Picture, for a moment, a single woman in her mid-30s with no kids. What’s the image that comes to mind? For most people, especially those who watch sitcoms or have seen one episode of “Sex In The City,” a certain narrative plays out that helps shape that picture.
The woman is probably not a supermodel, nor could she be mistaken for Sarah Jessica Parker. She probably has a stable career. She probably has her own money, a tight social circle, and a fair amount of independence. She likely has a few hobbies and passions outside her career. Even if she isn’t in a relationship, it’s easy to imagine her being happy with her situation.
The fact that she’s single wouldn’t raise many red flags. That said, there are some stigmas associated with being single at a certain age for women. There’s still this misguided notion that women who are single at that age have somehow come up short in life. Every woman has different reasons for being single. By and large, though, we tend to have sympathy for women who stay single.
Now, picture a single man in his mid-30s with no kids. What image comes to mind in that instance? Chances are it’s not the same as that picture you imagined of a single woman. A single man in his mid-30s probably won’t inspire mental pictures of Channing Tatum. Hell, it probably won’t even inspire pictures of Jonah Hill.
A single man in his mid-30s with no kids will likely raise more red flags than the woman. It’s not just that the man is struggling to forge a meaningful relationship. He’s not just unlucky in love. There’s something wrong with him. A man like that must be a creep to some extent. He must have some sort of shortcoming or deficiency that repulses the opposite sex.
Maybe he has unhealthy hobbies.
Maybe he has a short temper and abusive tendencies.
Maybe he’s just a lazy slob who doesn’t even try.
It’s still entirely possible that a single man in his 30s is just content being single. He doesn’t feel inclined to pursue a relationship at the moment. He’s healthy, relatively attractive, and contributes positively to society. He’s not opposed to being in a relationship, but not just for the sake of being with someone.
No matter how common that possibility is, though, that’s probably not the first assumption you would make if all you knew about a man was that he’s over 30 and single. Even though marriage rates are declining, there’s still a stigma associated with being single beyond a certain age. It exists for women and men, but the stigma is more pronounced for men.
There’s no getting around it. A single man in his mid-30s is going to evoke a different reaction. It’s not a double standard like some of the others I’ve cited. It’s just the byproduct of different expectations and assumptions. I know this better than most because I’m a single man in my mid-30s with no kids and I’ve witnessed some of these reactions.
It’s subtle, but noticeable. When I tell someone I’m single and in my 30s, I get this weird look. If the person doesn’t know me very well, I get the sense they’re a little concerned. Once they learn that about me, I suspect they think that’s creepy or odd. There have been times when I’ve seen people, mostly women, get uncomfortable when they learn I’m over 30 and single.
There was even one instance where a woman at a store asked if I was gay. That really caught me off-guard, but it was the first time when I really felt the stigma of being single. I laughed it off at the time and so did the woman. However, when I later recalled the incident, I felt genuinely anxious about my status. I worry that it will undermine my ability to find love in the future.
I’ve even seen it among relatives. While most of my family don’t make a big deal out of it, there are a few who express concern about me. They see my age and my relationship status as a problem to be solved. I can understand that sentiment. I even appreciate it because I know it comes from sincere concern. Even so, I still feel the stigma on some levels.
I know I’m not alone in that. As much progress as we’ve made in society, with respect to tolerating non-traditional relationships, there’s still this over-arching sentiment that being single is a deficiency. It’s not so much a choice as it is an excuse. When it’s less subtle, it can be downright demeaning. It takes many forms, but often carries similar themes.
Your standards are too high.
You’re not a desirable companion.
You’re too high-maintenance and clingy.
You’re past your prime.
You’ve got little to offer.
I’ve seen this levied at women and men. I know women who get very combative when someone tries to figure out why they’re not in a relationship after a certain age. I honestly don’t blame them, but I’ve seen those same women get plenty of sympathy. Even when they make excuses, men and women alike will offer them support when they need it.
As a man, though, I feel like I can’t get away with that. If I were as apprehensive as some of the women I’ve known, I wouldn’t get a lick of sympathy. If anything, I would be scorned. Men would look down at me as desperate and whiny. Woman would look down on me as pathetic and weak. None of those traits warrant much sympathy or support.
On some levels, I understand why being single is stigmatized. For society to grow, it needs people to get together, forge close society bonds, and creature stable families. People who remain single aren’t contributing to that growth and stigma is just one way of incentivizing them to try harder, even if it creates distressing taboos.
I can also understand why the stigma is more pronounced in men. Like it or not, men tend to commit more crime. Men who lack the influence of a stabilizing relationship tend to cause more deviance and there’s even some research to back that up. It’s one of those instances where a particular prejudice has some statistics behind it.
However, statistics rarely tell the entire story. More often than not, they leave out critical details. In my case, the primary factor that has influenced my single status is a desire not to be with someone just for the sake of being with someone. I’ve seen more than one person fall into the trap of being with someone who is totally wrong for them, but stays with them to avoid being single.
I don’t want that for myself. I want any relationship I have, be it romantic or platonic, to be for the right reasons. Being single hasn’t made me feel more inclined to commit crime or do something deviant. It’s a reasonable choice that I made for myself and I don’t regret it. That doesn’t make it any less frustrating when other people make misguided assumptions about why I’m single.
I’ve met women who’ve made similar choices. I’ve also known plenty more who are single for different, but understandable reasons. They’re not selfish predators who are just holding out to marry a prince who will love them, cater to their every need, and be their personal pocketbook. There are women like that, but they’re the annoyingly loud exception and not the norm.
When it comes to being single, the lingering stigma feels like a very small battle in a much larger war involving gender, society, and politics. As a self-professed romantic, I’m all for encouraging people to find love and forge relationship. It’s a beautiful thing and I feel like that same stigma undermines the beauty.
On top of that, it shoves yet another wedge between men and women when we already have too many of those. We’ve steadily moved away from the notion that an unmarried woman at a certain age must either be a widow, a prostitute, or a nun. There’s still room for improvement, but we’re steadily making progress in empowering people to find their way, regardless of whether they’re single.
At the same time, a man remaining single is not prone to as much scrutiny as we’ve seen in in the past. There are still assumptions and anxieties that are uniquely associated with single men. Regardless of whether single men or single women have it worse, I feel as though one part of the stigma is being addressed while the other is being overlooked.
Like it or not, this is going to be an increasingly relevant issue. As women stay single for longer, there are going to be more single men. That’s just basic math. The desire to find someone special won’t go away anytime soon. The stigma is just making it more difficult and a lot less romantic.