questionable choices in relationships with men and be honest with myself about what I really wanted. In time, I came to understand what my choices meant.

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Three questions I had to ask myself before I could become comfortable with being single for life:

1. Why did I choose problematic men?

For someone who prided herself on insights about other people, why did I choose and continue long-term relationships with such problematic men? It would have been easy to blame them for their unwillingness to make commitments and other issues in the relationships.

But deep down, I had to admit I was making the choices to get involved with them and continue the connections, even intermittently. I also avoided being frank with the two main guys especially about my concerns and frustrations, for fear of rejection. That was another humbling admission by someone who prided herself on being an effective honest communicator.

Blinding glimpse of the obvious! Maybe I was the main ambivalent one. That insight only took a few decades of on-agains and off-agains with each man. Another insight: During this time, I did not feel bereft or lonely or regretful. I had a full professional life and engaging, meaningful friendships with a range of men and women.

Once honest and open with myself, I did periodic digging to unearth what was behind my ambivalence and passivity when I could stand exposing myself to myself.

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2. What is the meaning and purpose of marriage for me?

For me, the essence of a marriage partnership was to create a healthy, enjoyable, mostly secure and stable family. As an only child, that made sense theoretically. But as I observed other families among friends and acquaintances, from high school forward, I became more aware of the issues, lack of authenticity and closeness of many larger families.

The closer I came, the emptier these supposedly-ideal relationships seemed with much roleplaying, repetition of patterns and tip toeing with one another. That made me appreciate my own feisty, adventuresome, creative, if sometimes neurotic, family.

In theory, then and today, I would name the following purposes for marriage, however far short most seemed to fall in practice.:

Partner for procreation: The main reason is to have a partner who would share parenting. I had already observed and understood how difficult, demanding and unrelenting motherhood is, however marvelous the experience in other respects. Without a true collaborator I would trust and respect, a man willing to invest the time and attention that the responsibility required, was I willing to take that huge risk?

Implicit in this focus on having children are these additional purposes for marriage:

Trusting, enjoyable, stimulating companionship

A consistent and satisfying sexual relationship

Opportunities for mutual growth and sharing

Security for facing the unknowns and ever-shifting realities

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3. How did these criteria measure up to my actual choices of men?

Actually, the excitement and stimulation in my two longer-term relationships of years came more from the ups and downs and ambiguities of the time together. The excitement of the inconclusive, meandering dramas kept me attentive. Sustained pleasure was infrequent.

Instead of just hanging in, I would have benefitted from a frank review of the criteria above. Yet, obviously I wasn’t ready to admit that I probably chose such men to actually avoid marriage. The choices themselves both held echoes of unfinished matters with men who had imprinted me in early life (the topic of another article).

I do wonder whether I would have encountered good matches among my generation. Based on my memories of the more accessible guys, I doubt it. That’s especially since I was a challenge myself with an independent, nonconforming nature, not typical of many peers. In other words, no regrets, because the possibilities for a marriage I sought did not exist. And maybe I wanted too much while being unwilling to take the risk of the hard, long-term work of making a marriage truly worthwhile, most of the time.

Well, enough about me…I hope my musings about myself have some use for you.

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How to have a family of your own when you're committed to being single

Being unmarried does not preclude creating and deepening a range of familial ties.

I’m a fan of family by choice. In fact, that may avoid some unacknowledged, unaddressed patterns that limit growth and development in conventional families.

1. Choosing your own siblings

I have two sisters by mutual informal adoption. With the closest person I have to a brother, our mutual trust, closeness and sharing evolved over a long-term deep friendship. We’ve nurtured that with increasingly consistent, open communication, mutual assistance and shared professional experience of decades.

2. Developing authentic relationships with younger generations

I now have an extended family member who’s 21 as well as close relationships with cousins, a generation or more years younger. We delight in the values and interests we have in common. We also have created mutual assistance processes that we both enjoy. Recently, I reignited my “arting” by creating collages with the guidance of a 32-year- old who was doing an internship for an art therapy master’s degree. I think we enriched one another’s understanding, expression and insight.

3. Having children by artificial insemination

When a partner did not seem possible within the necessary biological timeframe, instead of giving up after years of seeking a worthwhile partner, two of my friends gave birth to girls, now in their 20s. They are interesting, accomplished and original individuals who bring joys to their mothers and their families. Not an easy route, but neither is motherhood with a partner, even when it sticks.

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For the marriage minded…

In contrast to my choice for your own exploration, I offer David Brooks’ August 20 commentary that marriage, not career, brings happiness. Brooks cites recent research by Sam Peltzman of the University of Chicago that marriage is the “most important differentiator" between happy and unhappy people. A forthcoming book by Wilcox goes a step further to Get Married. It posits that “marital quality is the top predictor I have run across of life satisfaction in America.”

For the romantic, see the following review for In Defense of Love by Ron Rosenbaum and for the more realistic, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough by Lori Gottlieb.

Once in a marriage, a realistic analysis is one of my of favorite oldie and goodie books that provides practical takes and choices within marriage.

The Mirages of Marriage: According to its Amazon description, it’s an “incisive analysis of marriage in America that discusses the false assumptions of modern marriage and how to make a marriage work. It is imperative to realize, the authors argue, that the marital relationship is an interlocked system in itself, not a function of individual partners. They offer techniques for appraising one’s own marriage, discuss the use of counselors and the dangers of unilateral therapy, and outline the major elements of a satisfactory marriage.”

Questions to ask yourself when considering if being single for life is right for you:

Here is a list for you to adapt, add to and put in priority order, for now:

1. What is your major goal for a marriage, in whatever arrangement works for you?

2. How realistic is that goal given your timing, possible partners, and resources?

3. Who will assist you in reaching your goal?

4. What is your plan if your goal is not accessible, for now?

5. How will you celebrate together whatever outcome works out for you?

Whatever happens, you have choices to influence a situation toward an outcome that brings stimulation, satisfaction, purpose and mutual benefit.

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Ruth Schimel PhD is a career and life management consultant and author of the Choose Courage series on Amazon. She guides clients in accessing their strengths and making viable visions for current and future work and life situations. See the first chapter of her seventh book Happiness and Joy in Work: Preparing for Your Future available without charge.