My friends don't have boyfriends and I think I know why

My still-single friends ask me what they're doing wrong -- should I tell them?

Published November 12, 2009 12:12AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I have two friends who have asked me on multiple occasions why I think they're not in a relationship. The questions seem to go beyond rhetorical. I try to shift the conversation to something else or use vague clichés, like, "It always happens when you least expect it." The thing is, I have a pretty good idea why they have trouble finding someone. For one, it is that her idea of being "smart" about relationships is to open up to men in a relationship very, very slowly (not out of fear but because she thinks this is a better strategy) and she sometimes makes remarks that, while intended as funny, come off as acerbic and obscure her kind, thoughtful and generous personality. She basically gives men that she is interested in the impression that she has already moved on.

The other friend has two distinct issues. First, she is very focused on becoming married and then being a housewife with a comfortable lifestyle. No, not "getting" married but she believes her life will "become" exactly what she has dreamed of for years. We're in our mid-20s so there's growing social and religious (Jewish) pressure to pair off, but this focus shows and sometimes comes off as desperation. Second, she has a long list of very specific, non-negotiable requirements for a potential husband that cause her to reject quite a few great guys. Some of these requirements are random or seem a bit ridiculous. For example, she's 5 feet and doesn't put much effort toward her nutrition or exercise but will accept no one less than 5-foot-11 and muscular. Even in heavily Jewish New York, 5-foot-11+ and muscular Jewish men are few and far between. Again, she's a wonderful person but she seems to be ignoring or scaring off guys who might be great for her.

To make things more complicated, I am in a serious relationship that could be heading to marriage in the relatively near future and do not want to come off as condescending. There are already plenty of newly married couples in our community to gloat at the singles about how "incomplete" our lives are. I have no desire to become one as well. On the other hand, I like to know when I have spinach between my teeth and this seems to be more on the level of an entire bowl of salad stuck in there. So, do I keep smiling and handing out the platitudes or sit down for some uncomfortable truths the next time they ask [in private]?

Damned If I Do, Damned If I Don't

Dear Damned If I Do,

My heart says just tell them. But my head says that if you do, you take risks. So you'd better know what the risks are.

One risk is that it won't do any good, and you'll just feel stupid for saying anything. Another is that the person will be hurt and will stop being your friend. A third is that the person may tell others that you were tactless and unkind, and then you may be ostracized or at least gossiped about. Then you will not sleep well, and will dread seeing certain people.

These are all risks. When you offer your thoughts, you become vulnerable to judgment. You also encounter tangible limits. You can tell someone, Well, you need to be more open, but unless that person knows how to do that, it might not help.

I would boil it down to this:

Basically, your friends are trying to protect themselves from some kind of pain or hurt. What kind of hurt are they protecting themselves from? And why? Are they protecting themselves from the intimate hurt of being rejected? Are they protecting themselves from the shame of family and social disapproval? Probably both.

It's natural to protect ourselves from pain, but some kinds of pain arise out of bad social and family structures that deny the individual the opportunity to be who she is. So when we are in a bad social or family environment, we learn to avoid the pain of being who we are. We become somebody we're not. It's temporarily easier. It works for a while. But eventually it just messes you up.

So it's necessary to take some risks and feel some pain in order to become who we are and find where we fit in or do not fit in.

I don't know you or your social setting but I know what it feels like not to fit in. So if you have grown up in a culture where people are mean to each other, and say things behind your back, and where you cannot trust your friends to be there for you no matter what, and where your family is putting constant pressure on you to become something they can parade around their social set like an object, and if you feel that they don't see you for who you really are, and they don't respect your thoughts unless your thoughts conform with theirs, and if you sometimes feel like they don't even like you, the real you, like the real you is just some inconvenient outgrowth they wish would disappear so the you they prefer would be all they have to deal with, if throughout high school and college all you've heard is that it's important to secure a good, solid, high-status place in society and that this need should dictate your choice of profession, your clothes, your car, your house and your mate, and if you really cannot imagine just saying what you actually think because of this, then the pain of doing something that people disapprove of is a good pain.

The pain of saying, "I do not think I even belong in this group," is a good kind of pain. The pain of being alone is a good pain. Once you start feeling this pain, you start realizing who you are.

So while there are risks, and while you may inflict some pain, I think it's likely that the pain you will inflict by telling the truth is a good kind of pain, and it may even be a kind of pain that your friends will be grateful to you for inflicting.

Don't count on it. Don't count on getting rewarded for telling the truth. But if you think deeply about the risks, and about the ultimate necessity of finding out who we really truly are, I think it's likely you will conclude that it's worth taking a few risks, and perhaps causing a little pain, in order to tell the truth.

Write Your Truth.

What? You want more advice?

By Cary Tennis

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