by YASHAR ALI
Last week, I was sitting in a hotel lobby waiting to meet with a friend. As I waited, I noticed a woman having coffee with her mother. During this meeting, the woman was excitedly presenting her mother with an e-reader. After the present was unwrapped, the woman proceeded to thoughtfully explain to her mother about how to use her e-reader, dealing with the wireless connection, etc.
Instead of reacting with excitement or gratitude, her mother started lecturing her. The expression on the woman’s face as she was berated revealed incredible frustration. She looked exhausted and distressed.
When her mother went off to the bathroom, I said to her, “That was nice of you to get that gift for your mom.”
She replied in a tone tinged with dejection and irony, “Thank you…can you please take her for the rest of the day?”
Since I wasn’t able to clearly hear their conversation, I offered a simple explanation of sympathy for her frustration, “I know, it’s hard.”
“It’s hard being 40 and not married,” she responded with a mix of sadness and anger.
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You may think of someone in your life who fits the description of the woman in the title of this column or of the woman I met last week in that hotel lobby.
What comes to your mind when you think of such a woman?
If you’re like so many people, your initial reaction might be to think of this woman as lonely, sad, maybe even pathetic—an old maid.
Whatever you may think about this woman, it’s rarely something positive and liberating, but it’s not exactly negative either—it’s just sort of lonely.
This woman I speak of and that you are imagining in your mind is most likely very hardworking, probably has a great job, good friends. She’s generally satisfied and settled in many areas of her life, but she doesn’t actively date, she’s never been married, or if she was previously married, it was for a short time and many years ago.
We don’t need to victimize these women, not at all. And in this column, I’m not trying to destroy the happiness of those who are single and 40 and perfectly content.
I know many women over 40 who are unmarried, some of them are happy and satisfied, others would like to be in a long-term relationship, still others are desperate and unhealthy in their approach to relationships. The point is, women who are 40 and over come in many stripes and types.
But somehow, we’re only giving single women over 40 one identity: They’re well past their sell-by-date, they’re lonely, sad.
Imagine having to constantly reassure people, “I’m happy, trust me. I swear. I really am.” Let’s leave the women who are incredibly happy and don’t see or need a relationship, and consider the women who have a desire to get married and are seeking a partner.
There are certain things we may assume about these women. We assume they are picky, stubborn, set in their ways, and frigid. There must be no other reason that they’re single, right? And how do we support these women when they express their frustration to us about loneliness or their struggle to find good men to be with?
We give these women the same, stock, stupid, overly-prescriptive advice:
“You’re not getting out enough.”
“You need to broaden your horizons, you’re too picky.”
“You’re not giving online dating a chance. So-and-so met their boyfriend/husband online.”
But we never make a real attempt to understand what they’re facing, which is the only way we can truly support them.
And then there are the broken promises, when we first meet a woman who is 40 and single, we often go into a tizzy, “I gotta set you up!”
We usually don’t.
And let’s just be frank, when we do set them up, we don’t reserve our best men for these women, because they’re over 40 and single. They should take anything and anyone, right? They should be grateful!
And then when they don’t like the person we introduce them to, we give them a hard time, “But he’s so nice, give him a chance.”
We would rarely make such a statement to a younger, female friend, but when it comes to addressing a woman who is single and over 40, we simply refuse her the room to choose what feels right for her. Her judgment must somehow be clouded, and that’s why she’s single.
Things have definitely improved in terms of how women and men are constructed in terms of their gender identities, but I’m not talking about a cultural examination as much as I’m talking about the personal message that we give to our single, 40-year-old friends, and how that needs to change.
This column isn’t about removing personal responsibility, or placating our women friends by hiding our honest advice. Instead, I want to consider how we can deepen the way in which we support our friends, or in some cases, how we can stay out of their way. Our job as friends isn’t to tell someone to stop “being picky” or to “get out more.”
That’s just lazy advice.
The way in which we can deepen our support to these smart, thoughtful, successful women is to ask, “You’re over 40 and single and you say that you don’t want to be married. How can I support you? How can I be a better friend?”
Does the thought of having to ask these questions make you uncomfortable? Well, that’s your ego talking. If you don’t make an authentic effort to understand and appreciate someone’s personal experience, your own pride or point-of-view is what really leads the advice you offer, rather than the best interests of the person you care about.
The deepening of support I speak of is about not applying a template to every single, 40-year-old woman.
It’s called empathy. We all need empathy—without it, we feel alone. Without it, we get defensive when dealing with our problems. Empathy is about making someone who is made to feel abnormal by our culture and their family and friends, to feel perfectly normal.
We have to ask ourselves: What is it like to be her? How would I think if I were in the same position?
Telling the 40-plus, single woman what she’s doing wrong and expecting her to be with someone she doesn’t want to be with; or telling her that the solution to her problem is going to a bar or a spinning class to meet her potential partner; or telling her that no man wants a woman so set in her ways, doesn’t do a damn thing to make that woman happier.
Our responsibility as their friends, colleagues, or relatives is to reinforce the path these women have and are choosing for themselves…that’s it.
Anything else is frankly about our own ego.
This post was originally published on Role Reboot here and has been republished with full permission.
Yashar Ali is a Los Angeles-based blogger, commentator, and political veteran whose writing is showcased on The Current Conscience. You can read Yashar’s blog by clicking here or follow him on Twitter here or see him on Facebook here.
Are you guilty of giving stupid advice to a single 40+ woman? Have you ever received this kind of stupid advice yuorself? How did it make you feel? How did you respond?