Does Your Marital Status Define You?

I never thought much about the fact that I was single.

Wedding rings with bouquetI was me. Marital status had nothing whatsoever to do with who I was: my passions, my beliefs, my friendships, how I conducted my life.

I might even go so far as to say that marital status had little to do with my dreams. I knew what I wanted – to write, to learn, to travel, to become knowledgeable and respected in subjects I found interesting. I wanted to distinguish myself.

I wanted to love. I wanted to be loved.

Children? I couldn’t imagine myself a mother.

Surprise, surprise. Well into my thirties I experienced that great privilege, and I have adored the job of parenting my two children. As for marriage and its necessity?

The Title of Mrs.

I didn’t dream of being a “Mrs.” I didn’t plan for it, or think of it, or worry about it whatsoever – until I reached an age when family members, co-workers, even strangers began asking why I wasn’t married. Not being married was somehow a stigma, though most of my closest friends, like me, were single at the time.

I was asked by relatives if I was gay. I was asked if I had something against marriage. When I would travel to France, no one asked me about marital status and it was a relief – like many other aspects of French culture, at least, for me.

And when I did marry – older – I felt that I had just been accepted into some exclusive club that I never knew existed. I was invited into a broader circle. I was welcomed in a different manner.

And I was surprised. Stunned, really. This was 1990, not 1960!

Women, Marriage, Name Change, and Identity

When it was time to do the deed, I didn’t want to change my name, though my soon-to-be-husband wanted exactly that, and we both agreed it would be easier if there were children.

I was known in my profession by my given name, and I was reluctant to shed it. I also liked my name. I inhabited it; it suited me. But I opted for pleasing my husband and agreed to his request.

Many years later, during divorce, despite the confusion I knew it would cause (and still does), I was hungry to slip back into my “old” name – my real name, as quickly as possible. I was reclaiming a vital part of myself.

My name.

My identity.

Does Your Marital Status Define Your Life?

While I would never had said that my marital status defined me or my life, I faced divorcing dilemmas I couldn’t have imagined. For example, it took me months to remove the wedding ring from my finger, far longer to surrender the possibility that I could save my family unit, and more years than I care to admit that I have struggled with accepting that I will never know precisely why my marriage ended, and why “we” didn’t work, though looking back, I certainly have more insights than I once did.

At the time, I focused on the fact that we made beautiful kids. I still focus on the fact that we made beautiful kids, and likewise, on everything I’ve learned in the past 20 years.

The stigma of divorce? I didn’t consider it. I was dealing with the death of dreams. I was preoccupied with the emotional withdrawal of one child and the anger of the other. I was fighting growing legal debt and loss of our home. I was determined to get us through; marital status was irrelevant.

The Marital Status Trap

Over the many years I’ve dated since divorce, any time I’ve seen someone for a few months, I heard the inevitable question – “Do you think you’ll get married?”

Still dealing with contentious issues of support, visitation, and more – remarriage has been the farthest thing from my mind.

I’m currently enjoying a good relationship. To my amazement (and discomfort), the questions have started again as if confirmation that even for a woman at midlife “remarried” is superior to “divorced,” and if not remarried, then cohabiting is superior to living alone.


Judgment and Assumptions by Marital Status

I begin to understand the value of the indefinite engagement as a means to silence the voices who doubt your commitment, while respecting your own awareness that insists on caution.

I recognize the very real financial and logistical advantages to being married rather than single – including rights to spousal benefits (health care, for example). May we agree that this is no small matter as we grow older, and in our troubled economy when many are without jobs or, have no “rights” to health care through non-employee status?

Likewise, there is no doubt in my mind that society at large is more comfortable with those who are married, especially women, though I still can’t quite figure out why.

  • If you’re divorced and not remarried, is the assumption that you’re unattractive or unlovable?
  • Many men don’t wear wedding bands; we rarely inquire if they are married. Why?
  • When we do find out that someone is not married, we automatically assume there is something “wrong” with them. Why?

Hierarchy of Marital Status

Personally, I have noted a hierarchy of marital status “acceptability” in this country. Married is superior to Unmarried; Widowed is superior to Divorced; Divorced is superior to Never Married. Why?

When asked my marital status, most of the time I simply say I’m single.

Yes, I am a divorced woman with a complex story. Yes, I am a single mother or solo mother, depending upon your definition. Yet to me, marital status remains largely irrelevant to who I am, what I love, what I contribute, and how I define myself as a person and as a woman.

We learn from our stories, we live our stories, and we present a face to the world through our stories. Mine include marriage, motherhood, divorce, and these 10 trying and remarkable years that have followed.

But I am more than my stories. More than these stories. And I am certainly more than my marital status.

What about you?


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    • BigLittleWolf says

      I guess you’ve experienced something similar, Roxanne. (Have you figured out why? I haven’t. I suppose I ought to stop trying…)

  1. says

    I think people are obsessed with this question because they fear being alone. Of course I may be wrong.

    But the people least likely to ask my sister (the last one in my family to marry) when she would do so were those who seemed most comfortable in their own skin. People who asked seemed to be saying, “You’re going to join the club, right?” so she would confirm the big game that none of us is alone.

    But we are.

    No matter our marital status.

    I’ve been married 24 years, most of them tremendously happy. But I will tell you this: I’ve never been as lonely as I have been inside this marriage at times. We all must, ultimately face that reality that we are alone. And make peace with that. Many do not and they cling to a marriage as if to say “See? Here’s proof, I’m not alone.”

    Aloneness and loneliness are two different things.

    You seem to have found yourself by finding your way back to your name and your identity. I’m guessing there is plenty of pluck in that journey. Plenty of time spent alone, bravely discovering a person with whom, guaranteed, you would live the out the rest of your days. That is true intimacy.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Thank you, Rebecca, for the good words. We do indeed fear being alone, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say (about boyfriends / girlfriends / spouses) “Well it’s better than being alone.”

      It’s an interesting observation that in your family, those least likely to ask your sister about her marital status are those who are most comfortable with themselves. And yes – alone and lonely are very different. Something we also need to consider as a culture, given that many of us are crowding into smaller spaces (by virtue of the economy), need to still respect a person’s right to “alone time” regardless of space or relationship issues, knowing that it isn’t the same as loneliness – which I see as a deep and as yet unsatisfied desire to connect in a meaningful way.

      Provocative comments, thank you.

  2. says

    This is such a rich vein for discussion, D, and (perhaps oddly) brings to my history teacher’s mind stories of witch trials from earlier in our country’s history. As a society, we’ve just never known “what to do” with unmarried women and so we make up stories and categories to try to make them fit into a hierarchy that often gives preferential treatment in the order you list above – which, of course, is ludicrous. As you say, people are about much more than whether or not they have a partner.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      It is indeed a rich vein for discussion, Kristen. (Feel free to take it up! I would love to know what the 30-somethings think of it.)

      Your comment makes me recall the 1978 film, An Unmarried woman which I saw recently on cable. It’s a terrific movie in many ways, dealing with a 40ish woman who seems to have it all. She’s vibrant, smart, fit, sexually engaged with her husband, raising her 15-year old daughter, sharing her life in Manhattan. Her husband of 16 years comes home and says he’s in love with another woman and that’s that. Divorce ensues, along with it – her shock, her process of discovering herself as an “unmarried woman,” and a few twists and turns.

      I highly recommend the film, bearing in mind that the American view of divorce in the 1970s was very different from today, and in some respects (sadly?) considered the means for a woman to find “freedom.” There are only questions in this movie and no easy answers – which is something that makes it completely pertinent today. I had hoped to write on it (didn’t have time), and still hope to do so in the future – reflecting on it from the vantage point of when I first saw it (30 years ago), as well as today.

      In the 1970s we didn’t know what to make of the “unmarried woman.” Nor do we now in some respects, as you point out. As to the hierarchy, it seems – to me – that it remains. At least we’re beyond the witch trials. (Or are we?)

  3. Robert says

    When I got married thirty-plus years ago, I immediately had the sense of joining a club, of having “made-it”, of having become an adult. It redefined me in a positive way.

    But at this point, marriage has redefined me negatively. My significant other has become infinitely withdrawn. I am here to keep her company, to give her the protection of the institution. The same walls that signify protection to her, signify confinement to to me. Recently, when discussing changing arrangements, she asked “But wouldn’t you be lonely”? My response was “I’m alone already. At least that way I would have the opportunity to define myself and my life in ways that I am not able to do now”.

  4. says

    You already know I agree with you wholeheartedly…except for one thing. I’d thought it was harder for single women, too, until I read Bella DePaulo’s chapter on men in Singled Out. I had to admit that even I was guilty of being more skeptical of men who’d reached their mid-30s + without having ever been married. Here’s just one example of how a man’s marital status is more relevant than we might think: target=”_blank”

  5. says

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again here, “I would never advise anyone to get married; I would just say it is the best thing that ever happened to me.”

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Gandalfe, you’re a marvel. You and your wife are both wildly fortunate to have each other – and I can only imagine have worked hard to solidify your marriage and family. So appreciative of each other! So much to admire.

  6. Alain says

    My “best” friend at 40 is still sometimes referred to as a “Mademoiselle” because she is single. Still fine when you’re in your twenties, but a stigma as you grow older, even in France. And “Madame” still counts for something. I guess it also depends on the social circles which surrounds you, as of course perception of marital status will depend on class as well, though I suppose the hierarchy that you described will stay pretty much the same, only given more or less importance.
    As a newly divorced dad of two young children, I must say that, just as you, I never considered beforehand the stigma that might come with my new status.
    I soon learned that it is often assumed, especially in my experience by women, that it will be difficult for you to take care of your kids and that you will be doing less of a good job at being a parent to a young child for being a man. I had to assure the caretaker in kindergarten the other day that I was the best of mothers.
    And of course there are plenty -bless them- who just don’t care.
    A rich vein of discussion, on both sides of the gender divide (and anecdotically here in France as well).

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Alain, je vous remercie de me rendre visite – quelle gentillesse!. Thank you for sharing your experience, and from the French perspective. Interestingly, people started calling me “Madame” in France when I was about 25 and have never stopped. That was many years before I was married. I took it as a sign of respect, and left it at that.

      It is indeed a rich vein of discussion!

  7. Huron says

    I was married and divorced while I was still a teenager – I was pregnant and in those days you got married. 12 years later I was living with a man and we had two more children but we never married. I have been single with a boyfriend and single without a boyfriend for nearly 20 years now I can hardly remember or imagine what it was like to live with someone else – to share my bed and my room, to make decisions with, to argue with about what color to paint the living room.
    I am currently seeing a man who will never be a great romance, just a nice guy to have a meal with or see a show. I treasure my girlfriends and the unconditional love I get from them – they never get mad if I don’t call for a week or two, or accuse me of having new friends.
    It’s freeing but sad at times – I don’t know if I made a conscious decision to be alone or if I am alone because no one loved me enough to stick around.
    And sometimes I wonder if I should have tried harder, been softer, talked more, cried less, if I was too selfish about my own needs and wants.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Huron, Thank you for reading and commenting. It sounds like you’ve tasted all manner of marital status and cohabitation status, but what strikes me is that you feel somehow that you ought to have tried hard, done more.

      I have said these words to myself when relationships have ended. I can’t help but believe that many women say these words to themselves, taking on far too much of the responsibility for the “success” or “failure” of a relationship, and I use those words cautiously as I don’t think that we should define success by longevity, but rather by quality, by wonderful memories, perhaps by our children who grow up as good people – imperfect, as are we all.

      You speak of selfishness. Are you sure it was selfishness – or healthy self-interest? In our culture, if a woman is clear on what she needs, is she deemed selfish?

      I hope that you will find a way to be softer and kinder with yourself, and please come by again and read and talk. There’s so much to be gained in these pockets of community. Wishing you well.

  8. says

    I never much liked the word “husband” (it sounds a bit neanderthal to me, or a like half a hyphenated word searching for “animal,” as in animal-husbandry). I love being married and I love my spouse, but I don’t like the word spouse, and even “wife” carries more negative than positive baggage.

    Early in my career as a psychologist I noticed that projecting is very powerful and despite a ring some people will notice what they want, or need, to notice. Perhaps my favorite was a client who had the fantasy that I was practically a monk and did nothing but read books in an austere room when I wasn’t consulting with patients.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Bruce, Your comments make me chuckle. (Neanderthal? Monk?)

      It is interesting that in French (by way of example), there are separate words for husband (mari) and man (homme), whereas the word for wife and woman are the same – femme. Interesting, no?

  9. says

    I was so wrapped up in my identity as ‘wife’ that when the divorced happened, I grieved the title and role. BUT, I have reconnected with my own identity as ME and love the discovery and joy and being myself – and enough at that.

    I was very concerned with the stigma of a divorced woman, because I once had very stereotypical views on the same. Funny how experience corrects that!

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Missy June, Thanks so much for joining the conversation! Always nice to have a new voice chime in. Grieving the title and the role. Yes, It seems very natural. Our culture puts so much importance on it! I’m delighted that you are rediscovering yourself, and without the stigma. Bravo! It can be quite a journey. I hope you stop by and comment again!

  10. NoNameRequired says

    Never changed my name; was married in 83. Part of this was ethnicity, as his family was so very different from mine and I am from an ethnic family. We liked each others’ family backgrounds, but odd for me to take on a new “foreign” moniker. He was fine with this, though his family was note.

    Also, feminism was freeing to me in this practical way, as in choices like marry? Yes. Change name? No. Ok then.

    Status items? Oh, the very worst status, which can happen whether single or married is the very public loss of a child’s affection. People, even friends and family, quietly wonder if you are a mommydearest behind closed doors. Parental alienation — the crafty interference by one parent against the other parent regarding a child’s affection — is so awful. The word “incest” somehow fits here, yet is not the physical abomination. Yet, think about the emotional manipulation that accompanies — often the ramp up to — incest.

    We are capable of such wretchedness within families. (And love and safe harbor, too)

    And, am better now, even without the fond return of love by that child. One can and does continue to live, astonishingly so.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts, NoName. We are indeed capable of both wretchedness, and kindness. That we continue to go on (and finding the joy), as you point out, can be astonishing.

  11. says

    I’d like to think it doesn’t, but I’ve often wondered what would happen if I was no longer married. How would I change? Would I change? Of course my circumstances would, but deep down, would the person I am change? I don’t know. I’ve come to realize that what I do (job) does not define who I am. In my core, I’m comfortable with the person I’ve become…and that person is the accumulation of all my experiences and relationships.

  12. Carol says

    When my generation grew up, it was expected that girls would get married, have babies, and turn into June Cleaver. Things changed, people changed, women learned that they could be more than someone’s wife or someone’s mother. Unfortunately, gaining that knowledge cost some marriages. But society views unmarried women as less than whole; once divorced that once-married female friend becomes a threat to some of the married women friends, and fair game to the male of that couple. Sadly, we have not matured enough to consider that, in many situations, being married is not the answer for a variety of reasons. We need to learn to let each of us be what we are most comfortable being, without expectations.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Ah, Carol. Those expectations… They do seem to hang around, generation after generation, more stubbornly than we might have thought.

  13. says

    I’m glad April pointed out that expectations and assumptions impact on men as well as women.

    Lenny Bruce had a bit about the mother who was the last to know her son was gay: “When’s he going to get married?”

    I believe it was David Rakoff, who is gay, who observed that if he were holding a baby, he would still be perceived as straight even if he were wearing a tutu.

  14. says

    In the Indian culture, so much importance is attached to being married. If you are of a particular age and not married, you aren’t accepted. If you are divorced, there is a stigma attached. If you are widowed, you are discounted. I find the labels stifling and not indicative of individual happiness. As the others have suggested, you could be husband-wife and living a life that is everything but.

    Thought provoking post and discussion.

  15. says

    Late to the party, I know. Just finished reading Behind Closed Doors: At Home with the Georgians. Fascinating book. It talks about why marriage was so important for both men (need a house manager, if nothing else, otherwise no quality of life); and women (middle or upper class women weren’t allowed to work and if one never married, one was always beholden and dependent and possibly begrudged). Spinsters fared far worse than most widows. I don’t think society – particularly in the US – has come much further since then. In Britain today, partners are given quite a bit of legal recognition even in the absence of marriage.

  16. BigLittleWolf says

    @Shelley, We’ve made progress, but still so far to go… Glad to hear partners are gaining acceptance in the UK.

  17. says

    I don’t know how I missed this post but I’m glad I stumbled onto this. Man do I have a lot to say, having been married, divorced and am now “cohabitating” (for lack of a better term) with the father of my two kids.

    My Asian upbringing puts such stigma on divorce that I had to pretend I wasn’t when I went home. Went on for three years because my mom refused to tell anyone. Until she was forced to because I was going to have a baby with another man! And then of course she told everyone I was married to avoid scandal.

    People are more open about it here but I’m still surprised at how people treat divorcees. Or unmarried couples. Shopping for insurance as a family was impossible so I had to get mine separately from everyone else at home.

    I work at a place full of folks in suburbia with their spouse, 2.1 kids and 2 cars so I feel self-conscious when I talk about my family life. Not that they sneer at me but maybe that’s something that I’m sensitive to simply because I don’t feel like I fit the demographic there.

    And there’s the term “boyfriend” which I loathe because it sounds so juvenile and fleeting to me so I’ve been calling him my partner, even though to those who don’t know me, it may elicit confusion (partner as in gay partner? business partner? etc.).

    Anyway, I don’t have any coherent thoughts here. Just a rant. Because it’s mostly pent up by years of frustration of not being able to fully enjoy this (non) status of ours due to societal expectations, stigma and other equally confounding reasons.


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