Single and silent: The stigma of being untethered

A few weeks ago, I was approached by my editor to write a feature about people — especially single people — who dislike Valentine’s Day. I was excited! As a single person, I thought it would be fun to get the chance to talk to other people who wallowed in their singleness on the day of commercialized symbols of love: candy hearts, red roses, giant teddy bears.

I anticipated tales of anti-Valentine’s Day parties like the one Jessica Biel’s character threw in “Valentine’s Day” and visits to Melrose’s pop-up Breakup Bar. What I got, however, was the exact opposite — silence.

After weeks of reaching out for interviews, tweeting, posting in Facebook groups, having friends of friends text their group chats, I had nothing. Even though people rallied around the idea (I had several likes, comments and texts), virtually no one actually wanted to talk to me about their personal relationships or feelings.

One girl completely ghosted me. A screenshot of our texts would show a plethora of blue iMessage bubbles from my end with no responses in return.

The one interview I managed to conduct was with someone who hated the holiday not for romantic reasons but instead because the holiday has strayed so far from its religious origins.   

I felt pretty defeated. This rallying story for the singles at USC couldn’t exist without student testimonies. Why were people so quick to show off their singleness on social media yet so shy to talk about it in person?

I decided to reach out to experts who could help explain this phenomenon to me.

Mary Andres is a professor of clinical education at the Rossier School of Education. She’s taught at USC for 24 years and co-leads the Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy program.

“People have a hard time switching from online contributing to actual conversations … people will ‘like’ things, but to do the extra effort?” Andres said. “They’ll say ‘oh it’s a great idea, I’m happy to follow and passively read whatever you collect, but I don’t want to contribute to the collecting.’”

Alla Branzburg, adjunct professor at the Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, is a psychotherapist specializing in relationships. She also said social media can be more of a hindrance than help when it comes to outreach.

“Facebook liking, or Instagram liking, it’s almost like a drug: It’s addictive,” Branzburg said. “People do get addicted to attention. And if they don’t get it, it makes them depressed or anxious.”

But beyond social media’s shortcomings,  USC singles’ silence is part of a much larger cultural phenomenon.

“With [singledom] is shame that comes up for people, where they feel like they are less than because of how the culture endorses coupledom as the preferred mode for being,” Andres said. “Even if they don’t physically feel shamed, they don’t have the vocabulary for it because there isn’t a space where we talk about what are you doing as a single person the way people talk about couples.”

Branzburg also discussed an innate human fear of judgment.

“I think it’s about feelings most of all, because no one wants to be hurt,” Branzburg said. “Nobody wants to be hurt by any callous comment about their feelings or be judged, misperceived or misinterpreted.”

Branzburg said that a single comment or like is okay because it’s a low barrier to entry. But speaking in person about one’s relationship status opens them up to avoidable vulnerability. Therefore, single people often pass on such conversations.

Andres said such negative connotations with singledom result from the glorification of relationships in the U.S.

“When [single] folks are saying ‘yes’ online, and then going silent, it’s because they aren’t giving themselves permission,” Andres said. “They are not … supporting other people saying ‘this is my life, and my life has legitimacy.’ This is just as important as your life, whether you’re married with kids or whether you’re engaged, or partnered, or whatever.”

Andres referred me to a book titled “Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After,” by Bella DePaulo, a professor of psychology at the University of Santa Barbara. DePaulo coined the term “mental blanketing” in her book.

“[Mental blanketing] is like mind control, only without the conspiratorial undertones.” DePaulo said in her book. “At a time when marriage is so inessential, mental blanketing aims to instill in an entire populace the unshakable belief that marriage is exactly what it is not: utterly and uniquely transformational.”

Andres explained that the U.S. allocates federal funding to aspects of relationships, such social security benefits, tuition remission and tax benefits.

“This idea of marriage or coupledom is that we have this blanket, we have this endorsement, that this is the best way to be. Every love story tells you that you will be transformed, you will become a better human being if you’re partnered,” Andres said. “That’s the weird part, because of this blanketing in our culture that says you should be in a committed relationship, that’s the safe, socially prescribed pathway towards adulthood.”

So, part of the reason why people didn’t want to talk to me is that society tells them they should be in a relationship. At USC, though, it’s not that simple to date, or even want to date.

Branzburg thinks many millennials view relationships as just an extra obligation.

“Contemporary parents conditioned their children to know they can do anything they want,” Branzburg said. “Being a student at such an amazing institution as USC … raises this expectation [of] ‘I want to meet somebody on my level.’”

The competitive academic environment on campus seeps into other aspects of life, such as romantic ones. The choice and diversity made available by living in Los Angeles doesn’t help, either.

“We live in L.A., where there are so many single people well into their 30s, because there’s so much choice,” Andres said. “It’s kind of like, ‘Why should I go through feeling insecure or disappointed in somebody who’s human and flawed, when I can just swipe and go out with somebody new?’ There’s a lack of maturing that happens because we have so much access.”

Another reason why many choose to be single is prioritization in a student’s life.

Andres spoke about how academics, extracurriculars and work take precedent in many students’ lives. Students commit to numerous activities and interests as part of their personal development leaving little room for a relationship.

“Some people are consciously choosing to devalue relationships, and they’re fine with it, but they don’t necessarily have a language for that,” Andres said. “So they’ll just say, ‘Oh I’m too busy,’ instead of saying ‘I’m doing exactly what I want to do. I’m not apologizing for it.’”

Branzburg hopes that students recognize the inability to be confident in their singleness as a societal flaw.

“Being single is not a bad thing. Being single means freedom, means exploration, means looking forward into the future,” Branzburg said. “It doesn’t mean that I am not socially apt. It doesn’t mean that I am not a cool person, or I am not a trendy person. It just means that I am waiting to make my choice, and therefore I am in control of my own situation.”

Andres pointed to China’s Singles’ Day, a shopping holiday that boasts more online sales than Cyber Monday, as an example of reclaiming singleness.

She hopes more similar trends will spring up in the U.S.

“It’s this whole idea of rebelling against [relationship culture],” Andres said. “There’s a whole culture that has rebelled against the idea of romance and Valentine’s Day, just like ‘what about us?’ It’s a way of taking back the power.”

And take back the power we shall. With that being said, are any single people out there ready to talk?