About the Project…

This blog started out as an informational site for my thesis research. I plan to continue to use it to publish related links and writing. Read about the original project and its motivation below…

I chose to do this research because I am a single person and have always identified as such, although I wasn’t always aware of it, and I’ve been in lots of different kinds of relationships. As I have gotten older, I have started to notice exactly how obsessed with couples American society really is, even though less people than ever before are getting married. We tend to elevate marriage and monogamous couples to such a superior status that all other relationships are devalued as a result, and I’ve spent at least the last decade or so trying to find, or construct, a counter-discourse to that.

Marriage as an institution is in decline and has been for about 40 years or so. As a result of that, along with increased acceptance of divorce, cohabitation, changes in parenting norms, and other things, the definition of family has become more inclusive, and people who choose more non-traditional paths are coming up with all kinds of unique ways of living and being in the world, and creating their own customized support structures.

The kinds of single people I’m interested in talking to may or may not be involved in one or more relationships, but have made a conscious choice to live independently and interdependently – they may not always feel content or happy with their status, but most of the time, they are happy being single and they realize that they don’t need a lifetime partner to be satisfied. They may not necessarily forgo traditional coupling if the perfect situation comes up, but they do not actively seek it out, nor do they assume that romantic intimacy will lead to life enmeshment.

The goals of this study are to talk to single people, including those who practice solo polyamory or are involved in other types of non-traditional relationships, and to listen to their experiences with a culture that is largely focused on couples. I’d like to find out why they made the choices they did, and how those choices have influenced the other aspects of their lives. How much a part of their identity is being single? What challenges do they face? What advantages and benefits do they have? How can institutions better support a wide range of relational choices? How do they define family and community?

So, what did I learn from the 25 people I talked to? Read on to find out.

Writing my thesis was a labor of love…it was trying at times, and it took longer than it should have, but I’m proud of the way it turned out. All of the people I interviewed were so interesting and really taught me a lot. Following are some of the main takeaways from the paper.

My study results showed that those who embrace being single or solo in all its forms, whether that means not dating at all or participating in alternative relationship structures such as solo polyamory, show a high degree of confidence and self-esteem. Many had to try traditional structures before they found they did not work for them, and learned as they went along. Online forums play a huge role in connecting those who are polyamorous, asexual, and/or aromantic.

Although some critics assert that online communication encourages people to hide behind their carefully managed images and avoid “real” conversation and intimacy, many participants in this study would not have found the very real connections and communities that they did had it not been for social media, independent journalism, and personal blogs and websites. Individuals are no longer socially bounded by place.

Online communities play a significant role in bringing people together, not only at an individual level, but within meso and macro-level structures, and may be supplementing or even supplanting the role that in-person community events once played.

Many on the asexual spectrum also find that online communication allows them to individualize the types of relationships they seek. The immediacy of online communication and increased accessibility to it may inhibit in-person social activity to some degree, but for introverted solos, it provides a comfortable barrier from behind which to slowly emerge into the social world.

The internet provides a unique service to introverts, those with particular disabilities, and those on the asexual and/or aromantic spectrum, and has been invaluable to those communities.  Because of the status of some members of these communities as “hidden,” and due to the emotional and physical constraints that socializing in a traditional setting imposes upon them, online communities are essential for finding others who share their worldviews. Eventually, due to the increased visibility and acceptance that comes with the presence of these internet societies, perhaps the alternative will become part of the mainstream.

Some singles and solos surround themselves with large support networks while some are introverted and prefer to be alone. The common thread is that when participants stopped trying to meet societal expectations about what their relationships were “supposed” to look like and instead individualized them according to their own needs, they felt as if they were exerting their agency in order to live authentically and were much happier than when they were trying to fit into proscribed social norms. I also found that a huge variety of sexual and romantic orientations and gender identities are emerging and finding homes in internet groups, and those that fall into those more marginal categories feel legitimized as a result of finding others like them.

Younger participants were less likely to notice stigmatization, perhaps because they may not notice systemic oppression since postmodern culture is already beginning to accept alternative lifestyles as part of the socio-historical experience of the technological age.

Older participants were more likely to take note of subtle discrimination, especially when reflecting on past experiences. These instances include not being invited to weddings or similarly formal events, or being invited without the option to bring a guest, and observing the endless parade of consumer goods and services sold in pairs. On a larger scale, several solos brought up the struggle to find affordable healthcare, and some mentioned being treated as if they were invisible, or as somehow not worthy of a lifelong mate.

The data in this study suggest that agentic singles are reflexive and open to change. They do not necessarily see ideas in binary terms. Agentic singles are able to imagine a larger universe of possibilities than those oriented toward the typical escalator relationship(s). I argue that by allowing the stories of agentic singles to be heard, hence making positive conceptions of single/solo life more visible, they may become more normalized and legitimized as a result, perhaps even prompting policymakers to consider single people when making decisions regarding social security and pensions, tax incentives, sustainability, immigration, and urban planning.

What almost all participants have in common is a sense of purpose and contentment when they live according to their true desires and needs, exercise their individual agency, respect others, and do not acquiesce to external expectations. However, I argue that by claiming multiple, non-fixed, and newly created conceptions of identity descriptions, the participants in this study are constructing new ways of being and therefore may also be scattering binary, exclusionary categories instead of reifying them.

During data collection, I also encountered some pushback about the word “single.” Some solo poly people feel that it implies a temporary, liminal state, and perceive it to project an “in-betweenness.” Some accept it, and view it as more of a legal identity than a social one. For the purposes of this study, I define agentically single the way that most solo polys describe their “solo” status, therefore I did not anticipate such a strong negative reaction to the word “single.” Most polyamorous persons prefer the term “solo.” The monogamous participants had not necessarily thought of or heard the word solo used as an identity or organizing framework, yet none of them object to it. “Solo” may make a good fit for someone who is choosing to remain uncoupled, since ‘single’ can carry the connotation that one is looking to be “not single.”

The hegemony of monogamy, marriage, and coupling can sometimes make it difficult to imagine other possibilities, and many participants expressed a prior lack of awareness of any other way to interact romantically or sexually. It was only after they discovered others like them, who were relating in individualized ways, that they exerted their own agency. Often, the decision to be monogamous and stay on the escalator is taken for granted as the choice if the relationship is to continue, and that is when it can become problematic. It is not monogamy itself that is problematic, it is the concept of an unexamined (and therefore un-agentic) life.

Cultural control mechanisms can undermine free will. If specific examples of ways to break free from them are not presented, implicit compliance further strengthens the status quo. This is a central part of my argument; social controls are so coded and embedded in culture that sometimes even the simplest solutions to social problems are not considered viable by the general public. At the same time, I argue that the relationship between the individual and society is a reciprocal one, so as more people demonstrate, share, and celebrate their differences, social structures will respond accordingly.

I also find that romantic and sexual relationships can transform into deep friendships without sex, and that a rethinking of the traditional breakup script is being forged by polyamorous people.

Social scripts form one of the basic foundations of symbolic interactionism and phenomenology. Whether one participates in the dominant paradigm or rejects it, there is most certainly a distinct hierarchy among relationships, and a socially, culturally, and politically sanctioned set of set of unwritten guidelines that governs it. Breaking with those expectations carries social consequences. For some, the end goal may outweigh any ostracism or disapproval, for others decidedly not. But as we start to break from these norms in greater numbers, the negative consequences decrease in severity. We create new norms, and cultures change.

Solos and singles in this study worked to find the right balance between solitude and social support. For many, this process included some degree of sacrifice in an attempt to conform to a mononormative standard. Some participants were able to extricate themselves from the confines of these “boxes” while keeping their support structures intact, while for some it took a complete unraveling of the social fabric they had previously maintained. Participants have in common, however, an evolved sense of self-worth after surmounting these barriers to their own authenticity and creating their own unique social roles.

“Building your own box” is a version of finding or creating a social role that feels authentic, and participants in this research find happiness from achieving that integrity and agency. When they stopped trying to be what they thought they were supposed to be, they began to find out who they really are. Self-acceptance is achieved by progress and growth, and moving forward toward a goal, even a simple one, is integral to fulfillment.

As a society, we want to categorize people in order to understand them, and over the years these categories have become defining. While not all that makes up identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, and relational orientation have become parts of our collective identities and our biographies. Participants in this study are able to ease some of their anxiety, social isolation and discomfort by embracing their own versions of these concepts as valuable and self-affirming. In doing so, they are also facilitating the normalization of these practices and affiliations.

 

 

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Looking For Meaningful Work

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Hi friends and colleagues! The time has come for me to change things up again. I’m ready to get out of this desert. Las Cruces has grown on me quite a bit since I’ve been here…the people here are compassionate and creative, and it’s been pretty amazing to learn about the history and culture of the Southwest while being completely immersed in it. The mountains and sky are gorgeous.

That said, I pretty much hate the weather, the bugs, and the lack of good Asian food. On the rare days that it’s overcast here I am at my most content. Now that I’ve earned my degree, I’m ready to make my way northward and start a new career…ideally to the Portland Metro area, but I will consider other locations for the right opportunity (Olympia, Tacoma, Eugene, etc.), as long as there is good transit or I can walk to work (my car is still chugging along, but it’s probably only got a few more years in it).

Ideally, I would like to work in the non-profit, state or local government, or education sectors. I would consider a private sector position for the right fit.

Qualifications: BAs in community psychology and journalism, MA in sociology. Ten years’ experience in office administration/management. Some teaching experience. Knowledge of advocacy-based counseling best practices. A variety of work experience including sales, customer service, basic tech support, hospitality, and dispatch.  Experience working with diverse and/or marginalized populations. Living life.

Please keep in mind that I am not a licensed mental health counselor or licensed social worker, but I am open to additional training.

Examples of jobs I would enjoy:

Admin or research assistant at a university or community college

Research assistant anywhere really, but I’m best at managing smaller, one-on-one or small group interviews and focus groups, and not as good at survey research. This would need to be in a social sciences, public health, or education setting and not in hard sciences or market research.

Administrative or research assistant for non-profit or government

Copywriter for press releases, etc.

Teacher at any community college or other community-based setting. The only courses at community college level that I’m qualified to teach are sociology courses, but non-college teaching settings will be more flexible.

I also want the place I work to reflect my personal values. I’d be particularly interested in working at a place focusing on the following areas of interest:

Community health

Reproductive justice

Harm reduction

At-risk young adults or teens, particularly LGBTIQA populations

Intentional communities

Housing/homelessness

Environmentalism

Activism and social movements

HIV/AIDS community

Prison-to-community transition

Refugee resettlement and assistance

Other civil or human rights issues

What I’m good at:

Writing and editing

Customer service and making people feel good

Working with diverse populations

Qualitative analysis

Qualitative research

Researching and writing policy when it’s in one of my areas of interest

Journalism and copyediting (I would actually love to work for a news or comedy-oriented podcast, though it would have to be entry level as I know nothing about it currently).

Communication and mediation; talking about stuff and listening to stuff, in addition to written communication

Management (herding cats)

Organizing stuff

Social media

Event Planning

What I’m *not* good at:

Getting up really early in the morning (willing to work nights and weekends if necessary), and regular banker’s hours are fine, just no starting before 8 a.m.)

Working with people who don’t like their jobs *(org/corporate culture is very important)*

Statististics. I have training in this, it’s just very basic…so if I needed to do it once in a while that’d be ok, but I don’t want to be analyzing polls all day, and, well yeah, I’m not very good at it

Manual labor and building things

having to pretend I’m busy when I’m actually not

Workimg as part of a team, but I do tend to take on leadership roles and sometimes find it hard to let go of control. I am working on that.

Salary preference: $40,000 + with benefits, but negotiable for the right opportunity

Timeline: I can be ready to move in August or September.

 

Are You Agentic?

 

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(Edited version published as a guest post in Dr.  Bella DePaulo’s PsychCentral.com column “Single at Heart” on May 17, 2017).

The first time I heard the word “agentic” was in an article written by brilliant Stanford social psychologist Dr. Albert Bandura, referring to his social cognitive theory. In his 2001 essay, Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective, (you can read the whole article here: https://www.uky.edu/~eushe2/Bandura/Bandura2001ARPr.pdf),  he claims that the basic components of personal agency include:

…the temporal extension of agency through intentionality and forethought, self-regulation by self-reactive influence, and self-reflectiveness about one’s capabilities, quality of functioning, and the meaning and purposes of one’s life pursuits. Personal agency operates within a broad network of sociocultural influences. In these agentic transactions, people are producers as well as products of social systems (1).

The second time I consciously thought about the concept of agency in intimate relationships was when I read Dr. Kassia Wosick’s Sex, Love, and Fidelity: A Study of Contemporary Romantic Relationships (2012), while I was researching where to go to grad school (I ended up studying with her). Her study compared diverse types of monogamous and non-monogamous relationship structures, and she dubs the ways in which the polyamorous people in her study usually followed a narrow set of rules, but also had a lot of flexibility to re-evlauate concepts, and to change patterns of behavior that weren’t working, as “agentic fidelity.” Polyamory (and its newer, more inclusive cousin, relationship anarchy), is defined as being open to more than one sexual and/or emotional connection simultaneously. There is emphasis on consent and honesty, and in my experiences this openness can have the effect of evening out power relations.

One of the things I was interested in exploring in an academic capacity was polyamory and its relationship to power. I was convinced that its anti-authoritarian approach was in some way linked to larger social structures such as marriage, heteronormativity, and even war. To me, geopolitical conflicts seemed like higher-stakes versions of domestic disputes. The idea that someone else could ever dictate what I could do, feel, or say, or who I can freely associate with, smacks of ownership to me and just rubs me the wrong way. Additionally, it implies a lack of trust. If I can’t talk to another man without a boyfriend thinking I’m deceiving him in some way, then he just doesn’t trust me, and if that’s the case, what’s the point of being committed?

The concept of marriage has always eluded me as well. Successful monogamous as well as hierarchical polyamorous relationships have been modeled to me, and I have had both myself. Sometimes I was quite happy in those situations, and someday I may be again. But never once have I entertained the concept of legal marriage. Informally, before I began working on my master’s degree, I used to ask married friends what made them decide to make the leap from cohabitation to legal marriage. I got lots of answers, but to me, all of them seemed achievable without getting a stamp of approval from the government. There were a few exceptions, such as access to health care, better mortgage rates (which is essentially housing discrimination against unmarried people), and adjustment of immigration status. But those are all problems with institutional structures, and we singles and solos are getting louder and louder about how unfair these processes are and the ways in which we think they should be changed.

When I first met happily solo people who still had sex and intimacy and romance without having to deal with the usual stressful associations of “escalator” relationships, I took to the idea right away. Before I actually knew people successfully living this way, I didn’t know it was even a choice. People just don’t “do” that in our society. But they do. I do now, and it’s perfect for me at this point in my life. Others might be happier in monogamous LAT (Living Apart Together) relationships, or in consciously chosen (agentic) monogamous relationships.

As Bandura notes, social processes are reciprocal. Over the last ten years or so, I’ve been learning that solo life is definitely for me. Dr Bella DePaulo and Amy Gahran, through their books and blogs, have helped to validate this choice for me. I hope to do the same for others – whether you prefer monogamy, casual dating, polyamory, relationship anarchy, some other relationship structure, or no structure at all, there is a happy place for you. In my research, I found that the single and solo people I interviewed (who self-defined as not actively looking for a lifetime, monogamous partner at the time of writing) were happy because they were living authentically. The sample included solo polyamorous people who may or may not be in one or more relationships, both sexual and non-sexual; people who had been in long-term monogamous couples and determined one way or the other that they preferred to be free agents; and those who have never been married or coupled, including some who were aromantic and/or asexual. This was a small-scale study and not generalizable, but what all these people have in common is a sense of pride and self-worth in having overcome past insecurities and living their lives as they feel they are meant to be lived.

Many participants describe a feeling of being “boxed in” when they were part of traditional couples. Part of their process of self-discovery was that of “building your own box,” as one participant put it, which fits perfectly into Bandura’s (2001) social cognitive theory: “Social structures are created by human activity, and sociostructural practices, in turn, impose constraints and provide enabling resources and opportunity structures for personal development and functioning” (15). To live entirely outside the box may be isolating and counterproductive, but if you can build a box that suits your needs and doesn’t interfere with the basic functions of society, then not only have you found a way to be happy, but perhaps if enough people choose more non-traditional ways of living, institutions will start to respond positively, as we have seen with the marriage equality movement.

Of course, all of this assumes a privileged, western point of view. In India and in many parts of Africa and the middle east, for example, women really don’t have a choice to be agentic when it comes to sexuality. But that is a different column altogether. Here in the U.S., many of us do have that choice – although, as far as coupling is concerned, we may not know it’s there due to the cultural hegemony we’re inundated with every day. I didn’t know until I was in my 30s. I knew I wasn’t getting married, but I hadn’t really thought deliberately about that choice and the motivations behind it.

Being agentically single is not a binary decision between getting married or stayinsingle/solo. There are lots of versions in between. There are even married folks who consider themselves agentically solo. What is important in terms of agency is being able to take advantage of the free flow of information and communication that’s available all around us and use it to our full advantage. If we are truly agentic – we have the ability to individualize interpersonal relationships, and modeling these for others can expand the range of their perceived acceptable social scripts, legitimizing single and solo life in culture, politics, and societies.

[1] Bandura, Albert. 2001. “Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective.” Annual Psychological Review 52:1-26.

[2] Wosick, Kassia. 2012. Sex, Love, and Fidelity: A Study of Contemporary Romantic Relationships. Amherst, Cambria Press.