Dear Sara: What goes on psychologically that causes people to brag about their relationships and then chastise single friends for wanting the same thing? I’ve read studies before saying that happiness actually causes selfishness, and that if you’re down, it’s best not to talk to a friend who’s very happy with their life because they’re too far removed to be sympathetic.
I was talking to a girlfriend the other night who just got married and was going on about how happy she is, and how she feels like her life has finally started (at 27). She knows I’m older, have been single and have had my heart broken over and over for a very long time. But her attitude towards me: Well, God would never give you more than you can bear. WT-? I’ve had other married friends gloat about their husbands constantly and yet when I say something like, gee, I’d love to have what you have, I get an avalanche of well, you should be happy being single. If you don’t love yourself, you can’t expect anyone else to love you! And so I constantly wonder, what causes this attitude where people are enjoying all the great things about being in a relationship and know their significant other is a major contributor to their personal happiness, yet the attitude seems to be yes, what I have is pretty awesome, but you shouldn’t want it or feel sad you don’t have it as well. It’s bizarre. — C
Dear C: Yes, it is bizarre! As you say, research has found that people who are enjoying good fortune tend to be less sympathetic than those who are having a tougher time. Researchers have speculated that this might be because happy people don’t want to be brought down by others’ misfortune.
I also think that something deeper is at work. If your friends cannot accept that you are just as deserving of a good relationship as they are, if they’re committed to the idea that some psychological issue, rather than dumb luck, is what separates you, then my best guess is that your situation scares them.
One of our deepest cultural myths is that we have complete control over our fates. That’s why cancer survivors are praised for “beating” the disease with their great attitudes but we don’t know quite what to say about those who “lost their battles.” Did they lack character? Did they not try hard enough?
Logically, we know of course not. But many people perpetuate the myth that there is no such thing as luck or chance, because the alternative terrifies them.
When you accept that luck plays a hand in your life’s outcomes, then you also must accept that any happiness you’re enjoying at the moment is on somewhat shaky ground. You have to accept that you don’t have complete control.
People don’t like doing this. So instead, they tell themselves stories about how their hard work and upstanding character are responsible for everything they have. Of course, these things do matter—a lot. They just don’t tell the whole story.
I don’t know you or your friends. Maybe they really are relationship geniuses (though the way they treat you suggests otherwise); maybe you’re commitment-phobic or whatever. But here’s the main thing: It doesn’t matter what they think. I know their attitude can be very hard to take, but you’re probably not going to change their minds.
Here’s what I suggest you do instead: Be the bigger one. See their reaction to your situation for what it (likely) is: a product of their fear. Then try to have compassion for that.
This advice might be annoying—why should you have to have compassion for them? Because it will give you some distance and help you see that just because they have an unfair opinion of you doesn’t mean you have to believe it.
If I wrote to you and said, “Your letter tells me that you are clearly a murderer,” the insult wouldn’t stick. You’d just realize I was nuts and hit close tab.
The accusations that sting are the ones we partly believe ourselves. When I was single, I wasted a lot of breath trying to convince my coupled friends that there was no deep psychological issue preventing me from finding a relationship. But really, I was trying to convince myself. Once I did that, I realized it didn’t matter what anyone else thought. I also realized that arguing my case all the time was not only tiresome to everyone involved, I was also giving other people far too much power. I was appointing them judge and jury and then becoming angry when I thought they got it wrong.
Maybe you’re not doing that. Maybe you’re only lightly mentioning that yeah, having a partner sounds great; I’d like one too. But now that you know they can’t be trusted with such confidences, I suggest you stop. Your friends are infuriating you because they’re acting like authority figures when actually they don’t know what they’re talking about. When you reject their presumed authority—not by arguing but by simply changing the subject—you reclaim your dignity. You also save them from embarrassing themselves with those stupid clichés.
Sara Eckel is the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. You can get a free bonus chapter of her book at saraeckel.com. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook. Ask her any questions here.