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The Ambiguous Loss of Being Single

Updated: Apr 28, 2022

Recently, my dad shared an article with me from Pepperdine Magazine - the alumni publication from Pepperdine University.

In the article, Kelly Haer, a licensed marriage and family therapist and director of the Relationship IQ program at the Pepperdine Boone Center for the Family, proposes that one of the difficulties singles face is the ambiguous loss that comes from grieving the spouse they don’t have while still hoping they will marry.

Grief and loss are more clearly understood if you married and your partner dies or leaves.

But, the complex grief singles experience that comes from not having found the relationship they desire or the fear that it will never happen.

The article states that for Christians, relying on God’s faithfulness eases the pain, but my experience has been that believing God is “keeping me single for a greater purpose” is far from comforting!

For singles who do NOT wish to marry, this is a moot point. There is no grief.

But for singles who do want marriage and family, the continual lack of same keeps us in a perpetual cycle of hope and grief.

In the article, Haer suggests several methods to deal with this ambiguous loss; including, identifying the dynamics that are keeping you single; learning to accept the ambiguity; pursuing meaning and hope; and, finding mutual and supportive connections.

To me, the suggestion that was the most helpful was accepting the ambiguity.

For years, I felt my underlying sadness was evidence of a lack of faith or a negative attitude. That caused me to feel I was disappointing God, which added a dimension of spiritual crisis to my emotional pain.

Well-meaning friends who encouraged me to, “Just believe it’s going to happen,” made me feel like a Negative Nellie because how could I believe something would happen when every year that passed made it seem LESS likely to happen?

To distract myself from my sad feelings, I would get very busy, then tell myself I wasn’t sad, I was just tired. And tired was better than sad because I could explain tired.

Another loss with which I am well acquainted is the loss from numerous failed relationships.

While it’s true that I’ve never experienced the pain of divorce, I have had to navigate the death of many relationships and the hope that “this one” was “THE one.”

Knowing that other singles experience this ambiguous loss helps me feel like there’s not something wrong with me or with my attitude - it’s a situation that many singles find themselves in.

When you’re in your 20’s and 30’s, it’s easier to have hope because you know you still have plenty of time. After 40, though, the dating pool is smaller, and if you want a high-quality partner, the pool is smaller still.

It’s difficult to remain hopeful when the numbers aren’t on your side anymore. Plus, men my age are frequently more interested in women 10 years younger than I am, and it’s hard to “compete” with youthful beauty!

Another point Ms. Haer makes in the article is that singles often have a difficult time understanding WHY they are single, how long they will be single, and how other people judge their singleness (do they see me as lonely and pitiful or free and empowered?).

I can understand intellectually why I am single. I have made unproductive decisions that have resulted in my singleness. However, I am not the most messed up person I know, and others seem to be able to find love - with good people - so why has it eluded me?

Because I live in a small town, I know people sometimes assume there’s something “wrong” with me because I’m still not married. But, I’ve learned that I cannot control what other people think about me and it really only matters what I think about me.

It helped me to know that I’m not the only single who has had this experience with ambiguous loss. Even though 90% of the time, I’m content in my singleness, when one of those 10% days hits me, I’ll be able to be more compassionate with myself, thanks to Ms. Haer.

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