It happens year round, but especially during the holiday season: Your coupled-up relatives ask the infamous question, "Are you dating anyone?" You'll pause, mid-passing of the mashed potatoes, and smile politely, opting for a vague response like, "Not at the moment." They'll flash their own gracious grin and—if you're lucky—change the subject, a trickle of shame running through your stomach nonetheless. But most often, your sweet (but nosy) aunt or cousin with three kids will respond with some sort of sympathetic advice like, "Don't worry, I'm sure you'll find someone soon."
Maybe you aren't worried, and maybe you're not looking for anyone, yet the belief that all single women are desperately searching for a partner is widely implied.
And with this assumption comes an internal pressure or feeling of shame for being single in a sea of couples. Case in point: In Netflix's recently released rom-com Holidate, the main character Sloane's single status is the running joke in her family—so much so that she feels pressure to bring a date to every holiday to avoid her relatives' side-eye glances and prying. This plot could be seen as pointing out the problem with this societal habit, but predictably (and *spoiler*), the film ends with Sloane pouring her heart out to a hot guy in the middle of a mall, sealing it with a kiss. Hooray!
As a single 23-year-old who travels from New York City to Iowa for the holidays, I know this shameful feeling firsthand. I'm content with my career, social life, and personal progress, but I can't help feeling like my single status is sometimes questioned by my married Midwestern relatives who have different ideas of what happiness looks like. And although most in-person holiday celebrations are cancelled this year, who knows—maybe you'll still sense that judgement over Zoom, as your aunt nods and takes a sip of wine when you tell her that yes, you're still single.
To help you nip these judgmental conversations in the bud, we talked to psychologists to get their advice on how to handle single shaming. Read their tips below.
1. Ask yourself why you're feeling judged.
First things first: Take a hard look at why you feel judged by your relatives. Clinical psychologist Dr. Joshua Klapow recommends asking yourself, "Are they actually saying judgmental statements? Am I feeling insecure about being single? Could it be a little bit of both?" If so, you might be creating a false narrative of the conversation in your own mind.
"While it's quite possible that you're indeed being judged," Dr. Klapow explains, "it's also possible that your own insecurities, frustrations, and expectations about what people will think about you being single are driving your interpretation of comments, tone, and conversation from your relatives. It’s very common for our concerns about being single to bias how we interpret others."
2. Don't defend; describe.
If you've ruled out the possibility that your own insecurities are blurring the intention behind the conversation, and you're truly being shamed by your relatives, don't defend yourself. Being single, after all, is not something to be ashamed of. It's easy to fall into an explanation of excuses for why you're single, but remember: You don't need to explain your life to other people.
"The key is not to defend yourself," Dr. Klapow says. "It's to make a clear statement about how you feel about your life, what you enjoy specifically, and to directly address the possible judgment by cutting it off with a specific, positive position about your own life."
3. Pivot to other topics.
If your relatives can't take a hint that you don't want to talk about your relationship status, you might have to steer the conversation away from dating.
"You can shift conversations in a different direction by having a storehouse of topics that you do feel comfortable discussing," clinical psychologist Dr. Carla Manly tells HelloGiggles. "Having a prepared list of topics in mind can reduce lurking stress and anxiety."
By flipping the conversation to what you like about being single, your career, your social life, and your hobbies—any other aspect of your life—you're taking control of the narrative and conveying that being single isn't impacting you.
"If they press on about how your life might be better if you were in a relationship, simply loop back to how you're satisfied with where you are right now," Dr. Klapow says. "This keeps things positive, takes you off the defensive, and allows you to convey to them that their judgment isn't registering with you."
Above all, remember that there's absolutely no shame in being single. And if your Aunt Karen can't accept that, it's her time she's wasting worrying about your life.