It’s Not You: Finding Yourself In Relationships

Why are you single? For Sara Eckel, the answer was I don't know. In the first part of this interview, the author of It's Not You speaks openly about relationships and how we can take time for ourselves before making time for others.

Ms. Eckel, first of all please tell us about your book on relationships and more, It’s Not You.

Finding Yourself In Relationships
Sara Eckel with her husband Mark

I met my husband when I was 39 and had spent the previous 20 years wondering what was so wrong with me that I couldn’t find a partner. Was I too needy, or too independent? Was the problem that I was too picky, or that I wasn’t clear on what I wanted? Was I not enough, or was I too much?

After I met my husband, Mark, I realised there was never anything wrong with me – I just hadn’t met the right person.

I wrote an essay about this that was published in the New York Times’ Modern Love column, and it is still one of the most popular pieces in the column’s history.

Finding Yourself In Relationships
Eckel “It is not you”

I heard from people all over the world – China, Brazil, Bulgaria – who were trying unsuccessfully to find partners and relationships and had also asked themselves: “What’s wrong with me?”

Reading my piece made them see that there was nothing wrong with them.

So after that I got a book deal to write It’s Not You. And it has been a wonderful experience.

Single people perpetually get the message that they need to change themselves to find a partner, and I’ve been glad to deliver this message that it isn’t true.


Reasons For Being Single

Why do single people, especially women, feel the need to give reasons for being single and not in relationships?

Sara Eckel
Sara Eckel

Well, one because people ask. No one ever asks a married person: “Why are you married?” But single people, especially women, get this question everywhere they go.

Relatives ask at weddings. Colleagues ask at work. Seatmates ask on aeroplanes. So this question is just drummed into people’s heads, and even when no one is asking directly single people often ask themselves, and that’s not completely unhealthy.

If you are single and would rather not be, then it makes sense that you would take a look at your situation and maybe there are some things you can do.

Maybe you realise you need to expand your social circle or start pursuing new interests to increase the chance that you’ll meet someone. Or maybe you actually ARE afraid of commitment and need to work on that.

The problem isn’t that you might see something in your life that needs to change. The problem comes when you automatically pathologise yourself simply because you’re single. Maybe you need to work on your issues. Maybe you just need a lucky spin of the Tinder wheel.

Be Yourself

What is your advice to them?

Do what feels healthiest to you. If you think that you would benefit from seeing a therapist and working through some stuff, that’s not a problem. But do it because you want to be a happier person in general – not because you are trying to ‘fix’ yourself to find a partner.

We all, coupled or not, have all flaws and frailties. But having flaws is not an impediment to finding a partner – think of your coupled friends. Are they perfect? Hell, no.

If you think the problem is that you just haven’t met the right person, then of course trying to meet more people is a good idea. (Though it is certainly much harder in these Covid times!)

So maybe that’s going on a Zoom date, but it doesn’t have to be. Find new ways to connect with people, not just with the goal of meeting a partner but just with the goal of enjoying your life more. That way you can’t lose.

And remember: Just because someone asks why you are single , doesn’t mean you have to answer. I used to say, “I don’t know.” That usually worked.


Going It Alone or Getting Together

What are really the emotions of single women at family get-togethers such as weddings and funerals?

There is not one set of emotions that all single women have at these functions. Some go and are delighted to see friends and family and that is that. For me, it was hard sometimes.

Weddings in particular because it’s such a celebration of romantic love and a couples’ relationship. Shortly after my husband and I married, we went to a wedding and it really made me understand why I had hated weddings so much when I was single.

The couple is absolutely lovely – the kind of people who would never make anyone feel bad about anything. But the wedding officiant and later the M.C. at the reception, sent a strong message that getting married was a sign that you were better, braver and more mature. I realised how much of that attitude was just part of the air I was breathing.

And what about single men in their middle age?

Single at the wedding
Single at the wedding

Again, I can’t make a blanket statement for all of them. But I think it’s hard for them too.

There is still a cultural assumption that men who are single and not in relationships, are so by choice, so in some ways they are less scrutinised. But I get a lot of emails from single men who are just as lonely and frustrated and the women I hear from.

And in some ways, I think it can be harder for some men because they tend to have less of a support structure.

Women are more likely to have friends that they can confide in about relationships. And they are more likely to open up with each other, so they can give each other that support. So I think a lot of single men are actually quite a bit more isolated than single women.


Speaking Without Words

You have written about non-verbal cues. Psychologists agree that over 70% of human communication is without words. However, given the environment of communicating over the social media and other electronic means, are young people deprived of non-verbal communication and do they depend entirely or mostly on the spoken and the written word which may or may not be true?

Yes, I think we all are now. It’s tough. Here in the United States we are under lockdown again, so this is what we must do to save lives. But at least during the summer, my friends and I were able to see each other outside in very small groups.

I am worried about what all this isolation is doing to us, but if you meet on Zoom or Skype you are still hearing voices and seeing facial expressions.

It’s not as good as real life, but the researchers I’ve spoken to have said it’s the next best thing. The real problem, I think, is one that MIT professor Sherry Turkle talked about the over-reliance on text-based media in everyday life and in relationships.

I’m not a big one to make generational distinctions, but I was truly shocked when she told me that her students never wanted to have a live conversation – that they wanted to do everything on text or email because then they could read everything over and rewrite it.

That seems like a big problem to me. Because we have these natural-born skills to read each other from body language, facial expressions, tone of voice. But if we don’t use it we will lose it. And that will make us less empathetic – and, really, less human.


Making Boundaries

What is the power of boundaries?

We need boundaries in our lives. We need to be able to say: “I’m not at work now. I’m at home.” Or at least, “I’m not working now. I’m having my dinner”.

But of course our devices make that hard, the boss can text at any time. And I personally am incapable of not reading a text if I hear it ding. But when we are constantly responding to every ding, to everyone else’s demands 24/7, we lose our ability to think. We need to be able to have time to just be.

And then it’s also important to draw boundaries with what information we give out about ourselves. Like I said with the earlier question about people being asked: “Why are you single?”, you don’t have to tell them.

We all have different ideas about what we are willing to share with people and what we want to keep private, but I think it’s important to know what yours are and that includes relationships. That way when someone asks, you can simply say: “You know, that is a private matter for me”.

 To what extent do our spouses or partners shape us?

In healthy relationships, a supportive spouse can help you develop the confidence to go after certain goals – run a marathon, seek a promotion, etc. If they aren’t supportive, obviously they could put a damper on those pursuits.

But it doesn’t have to be a matter of good spouse/bad spouse. For example, if your husband thinks you’re hilarious you’ll probably be a little bolder and braver about telling jokes – and then with practice become funnier.

But if you marry someone who doesn’t really value that, but instead loves how you play the violin, then you’ll probably spend more time honing your musical rather than comedic skills.

One isn’t better than the other, it’s just that we naturally are shaped by the people around us.

They can also complement us. For example, I have a workaholic tendency but my husband likes to spend Saturdays doing something fun like going for a hike.

So I do that too now. And one of the experts I interviewed said that he is probably helping me as a writer by encouraging me to relax and take some time off.

Photos: From the Archive of Eckel; Shutterstock

Want to hear more from Sara Eckel? Look out for Part Two with the author next week on Youth Time Magazine. But, before that, check this article out:

Loneliness: Stories and Tips from Around the World

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