During Rebecca Traister’s many single years, she was often irritated when the men she dated disrupted her routine. She didn’t like it when they urged her to leave work earlier than she wanted, or when their presence in her apartment obstructed her weekly cleaning ritual. She was impatient with men who called too frequently, or who wouldn’t try the bars and restaurants she liked.
“I got used to doing things my way. I liked doing things my way. These men just mucked it all up. I knew how I sounded, even in my own head: picky, petty, and narcissistic. I worried about the monster of self-interest that I had become,” writes Traister, in her terrific new book All The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation.
One evening, Traister was engaged in some fairly classic intransigent singleton behavior—waiting for her takeout order at a restaurant bar—when she met the man she would later marry. Soon Traister didn’t care one bit about her cleaning routine.
In this kind of single-to-married story, the narrative usually goes something like this: “I used to be a selfish jerk; then I grew up and learned to love.”
But that’s not how Traister sees her situation—or the situation of the record number of American women who are spending a substantial portion, and sometimes all, of their adulthood on their own.
Traister’s personal story is a very small part of All The Single Ladies. Using historical research and original reporting, Traister chronicles the rise of single women in America and shows how they’re transforming our society for the better. She also offers an incisive analysis of the many cultural forces that have repeatedly shamed single women for acting like … people.
The self-help industry, for example, has a long history of informing single women that their outsized sense of entitlement prevents them from forming romantic partnerships. Two recent iterations of this message came from authors Lori Gottlieb, whose book Marry Him! urges women to get over themselves and settle for a good-enough guy, and Tracy McMillan, whose book Why You’re Not Married Yet is divided into chapters that include “You’re Shallow,” “You’re Selfish” and “You’re a Bitch.”
“McMillan and Gottlieb’s logic was pernicious,” writes Traister, “absorbing some of the appealing building blocks of independent female adult life—commitment to careers, to friends, to health, pets, homes, and individual desires—and recasting them as itty-bitty personal concerns magnified to silly proportions by cartoonishly drawn examples of feminine self-absorption.”
By contrast, Traister argues that when women invest in themselves and pursue their interests and desires, they build solid foundations for lives with or without partners. They’re also doing something historically unprecedented.
“When people call single women selfish for the act of tending to themselves, it’s important to remember that the very acknowledgement that women have selves that exist independently of others, and especially independent of husbands and children, is revolutionary,” writes Traister.
Taking care of yourself can mean many different things: Staying in front of the computer until midnight because you’re so absorbed in your work, stopping everything for your daily 5 pm yoga class, flying across the country for a friend’s birthday party, or spending an entire Sunday afternoon flopped on the couch with a library book.
But however it looks, when a woman’s life is rich, meaningful and—yes—pleasurable it raises the bar for her romantic partnerships. Why resign yourself to the dull pain of a mediocre relationship when you’re doing just fine on your own?
When Traister was pushing men away for what seemed like trivial reasons, she was sometimes disheartened that she couldn’t resign herself to a lukewarm relationship. Now she sees that what then looked like stubbornness and immaturity was actually good sense.
“The only action I took in my life that had a direct impact on meeting the man I wound up marrying was that I didn’t marry anyone before him,” she writes. “… I didn’t pursue people I wasn’t crazy about because I was busy doing other things that I enjoyed more than being with men I wasn’t crazy about. That abstention meant that, when a good relationship with someone I was crazy about became a possibility, I was free to pursue it. I wound up happily married because I lived in an era in which I could be happily single.”
The point is not to create a happy, independent life so you can have a higher-quality relationship; it’s to have a happy, independent life. And to recognize that, contrary to what women have been told for ages, the two things are not at odds.
Sara Eckel is a personal coach and 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.