“So Are You Seeing Anyone?”: Single Folx Experiences of Holiday Family “Diss”-Stress

From the end of December through January 1st many people will spend time with their families to celebrate Christmas, for non-religious gatherings, and to welcome in the New Year. Generations of family members will gather at dining tables across the country to share meals and spend time catching up on their lives since last holiday season or, for many, since before the pandemic. For some, these gatherings are something to look forward to, but for others–particularly young couples and single people–they can be stressful. While 95 percent of people believe that spending time with family around the holidays is important, 40 percent admit it is stressful to do so, and 45 percent of Americans say they would rather skip out on celebrations than deal with the stress. 

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Some couples, like many I see in couples sex therapy, have unresolved psychological and emotional dynamics with their parents, in-laws, siblings, and/or extended family. For these people, celebrations can be experienced more as obligations. Couples with children often describe attending holiday gatherings as a sacrifice they are willing to make so that their children can experience extended family rituals. I advise partners to create non-verbal signals to one another so they can take breaks when triggered by a relative’s comment or leave when their bandwidth for conversation runs out. 

My single psychotherapy clients experience the added emotional stress of prying questions, comments, and unsolicited advice from family members about their dating status. I have heard countless stories of crossed boundaries and unwelcome instructions into the private lives of single folks in my private practice and in my recent online talks. The anticipatory dread that uncoupled people experience, both emotionally and physically, is palpable to me as I listen to descriptions of their feeling like a deer in headlights at family gatherings–whether they are in their thirties, forties, or over fifty. The most anticipated question for them is: “So, are you seeing anyone? 

Generational differences on coupledom and family life

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American family gatherings are likely to hold five different generations this year. Each family member comes from a generation that has been affected by a wide array of experiences (including world events, technological advancements, economic shifts, Coronavirus, and social change) and are in a different stage of life from one another. As can be expected, there are  varied generational views on current events, ever-changing social order expectations, as well as on family, dating, and relationships. 

For many people in the older generations (the Silent Generation, Boomers, and Generation X), there was only one blueprint for the majority population on adulthood and family life. Between 1950 and 1965, divorce rates dropped, fertility rates rose and the nuclear family thrived. Twenty-six percent of Boomers got married between the age of 18 and 21 compared to only 7 percent of Millennials and 4 percent of Gen Z. Therefore, parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents at one’s Christmas gathering may expect that a person is lonely or something is awry if they are not partnered, married, and/or talking about having kids. My clients have heard comments like: “You’re such a catch, are you putting yourself out there?” or “Sometimes people need to be more practical and less idealistic when looking for a husband/wife. These young people today are so picky they’ll drive two miles for a perfect latte.”

Another generational difference is that “family” has a more expansive interpretation for Millennials and Gen Zers. People I speak with in therapy sessions and in talks I give frequently use the term “chosen family” when describing with whom they’re planning to share a holiday. In fact, ninety-four percent of respondents in a recent survey reported that they are more likely to feel “belonging” with communities based on shared values, beliefs, and hobbies than with their biological families. These younger generations are much more comfortable with “non-traditional” family arrangements. 

Additionally, one in every six Gen Z adults identifies as LGBTQI+, and a poll from January 2020 indicated that 43 percent of Millennials say their ideal relationship is non-monogamous. These surveys illustrate that Millennials and Gen Z are generally not going to follow in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents in terms of child-rearing and family. For some, the question 

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“So, are you seeing anyone?” is confusing and disorienting to the single person to whom it’s addressed.  They may be thinking;  I’m not looking for a heterosexual relationship, or I am polyamorous and believe on many partners, or I don’t want to get married or be in a committed relationship. For others, these questions reinforce existing fears–fear that the pool of eligible partners is shrinking, fear that they will be the last single person in their circle, fear of the risks that come with having children later in life, and fear of pity and stigmatization.

Single stigma

Some of that fear of ostracization is well-founded. Researcher Tobias Greitemeyer found that single people are generally viewed as: less extraverted, less agreeable, less conscientious, more neurotic, less physically attractive, less satisfied with their lives, and as having a lower self-esteem than those with a partner. Despite not being well-founded in truth, the idea that single people are less satisfied with their lives is extremely pervasive in the U.S. Dissatisfaction with life without a relationship is at the center of numerous movies, television shows, books, plays, and additional media that we regularly consume. 

One recent example is the Broadway show Company–a recently revived 1970s musical with music and lyrics by the late Stephen Sondheim— that focuses on single gal Bobbie (gender swapped from main character Robert in the original production). All of her friends are partnered, engaged, or married. In one song, Bobbie’s friend Harry sings:

Bobbie ought to have a fella

Poor baby, all alone

Nothing much to do except to check her phone

We’re the only closeness she’s really known

Poor baby!

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I coach my single clients to remain mindfully grounded around relatives they know will be asking questions or making comments about their relationship status. If they feel they can remain calm, I invite my clients to explain that they are feeling judged and that, despite not being romantic in nature, their friendships are intimate and fulfilling. In fact, while high quality romantic relationships have positive psychological and physical effects, low quality long-term romantic relationships have been found to have significant negative effects on a person’s well-being. In addition to considering if they are willing to take on the emotional labor of educating their relatives, younger single folks should consider how their internalization of the single stigma is affecting their emotional response to those questions. Is it possible to hear the question as just a question, and not a judgement?

For a client who recently had a breakup, holiday gatherings are a potential place of embarrassment as they anticipate intrusive questions about the ex-partner who “got away”. The client is still trying to understand the recent breakup and is hurting. Comments from family members like this one feels like salt being rubbed into his recent emotional wound. 

Setting expectations with family members in advance can be a useful strategy. Setting expectations can be done by emailing family members ahead of time saying that you are not ready to discuss the relationship and not bringing it up would be experienced as a loving act.  Another way to set expectations is to have an ally in the family who is able to step in and speak up. It may even be useful for the ally to explain that asking someone from a younger generation about their dating life is as uncouth as asking someone from an older generation how much money they make.

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Generational differences and the experiences of single people in America mean that conversations around dating and relationships around the holidays can be tense. I encourage readers of all ages to give some thought as to how they can express their love for a relative in another age-group in ways that focus on their accomplishments, what relationships have helped them thrive through the pandemic, and what they are looking forward to in the new year. I especially encourage single readers to express their confidence succinctly by responding to questions like, “So, are you seeing anyone?” with “No, I’m an awesome party of one!”