The Single Woman Need Not Be Eternally Panic-Stricken: An Interview With Sara Eckel

by Jen Doll

Freelance writer Sara Eckel, the author of the recent, fantastic Modern Love column, “The Hard-Won Lessons of the Solitary Years,” has a new book out: It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. It comes with a self-help designation, but its message is really more like “self-compassion.” That’s an expression Sara uses to talk about the way unmarried women in their 30s and beyond (and, really, all women, regardless of age or marital status) should treat themselves. It’s a message we could all use a reminder of now and again. Especially in January.

The book stemmed from her first Modern Love column, published in 2011, in which she wrote of meeting the man she would marry at the age of 39 and all that came before. It’s Not You explores an array of “explanations” single women are given about why they haven’t “settled down” yet — You have issues, You’re too picky, You’re too selfish, and so forth. Throughout the book, Sara debunks and challenges these and other tropes using anecdotes and research; the result is as freeing as it is revealing about love, relationships, life expectations based on gender, and how we feel about marriage in contemporary society. I talked to Sara in the days following the release. She was as wise on the phone as she is on the pages of her book.

The idea for the book was based on your first Modern Love column, right? How did it all come about?

I realized all of my friends who were in our mid-30s and single were trying to figure out what was wrong with us, trying to examine if we were afraid, if we picked the wrong guys, what it was and why. But by our late 30s and early 40s, a lot of us had started getting married. I was like, we’re the same people. We didn’t have a major growth experience, we just met a guy.

I wrote the Modern Love and had written for Self, and every time I address this topic the world just opens up. I got all sorts of letters; it was amazing. I started interviewing women who married after 35 about their stories, thinking I’d write a book about that. The editors at Perigee called me in and were like, we like this proposal a lot, but they didn’t want a book with marriage at the end. They asked if I wanted to try to write an inspirational book for single women, and what I’d say. I started to talk about these things I was learning in meditation and Buddhism classes. I started re-writing, and they bought the proposal.

You go back and forth between anecdotes, true stories from friends, and research or expert information. It’s conversational and the pacing of it works really well. What was it like to bring those different elements together?

I had a lot of stats already; that was something I had from the first proposal. It was tricky to weave the research together with the stories; it can get clunky. I also had 20 years of thinking about stuff and being pissed off, and filing away clippings of things. I’d been writing this book in my head a long time.

Let’s talk about Buddhism and how it was a fulcrum to explore your feelings about singlehood.

Buddhism challenges how we tend to decide certain people are living their life the right way and others are doing it the wrong way. I spent a lot of years being quite angry. I had this feeling of inferiority. I was single and didn’t want to be. I felt like the only way to be acceptable as a single woman was to be like, I love my life, and if I didn’t feel that way, I was embarrassed. The second thing was feeling like, Why can’t I meet someone? I realized that a big part of me did think there was something wrong with me, and the main person I was arguing with was myself. Eventually, I realized I didn’t have to convince anybody else that I was OK. These were the circumstances of my life, this was the way things had shaken down, but that didn’t mean I was less than someone who was happily married. This was just what was going on with me.

In the book you talk about how you don’t necessarily have to “love yourself first”; being “perfect” and “self-actualized” are not relationship prerequisites. What was the value to you in making those realizations when you did?

That was when I was around 36, and I met Mark when I was 39, so there was still a big gap in between the realization and the relationship. I heard this dating guru say that the moment [you have this kind of realization], you’ll meet someone. I feel like Mark would have liked me anyway! But what the realization did do was make those three years a lot easier. I felt a lot calmer and had a much better time. I learned to enjoy my life a lot more. It made being in a relationship easier. I was learning to relax and not be perfect, and this was useful. I didn’t have to freak out if Mark and I had a fight or a disagreement. He did say something to me that was really nice when we first met. He said, “You seem lighter than other people.” I said, “It took a really long time to get that way.”

Can you talk a bit about the idea of self-compassion, and just letting yourself be OK to feel what you’re feeling?

In these Buddhist courses, they talk about how we work really hard to arrange our lives so that it will all work out for us. But what that does is create a self-absorption and fear. It’s not that you shouldn’t make efforts, but to relax and experience things that are happening, there’s something a lot more joyful about that. If you are feeling that gray-winter-cold Sunday, if you try to relax into it, and think, this is life, too — get into it, whatever it is, even if it’s sadness, try not to push it away and be curious about it instead — I found that extremely helpful when I was feeling lonely.

Coming to that place of peace makes it so much easier to be in a relationship, because your partner doesn’t need to validate you in the same way. Obviously they’re going to validate you and make you feel good, but that you can do just fine on your own, it makes it so much more relaxing. You don’t have to prop each other up so much.

Sometimes it seems like there’s a double-whammy of negative emotions — not only feeling the emotions but also blaming yourself for them, feeling like there’s something wrong with you for having them.

Not only did I feel lonely and ashamed of that loneliness, I felt like I should be fixing it. But why not realize that loneliness is a normal thing to feel? It would be Saturday night and I’d be home alone feeling bad, but as you’re sitting with that feeling of loneliness, you realize you don’t die, you’re not pushing it away, you’re still there, it’s fine. Whenever I was having an emotion I’d normally consider unpleasant, I’d practice letting it pass through me without freaking out. That has definitely brought me more happiness and peace.

What do you think about the idea of “happiness” that it seems like we’re all aspiring to — and the failure we feel when we aren’t perfectly happy. I mean, how achievable is “happiness”?

We want to tell everybody how happy we are; we equate it with being successful. We take any time that we’re feeling something unpleasant as if it’s this alarm bell, some huge problem in our life, instead of just being aware and realizing this is what everyone feels. It may look like on Facebook and on TV that everyone’s super happy all the time but that’s not real.

Which of the tropes in your book have you heard the most?

The one women told me they’ve heard the most was “you’re too picky.” That’s the one I heard the most, too, and I always thought, of course I’m picky. I thought there was something really odd about this idea that not being picky was good. I’ve never met one of these women who will only date a managing partner, but I’m sure they’re out there. To me this idea that you should settle or relax your standards, though… Basically I think what we all are looking for is someone we like talking to, someone who is also a nice person, someone we like sleeping with. You don’t care what kind of car he or she drives. I thought “you’re too picky” was dismissive, and to settle — it’s quite mean, really. You deserve to be someone that someone else is madly in love with; no one wants to be someone’s sensible choice. Forcing you to make these more sensible choices, that’s sort of insulting to men, too. It treats them like a car or a watch.

Speaking of men, how do you feel the messages given to women about being single are different from those men receive?

I didn’t talk to a ton of guys. Guys wrote to me after the piece came out, though, saying, we struggle with this too, and we don’t have all these girlfriends to talk about this stuff with. We’re just alone with it. I don’t think that men are told they’re too picky. I think men get, “When are you going to grow up and settle down?” because there’s the feeling it’s still up to them, when they’re ready they can just decide, whereas women are given the sense perpetually that time is running out and that they’re losing their desirability. The whole “you’re too intimidating” or “too independent” — I think those are specific to women. But I think single men are also treated like they’re immature, indecisive, too selfish — Oh, he’s got a bachelor life and doesn’t want to give it up.

What do you think about those writers claiming that there’s a contemporary decline in good, responsible guys?

I’m paraphrasing Stephanie Coontz right now, but there has always been a subset of irresponsible men. Now they’re called man-boys; they used to be called louses. My grandfather, he drank his paycheck at the bar; my grandmother worked full-time and then went home and made dinner and cleaned the house. The idea of that men today are worse than men of the past I think is really wrong. Coontz says men behave better than ever, domestic violence is down, they do more childcare and housework. I think it just looks different to people.

It feels there’s a subset of people — certain conservative columnists, perhaps — who are threatened by the idea that women might not marry, that it might offend the social order. Did you get that feeling from people as you wrote about your singlehood?

I don’t think personally I got this sense that people or my friends and family were threatened by me staying single. I talked to women who would get that. Last year there were all these stories that came out about why you should really marry young.

Princeton Mom!

The Princeton Mom, yeah… this woman writes a letter to her alumni magazine: why is that a story? And she has a book deal. Why? I think she tapped into this feeling, and I think she believed it. Certain ideas really catch fire. I am always really fascinated that the statistic that women who marry older have a lower divorce rate always seemed to get buried in these stories. The Princeton mom is talking to Ivy League students who actually will benefit from delaying marriage, but she’s conflating her argument with another statistic that has to do with non-college educated women, for whom the age at motherhood skews younger than marrying age.

What’s up with all this advice (mostly unsolicited)? Do women just get more of it, do you think?

We’re told how to live more, and I think we take the advice to heart more. I went to a spa, recently, and I’m chugging water all day there so I don’t dehydrate. I ended up going to the hospital because I drank too much water! I was reading about it afterward. Apparently this happens more often to women; doctors and experts tell women to drink a lot of water, and “women do what they’re told,” they say. There’s a good side and a bad side to this. Someone asked at one of my readings why these kinds of books are always written to women, and I said, “because women buy the books.” Women are always looking at themselves, and trying to make the best life possible, and I think there’s something great about that. We also need to step back and know that this person is selling their book or program, and the best judge for what I need to do is me. We are all the best experts of ourselves. You are the only person who has been there the whole time.

What surprised you most in writing your book?

Looking back on all the times when I was so angry or upset and feeling like I was dismissed, to look back from this perspective, and realize that no one was really judging me, they were just trying to help. They didn’t know what to do or say. To be able to step back with a wider lens and realize it wasn’t really the conspiracy I thought it was — there’s a lot of advice flying around, but I don’t think most of it was ill-intentioned. I agree that there are certain cultural forces that are threatened by this. The fact that women can freeze their eggs the way men freeze their sperm, you’d think there would be Champagne about that! But the stories all seem to be about panic-stricken single women. There are people who really do want to put the genie back into the bottle and scare us into going back in time. But also it’s that we’re so used to thinking about things this way, and of women being at this disadvantage, it’s the way the story has been framed for so long.

Things are very different than they used to be, and we’re still evolving, but it also hasn’t been that long at all in which we’ve been living the way we do now.

It took so long for these ideas to be considered respectable. Everyone was so eager to say this was unnatural and would make women unhappy. To show any vulnerability then was like saying, oh, feminism is wrong.

That’s why I love sites like The Hairpin and Jezebel — all these voices, and much younger women saying, “No, this isn’t right.” I think it’s so refreshing. There are a lot of voices coming out, women putting these things out there.

When I was a kid in the ’70s, I can vaguely remember watching marches and seeing a Laugh-In about feminism. I caught one recently and it was all about “women’s lib,” as it was called, and it made it out to be the most ridiculous thing. It took so long for these ideas to be considered respectable. Everyone was so eager to say this was unnatural and would make women unhappy. To show any vulnerability then was like saying, oh, feminism is wrong. But women don’t have to be the perfect superwomen. We don’t have to hide from our more vulnerable sides. Now young women are growing up reading these sites, with these attitudes, and they’ve got their own blogs. This is a much better way for us to talk to each other.

If you could talk to your 25-year-old self, what would you tell her?

You’re OK. You’re fine. You don’t have to be perfect. Just because you’re not completely satisfied with things now, that doesn’t mean you’re a failure; just because you’re unsatisfied doesn’t mean you’re a loser. But also, a lot of life is arbitrary and unfair. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make efforts on your behalf and pursue what would make you happy. But if it doesn’t work out the way you wanted it to, you don’t have to waste time being upset about whatever it is not working out. I regret all the time I wasted worrying and feeling bad about myself. That doesn’t achieve anything.

Instead of trying to figure out what’s “wrong” with you, why not think about what’s right with you? For example, that you had the good judgment to leave (or not start) relationships that, for whatever reason, weren’t working. Not everyone has that kind of courage. Explore the idea that you’re just fine, and see what that feels like. See what it feels like to accept who you are and not stress about it. You can make the effort to change your life, but you can also, at the same time, enjoy your life as it is. That’s not just about being single. You can know when it’s time to just enjoy the day.

We’re living the lives we’re living as we go.

It’s all happening at once. It’s all just going. You don’t want to have to miss out on the life you have now because you’re so fixated on the life you want to have 10 years from now. And none of us can control the story entirely. We can steer things, but we can’t really control, we can’t ultimately.

I don’t really understand the need to trumpet marriage any more than I understand trumpeting singlehood. They’re both valid states, and most people experience both, at different times.

Most of us are going to be both. Being single versus being married — it’s not like having blue eyes versus brown ones. You’re still the same person. The more we can get to a place where we acknowledge we’re these wonderful and strange individuals, and it’s a matter of finding that other wonderful and strange individual who likes your wonderful strangeness, the better.

Previously: A Conversation With Katie Heaney

Jen Doll is a regular contributor to The Hairpin.