“I’m Single”: Tagging Your Relationship Status for the World to See

Although I generally identify as a sex researcher, I think a great deal about relationships and love, and I receive many questions about these topics. No wonder: although sex, love and relationships don’t always go together, sex frequently occurs within the context of a relationship (e.g., friends with benefits, dating/romantic relationship, partnership or marriage).

This morning I was combing through the scientific literature looking for information about romantic breakups when I came upon several studies demonstrating that female friends of people in relationships tend to have unique insights into the fate of those relationships – whether the couple will stay together or split up. I imagine there are several reasons for these fairly consistent findings. It may be that women are well cued into the emotional tones of others, including their friends and partners. It may also be that women are simply more likely to talk about and to analyze the state of each others’ relationships.

Case in point: once, I travelled under general license to Cuba for two weeks with three men and one other woman. Leaving Havana, we drove through small towns, passing horses, cows, donkeys, chickens, goats, crabs, and other animals. The men in the car, upon seeing animals, would use funny voices to “caption” what they thought the animals were saying to each other or what their expressions “meant”. I’ve never seen anything like it (except recently when watching The Trip which is the closest thing I’ve seen to my experience and which I couldn’t bear to finish.)

The other woman and I talked about how, if it were just us traveling together (or a group of several women), we would likely spend hours talking about each others’ past and present relationships and/or hope for future relationships. We would likely never, not even once, caption dialogue for animals.

It was particularly striking to me because I’ve spent years of my life in relationships and have flown all over the world with men I’ve dated. But that was one man at a time; it wasn’t a group of men. Apparently one man on his own, alongside a woman, talks about life. Add a few other men and it becomes a walking cartoon show and there aren’t a lot of conversations about each others’ love lives. In fact, there weren’t any on our trip (maybe your guy friends are different in groups?).

Similarly, I’ve been surprised at how little many of my guy friends know about each others’ romantic lives. Best friends, roommates even, seem to know little about whether their friends are feeling happy or troubled with their relationships, whether their friends are fighting with their significant others, etc. There are exceptions, of course, but generally speaking they seem to talk more often about work, sports, trivia, and such and, when I’ve asked them, they confirm this to be the case.

Reading these studies, then, helped me to better understand other research that suggests men take longer to get over romantic breakups than women do. For better or worse, we women often find it easier to move on after a relationship ends. Well, maybe not “easier” but “less difficult”. The way I’m thinking about it now is this: if men generally don’t talk much about their relationships, perhaps they are missing out on important cues if/when the end is near. That means that they may not realize when their relationship is in serious jeopardy and they need to make important changes lest they lose their partner. It may also mean that, when the breakup or divorce hits, they feel blindsided and thus take longer to get over the loss.

Let’s talk about the “over” part.

When it’s over, what do you do? Who do you tell? People vary tremendously. Some people wear the “So-and-so is no longer in a relationship” Facebook status on their sleeve and post quotes about losing love and sad song lyrics on their Twitter and ruminate over their loss. Maybe they call all of their friends and family immediately. Those are public, and semi-public, ways of handing breakups and it makes sense for some people to do this.

Other people – myself included – are far more private about ending relationships. When I ended a very long-term relationship, I told only two or three very close friends. I didn’t lie to anyone else and pretend we were still together, but unless there was a reason to mention that I had moved out and moved on, I just didn’t mention it at all. I later learned that it took months for some people to hear the news. And a few times guys who had met me while I was in a relationship were then upset, when I was later in yet another relationship, that I hadn’t “told them” when I became single (the idea of advertising my relationship status has never been of interest to me; the way I see it is that if you’re interested enough in me, or grown up enough in life/love, you will know when I’m single because you’ll be around to see it).

After ending another generally good (but not “right”) relationship, I called 3 or 4 close friends to mope and cry, but otherwise didn’t tell anyone. Because I’ve sometimes stayed friends with exes, I know it’s been confusing to some people (were we still together? were we not? if we weren’t, why were we having dinner together? etc). But really, if people want to know they should ask; it’s striking, really, how little people ask about each other’s relationships, how few of us ask.

Except, of course, those close female friends who know everything. They ask. They’re told. And so they know.

And really, what is one to do when things end? Are you supposed to wear a sign or a shirt that says you’re single? Isn’t it enough to wear it in your eyes, a la Paul Simon’s Graceland? Thankfully, one doesn’t send out “I’m Single” cards the way one sends out “I’ve Moved!” address cards. A few years ago, I ran into a woman who I knew as part of a married couple. I hadn’t seen her in a while and, when I did, she was with a new man. She introduced him to me by saying, “I’m not sure if you know that I’ve remarried, this is my husband _____” and, you know, I never even knew she had divorced, let alone that she’d remarried until that moment. Among our mutual acquaintances, it’s unclear what the timeline was (when did she divorce? when did the other guy come along?). And really: it’s none of our business. We’re not her close friends. She didn’t need to announce her divorce. The fact that one day she showed up happy and with a new husband is enough for me (they still seem quite happy and are a couple that gives me hope about love and how things change).

So, I guess a few take-a-ways: 

1. Female friends seem to have unique insights into whether a relationship will stay together or split apart. Maybe because they talk about relationships.
2. I think we can all learn from this – if you’re in a relationship, talk to each other about it. Check in to find out how things are going. And if your partner says things are wrong and need to be fixed, take it seriously! Try to fix things. If not, you can’t blame them for feeling blindsided when things fall apart.
3. There are different “styles” of sharing information with others about break-ups and divorces. No way is right or wrong. Be public or private as you choose. People who take the time to be your friends, and get to know you, will know because they know you well.
4. Things aren’t always as they seem. Some people who look together from the outside aren’t really together at all. Or at least not in the way you might imagine.
5. Many men seem to like talking about what they think animals are thinking/saying to each other. I don’t get this, but I’m willing to accept this to be true. Just don’t make me watch The Trip ever again.

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About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at www.sexualhealth.indiana.edu.

  • http://twitter.com/slikid2 Andy L

    For me (a man) it seems to be a betrayal of trust to discuss my relationships in too much detail. That’s private and personal and it’s not something I like sharing with other men or women. 

    I know my SO discusses our relationship in more detail with other women but that doesn’t bother me at all. 

    Beyond “I really love her” or “we’re good for each other” type of comments I don’t get into relationship details. Like sex and intimacy beyond that it isn’t comfortable to discuss for me.