It is my contention that the very nature of being single in our society causes one to develop a series of defenses to protect oneself but that those very defenses prevent one from having the openness needed to accomplish the goal of finding someone of the opposite sex to love and marry. It is my further contention that these defenses are subtle and often unconscious and at times seems obvious when they are pointed out but, even after one sees them, one will still often repeat them over and over. As in working on any defensive pattern, it is at first enough to just become aware of the pattern and that it takes time and conscious work to change it. It is my further observation that these defenses in general are less in the early and mid-twenties when one starts to date but that they increase in the late twenties and early to mid-thirties. After this, there seems to be a lowering of the defenses as the reality of the age issue again seems to make people generally more open. There are of course massive individual variations on this timing and also sex differences that would warrant a paper of its own.
One more observation should be made before enumerating the defenses. When one reads about the defenses, he may get discouraged about trying. But many, if not most people do persist. For the stakes are high. If one accepts the notion that for the great majority of people, happiness consists of having a loving relationship with someone of the opposite sex and, if the age is right, a family, and that this is really the emotional bedrock that our individual psychologies and our society is built upon, it is clear why people will continue to try, despite repeated rejections, frustration and failures. And after all most people in adulthood have had at least partial success for at least some period of time, the powerful notion of intermittent reinforcement, a “taste of what’s good” propels us on.
The defenses are classified into four main areas with a series of defenses under each area. These areas are: I. Defenses Against Rejection; II. General Psychological Defenses; III. Problems And Resulting Defenses Of The Times; and IV. Defenses Against Love Itself.
Defenses Against Rejection
Every human being is sensitive to rejection, often more than he or she is consciously aware. It has been observed by an experienced psychotherapist1 just how sensitive people are once you get them to be honest and say how they really feel. From the time the separation-individuation and rapprochement, humans have to deal with feelings and fears of abandonment and separation. One just has in many cases to remember back to his or her teenage years to feel the full force of how it felt to be rejected before we built up defenses. It hurts a great deal. By the time someone has gotten into their thirties and is still single (or divorced), almost invariably one has been rejected or at least has rejected. One or more relationships have failed. In order to protect ourselves from the painful feelings, we build up a series of walls to prevent ourselves from feeling rejection. In many ways this is necessary because the singles’ scene involves a great deal of rejecting and superficial judgments. In order not to feel rejected, people may reject first. Some protection is definitely necessary but the problem is one often does not leave enough room open to let in a good candidate. There are specific ways that one can defend against rejection:
1. Pretending that it doesn’t matter.
This is a common defense at singles’ dances. Women especially will spend their time talking to each other and often even exclude talking to men despite the fact that they supposedly came to the dance to hopefully meet someone. Both sexes can tend to rationalize that they’re just coming for whatever the event is or that finding someone isn’t a priority. The defense can be in all of life, not just a dance. One obviously can’t go to every dance so open to finding someone that they are totally crushed if this doesn’t happen but, in my experience, most people bend the other way. In this category are people who overstress career and are too “busy” to really look for someone until it is too late. As well, rationalizations about being happy alone are included here.
2. Over quick rejection.
People will often make instant decisions about people and reject them for very small, superficial reasons before they know them at all. Some of this has to do with fear of strangers but some is a rejection defense. In “Smart Women, Foolish Choices”, Kinder and Cowan talk of a woman on a date with an awkward pediatrician who was judging him negatively because he was shy, spilled soup on his tie, etc. but who by chance only saw his talent when his beeper went off and he had to take care of a young child on the date. How many of us get to show off the strong side of ourselves and how many are rejected before any fine part of us gets to show itself.
We are all the product of our accumulated life experiences and if you are dealing with a single man or woman in their thirties or even before, this will include some rejection, hurts, possible betrayal etc. These hurts can easily be projected onto new partners in “para toxic distortions” that Sullivan talks about. This “baggage” is often unconscious and can often lead to premature rejection when the other partner has done nothing.
There are several different narcissistic defenses that could be included here but attitudes of aloofness or busyness (I am too important or busy to open myself to possible rejection) that prevent one from feeling panicky over one’s situation or feeling rejected are in evidence. Males and females may have different versions.
5. Treating each other poorly.
This is common in the dating scene and involves rejecting first or treating someone poorly out of an unconscious fear of being rejected and thus protecting oneself. All singles have this to some extent and it can be a vicious cycle in that the more you feel rejected by how other treat you, the more you reject and this general attitude can escalate in certain singles’ situations.
6. Tendency to categorize.
There is a universal human tendency to stereotype for psychological economy, to “type” people so as to better cope with the overwhelming stimuli that we have to choose from. But in this stereotyping we run the risk of missing important facts or people. This is especially true of the singles’ scene where people will cut down on who they choose from for reasons of religion, “looks”, body type, meeting place or even idiosyncratic mannerisms. Some of this may be necessary but we may be cutting out many good people.
General Psychological Defenses.
Under this category come several defenses. These include:
1. Self-fulfilling prophesies.
Single people often get discouraged. It is time consuming and difficult to find someone, especially once you are older and out of school. Many people get discouraged and become subtly negative or else think they’ll get rejected before they even try (not pretty enough, not rich enough, not young enough, not old enough, etc.). This sets up a self-fulfilling attitude that all psychologists know is an aspect of depressive thinking and can only lead to the very rejection one fears. Many people just drop out of the singles’ scene out of defense or discouragement.
2. The wall.
Being single is often being lonely. Even if one has many friends, when one is single one must spend time alone. One does not get many of one’s nurturance needs met. This can lead to unconscious anger or resentment of the opposite sex who has denied what one needs and which one may feel entitled to. Or to defend against those feelings one often builds a wall to keep out the pain, to deny that one even has those needs. Either way, either with the wall or anger, one often will unconsciously push people away or turn them off. To defend against this, the wall often will get higher, leading to another vicious circle.
I have given this a separate number because of its commonness but it is connected to the “wall” and anger. Because one doesn’t get his or her nurturance needs well met when one is single, there often can be a neediness or demanding quality that often occurs early in a relationship and that can turn the other person off. Or again, one can defend against this and have the opposite, that is an attitude that one needs nothing from anyone. In some cases one then doesn’t give much to anyone else or else one only can give and will thereby deny one’s own needs.
4. Passivity issue.
This is more often a female issue but it can involve both sexes. Women, especially pretty ones, are used to being approached and chased and often will have trouble adjusting to the fact that once they are finished school, in most jobs there aren’t enough appropriate people and they actually have to go to single functions, et al. to meet people. Women are often “open to a relationship but won’t see that they must extend themselves if they want to find someone. In many cases, several years of loneliness can cure this but it is amazing how often, despite one’s loneliness and depression, this attitude can persist. A propos of this, in our society with its anomie and breakdown of community, both sexes must be more goal directed to find someone than in the old community structure where people in the community would support and help a single person find someone.
This is connected to the neediness issue noted above. As one gets older one may develop more and more a sense of expectations of what one wants. If this is too rigid, one can reject many people who could very possibly be able to make someone happy. “Expectations is the enemy of intimacy”.2
This also gets a separate category because of its importance. Because of the constant looking and rejecting, it is easy to become jaded and blasé and not keep oneself open to new possibilities.
This is the notion that one has all the time in the world, that with the modern delay in marriage one somehow can wait forever. Males usually have this more than females but it can afflict both sexes. Men can sometimes wait until their late thirties before it hits them that time isn’t endless.
Shyness is a big factor that affects many people of both sexes. In an anonymous world where people meet as strangers at dances or lectures or blind dates, this can be a big handicap. Even something as simple as awkwardness in dancing can be a major handicap if the main social outlet for meeting someone is through dances.
It should be pointed out that even in a healthy person with less defenses, it takes a long time and a lot of work to find someone. Together Dating Service estimates it can take an average of four years to find someone after one seriously begins to look.
Problems Of Our Time.
We live in an anonymous, fast paced age where the feeling of community has broken down, where we live in large anonymous cities and where several major social revolutions (the sexual revolution and women’s’ liberation movement) have swept the social landscape over the last twenty-five years. These phenomenon have in turn added to the burden and the defensive structure of being single.
1. Anomie of our society.
As noted above, we live in anonymous cities where we often deal with strangers. This effects singles in that they are often meeting people who have no immediate connection to anyone they know. This can lead to more easy rejection or down right insensitivity. There is also the illusion that one can always get someone else better so there can be less of an attempt to work on a relationship. This occurs more in the big city and less in small towns.
2. The problem of object constancy.
We now no longer see many of the people we meet socially on a daily basis. We can meet someone at a social function once for ten or fifteen minutes and then never see them again unless we call them or vice versa. Once we see them once the same occurs. The man has to retain an image of the woman and keep the feeling of her so that he will want to call, and the woman must try to remember if she liked him. With this lack of object constancy comes easy rejection and insensitivity. Someone with less object constancy comes (and remember no one has complete object constancy) may act warm and friendly one day and partially forget the affect and feeling three days later. One can break up with someone in a big city, or for that matter just sleep with them, and never see them again. Much emotional business is conducted on the telephone, a far from perfect instrument for maintaining object constancy. Also jets give the illusion that one can easily reach and be with someone in another city or even another continent. But anyone who has been in a long-distance relationship knows the illusory nature of this and the difficulty of maintaining emotional ties and support and object constancy at a distance.
3. Career orientation.
In our modern world, there has been a tendency to marry later and devote one’s life to a career. Individual relationships and friendships become less important and one becomes devoted to THE CAREER. We live in a time of “self-actualization”, of the “me” generation, of valuing greed and materialism. All of these pressures move away from intimacy and support the other defenses already noted. It is socially acceptable to be in one’s career for many years and this can easily be used as a defense.
4. They busyness syndrome.
This is a variation on the career issue. We all act so busy, and in fact in a modern city there is a lot to do and that “has to be done”, that we act like we have no time to meet someone. It is common on a new date to have to negotiate weeks in advance to get a time, all diminishing from the feeling we all need that we are special. In our busyness we tend to forget what is really important. We keep “busy” to avoid loneliness but forget why we need to be so busy and paradoxically wind up lonelier.
5. The issue of women’s’ liberation.
This is a complex issue that deserves a paper of its own. Suffice it to say that in women’s rebelling against their traditional role as nurturer, there has been created a lot of tension between the sexes and a male counter-attack not to protect or nurture back. As Toni Grant notes in her book “Being a Woman”3 when a woman elects not to nurture, she often winds up not getting taken care of herself. There are problems of different expectations and confusion as to the new rules, both of which often seem different in each new date. All in all this tension increases defenses and creates problems in intimacy.
6. Civilization and its discontents.
In his great book “Civilization And Its Discontnets”4, Freud points out that the price we pay for civilization is the repression of many of our basic instincts, urges and needs. In a complex post-industrial society that glorifies career and success and needs a large period of education, this is even more the case. One can easily fall into this “success syndrome” and lose sight of and forget our primal drives to mate and procreate. This certainly increases defenses against openness and intimacy.
Defenses Against Love Itself.
As any experienced psychotherapist knows, even without the defenses against openness and involvement noted above, human beings have many potential neurotic inhibitions that interfere with and inhibit the ability to love or feel love. Libidinal attachment is complex and is fraught with danger. There are multiple guilts and inhibitions that make it difficult to love or feel love or love in a healthy way that can be reciprocated. An enumeration of these would require a course in psychopathology. I will only mention one for the purpose of illustration – what I call the “Sound of Music” syndrome. If you recall, the story of the Sound of Music involves a nun named Maria falling in love with a Captain Von Trapp whose children she is caring for as a governess. The Captain also falls in love with her. However, neither of them is aware of the love and both run from it, she back to the convent and he almost into a marriage with another woman. Only when they see each other again do they realize the love. This lovely story illustrates the vagaries of human love, of how one often doesn’t recognize it and often runs from it. Even without all the modern pressures and dynamics, it is and has always been problematical. In a more modern age, the nun and her captain may never even get to see each other again, she might be in London, he in Boston and the difficulties of object constancy may make a real life rapprochement impossible. And as we all know, in real life, unlike the movies, love does not always triumph and the powerful neurotic impediments can easily prevent love from attaining its fulfillment. This reminder of the neurotic inhibitions about love should be added to the other more specific defensive patterns discussed above.
Lest this discussion of defenses discourage the reader too much, one need only be reminded that despite the many hazardous defenses noted above, many people do succeed in falling in love and getting married. And the drive to attach and find happiness through an intimate relationship with a member of the opposite sex is still very powerful and deep within the human soul and it can and often does succeed in overcoming all the modern obstacles. But in order to help our patients, we must be aware of many of the modern dangers of aloneness, narcissism, rejection dynamics, anomie, et al. and help them steer their way through the dangerous shoals by recognizing these defenses and making our patients aware of them as well.
- Zinberg, Norman, M.D.: Grand Rounds Presentation, The Cambridge Hospital, Cambridge, MA, 1987
- Cowan, C. and Kinder, M.: Smart Women, Foolish Choices, p. 149, Clarkson Potter, Inc., New York, NY, 1985
- Grant, T.: Being A Woman, Avon Books, New York, NY, 1988
- Freud, S.: Civilization And Its Discontents, Standard Edition, Vol. XXI, Hogarth Press, London, U.K., 1961