There are a number of advantages that never-married singles over 30 enjoy. High on my list is the freedom to do whatever I want, whenever I want to do it. Those who stay single also have more time to focus on careers, plus they benefit from the dating insights that can come only from years of experience.
That’s the good part. But when you start looking to marry, you may discover the trade-off: Some men and women who have been single for a long time may be too set in their ways to have the patience and flexibility that are necessary to make a marriage work.
Dr. Frank Hamilton, a Spokane psychologist, says a number of qualities are magnified or missing in an overly rigid single. “Being opinionated or judgmental,” for example. “It would be hard for that person to be compassionate with people who are different.”
But experts warn against over-generalizing. According to Spokane psychologist Dr. Laura Asbell, some people may confuse rigidity with the maturity that comes with age. “As we become more comfortable with ourselves, we develop a real stable sense of identity,” she says. “We know who we are and what we like.”
At age 30, I find I’m becoming much more set in my ways and selective about the men I date. I’ll go out with a guy a few times, but if we aren’t looking for the same things, I’m less likely to change my views for him now than I was five years ago. Instead, I’ll usually walk away.
Jenelle Foster is married now, but the 32-year-old Spokane woman noticed her own rigidity taking root when she was single and 30. “I used to apply my makeup three times a day,” she says. “I’d curl my hair twice a day. I avoided people who were divorced and had children. I would never go out with a person who was a smoker, but when I was younger I would have.”
“I’m much pickier about what I eat,” says Wayne, a 32-year-old Spokane resident who asked us not to use his last name. “I’d be hesitant to pick up skiing at this age, but when I was 23 I’d have jumped right into it.”
Wayne says he didn’t realize how set in his ways he’d become until a younger woman pointed it out. “She’s just 23. One day she pulled a football out of the trunk of the car and said, “Do you want to play?” I thought, “I used to be spontaneous like that.” As we get older, we begin to lose our zest.”
According to Hamilton, the tendency to get more rigid with age may run in families. “Genetic and/or early family experience could cause either flexibility or rigidity,” he says.
Rigidity may have a cultural link, too - especially in older men. “The older a male is, the less likely it is he was brought up in a culture of female equality,” says Asbell. “The same culture that taught men they didn’t need to accommodate to women, taught women they needed to accommodate to men.” But Paul Kuhlmann, of Spokane, says he’s just as carefree at age 39 as he was at 21. He says it’s often the women he meets who tend to get stuck in ruts. “Some women that have been divorced carry that with them and talk about it after the occasion. That may be all they talk about.”
Experts say some men and women who have been through a bad divorce or unhealthy relationship may develop set patterns of behavior to help them avoid the people and situations that might cause them more pain. “I don’t think it’s rigidity in that case, it’s protection,” says Hamilton.
And, while some people may write these singles off as being selfish, Asbell says many of them have never been exposed to the situations that would have helped them learn how to become more flexible. “Some of the rigidity with single people may be more apparent because their patterns are different than a married person’s,” she says.
If your relationships aren’t working out and you feel it’s because you’ve become too set in your single ways, there are steps you can take. The older you are, the more difficult the change will be, but Asbell says the key here is to make a series of small changes rather than trying to tackle everything at once. Recognizing our lack of flexibility is the first step toward correcting it. Learn how to notice when you’re being too rigid. Family members and friends are often good sources of feedback.
Hamilton suggests talking with someone who has more insights and life experiences. “The person has to be willing to consider there may be other ways of looking at things in life.”
Try breaking out of your old routines by being more spontaneous and doing things you would not normally do. Also, remember that difference is not a bad thing. “Some people see differences as right and wrong. Difference is a neutral concept,” says Asbell.
And if you do marry, you may find that marriage itself can work wonders on your set ways. “Marriage mellowed me out,” says Foster. “I think it’s the consistency and stability of having someone there. It’s helped my self-esteem.”
MEMO: Cynthia Prentiss is viewer development producer for KHQ-TV in Spokane.