The Plight of the 30-Something Single

Photo credit: Tanzila Ahmed

The phone rang, waking me from deep morning slumber. Naturally, I don’t pick up, though when I see the number my heart skips a beat.

It’s my college roommate. She never calls me. In the past decade since graduating, our lives took very different paths. The only times I hear from her are for celebrations or deaths. She called me for her engagement, marriage, baby one, and baby two. What else could be left – it must be sobering news.

Sure enough, a text message follows: “Give me a call as soon as possible.”

We’d been randomly assigned as roommates our freshman year, two naïve Muslim girls who bonded immediately and spent the next four years exploring our American Muslim identities and boundaries. By the time adulthood rolled around, I was on my way to DC to be a political activist, and she was going on rishtas with eligible Arab men selected by her mother. She was the first of our college circle to get married. We drifted apart, reconnecting only for significant life events.

I braced myself, and called her back as soon as I was coherent. “How are you?” I asked tentatively. “How is the family?”

“Everyone is great,” she replied, suspiciously cheerful. “So… at my son’s school, he has a lot of Bangladeshi friends. And I was talking to one of the mothers and she has a brother….”

“Are you serious?” I replied incredulously.

“He’s in entertainment – law, or accounting or something. A couple years older than you. Never been married. How about I set up a tea, and you can come over, and I can invite them over and you all can meet?”

“I thought someone had died,” I responded, deadpan.

“Isn’t this a better call than that?” she responded jovially.

“Well…” I reluctantly humored her. “Have you at least seen him?”

“He has a job, and he’s breathing,” she snapped.

“I’m not even asking for a photo or what he looks like! I’m just asking if, at minimum, you’ve seen him!”

“You’re being too picky.”

+++

Being single in your thirties is the equivalent to strangers rubbing pregnant women bellies, a single friend told me recently. It’s out there, and when people see it, they feel compelled to reach out and touch it, without waiting for an invitation. They invade her personal space, completely ignoring the fact that their touch is uninvited by the mother in question. But she has to grin and bear it because the groper only has “good intentions.”

The most uncomfortable thing about being single in your thirties is how society and other people see you. It’s slightly more urgent and nasal than the messaging received as a single twenty-something. There is this tone of desperation in their voice when they ask you, “Is there anyone special in your life?” Which kicks off a rant on how important it is to have companionship, followed by, “Allah made someone for everyone,” and wrapped up with “…maybe you should try online dating.”

These conversations are often one-sided, with little actual input from the single person in question.

By the time you are in 30s, your singleness is “pathologized”, as noted by Sara Eckel in her book, “It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single.” And I totally concur. No longer are you the cute, independent 20-something girl that just needs to find the right man who will respect and love you for all your qualities: “You just keep being you, and The One will come along.”

In your 30s, especially if you’ve been relatively unattached most of your grown life, the narrative shifts dramatically. Suddenly, there must be something wrong with what you are doing. Or, maybe, there is something wrong with you.

“Maybe you should tone it down and not be so vocal about your politics”

“Have you thought about really trying to put yourself out there? Try a little harder?”

On the flip side, after you share your bad first date antidotes parade, there’s the implication that I should give the guy a second chance.“Maybe he was just nervous/drunk/not that libertarian/really loved Bjork” All this in spite of the fact that a request for a second date never materialized.  When the topic of love, dating, and marriage are broached, social gatherings become virtual land mines to tiptoe around.

When I’m not confronted with these kinds of people, I often forget the desperate single girl plight I’m in. When left to my own devices, my life is rich and immersed in the arts, activism, music, travel and community. I struggle to find alone time to create, and often request friends to meet up over writing instead of coffee or brunch.

When I get to choose the topics of conversations, it’s about musical migration of the South Asian diaspora, or the downfall of American Apparel or on the latest novel that I read by a woman of color. And if pushed, I can even talk about “love” – about how capitalism breeds false ideals for romance or the evolution of the love letter from paper to text.

But most people don’t know how to talk to single people in their 30s. The conversations are infantile, with questions like, “What are you looking for?” and, “What are your long-term plans?”

Or, even worse, they expect The Minstrel Show of Bad Dates, so that they – poor marrieds – can live vicariously through my romantic high jinx failures, once again. I get performance anxiety and have to dig up stories to rehearse ahead of time when I know I’ll confront one of these kinds of people.

This month alone I’ve been told:

  • “You have to be specific with what you are looking for. And then it’ll be easier to know when he comes along.” Which directly conflicts with:
  • “You need to be more open. Don’t have too many things on the checklist – you never know.” (So which is it?!)
  • “Enjoy being single! I don’t know why I was in such a rush!” (From a recently coupled – and vanished – friend)
  • “You don’t need a life partner – look at how busy you are and how you’ve filled your life!” (As if the latter is just filling up the space the former would have taken.)
  • “You should be careful what you wish for.” (As if love is terrible.)
  • “You could have a boyfriend. You just choose not to have a boyfriend. All those guys that holler you at from street corners, they would be your boyfriend in an instant.” (No, they just want to have sex with me. If I tried to engage the cat-caller in a long-term commitment, they would run.)

It’s no wonder older single women are portrayed as bat-shit crazy cat ladies on the path to Golden Girls. They just might be with all the conflicting messaging bombarding them on the regular.

+++

It is now just days into the holy month of Ramadan where solstice summer afternoon shadows stretch into the fingers of azaan’s first breath. We abstain from food, from water, and from temptations because it makes us stronger. And when we break fast, our lips taste the sweet of the Medjool, or we quench our parched tongues with the wetness of water. In this month, we are sacrificing, expressing faith, showing love. They say that heaven’s gates are open, that good deeds are rewarded sevenfold, and that life is tinged with a special kind of noor.

“Pray,” you might say. Give dua to Allah for what you want, who you want. Duas, manifesting, vision boarding, praying – it all goes back to the same thing, doesn’t it? Having faith in a higher being to deliver on your dreams? Pray I will, but at the end of the day, I know that if I haven’t found someone to be with yet, it’s simply because our paths haven’t crossed yet. No myths, no mantras, no pathologies. Sometimes that’s just how the random chances of life go.

Ramadan is the month of abstinence – and maybe in some ways there is a parallel between the strength gained by fasting all day from food and being single. I am stronger as a person figuring out the world alone than I would have been had I had a partner. I have surprised myself with bravado when I’ve had to count on myself unexpectedly. I’ve been intentional in how I’ve created a community of love in my life instead of expecting one person to carry that alone. There is a certain kind of brilliant strength in the ability to fast, whether from food or from men.

And, inshallah, if he does come along, when our lips meet, it will taste like the sweet of the Medjool. Together, our parched tongues will finally be quenched. I’ll appreciate what we have found in being together that much more.

But if he doesn’t come along, I’ll know I’ll do just fine, too.

To read more posts by Tanzila, click here.

Photo credit: Les Talusan, lestalusanphoto.com

Photo credit: Les Talusan, lestalusanphoto.com

 

Tanzila “Taz” Ahmed is an activist, storyteller, and politico based in Los Angeles currently working as the Voter Engagement Manager at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles. She was a long-time writer for Sepia Mutiny, and was recently published in the anthology Love, Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women and both zines from Totally Radical Muslims. Her personal projects include curating images for Mutinous Mind State and writing about Desi music at Mishthi Music where she just co-produced Beats for Bangladesh: A Benefit Album in Solidarity with the Garment Workers of Rana Plaza. Taz also organizes with Bay Area Solidarity Summer and South Asians for Justice – Los Angeles. You can find her rant at @tazzystar.

 


20 Comments on “The Plight of the 30-Something Single”

  1. Alan Howard says:

    As usual a very good article. Thank you. This path is much harder for women then for men, but I can say I have experienced a tiny fraction of this as a widowed Muslim male. For instance my wife hadn’t been buried a week when I had more than one person come to me and say, “you should really remarry, it will help you not be sad.” Things of this nature came up often. But that first year I was numb and everything was a blur.

    Now that I am 2 years out, I also feel that I have gotten to know myself better. I learned a lot about myself through the years of caregiving, but being alone has also taught me important lessons. Now I have to navigate the old, “hey listen brother, I know a woman whose auntie knows a girl.” And like yourself I ask questions – education, political views, etc.? And I get the, “you are asking too many questions, none of that matters.” When in fact it matters a great deal to me.

    Anyway, thank you for writing it. I can at least relate to pieces of it.

  2. M Harrity says:

    Agree! I am not Muslim, but experience this a lot. My boyfriend, the man I was in love with, died unexpectedly in January of this year – just shy of his 30th birthday. I’m now 32. Since then, I’ve been receiving a barrage of setup requests with men I have zero interest in seeing, and everyone is constantly pressuring me to date. Each time they pressure me to settle for someone I’m not interested in, I miss Matt, and all of the feelings of grief come flooding back over me. I’ve been very assertive lately, and way less nice when people continue to push and treat me as though I should be in a state of desperation. People are finally starting to back off as I set firm boundaries. Not being married at 32 is not for lack of trying, and I’m still grieving! Stop pushing people on me!

  3. Mariam says:

    Excellent work! Captures the experience with eloquence and grace. I have been guilty of imparting some of the staid advice myself when it’s happenstance of people meeting who they are supposed to at the right time (inshaAllah),

  4. Loved the article, I can totally understand the frustration of people playing cupid with you. You seem like a very intellectual being who actually embraces isolation. I respect that a lot. Do not sell yourself short, very difficult to find independent and intellectual women such as yourself.

    • I’m NOT “selling myself short” ! That was the whole point of the post!!! That people have these very backhanded go to phrases for single people that are very offensive, such as “do not sell yourself short”!

    • Alina says:

      Maybe he meant, “keep it up,” rather than saying that you sounded like you are “selling yourself short”?

  5. I so agree!! Have a friend going through this and she is 27. And people are calling her picky for something as basic as wanting a guy at least as much educated as she is! Heights I call this!

    Nice read!

  6. Kay says:

    I so agree! Having suffered through tea trolley sessions, where people will come up with the lamest issues with you, its considered wrong for us to do the same?
    The surprising thing is that the same people who will push you towards marriage will also say it all depends on fate, so if marriage ultimately depends on fate, then have faith that it will happen at the right time – both are intertwined!
    Questions like ‘what are you doing with your life’ are still better then ‘what did you cook today?’ asked twice!

  7. Oh thank you for putting such eloquent, honest, and compassionate language to something I too experience. I thrill at the ways I am becoming myself, practicing my art, and working to transform and heal the world around me. My life is rich and full of wonder. None of these things are place holders. And yet just as you say, if a partner were to come along, so much sweetness would be added to my experiences.

    Until then, I’ll be busy engaging in radical acts of self love and justice for all.

    Thank you for this piece. Write on!

  8. Nicely written! Even though I’m a single guy in my twenties, I do understand what you’re saying. It’s extremely annoying when people make assumptions instead of just having a normal conversation. I’ve been single for most of my life, and only had one relationship. I appreciate the freedom that gives me the opportunity to explore my talents and work on my skills. I wouldn’t want to swap with many people who are in relationships, because a lot of them suck. And I have high standards.

    However, that doesn’t mean that there’s no desire to be with someone I love. And I have a sense that the same counts for you. Underneath your image of “I’m doing fine”, there is a slight feeling of frustration. Nobody wants to be alone. And we do choose to be single. In the end, I am the reason why I’m single, and the same counts for you. The one doesn’t just happen to cross paths with you; it doesn’t exist. There is an abundance of people out there, and you can have a good time with plenty of them. What you attract into your life depends upon your attitude.

    As much as I hate to admit it, my attitude is the reason I’m single. The same probably counts for you. It doesn’t mean we have to be like all those other people who are having comforting relationships at best, but it does mean that the key to what we want is embedded within ourselves. We don’t have to hide our personalities, but seduction is definitely a skill. A man who takes the lead and goes for what he wants will get more results than one who doesn’t. A woman who’s receptive and sensitive will attract more guys than those who aren’t. If you want to explore your feminine nature more deeply, and use that to find the right kind of guys, then I suggest getting into tantra.

  9. Kera says:

    I have experience this at 25, actually started at 23 (2 yr post undergrad study). Now I try not to be those people who point faults to explain why someone is single. However, I have tried setting up my friends with my husband friends (or a guy he knows) without knowing much info on the guy. My though process is everyone is adult n they can find those information in one or 2 short conversation n make their own opinion. I am just introducing rest is for couple n family to verify. What’s the harm in 1 strange convo w a stranger. I enjoyed these crazy set up n thought of it as another story I get to add to my love quest

  10. Daniel says:

    Taz I spend my 20s working on freedom of speech & the arts here in Kenya & only when I got to 30 did I find a serious gf, however due cultural & religious background took five years of that relationship. Imagine always going to family & social events unattached? I got my share of those questions, when are you getting married, just pick one of your pretty friends,, you don’t have to love her, love grows with time. It was only after I got to 38 that I have decided & I think it was well worth it.

    Daniel

  11. Romaica says:

    I guess we are all in the same boat. Believe it is not any easier where I am (Egypt). I enjoy my own company and I pray everyday to Allah to give me the strength to stay strong and never settle for less. It is comforting to know that some of my friends and I are not the only ones who feel that way! If it is meant to be, it will happen.

  12. Murtaza says:

    You are awesome. I think we are a function of the people we allow to influence us. By giving them time and opportunity they are likely to impress their values upon us, and consequently, most of us tend to fall into you, I think its amazing how you’ve forged your own path. Whether marriage is in your future or not, its obvious that you’ve surrounded yourself with too much love to ever truly be alone.

  13. Sharminmin says:

    This speaks to me on so many levels!!
    When I turned 32 this year I celebrated at work like a mad lady and bought in two cakes!!
    A lovely lady at work asked me how old I was when I told her she awww’d and told me I was so young. HA!! I replied telling her that my mother woke up this morning crying because I was 32 and not married.
    Her response? ‘Well done for not needing a man so far’
    Gave me a lot of perspective as does this article!

  14. Very nicely depicting the South Asian mindset, the horror felt by all those 30’plus career women, as they are hounded by everyone in their circle. Chill out girl, you have a good life. Don’t compromise and become a people pleaser.Heed to your call only

  15. Z says:

    My pet peeve: “the right one just hasn’t come along.” Maybe he won’t? Maybe he will, and then five years later you will discover, he wasn’t actually the right one. What is the right one? How do you know you found the right one? Tell me when you’re celebrating your 40th anniversary – tell me then, he was the right one. What is right? The one you merely settled for? The only one who happened to propose/ happened to be there when you both turned 29/30? And just because a marriage ends in divorce, it doesn’t mean he wasn’t the right one. Sometimes, it just isn’t in our nature to be with someone for the rest of our lives. For some of us, the right one may have come along, and we have a beautiful (limited) amount of years with them, and sometimes that beauty simply cannot last forever. Sometimes a genuinely beautiful union with another soul, can still end in ugliness and tragedy. Or it can simple end, fade away. It doesn’t make it any right or wrong. And another ‘right’ may come along, or it may never. And it is all okay, because it’s life and we truly do not know what it has in store for us. So its best to find solace in ourselves, and be strong as individuals, and love life and the people around us – because that’s the beauty that’s already been handed to us on a plate.

  16. Miss Z says:

    Love this article. SO relatable x

  17. Zee Ansari says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed the article and could literally imagine family and friends giving out expert opinions. I would like the world to know that gone are the days of desperation for single women, you actually have loads of fun being single. Also I’m not endorsing singlehood rather I’m rooting for happy life! Single or married atleast live a genuine meaningful life. But yes those of us, not so blessed in the ‘LOVE’ department, are keeping fingers crossed, staying hopeful and positive.. love inshallah!!