Me Versus We
Prevention Magazine . August, 2004
With or without a partner find the balance to get the most out of life
I made a foray into the wild world of dating after a midlife divorce. One of my beaus was a kind, serious man who taught me a lot, including that it’s better to be alone than to be in a relationship in which you have to check part of yourself at the door. I’m outgoing and exuberant. He was quiet and withdrawn. With no room for appreciation, my sense of humor went into hiding.
When we parted, a few of my girlfriends seized the moment to suggest that a break from dating might reveal other parts of myself that had been submerged during years of marriage. Maybe they were right. Like many women who feel relief when a less-than-perfect relationship ends, I was excited to ponder who Joan, alone, might be.
But whether it’s better to stay single or to look for a partner is a moot point. The solitary state of me and the partnered land of we both offer physical, emotional, and spiritual treasures. The challenge is to make the best of whatever situation you’re in, and understanding each of them can help you do that.
Social interaction and relatedness are critical for good health—statistically as important as diet, exercise, and not smoking. So it stands to reason that marriage is beneficial to both sexes. That’s true, in part. Studies suggest that the best thing a man can do for his health and longevity is to stay married. The reasons: Husbands tend to eat better and get regular checkups, and they have someone they can confide in.
But for women, it’s the quality of the marital relationship that is crucial to determining health benefits. In high-stress marriages, according to research conducted at Ohio State University in Columbus, women’s immune systems pump out more potentially harmful stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, than men’s do.
One of the researchers, Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD, thinks that’s because women are the barometers of stressed relationships. We’ve all known women who act like psychic sponges, absorbing emotional toxins while their mates go blithely on their way. Kiecolt-Glaser believes that greater sensitivity to marital distress may also be one reason why women tend to instigate change, such as divorce and reconciliation, within a relationship.
Regular sex, another proven benefit of marriage, boosts immunity, diminishes pain, and burns calories. Singles can have an active sex life, too, but it’s wise to remember that sex releases oxytocin, the bonding hormone, which makes it more likely that you’ll partner with an unsuitable mate if you jump into bed too quickly.
As for the advantages of singlehood, anecdotal evidence is mounting. A slew of new books, with titles such as Living Alone and Loving It and The Improvised Woman, suggest that the single life can be superior to coupledom—especially for women in midlife. Being single allows us to forge deeper platonic relationships, to get more involved in our communities, and to travel and live how and where we want, privileges that married women traditionally haven’t had.
And let’s face it: Although the health benefits of partnership are awesome, the goo-goo-eyed, obsessed phase of falling in love soon mellows. Affection and kindness are what really help people maintain a positive attitude that makes life shine. And these rewards, I’ve learned, can come from good friends just as reliably as from lovers.
That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate romance. In fact, while debating with my girlfriends the benefits of being coupled versus being single, fate showed her hand. I went for a friendly walk—I swear it wasn’t a date—with a neighbor, and love blossomed like a lush carpet of June wildflowers.
My girlfriends fell into two opposing camps. One rooted for the new relationship; the other worried that I’d lost the opportunity to know myself better by staying alone. Eventually, both sides noticed I was having fun, deepening existing friendships, and learning from his interests and sharing my own. And that’s how I knew the relationship was right for me. When you’re growing and tapping into your vast inner potential—whether solo or in a partnership—you’re in just the perfect place.
Making the Most of Life
What follows are some tips on setting emotional boundaries
If You’re Single…
- Take time alone. Discover and develop parts of yourself that you couldn’t if you were coupled. For example, a single friend of mine took up horseback riding at age 50. Her relationship with her horse has helped her overcome fear, develop a better sense of her body, and feel deep kinship with nature.
- Find ways to connect in groups. Although close friendships are important, so is socializing. Try a country-and-western club, where dancing with multiple partners or in lines makes your social status almost irrelevant.
- Don’t skimp on physical contact. Touch releases hormones that reduce stress, elevate mood, and help the body heal. Sharing your life with a pet, getting a massage (or trading back rubs with a friend), or learning self-massage are all great ways to get your touch needs met.
If You’re Part of a Couple..
- Give yourself the gift of self-improvement. Set aside several hours a week for developing your mind, body, and soul, whether you choose an activity as simple as walking or as challenging as poetry writing.
- Beware of negative merging. Just because he’s anxious doesn’t mean that you have to be a basket case, too. When you feel off-center, say something like, “I’m feeling anxious, and I can’t tell if I’m picking up your feelings or if something else is bothering me. So please give me a hand in figuring it out. Is anything bothering you?”
- Don’t fall into roommate mode. Spend intimate time together, unplugged from the TV and the computer.
- Don’t make it all about sex, either. Emotional and spiritual closeness comes from spending time together, period.