Washington - I knew something was up when I got five emails in one day from people I didn't know, all telling me they were "relationship virgins." The impetus, I soon learned, was an essay in the Guardian about a woman who "managed to get to 54 without ever having had a boyfriend."
Who was this relationship virgin? I can't tell you, because she didn't use her name. Rather the essay was published "as told to Xenia Taliotis."
It's telling that this relationship virgin did not want her name attached to the story of a life without any boyfriends. Single people routinely offer first-person accounts of feeling stereotyped, stigmatized and marginalized because they are currently single. A lifetime without a romantic relationship, though, takes that hurt and ratchets it up a dozen notches.
At the heart of this story were this woman's attempts to answer the question: "What's the matter with me?" Was she too awkward? Too desperate? Too insecure? Some of the people who wrote to me were grappling with the same question. My best guess is that nothing was wrong with them.
Some of the relationship virgins I've spoken to over the years have made peace with their single lives, or never had to because they love living single. These are the kinds of people I've dubbed "single at heart." But even for them, what it means culturally to have lived for decades without any serious romantic relationship experience weighs on them. They get a sense of where a conversation is headed and dread the impending question: "So, have you ever been in a long-term romantic relationship?"
It doesn't have to be that way.
I dated occasionally in high school and college. I have no dating horror stories. I liked those guys. But when each of those relationships ended, I was thrilled to be released into the arms of my one true love: My single life.
Can I still say I'm a relationship virgin if, decades ago, there were a few men in my life, each of whom I dated for a few months? I hope so. Unlike this unnamed woman, I want the title. I want to declare my solidarity with other relationship virgins. I want to shrug off any sense that I should feel shame.
I want to redefine what it means, emotionally, to be a relationship virgin. The woman in the Guardian described her anguish at going to multiple weddings, or in other contexts where she's the sole single person among couples. Weddings have never made me feel badly about myself. And I love walking into holiday parties as a single person when just about everyone else is coupled, especially when I sort of know that some of the people in the room are paired up just to have someone at their side for the season. I feel proud of myself for not doing that. I don't want to be part of a couple when I see couples bickering. But I also don't want that when I see them getting along beautifully. It's just not what I want.
"When I went to university," this woman told the Guardian, "I fully expected my life as an adult to begin." By that, she meant that she thought she would have a series of romantic relationships culminating in "the One," as if doing so would mean that she had finally attained adult status.
Maturity is often viewed that way. In research that Wendy Morris and I have done on stereotypes about singles, single people are consistently viewed as less mature than married or coupled people. That happened even when we created pairs of biographical sketches that were identical except for the profiled person's marital status. Participants who saw the single-person versions of the sketches made harsher judgments than those who saw the married-person versions.
Our experiments included a variation in which the persons profiled either had romantic relationships in the past or had no previous romantic relationship experience. (That is, they were relationship virgins.) Again, participants were judgmental about the relationship virgins. They saw them as more poorly adjusted and less mature than the people who did have romantic relationship experience.
Maybe they were wrong. I know when I wasn't fully adult: It was when I was dating. I was trying out a role, doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing, trying to figure out who I really was. Now I know who I am. That's what it means to be an adult.
This matter of relationship virginity is bigger than my experience or that of the woman in the Guardian essay. It is about widespread cultural mores and practices.
People who have never been in a serious relationship are the ones who are getting singled out for shaming. We don't shame people who have never lived by themselves, gone out to dinner on their own, traveled solo or even sat alone with their own thoughts for extended periods of time by choice.
We don't shame people who never made a friend in childhood and stayed close to that friend all the days of their life. Why don't we call them "relationship virgins"?
Why don't we shame people who have never cared passionately about anything or anyone except a romantic partner? What if you've never lost track of time because the project you were working on or the cause you were pursuing or the skill you were developing was just so totally absorbing, you just didn't notice anything else? What's wrong with you, you passion virgin?
I'm not advocating shaming. Just the opposite. I think we need to stop defining ourselves in terms of what we have not done, and who we do not have in our lives, and embrace our interests and accomplishments and the people we do have.