I recently attended a party where a man delivered a long, fairly hostile monologue about his wife’s poor driving skills, giving everyone in the room blow-by-blows of each fender bender and exacting details about how much her snafus had raised their car insurance premiums. His wife, a beautiful and good-natured doctor, didn’t seem to mind. She laughed along, but the rest of us were horrified.
“I guess it’s not so bad being single,” one woman said quietly.
Nearly every unattached person in the room seemed to be having the same thought.
When you’re struggling with being single—that is, trying to not be single—there is something reassuring about knowing the couples in your life might have just as many problems, albeit different ones.
It makes life feel less unfair. Okay she has beautiful twin daughters and a country house, but her husband is boring and her career is stalled. So sure dating sucks and I get lonely sometimes but I have lots of cool friends and an interesting career. So there.
Sometimes married friends play along, telling their single pals how much they envy their freedom and complaining about their spouses’ snoring. It can make everyone feel more comfortable to decide that the math balances out perfectly.
The problem is, this only works if the equation is balanced. But what do you do when the mother of adorable twins has a smart, funny husband and fascinating and well-paying job? What if you don’t have a thrilling career and glittery social life?
Then the bean-counting gets darker. If you’re committed to the fair-and-equal game, you’ll need to poke around a bit. Maybe that husband isn’t so terrific after all? Didn’t she mention something about an overbearing mother-in-law?
At that point, you’ve dipped your big toe into a vortex, one that could quickly have you swirling in a cesspool of bitterness, anger, and self-hatred. Take it from one who knows.
The funny thing is, it doesn’t feel that way at first. At first it feels … sort of good.
I remember going out for drinks with my single friends, doing our usual complaining about dating or, as the case often was, not dating. Someone would inevitably bring up a story of a miserable married friend. And everyone at the table would perk up a little bit. The conversation got a little more animated and we’d order another round and toast ourselves for having the strength and smarts to stay single.
Buddhist nun Pema Chodron likens this kind of chatter to scratching an itch: “It gives you short-term relief, but it also makes the poison spread.”
Even though we’re told as children that life isn’t fair, most of us can’t handle being in the one-down position. Studies have found that people will opt for a lower salary over a higher one, so long as they are still making more than their friends. We seemed to be hard-wired to not tolerate unfairness. One study found that even capuchin monkeys become outraged when confronted with unequally distributed grapes. The monkeys who got the shaft refused the grapes, and some even threw them back in the researchers’ faces.
And while we are told life is unfair, our culture usually sends out the opposite message: we all get what we deserve. This is presented as empowering (“You control your destiny!”) but the flip side is that if all your hard work and action plans don’t work out, then you have no one to blame but yourself.
So we try to equalize. Cataloging the flaws in other people’s lives is a way to assure ourselves we’re doing okay, despite our disappointments.
It’s certainly easier than contemplating the idea that someone else truly is having a better time.
I’m not saying your married friends are as happy as a car commerical—I’m saying who-the-heck-knows, and anyway it’s irrelevant.
Our life experiences are too complicated to be reduced to a scorecard. So instead of devoting all this energy to tallying those columns of numbers, why not relax into the fact that you actually have no idea what is going on with other people, and also that life is long and complicated and can turn on a dime.
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