Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Coping with the Question

(Here's my latest singles column...I wrote this column before finding out about last week's Upper West Side tragedy, so any thematic similarity between Hamlet's ponderings and those of someone who's clinically depressed are strictly coincidental, and not intended as a commentary on the tragedy; still, I felt I had to address it in some way (and that's what paragraphs 4 & 5 are about. I hope that the community comforts Sarah's family and provides support for them and for all singles and marrieds in the future. EDK)

Coping with the Question by Esther D. Kustanowitz (First Person Singular, NY Jewish Week, August 4, 2006)

“To be, or not to be, that is the question,” Hamlet pondered, torturing himself with an existential query. As singles, we too grapple with an essential question: “Why are you still single?”

Pose the question, even theoretically, and hordes will respond: you’re too picky, fat, short, ugly or boring; you’re not putting yourself out there; you have issues; you’re spiritually or morally bankrupt; you fear intimacy and commitment; you’re waiting for impossible perfection; or you’re so “whiny,” you should “just freakin’ wed anyone already.” (That last one? Courtesy of an anonymous blogger, complaining about my June column.)

While self-examination is already a single person’s occupational hazard, asking such a question repeatedly takes an emotional toll. When we’re alone, the question echoes, engendering a burgeoning paranoia that the purgatory may well be eternal, and because of some unrevealed and essentially unforgivable hubris. Men blame women, women blame men, everyone blames their parents and their community, and themselves.

I had already completed this column when I got the news that a 25-year-old Upper West Sider, known by most as a happy young woman, had ended her life. Over the last week or so, there has been much discussion of who or what to blame for her death: named suspects include the community pressure to marry, a recent breakup, and clinical depression.

And although the community is not necessarily — as others have intimated — responsible for clinical depression, it may well have been one of many factors creating stress and hopelessness in the young woman’s life. I can only hope that the community will respond appropriately — helping her family to mourn and find comfort, and creating programs to better ensure that people of all ages feel supported and valued, socially, religiously and emotionally.

But the question “Why are you still single?” or alternately, “Why aren’t you married yet?” is yet another form of community pressure and expressed expectations. When a single responds with “I guess I just haven’t found the right person yet,” the yenta-in-residence leans in, sometimes touching your arm, shoulder or leg to indicate just how sympathetic they are, and “consoles” you: “Don’t worry, we’ll find you someone. God willing, it should be soon too by you. Maybe you should try meeting some new people?” Oh. Like we hadn’t thought of that before.

When it comes to the question, everyone — especially those who aren’t single — thinks he or she has the answer. Those Rules ladies thought they knew (“never accept a Saturday night date if he calls Thursday”). Those people who told us that our potentials were “just not that into us” thought they knew, too. Shmuley Boteach thinks he knows; in a article from June, Boteach told one mother that the reason her 29-year-old daughter was (oh, the horror!) still single was because she had friends. Ask her to sever ties with her friends for a few weeks, Boteach advised — after experiencing true loneliness, she’d be ready to accept a partner into her life.

Evan Marc Katz,’s “online dating guru,” who I interviewed in one of my first columns, employs an irreverent, humorous approach to the infernal, eternal question in his new book, “Why You’re Still Single: What Your Friends Would Tell You If You Promised Not to Get Mad.” Katz and his co-author, Linda Holmes, present perspectives rather than answers, and the resultant honesty is refreshing. Against a backdrop of pop culture and humor, the duo delves into the depths of dating do’s and don’t’s, acting as the friends you really need — the funny ones who aren’t afraid to hurt your feelings if it will mean helping you out.

Struggling with one major question or many smaller ones, we understand that friends cannot take the place of our bashert. But neither should the pursuit of a significant other take the place of our already-significant friendships, the ones that provide love and support in a dating environment that — as we suffer the slings and arrows of our outrageous fortunes — can often feel like a friendless void.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is defined by his solitude; the Melancholy Dane cannot trust the people who surround him, not even his family. Most of us are luckier than Hamlet. Perhaps if he’d kept company with friends other than Ophelia, or if he’d experienced the proper support from his community, his existential dilemmas might have seemed a little less weighty.

Esther D. Kustanowitz took too many Shakespeare classes in college. You can reach her at


Chutzpah said...

The only question worse than "why are you still single" in this "community" is "why are you divorced"? Meaning, what was it YOU did that made you or your ex break your holy marriage vows and destroy and stigmatize your children's childhood and family yichus for generations to come?

Essie said...

That article by Shmuely Boteach is ridiculous. There may be many reasons why people are not married, but friends are not a substitute for a spouse. How could you tell someone to let go of their friends? Dates come and go, but without friends, a person would be empty, and what would have to talk about on those few and far between dates?

ptwelve said...

I would split this discussion into two: "Why aren't you married?" strikes me as a wholly different question when the addressee is male or female.

ALG said...

I've been complaining about the Sun article, which I thought went too far in speculating about the cause of Sarah's tragic death. I think you did a good balance of pointing out that pressure to wed is one of just many pressures that can have an effect on depression. Bravo!

Shiri said...

great article. Coping with (responding to) the question itself is the easiest part, actually. Dealing with underlying attitudes is much tougher. The most effective thing is to physically and mentally get as far away as possible from people who bring us down for no reason.

ptwelfe: very acute observation. My favorite response (to a woman asking): "I don't even hope ever become as perfect wife as you are, so I gave up trying". To a man:"I don't even hope to find someone as perfect as you are, so I gave up trying." Other possibilities include: "Feeling sadistic tonight?", "I just enjoy interviewing candidates." Or just stare in disbelief at a person who asks such tactless question.

Anonymous said...

Actually the Shmuley Boteach "friend" argument is interesting, and I daresay has some credence to it. After speaking with many guys, I can say with much confidence that many guys get married because (a) society expects it and (b) all their friends have done so. However, take a guy who has many friends who are all single, they won't be rushing off to get married. Trust me. (Hmmmm, lets see.. spend the weekend with my wife and her family at cousin Blima's wedding, or go rafting/golfing/Vegas/etc with my single guy friends....)

But once their friends have all taken the plunge, they step it up. (Possibly, women should look for a guy whose friends are mainly married off; better odds..).


AddledWriter said...

You know what really bothers me? On one hand, there is a lot of societal pressure on single women to be with someone - and they're blamed if they don't find the right person (rather than praised for not getting into a loveless relationship)...but if they actively try to meet someone through any means, they are accused of "husband hunting" or "looking for a man" - the very thing women are encouraged to do.

Basically, you have to a) Meet someone by a certain age, b) Make sure that someone is someone you love, and c) Do it by accident (he spots you across a crowded subway train) otherwise you must be ugly or have no personality.

You should not be single, and if you find someone, you certainly aren't allowed to do it on purpose!! What's wrong with you!?

Anonymous said...

Huh? Who said that women are frowned upon for looking for a man? Thats what we all do - look. Maybe you are familar with its more common name.....DATING. I think what you mean is women are looked down upon for not having a life of their own, and looking for a husband to "save them" and to be the end all of their life. That, I agree, is pretty awful. But looking? By all means.

Anonymous said...

I've seen many polls that show that more men than women see marriage as the ideal relationship. The whole "men fear commitment, women crave it" trope has got to go.

Cassandra3383 said...

Yeah I agree, why is it that people frown upon single women? They instantly think something must be wrong with you and judging you...I am single but I date a lot thanks to webdate_dot_com so I don't consider myself as single per se...but I like being single more than being attached.

Shiri said...

Anonymous: Huh? Who said that women are frowned upon for looking for a man?

Addled was absolutely correct. Just the wording may be slightly off: not "looking for" but rather "actively pursuing". Whenever woman pursues a man (initiates dates, contacts or encounters), she is pursuing, and thus looks desperate. However, if he spots her across subway car, approaches her, asks her number, etc, then she's still "looking for", but not "pursuing", which is ok and romantic. Makes sense now?

Anonymous said...

I stand by what I said. Maybe in very tranditional/conservative worlds (say, like orthodox judaism), women are presumed to act all passive and not the least bit coquettish - and starying from that mold is looked down upon (maybe it is considered not modest??).

But its pretty much the norm these days that women can and do actively express interest in a guy. And trust me, guys love the attention. As to looking desperate, it depends on everything. Trust me, a really attractive and personable woman will not be seen as desperate if they express interest. Indeed, in all my years, I can tell you that the women who always had boyfriends were the women who were confident and not at all passive about the guys they liked. True, attractiveness plays a part, but a very pretty passive girl will not get nearly as much attention as the pretty girl who goes after what she wants. No question about it.

I think other women may tinge of jealousy with regard to those women. You know 'em; you're at a singles event and there is the one or two women who are flirty and bold - will walk up to the guy(s) they like and initiate a conversation about whatever. Many guys dig it (maybe not the orthodox ones). Its just that other women don't.

annabel lee said...

Excellent article, Esther. (as usual!) Beautifully (if painfully) written...

Passionate Life said...


Why do you have the notion that Orthodox Jewish males don’t like when women initiate?

When AddledWriter wrote:

“but if they actively try to meet someone through any means, they are accused of "husband hunting" or "looking for a man" - the very thing women are encouraged to do.”

It’s more likely that Secular FEMINISTS would say that rather than Orthodox Jews.

In fact on Frumster which is primarily Orthodox over 50% of correspondence are initiated by females. As an Orthodox male I can tell you that Halachically and personally it is completely irrelevant who initiates contact.

Whoever discovers the other person first should initiate.

Anonymous said...

PL -
Only because so many orthodox women tell me that the orthodox guys don't like women initiating (e.g. asking them out). It could be hyperbolic complaining, but there is probably some truth to the matter, at least with regard to more right-wing ortho guys. On-line is always an exception, allowing shy people to become so very bold.

But yes, whoever has interest should initiate, and most westerners have no problem with women making the first move.

Lyss said...

I often struggle with the 'why' of getting married. Do I think I want to because that's what society says that I'm "supposed" to do, or is it becasue I might really want it?

good stuff Esther.

Kraut said...

perhaps someone isn't married because his or her whole identity is based on being single.