For many, being single as an adult for an extended period of time is a deeply painful experience — and one that can feel like it will never end. According to a new paper by Jeffrey Jackson of Virginia Tech, there’s a reason why the grief that accompanies singlehood — when one longs to be married — often feels unceasing. To wit, it’s an experience technically known as ambiguous loss.
Jackson contends that when we lose people we love it is devastating, but it usually happens in a context in which the circumstances are clear. With clarity, grief can eventually give way to healing. By contrast, an ambiguous loss is one that is unclear and lacks “conclusive facts.” The loved one is “there but not there.” Broadly speaking, there are two situations that can lead to ambiguous loss. The first situation is when the person is physically present yet psychologically absent. This would include conditions such as dementia, addiction, extra-marital affairs, and workaholism. The second situation is when a person is psychologically present yet physically absent. This includes wartime missing-in-action, natural disasters, divorce, and miscarriages.
Jackson and others contend that prolonged singlehood as an adult, when one wishes to be married, is a form of ambiguous loss. Often, single people have a well-formed idea of who their anticipated spouse is, and what their relationship will be like when they finally meet. In other words, the anticipated spouse is psychologically present, but physically absent. Since no one can predict the future, a single person cannot know for sure whether they will meet and marry their match. This lack of certainty about the yet-to-be spouse makes the loss ambiguous, and in turn difficult to resolve. According to Jackson, a single person who knows for sure that they will remain so would face a clear loss. Clarity allows a path for grieving and moving forward. Alternatively, a person who knows for sure that they will marry in a decade would face a delay in getting married, but can find comfort in knowing that they will have a partner in the future.
Ambiguous loss leads to ambivalence. This is because it’s difficult to figure out whether it is better to cope with the lack of information about a longed-for spouse by hanging on or moving on. The uncertainty of whether the anticipated spouse will ever materialize makes it difficult to fully close the door and grieve. Since there is always hope, closure is difficult to attain. The sadness can also render people immobile, making it difficult to move forward. Thus, the stage is set for grief without end.
According to Jackson, the ambivalence that stems from adult singlehood ambiguous loss can arise from the following four conditions:
• Timing, which refers to defining when singlehood actually begins.
• Settling, which refers to the dilemma of of whether or not to settle for a partner who does not meet the ideal or prolong singlehood with the hopes that a partner closer to one’s ideal will materialize.
• Viability, which refers to people the single person actually knows and sees as a potential partner, yet are not viable options for marriage.
• Children, which refers to the ambiguous loss that single and childless adults may feel about their anticipated children, who might also be psychologically present, but physically absent.
(I wrote about these four conditions in more depth in a previous post)
Building on existing work on ambiguous loss, Jackson proposes six ways to cope with the the ambivalence that arises from singlehood ambiguous loss.
1. Normalizing Ambivalence
Often, single adults who have been so for an extended period feel conspicuously different, and yet their pain remains invisible. Thus, just knowing that there are other singles who are also struggling with this form of ambiguous loss can be validating. Moreover, Jackson posits, the process of labeling the loss as ambiguous, identifying conflicted feelings about the loss, and framing reactions to the loss as common also helps normalize ambivalence, which can subsequently alleviate anxiety, blame, guilt, sadness, and immobilization that stems from ambiguous loss. People can more easily manage pain if they can understand and make sense of it.
2. Tempering Mastery
A key component of coping with ambiguity is overcoming the need for total control over the ambiguous situation, without sinking into passivity. This is where tempering mastery comes in. It refers to having a clear understanding about the loss, and identifying what can and cannot be changed. Put another way, tempering mastery is striking a balance between the need for control and acceptance of that which cannot be changed. The thinking goes that running from pain courts misery, but accepting situations over which we have no control just as they are can diminish it. In the case of single adulthood, Jackson contends that people largely have control over searching for the type of person they want to marry (e.g., online dating, speed-dating events, asking people on dates) but have limited control over finding their partner.
3. Finding Meaning
When a loss is mired in ambiguity, it can be harder to find meaning in it. It may take extra efforts to make sense of loss, which would in turn allow for grieving and effective coping. Borrowing from the tenets of existential therapy, Jackson asserts that exploring one’s assumptions can facilitate finding meaning in extended singlehood. More specifically, he suggests: (a) identifying and clarifying assumptions about life (i.e., attitudes, beliefs, and values), (b) examining how assumptions about life evolved, (c) restructuring assumptions about life so that they are better adapted to one’s current needs, and (d) applying the restructured assumptions to the way one actually lives. When a personal narrative about singlehood is formed and shared with important people in one’s life (e.g., a therapist, family, friends, and/or other adults who are single), it creates meaning about and fosters healing from the ambiguous loss. Jackson also recommends engaging in rewarding activities, which can dispel the feeling that life is less meaningful without a partner. This includes fostering existing close relationships, volunteerism, and hobbies.
4. Reconstructing Identity
Being single can become the defining feature of a person’s identity. However, singlehood is just a part of one’s identity – not the whole. Thus, Jackson argues that reconstructing one’s identity from the one one-note definition of being single to a more comprehensive and layered composition can drive down ambivalence and shore up resiliency.
Being single can be complicated in terms of one’s identity. Single adults may have parents who want to play the role of the non-materialized partner, in an attempt to provide support and comfort for their non-partnered children. As a result, being single can give rise to identity ambiguity, Jackson maintains, as it may leave some singles questioning whether they are an adult or a child. He suggests reorganizing the psychological family — that is, modifying the way family is viewed. This can be done in two ways. The first is by reconstructing the psychological family membership, in which there is simultaneous membership in more than one family. The second is to reconstruct roles, which can help manage ambiguity. Since there is no division of labor with a partner, single adults might find themselves undertaking tasks they hadn’t anticipated, such as cooking or doing yard work. Thinking about roles more flexibly can also reduce ambivalence and boost resilience.
5. Revising Attachment
Revising attachment refers to the “gradual process of learning to live with the prospect of recovering the lost person while simultaneously recognizing that the loss may become permanent.” Being able to think dialectically, which means considering multiple and even opposing views, can facilitate revising attachment and ultimately healing. For singles, the challenge is to strike a balance between the opposing stances of staying connected and letting go. Over time, this can increase resilience. Jackson offers the following actionable steps: verbalizing fantasies about the would-be spouse, processing the loss, understanding how life transitions might give rise to anxiety about being single (e.g., being the only person in a friend group who is single or childless), finding self-expression through artistic pursuits, and engaging in groups and communities that are of interest where meaningful connections and relationships can be made. It may also be helpful to revise one’s expectations for a future spouse, and reconsider the qualities and characteristics that matter most.
6. Discovering Hope
When coping with ambiguous loss, the overarching goal is threefold: to determine which hopes should be let go, which hopes should be kept, and which new hopes can bring meaning and purpose to life. Jackson suggests the following for discovering hope: finding spirituality, imagining options, laughing at absurdity, developing more patience, redefning justice, and finding forgiveness.”
Moreover, and borrowing from narrative therapy, Jackson contends that singles can find hope through by (a) viewing the problem as external to oneself ; reexamining stories by seeing one’s own story from different perspectives, and considering alternative meanings and endings and (c) reauthoring one’s own stories. New and revised narratives can be integrated into one’s personal psychology by sharing them with family, friends, and other meaningful people, who can in essence serve as a an “audience” for their new stories.