What is it about weddings? Media interest in Pippa Middleton's marriage to James Matthews this weekend might have been excessive, but weddings are always big news. Depending on the culture you’ve been brought up in, a wedding can symbolise the transition to adulthood, an opportunity to move out of the parental home, or an opportunity to show to the world your wealth or ability to secure a desirable mate. It may also represent a life-long commitment to your significant other.
So, weddings can be many things to many people. Across almost all cultures, however, one thing seems to be fairly consistent – a feeling that attending a wedding as a single person is somehow less than desirable. Why is this? We’re living in a time when over half the adult population of the UK are unmarried. Obviously, not all of these unmarried people are single, many are co-habiting. Nevertheless, we’re no longer in an era when being coupled up is the absolute norm.
Weddings stir up a lot of emotions. There is much display of abundance at most weddings – glowing speeches, people speaking openly about how much they mean to each other – a rare occurrence in our culture. But all this abundance can trigger many of us into feeling that their own lives are impoverished as we are denied our own source of unconditional, fully expressed love. Depending on one’s disposition, this feeling of one’s own lot being rather ‘less than’ may be manifested in tears in the loo or an altercation by the bar (perhaps I’m betraying my own Celtic roots here!). And it’s not just the singletons either who can feel alienated by this display of idealised love; many couples who are struggling in their relationships also find weddings challenging.
We are conditioned to think that the ‘grass is always greener...’, the other whose lot differs from ours is having a better time of it than we are. The fact is that being single is no better, nor no worse than being in a couple. Single people don’t live longer or shorter, happier or less happy lives than their coupled up equivalents. However, a lot of research suggests that unhappily single and unhappily married people possibly do.
The other thought that can assail us in regards to weddings is the fact that we too ‘should’ be getting married. If everyone else is, then why the hell aren’t we? What’s wrong with us? Why haven’t we reached a similar marker in our lives as our contemporaries? Feeling we ‘should’ be somewhere other than where we are in our lives is a recipe for unhappiness. Trying to conform to what other people are doing for no other reason than not wanting to stand out is a recipe for disaster.
When I’m working with clients who view their single lives as inferior to those of their married or ‘soon to be married’ friends, I encourage them to imagine that their wish is granted – they find their ideal spouse and have their ideal number of children/dogs. Then I get them to really put themselves there into that life - visualising fully all the good things and challenges that state might bring - and to look back at their ‘current selves’ and give themselves some advice from that older (possibly wiser) position. It’s interesting to see them reflect on the position they’re in now suddenly from that vantage point as one rich with opportunities. Invariably they’ll come to view their ‘free time’ and uncommitted state as one that affords them a lot of freedom – whether that’s to take up a new hobby, take some time for themselves, travel or re-train for a new career.
Many singletons who come seeking therapy feel that their single status is the root cause of their misery. Many couples come with the same but opposite problem – if their partner could only shape up, clean up their act, they could finally be happy themselves. In both cases the clients are putting their happiness into someone else’s hands. With maturity comes the realisation that romantic love, which in our society reaches its symbolic culmination in a wedding, while offering us so much richness and potential for growth, is never going to be the be all and end all and that ultimately we are responsible for our own happiness.