For many, prolonged singlehood as an adult is a deeply heartbreaking experience. It goes beyond the awkward, if well-meaning, comments others make about your relationship status, not having a date for a holiday or an event, or general loneliness. Being single when you want to be married can involve profound grief and sadness. More specifically, it can involve what’s known as an ambiguous loss.
According to a new paper by Professor Jeffrey Jackson of Virginia Tech, when we lose people we love, it is extremely painful, yet it often happens in a context in which things 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”—one in which a loved one is “there but not there.” Generally 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 dementia, addiction, extra-marital affairs, and being consumed by one’s work. The second situation is when a person is psychologically present yet physically absent. This would include wartime missing-in-action, natural disasters, divorce, and miscarriages.
Jackson and others contend that extended singlehood as an adult, when one wishes to be married, can be a form of ambiguous loss. Often, single people have a well-developed idea of who their anticipated spouse is, and what their relationship will be like when they meet. In other words, the anticipated spouse is psychologically present, but physically absent. Since no one can foretell the future, a single person cannot know for sure whether they will find someone who meets their expectations and subsequently marry them. It is this lack of clarity about the yet-to-be spouse that makes the loss ambiguous, and in turn difficult to manage or come to terms with. For example, Jackson maintains, a single person who knows for certain that they will remain so would face a clear loss. This would allow a path for grieving and moving forward. Alternatively, a person who knows for certain that they will marry in a decade would face a delay in getting married, but could take comfort in knowing that they will have a partner in the future. But no one, of course, can make these predictions.
People often feel ambivalent when facing an ambiguous loss. This is because it's difficult to figure out whether it is better to cope with the informational void about a longed-for spouse by hanging on or moving on. The uncertainty of whether the anticipated spouse will ever arrive makes it difficult to 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:
1. Timing. One reason why adult singlehood can lead to ambiguous loss is because of the murkiness around defining when singlehood begins. Does it occur at a certain age, or when a person is eligible to be married but isn’t? The expectations around major milestones like marriage for the most part revolve around age-related, socially constructed norms. Thus, people who are single when it is common and expected are less likely to struggle with ambiguous loss (e.g., childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood) by comparison to those who are single after most of their peers are coupled up. When people “miss” this major milestone, it can lead to great distress. In addition to the pain one feels when marriage does not happen “on schedule,” this ambivalence may worsen as people age and remain single.
2. Settling. For many, the psychological presence of an anticipated spouse can cast a long shadow. Though this partner lives only in imagination, they become the standard against which potential mates in real life are compared. Single adults often have the choice of partnering with someone who does not meet their ideal or anticipated spouse. This can lead to a dilemma in which one can either 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. No one has a crystal ball, and thus settling can stir up feelings of ambivalence, because it is anyone’s guess whether a better match will come along. On the one hand, settling can decrease or eliminate ambivalence, reducing the feelings of loneliness and sadness that often accompany being single when one would prefer to be married. Yet it can also leave one wondering if a better match would have materialized had they “held out” and not settled.
3. Viability. Single adults may also face ambiguous loss about people whom they actually know and see as potential partners, yet are not viable options for marriage. These include people who don’t have a reciprocal interest, have recently broken off a relationship, are married to someone else, or are an ex-partner whom one regrets breaking up with, but is no longer available or interested. Adults who are single may feel sadness, grief, regret, and ambivalence about unviable potential mates. In addition, unviable potential partners may become idealized with time and take the place of the anticipated spouse, setting a standard that new and viable potential partners can’t meet.
4. Children. Adults who are single and childless may also feel ambiguous loss about their anticipated children. They, too, may be psychologically present, but physically absent. In other words, single adults may be contending with a double loss. Because of the ambivalence conjured up by not knowing if or when marriage will occur, adults who are single and childless may grapple with whether to hold off on marriage and to have children, or have children on their own—the unconventionality of which might turn away potential partners in the future.
Jackson, J. The Ambiguous Loss of Singlehood: Conceptualizing and Treating Singlehood Ambiguous Loss Among Never-Married Adults. January 2018. Contemporary Family Therapy.