I’m a 51-year-old married mother to twin teenage daughters. I am blessed to have many girlfriends — mostly married, several single — and feel like I’ve been a good friend to them, regardless of their marital status. Kind of like Stephen Colbert’s “I don’t see color.”
Or am I fooling myself?
After my article on women without children in midlife went viral and I got several requests to write about single women in midlife, I wondered … Am I as inclusive as I think toward my single female friends? Am I making assumptions or being insensitive at times?
So I polled over a dozen of these women and got some pretty consistent feedback. Here is what single women want their married friends to know.
1. Yes, it can be tough to be single in midlife
There clearly are challenges to being single in midlife, from the merely practical to the more deeply personal.
Some daily tasks are just plain difficult when you live on your own. Stephanie* explains: “It is harder to get stuff done around the house; there’s just as much work but only one person. There’s no handy husband and you often run the risk of being ripped off by workmen you hire. When you have to move or lift things, you have to call someone for help. It has to be planned, not spontaneous. You also have to lean on friends for a ride to or from some doctors’ appointments — a colonoscopy buddy.”
Single mothers in particular feel the weight of responsibility managing so much on their own: “A lot rides on my shoulders. I’m worn out being the initiator in my business, in parenting, on the home front, and for the whole personal side of my life. Just too many decisions to make morning, noon, and night,” says Bonnie.
Gertrude agrees, wishing she had a partner to lean on, “It would be nice if someone was waiting to see me at the end of the day, to give me that warm hug and to offer support when I am going through something.” Nights can be lonely: “You have a lot of lunches with married friends because dinner time is for their families. Sometimes that means you are home alone on a Saturday night, unless you have lots of single friends,” explains Stephanie.
Family members may have unfair expectations when it comes to their single middle-aged relatives, especially when they don’t have children, like Stephanie: “Even your parents treat you differently when you are single and childless, or at least mine do. Despite the fact that my parents are retired and in good health, they have always expected me to use my limited vacation time to travel to them for the holidays or other visits, even when I have had better accommodations for a visitor than they do. I crave the opportunity to entertain my family in my house, to show them that I can cook, decorate for the holidays, and be a good hostess.”
Some, like Gertrude, resent the pity: “Holidays with the family have been awkward many times, especially when my young niece and nephews have their significant others with them. ‘Poor Auntie,’ still alone on the holiday — they don’t say it, but I sense this is what they think.”
And traveling alone can be awkward. “I love to travel and many trips that I have gone on included couples. Some couples try to include me in events, but I do feel like the third wheel sometimes,” explains Gertrude. Tracy is lucky to have a travel companion but she gets grief for that: “My best friend and I have been accused of being lesbians because we don’t date, we take vacations together, and spend a lot of time together. I don’t get it. We enjoy each other’s company — who else are we supposed to spend time with?”
2. Please include me in your social plans — I promise, I won’t “throw off” the balance
Navigating social occasions can be challenging, even demeaning at times. “I love being invited to go along with friends, whether they are couples or a group of people, but I find many people ‘count’ the group to make sure it is ‘even.’ Or they invite you and another single woman and seat you together as though the two women were a couple,” says Sue. “Others feel sorry for the single woman and always invite a single man to go along (rarely the right idea). I remember being invited to a wedding of a colleague and being seated with her grandparents and their friends because there were ‘no other single women there’ when I would have much preferred to be with young couples.”
Katie agrees, “I have a friend who always talks about how she and her husband and this couple and that couple went out for a fun evening. It reminds me that I don’t bring the requisite male to the mix, therefore mess up the balance.” Anne adds: “I usually enjoy your husbands, partners and wives, so when I say, ‘bring him or her,’ I mean it. Why can’t the three of us go to dinner?”
Stephanie has seen a difference in the way she’s been treated socially when she’s had a significant other: “I am used to going to events alone and being around lots of couples, so I would love to be included. I am not sure why inviting a single person is perceived as throwing off the party. And at times when I have been in a relationship, it is amazing how much more I was included in social events.”
Helaine, who has kids, felt the shift after her divorce, “What I don’t understand is how before we all had plans as a family, but now no. Since you’re not friends with my ex, why did you stop inviting us over or accepting requests for family plans? Why can’t a married family still make plans with a divorced family?”
Ellie yearns for inclusion: “I would rather be asked to the dinner party, gala, concert, etc. and go alone, than to find out later and have friends say, ‘it was all couples, and I thought you would be uncomfortable!'”
3. Girlfriends, know that I rely on your friendships
Time and again, single women describe the added importance of their female friendships in their lives. “I don’t need a partner to feel complete, but I do need my friends. Please know how important you are to me. I may seem fine living like a hermit, but having friends I can call at any time makes me feel as though I’m not alone,” explains Anne.
Joanne is thrilled to have good friends: “I feel I hit the ‘girlfriends lottery’ because I was lucky enough to have friends who believed friendships were important enough to maintain, even after they got married.” She cautions, “It’s never cool to drop your friends after you get married. When I hear about mature women who get a man and just drop their friends, it’s a tough pill for me to swallow. Now I have to admit that when I was in my early 20s, I thought I was in love and I neglected my best friend, Carol. Thank God Carol was still there when I came back, tail between my legs. She never said anything about it but I vowed that I would never drop a friend like that again.”
Ellie has been on the receiving end of being dropped by married girlfriends — in her case, after her divorce: “It hurt, a lot. It sucks to have women who were once your friends decide that you are suddenly the devil because you are not with their husband’s bestie. One of them actually told me that we could still be friends as long as I didn’t bring up all of the ‘garbage.’ That ‘garbage’ was my life! I told her to fuck off.”
And when it comes to making new married friends, Sue is surprised at the attitude she sometimes encounters: “Some people think they have nothing in common with you because you have never been married, but some of my relationships have lasted longer than their marriages! It is so funny to me that my 9-to-10-year relationship doesn’t count but their 6-month marriage does — or their serial marriages, in some cases!”
4. Just because I’m single and 50 doesn’t mean I’m desperate and will date anyone
Many, but not all, women who are single in midlife would like to be in a relationship and do enjoy dating. Sue describes “that wonderful feeling of first dates, that thrill of starting over.” But most of them say that dating in your 40s and later can be hard, that there are not that many eligible men who are a good match.
Bonnie feels it’s particularly discouraging that “men my age want to date someone 10 to 20 years younger than them. What is going on? Are they for real? I want someone my age. I don’t want someone 10 to 20 years older than me.”
These women appreciate being set up by their friends but resent it when the bar is set too low. Stephanie explains, “They are anxious to match me up with someone they know, their only criteria being that he is also single — no regard for my likes or dislikes. When I don’t act interested in the guy they describe as an alcoholic, someone who has weird social skills, the devoutly religious man of a different religion than mine, the guy who is nice but a little slow, or the one who poisons squirrels in his back yard, they think I am being picky. My well-meaning elderly neighbor suggested that I should act dumb on the first few dates to attract a man, as I apparently scare them off with my immense intellect!”
Nicole agrees, “Just because I am not seeing someone does not mean I am desperate and will date just anyone. If I was not attracted to a type of guy before, what makes you think that will suddenly change just because I’m over 40?” She also wants to make sure married women understand that “as a single woman over 40 who lives alone and has no kids, I still like sex!”
And yes, like Stephanie, single women in midlife get accused of being too picky or demanding. Gertrude explains: “They think I’m only looking for a certain type of man, good-looking with a lot of money. I am not. I value honest, friendly, and nonjudgmental people in my life. I am a professional and would like to be with a professional partner, but if I don’t feel the right vibe, all of what he is or has does not matter.”
5. My future is no worse than yours — there are no guarantees in life
The women I interviewed have pretty realistic perspectives on the future. Bonnie admits, “After being single for 8 years, I wonder if I will be single for the rest of my life. I don’t think so as I think I’m just entering my prime years, but I sometimes wonder.”
Sue gets annoyed at the questions: “I’m tired of people saying, ‘Who will take care of you when you are older?’ One of my friends has been married three times and outlived three husbands; there are no guarantees in this life. Yes, sometimes I think about what will happen if I age and lose my capacities but it is what it is and, if you prepare things properly and have someone who can be your advocate and executor, you don’t have to worry.”
Joanne agrees wholeheartedly: “Young women make it a point to mention that they are not going to end up at 50-something without a man. But there is nothing that you can do in your younger years that will absolutely guarantee that you will have a man when you’re in your 50s, or that he will be around for the long run. I always wish new couples a long and wonderful life together, but please don’t be cocky because nothing is guaranteed.”
6. Please believe me when I say it: I am okay
Women who are single in midlife want the rest of us to know that, despite life’s normal ups and downs, they are doing just fine. In Marie‘s words: “Gay marriage has become accepted and transgendered people are now demanding acceptance; I think singlehood is the next frontier of social acceptance. As a single older woman, I want acceptance, not suspicion or assumptions. I am not damaged goods. I am not sad. I am not a reject. That smile you see on my face is genuine.”
Sue agrees, “Some people think you never married because you were selfish or too focused on your career or too picky. Did they ever think it just wasn’t meant to be your life and there is nothing wrong with being single?”
Cari, divorced mother of a 7-year-old, appreciates her newfound independence: “Being single at this point in my life has many benefits, mainly the ability to make my own decisions about my life without having to ‘check’ with anyone. I get to decide how the money is managed, what bills get paid off first, what school or summer camp is appropriate for my child. There are no differences of opinion, no debates, and no accommodations to be made. My single life is very productive and busy. I’ll admit, there are times it would be nice to have a second set of hands around the house or around me, and someday I may meet someone who I want to spend my life with, but for now I am enjoying my decision-making freedom immensely. Being financially independent means that I do not ‘need’ a man in my life to survive, but should I decide I ‘want’ a man in my life, there is no pressure to prove myself or my worth; either you enjoy my company or you don’t. I have been married and lonely and, believe me, that is much worse than being single, independent, and free.”
Stephanie agrees: “I didn’t ever expect to be single for my whole life, but so far it has worked out that way. And now that I am beyond the ‘baby years,’ I am actually pretty much ok with it and wonder if marriage is even one of my goals anymore. If I had married any of the men I thought I wanted to marry, I am pretty sure I would be divorced now anyway. I am happy with the life I have built and am lucky to be able to afford most things that I want on one income.”
“Sometimes single status is a choice, not a temporary unfortunate state that I am trying to change,” explains Katie. “Being single allows me to focus on my family and not have anyone making demands on my time that would interfere with this fleeting time my children are living at home. As my nest empties, I see endless possibilities in my next chapter. I am unencumbered by a spouse’s work life. I feel like a freshman in college again. The world is my oyster!”
7. Being married does not give you the right to be insensitive
It’s amazing what people feel they can say to women who are single in midlife. Here are some examples from Sue, a never-married single woman in her 60s: “When I moved to a new home and met new people, they seemed taken aback that I never married. I was greeted with ‘How could that be?’ and ‘For real, you never got married?’ or ‘Not even for a little while?’ One woman actually said ‘You should have gotten married and divorced so you could say you had been married.’ Crazy stuff!”
Sue also warns that people should not ask why you’ve never been married: “One friend of mine lost two fiancés to early deaths before they married and she absolutely hates to be asked this question.”
And watch the way you talk about single women with other partnered people. In Joanne’s words, “Once you hit 40, it’s automatically assumed ‘She has issues, or something is wrong with her, or she’s selfish, or she didn’t get married due to her career, or she must hate men, or she lives a sad and lonely existence.’ It’s the image of the ‘old spinster’ with a house full of cats. I feel lucky that my girlfriends look at me as the whole person that they know me to be and judge me solely on that, not on any narrow-minded definitions of single women over 40.”
Marie feels there are other stereotypes to watch for: “One is that we just might be a bit morally loose. One time, when my son had a new friend sleep over for the first time, the mom, who knew I was single and living alone, said, ‘You don’t have any boyfriends sleeping over, do you? I can’t let my son sleep over if you do.’ This same (married) woman ran away with her (married) church pastor a few months later!”
Single women want us to know that being single is just one small aspect of their very full lives. And they certainly don’t want our pity. In Marie’s words: “A college sorority sister, with whom I reconnected on social media after 35 years, messaged me to say, ‘Too bad your marriage didn’t work out; but at least you have a beautiful son.’ True, but evidence of my marital status is scant, while evidence of my great career, exciting expatriate years, and my fun times with friends are splashed all over Facebook every day.”
These women are often expected to dole out the gifts for every life event but would appreciate some reciprocity once in a while. Jodi explains, “You get a gift when you get engaged, another gift for the bachelorette party, and then an actual wedding gift. Then come the kids; some of my friends tell me what to get their kids, even when I don’t ask. And do I ever get a gift?” Gertrude agrees that is would be nice to receive “flowers or other gifts on special days.”
8. Once and for all, I’m not after your husband
Admittedly, the most shocking finding from these interviews was how often this apparent issue came up. So, all you married ladies, rest assured, most middle-aged single ladies are NOT flirting with your husbands. Here is just a sampling of what I heard…
Sue: “When women view us as a threat to their relationships, that is hurtful, as if they don’t trust you or think you have integrity. I wish my married friends understood I don’t want their spouses even if I appreciate spending time with them. I wish they understood that you can be friends with men and not threaten their marriage.”
Marie: “Married ladies, I am not after your husband. I honor your marriage and your friendship. Not all of us are trolling. We are busy raising our children and looking for our own Mr. Wonderful. Sure, there are exceptions, but don’t automatically assume I can’t be trusted when I chat with your husband at the intramural game. Rest assured we chat pleasantly and I make sure to mention you often.”
Gertrude: “I try not to make long conversations with the husband to prevent feelings that I want their man. I respect marriage and would never try to be with another person’s husband.”
Helaine: “This always comes up. I have been explicitly told to stay away from their husbands by two women, one to my face, one behind my back.”
Can we stop assuming and judging and lean in to understanding and acceptance? Are we all so different? Ellie sums it up: “I am one of you. I am trying every day to be a good mother, a good daughter, a good sister, a good granddaughter. I am working on myself, fighting my demons, winning sometimes, losing sometimes. I am a woman just like you.”
*Some names have been changed if requested by contributors.
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