I will start with this: I am 31 and I just got married. The last 10 years of my life have been wonderful, meaningful, exciting, and... hard. In a community centered around family and children, it is easy to feel like an outsider. Yom Tov, family events, and milestones of friends can become challenging. Yet, what I found to be most challenging was the response of the community.
Please understand this: I am not bitter, and I never was. I don’t hold any grudges. I loved my single years- they were a time of tremendous growth for me. I had time for myself- for traveling, growing, and forming incredible friendships. I was Vice President of a Shul at age 27. I created programs and initiatives that were important to me. I was able to spend my time productively, expose myself to different types of people and new experiences, and spend much time thinking about the kind of mark I want to leave on this world. But it was still hard. While there are no quick fixes, here are some suggestions for changes our community can make to help those who are not married feel less like outsiders.
Let’s start thinking about the words we use. For some reason, you can be a “single girl” at the age of 40 and a “married woman” at 21. It is hurtful to those who are not married, and plays into the discrimination and bias that already exists. Our language around this issue needs to change. I am not a “single”; I am a person.
Please stop saying “shidduch crisis”- this makes me feel like something is wrong with me. I am not a crisis. The way people treat single people is a crisis. Valuing people based on their marriage status is the crisis.
Please don’t ask me (subtly or not so subtly) about my dating life (unless you are a very close friend). People always asked "how are you?" with a pained look on their face. I would always answer positively - “I'm great- I love my job, I'm running x and y programs,” but they would always ask again- “but how ARE you?” Let's start asking people about their lives- what they're doing, where they're working, and what their community is like.
Please don’t give unsolicited advice. Finding your life partner does not make you a dating/ marriage expert. While I would never dream of commenting on my friend’s marriage, sex life, or infertility struggle, random people often make comments and suggestions to people who are single. “Go see a shadchan” (which is not helpful unless you have a specific suggestion because single people already KNOW this is an option). “Plan your life around dating.” “Wear makeup.” I never listened to any of that. I decided that I was going to make myself happy, married or not. I was going to make my own decisions. Take part in what I found meaningful. All of this advice makes you feel like there is something wrong with you (which maybe there is, but that’s for a therapist to help you with). I was convinced for years that I had issues. People convinced me. Shadchans convinced me. Family convinced me. I convinced myself. But when I started dating my now husband, I could not believe how simple it was- I really thought I would never get married, but it was the easiest decision I ever made.
Realize that everyone has different experiences. Some people are single because they want to be, others are single because they don't feel ready or are figuring themselves out, and others are desperate to get married but it's not happening for them. Some people are always set up while others are never set up. Some might be figuring out their sexuality. Don’t make assumptions as to why people are single or how they feel about it.
Please realize that “single people are people too.” This feels ridiculous to type, but it needs to be said. Single does not mean younger, less able, or less mature. People tend to look at you as a "single," as if you are nebuch or less of a person. You start to think of yourself that way. I can’t even count the number of times I have asked (and heard my friends ask) “what is wrong with me?” I never felt bad for myself, but people made me feel bad about myself. Singles don’t want pity looks- the way to be supportive is to treat people as they are.
Being single doesn’t mean I don’t have life experience. When I worked as an educator for a Jewish organization, people assumed I was a babysitter because I was single. It feels like getting an Mrs. is more valuable than the experiences you had in your life. This kind of cultural stigma is everywhere. It is very challenging to get hired by a shul if you are not married. You need to be “mature and married” to be a matchmaker on a very popular dating site. Why are those descriptions even placed together? I made 3 matches but can't be a matchmaker because I’m single?
Just because I’m single doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about my future. While some like to believe that they will definitely get married and it's only a matter of time, I made a separate life plan in case I didn't get married- where could I live as a single parent? At what age would I freeze my eggs? Adopt? You realize that your life will be different than the one you maybe imagined, and different than how most of your friends are living. It could still be amazing and meaningful, but the Orthodox community has yet to create a space for it. Perhaps if other options were discussed and supported, people would feel a lot less nervous about the prospect of ending up alone. Yes, many people do want partners. But many also want children, support, and community. Knowing that there is room in the Orthodox community to live as a single parent might help alleviate at least some of the anxiety.
Let’s stop objectifying people who are not married. A friend was recently asked for a full body profile after giving her resume and picture to a shadchan. It is so inappropriate. And the advice given to lose weight or look or dress or present yourself a certain way? In a community where so many already feel judged, less than, and totally out of place, (not to mention the dangers of body image issues, low self-esteem, anorexia and anxiety disorders) why do we have to make people feel even worse about themselves? Aren't we a community that cares about values? Kindness? People's minds and hearts? People should be themselves- they should feel free to dress in a way that makes them happy and comfortable, whether wearing makeup or a bare face. If shadchanim really think that women are single because they don't wear enough makeup or dress in the right way, then they should be spending more time on fixing the values system of our community and figuring out where we went wrong with men's education. Some people and some shadchanim are amazing, but others can cause so much damage. The jobs of shadchanim and people in your life should be to support you and remind you how amazing and wonderful you are.
Celebrate EVERYONE in your community, including those who are not married. People stop going to their parents’ house because they don't want to feel like a nebuch. Everyone is so well meaning, but the comments that people make can be very hurtful. Our community does not know how to make space for single adults, and it's the community that misses out. Thank G-d I live in Washington Heights, where I am surrounded by friends of different ages and life circumstances, and where people see me for who I am. So many of my close friends who are not married are so bright, creative, thoughtful, insightful, and innovative, and could add so much to different communities. But why would they want to be a part of a community that pities them? When our community doesn't make space for them, it loses so much talent.
Everyone in our community, including shadchanim, friends, and even people who make inappropriate comments, is coming from a place of love and a sincere desire to help. And as someone who was on the receiving end, I never wanted to say anything because I was able to appreciate where they were coming from and didn’t want to make others feel bad. But if we genuinely care about the singles in our communities, it’s time we start thinking about our words, actions, and attitudes, and treat single people the way they want to be treated.