The Impacts of Telling Disabled Daters to "Just be Happy Being Single"
If you've spent time in the dating world, you've likely heard the advice to "just be happy being single." (Most of the time, it comes from married people, am I right?) The people who offer it are often well-meaning; they see you're single, assume you must be unhappy, and want to help you. In other words, they want to keep you from feeling complicated feelings, which they may or may not have verified with you that you are currently experiencing. (As a sidebar, to be fair to the well-meaning people in your life who just want you to be happy, it's sadly an understandable assumption that single people are unhappy. But not because there's anything inherent about being single that would make someone unhappy. Despite the choice of more and more people to remain single because they've learned they are happier that way, our culture still persists in perpetuating the idea that people can only be happy and satisfied in a relationship. This breeds and/or results from all kinds of other toxic ideas like there must be something wrong with people who are single and still doesn't allow the room for singleness as a conscious and valid choice.)
The advice to "just be happy being single" has an additionally painful twist for folks with disabilities. Often, unbeknownst to the speaker (though painfully apparent to the receiver), the motive behind this advice when given to a disabled dater is the desire to protect them from presumed disappointment. Just as our culture trains people to assume that single people don't want to be single and are thus unhappy, even more so does it train people to assume that disabled people won't be able to find a partner because they are disabled. Despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary —one of the most famous examples being Shane and Hannah)— the current dating culture is steeping in ableist views. These views shape all people's perceptions of what is possible in relationships and for whom, who is and who is not "deserving" of love or "worthy" of a relationship. It takes consistent effort to remain aware of implicit biases, snap judgments, and automatic assumptions that our culture encourages us all to have. I would like to dive into the one in particular that disproportionately burdens disabled people even as it is said to many single people: "just be happy being single."
The problem with this is not that it's impossible to be happy as a single person or that you shouldn't be happy while you're single. As someone who has been single and in a marriage that did not last, I have to say that, though I deeply desire to get married again, I am happier as a single person now than I was when I was in a marriage that was not right for either my ex-spouse or me. For that matter, I am actually happier single on the other side of marriage than I was before I experienced what it is like to be in a relationship that does not work for either person involved. (Though giving both my ex-husband and myself credit, it was not for lack of trying). I think my increased happiness levels being single this time around has to do with learning from my mistakes instead of repeating them, which is one definition of maturity. The skills of loving myself? Well, I was forced to learn as I endured a dysfunctional marriage. Then divorce was not a consolation for being single in my 30s with minimal dating experience and facing the scary statistics about second marriages even compared to first marriages. These skills have transformed my life by moving the foundation of my self-worth I was trying to build on top of other people back under my own two feet.
All that said, as a disabled dater, I do not find it encouraging when people tell me to just be happy being single. I AM happy AS a single person, and I desire marriage. The desire for marriage in itself is not unhealthy. The fact that our culture tells us it is is evidence that we should not trust what our culture says, for it also tells us that those of us who are "unfortunate enough" to "still" be single (at really any age past mid-20s, it seems like) should "just be happy." People's best wishes for me to "just be happy single" hits hard. Not simply because I have a desire for marriage, but, as a disabled human, I am awash in a culture that tells me not to even hope for such a relationship precisely because I'm disabled.
Even if we are truly happy being single, singleness does not equate to being alone. And this culture needs to get its act together on valuing and supporting friendships, at least enough to take it seriously when friendships end. Human beings are social creatures whether or not we are part of a couple; research shows that friendships, not romantic relationships, are more critical for health, happiness, and longevity. Yet there is no room in our culture for the grief the ending of a friendship brings. Many people, including myself, have suffered (deeply) alone: in part due to the loss of the friendship and in part due to the feeling, in our "just get new friends" culture, that I'm too sensitive and just need to get over it. Until we expand the circle of care we allow people to rely on, "just be happy being single" is not only hypocritical, it's cruel.
We need to take a serious look at what we think romantic relationships are for if we think only some people "deserve" them. While those who don't "deserve" them are expected to do so often, those who are offering the advice to "just be happy being single" are unwilling to do so. We especially need to challenge a culture that bars one out of four people (that's how many Americans have a disability as of 2018) from "qualifying" for a relationship. Desiring a romantic partnership is not proprietary and nothing, including disability, is in and of itself a disqualifier. You get to determine whether disability defines you, but either way, you are not disqualified from love.