Last week, I was sitting in a hotel lobby waiting to meet with a friend. As I waited, I noticed a woman having coffee with her mother. During this meeting, the woman was excitedly presenting her mother with an e-reader. After the present was unwrapped, the woman proceeded to thoughtfully explain to her mother about how to use her e-reader, dealing with the wireless connection, etc.
Instead of reacting with excitement or gratitude, her mother started lecturing her. The expression on the woman's face as she was berated revealed incredible frustration. She looked exhausted and distressed.
When her mother went off to the bathroom, I said to her, "That was nice of you to get that gift for your mom."
She replied in a tone tinged with dejection and irony, "Thank you... can you please take her for the rest of the day?"
Since I wasn't able to clearly hear their conversation, I offered a simple explanation of sympathy for her frustration, "I know, it's hard."
"It's hard being 40 and not married," she responded with a mix of sadness and anger.
You may think of someone in your life who fits the description of the woman in the title of this column or of the woman I met last week in that hotel lobby.
What comes to your mind when you think of such a woman?
If you're like so many people, your initial reaction might be to think of this woman as lonely, sad, maybe even pathetic -- an old maid.
Whatever you may think about this woman, it's rarely something positive and liberating, but it's not exactly negative either -- it's just sort of lonely.
This woman I speak of and that you are imagining in your mind is most likely very hardworking, has a great job and good friends. She's generally satisfied and settled in many areas of her life, but she doesn't actively date, she's never been married or, if she was previously married, it was for a short time and many years ago.
She may be perfectly content with her life, happy to be free of the structures of marriage and a long-term relationship, or she may be happy with the other parts of her life but longs for companionship.
We don't need to victimize these women, not at all. And in this column, I'm not trying to destroy the happiness of those who are single and 40 and perfectly content.
So, even though I am writing in a different time and culture, where we are all getting married later and later and where we are inching towards some version of gender "balance" -- the number of single women who buy homes has almost doubled since the early '80s -- our antiquated thinking about women and marriage still carries over from decades of imbalanced conditioning.
But that's the burden of social conditioning. Times may change, but old conditioning dies hard.
I know many women over 40 who are unmarried. Some of them are happy and satisfied, others would like to be in a long-term relationship, still others are desperate and unhealthy in their approach to relationships. The point is, women who are 40 and over come in many stripes and types.
Hmmm... does that sound familiar?
Oh yeah, it's just like women in their 20's and 30's and just like MEN in their 20's and 30's.
But somehow, we're only giving single women over 40 one identity: they're well past their sell-by-date, they're lonely and maybe even sad. Things are getting rough sister, you're gonna be living with and taking care of your parents in their old age if you don't find a man soon.
While many single, 40-year old women may be perfectly content with the lives they live, when they step out in the world, there seems to be a constant reminder that they are "failing" because they are not in permanent relationships. Oftentimes, it's this external pressure, not any internal anxiety, that instigates their feelings of frustration and anxiety about marriage.
Imagine having to constantly to reassure people, "I'm happy, trust me. I swear. I really am."
Let's leave the women who are incredibly happy and don't see or need a relationship and consider the women who have a desire to get married and are seeking a partner.
There are certain things we may assume about this woman.
We assume she is picky, stubborn, set in her ways and frigid. There must be no other reason that she's single, right?
And how do we support these women when they express their frustration to us about loneliness or their struggle to find good men to be with?
We give these women the same, stock, stupid, overly-prescriptive advice:
"You're not getting out enough."
"You need to broaden your horizons, you're too picky."
"You're not giving online dating a chance. So and so met their boyfriend/husband online."
But we never make a real attempt to understand what they're facing, which is the only way we can truly support them.
And then there are the broken promises. When we first meet a woman who is 40 and single, we often go into a tizzy, "I gotta set you up!"
We usually don't.
And let's just be frank, when we do set them up, we don't reserve our best men for these women, because they're over 40 and single. They should take anything and anyone, right? They should be grateful!
And then when they don't like the person we introduce them to, we give them a hard time, "But he's so nice, give him a chance."
We would rarely make such a statement to a younger, female friend, but when it comes to addressing a woman who is single and over 40, we simply refuse her the room to choose what feels right for her. Her judgment must somehow be clouded, and that's why she's single.
Sure, some of these women may be stubborn and set in their ways, but men that age are often set in their ways, too. That's what happens when we get older; we often become more rigid as a consequence of realizing what works and what doesn't work for us.
It may be cliché to bring up this idea that an older man is a catch and an older woman is an old maid, but this standpoint remains an accepted stance from our cultural perspective.
Things have definitely improved in terms of how women and men are constructed in terms of their gender identities, but I'm not talking about a cultural examination as much as I'm talking about the personal message that we give to our single 40-year friends and how that needs to change.
This column isn't about removing personal responsibility or placating our women friends by hiding our honest advice. Instead, I want to consider how we can deepen the way in which we support our friends, or, in some cases, how we can stay out of their way. Our job as friends isn't to tell someone to stop "being picky" or to "get out more."
That's just lazy advice.
The way in which we can deepen our support to these smart, thoughtful, successful women is to ask, "You're over 40 and single and you say that you don't want to be married. How can I support you? How can I be a better friend?"
Does the thought of having to ask these questions make you uncomfortable? Well, that's your ego talking. If you don't make an authentic effort to understand and appreciate someone's personal experience, your own pride or point-of-view is what really leads the advice you offer, rather than the best interests of the person you care about.
The deepening of support I speak of is about not applying a template to every single, 40-year old woman.
It's called empathy. We all need empathy. Without it, we feel alone. Without it, we get defensive when dealing with our problems.
We often pity women who are single and 40-years old. Pity veers on the border of patronizing women. It means making statements like: "I feel so bad for her, she doesn't have anyone, she's lonely."
Empathy is about understanding the why, how and where. It's about appreciating someone's experience and honoring it while trying to support them.
Empathy is about making someone who is made to feel abnormal by our culture, family and friends to feel perfectly normal.
We have to ask ourselves: What is it like to be her? How would I think if I were in the same position?
Telling the 40-plus, single woman what she's doing wrong and expecting her to be with someone she doesn't want to be with, telling her that the solution to her problem is going to a bar or a spinning class to meet her potential partner or telling her that no man wants a woman so set in her ways doesn't do a damn thing to make that woman happier.
Our responsibility as their friends, colleagues, or relatives is to reinforce the path these women have and are choosing for themselves... that's it.
Anything else is frankly about our own ego.
This piece was originally published on The Current Conscience.
Follow Yashar Ali on Twitter: www.twitter.com/yashar