If you're not in a fulfilling relationship, it's society's fault

Michael Lerner, of "Politics of Meaning" fame, says that society is to blame for people being single.

By Michelle Goldberg

Published August 19, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

As identity politics fall increasingly out of fashion, leave it to psychotherapist, rabbi, Tikkun editor and "Politics of Meaning" guru Michael Lerner to create an oppressed group out of people who are largely white, middle-class, heterosexual and able-bodied.

Lerner, whose long-avowed goal is to inject "love and caring" into our political life, has picked up the cudgels to fight what he calls "the oppression of singles." His message is simple: If you're not in a fulfilling relationship, it's society's fault.

Lerner launched his campaign last week in San Francisco. Lured by an "End the Oppression of Singles" ad that took up half a page in one of San Francisco's free weeklies, about 40 people squeezed into a classroom in the New College Law School to hear Lerner speak -- for almost two hours straight.

Single people's biggest problem, Lerner told the group, is that they blame themselves for lacking a relationship. "Single people are unable to see themselves as a social problem," he said. "Singles are demeaned and have internalized the self-blaming, instead of saying, 'I'm angry at living in a society that has taken so many decent people and turned them into manipulators who can only see what they can get from me.'"

The chief villain of the piece, according to Lerner, is the free-market economy, which causes people to see each other as commodities. "People enter into relationships from the standpoint of 'what can I get from you. I commit myself to you because of all the people who are likely to fall for me, you're the one most likely to satisfy my needs.'"

Lerner refused to say whether he himself is among the oppressed singles. "I'm not interested in talking about my personal situation. If I told you that I was in a relationship or married, then that would exonerate me, and if I'm single, then I'm doing this for myself."

He said that any allegations about his personal life would "certainly be hurtful to my wife, if I have one. This is not about my personal concerns. It's like our commitment to end homelessness. Do I have a home or not? It misses the point."

The point, Lerner said, is the failure of friends, family and coworkers to actively play matchmaker between single people. "Just as they turn their backs on people who sleep in the street, so they turn their backs on single friends and say, 'That's your problem.'"

The political left, meanwhile, is too preoccupied with economic justice, at the expense of "loving and caring." It was the first time I'd heard someone criticize the American liberals for not being touchy-feely enough.

At the same time, it seemed a little odd for Lerner -- for whom everything is political -- to be wearing Nike sneakers while railing against oppression. Perhaps Indonesian workers with stable families are better off than us single, emotionally victimized Western bourgeois. Lerner seemed disinclined to answer any questions that challenged his theory. One woman asked why people should be considered incomplete just because they're not partnered up. His answer was terse. "If you don't agree with this analysis, don't stay. This is a group for people who do agree with me."

Next question. "You mentioned most relationships are based on need," another woman began. "But we're going to have loving relationships? What is a loving relationship?"

"I don't have a burning desire to answer that," Lerner replied. "Let's move on to the next thing."

The next thing turned out to be breaking up into groups of four to share our "shame and humiliation" at being unattached. In my group was a gray-haired man with sad, basset-hound eyes, a mustached man with glasses and long, thin features and a shyly pretty woman with graying, shoulder-length hair who had just moved to California from New York. The mustached man said he was embarrassed at family gatherings; the woman said she had to put up an emotional wall at couples-oriented events like weddings. Mostly, after a few initial comments, we looked down and smiled nervously. Mr. Sad-Eyes hardly spoke at all.

After our 15 minutes of sharing, we rejoined the larger assemblage to discuss our experiences. One woman said her group had come to the agreement that "people shouldn't be ashamed to be alone." Another said, "Society isn't conducive to socializing by single people. It almost deprives you of nourishment."

Lerner, his theories thus confirmed, said he was looking for an activist core who would help get the word out about singles oppression. He compared this new movement to the "second wave" of feminism: People would laugh at first but would eventually come around, he assured us. "What would such activists do?" asked one woman.

"We would write things," said Lerner, "put up leaflets, get the word out." He said they would make up flyers to hand out "every time you went to the movies or were in a public place."

But what if, instead of handing out leaflets about their own oppression, they turned their gaze out into the world? Wouldn't they be more likely to accomplish what they really want -- to make connections? In the "Oppression of Singles" ad, Lerner wrote, "When people feel lonely and isolated, they are unlikely to be able to put lots of energy into ending of world hunger, homelessness and poverty." Too bad Lerner didn't turn it around and suggest that when people put lots of energy into ending world hunger, homelessness and poverty, they may be less inclined to feel lonely and isolated.

No matter. By the end of the meeting, Lerner was treating us as if we already were a community. He said we should start by seeing if anyone needed a ride home. A few people said they did, and friendly looking older ladies offered to drive them. Without thinking, I asked if anyone was going my way. Mr. Sad-Eyes volunteered, and Lerner said, "OK, you go with him." Get into a car with a man I've never met, just because he showed up to hear Michael Lerner? As the gathering ended, Lerner led the group in a Jewish hymn. I ran out early and caught a cab, happy to be in the back seat alone.

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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