Am I being oversensitive?
June 2, 2011 12:35 PM   Subscribe

Do people (especially men) tend to assume that a newly single woman of >45 must be desperate for a new partner, or am I misinterpreting normal conversational gambits?

I am a recently uncoupled (though never married) woman over 45, with a fairly active social life of my own. I think I handled the breakup of my four-year relationship well. I had not dated at all for several years before I met my former partner, and am in no hurry to return to dating. I really do not believe I am conflicted on this point.

So why is it that, when I meet partnered men socially and they realize that I am single, many seem to mention their unavailability as early and often as possible? True, not every last person does this, and some are less emphatic about it than others, but that leaves numerous instances in recent months where I've actually felt embarrassed for and by my interlocutor's nearly context-free repetition of references to a spouse or girlfriend. I am not a flirtatious sort and do not believe I am emitting social cues that would elicit such behavior. Thus far I've let such interactions go without comment, but I'm getting a little annoyed.

Is there a notion, whether consciously held or not, that single straight women Of A Certain Age are likely to be desperate or predatory, and that it is wise for men to establish firm boundaries at the outset so as to avert unwanted interest?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (32 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Are you sure it's not confirmation bias, and they would talk about their significant others just as much before you broke up with yours, but now you notice them talking about it and assume it's because they want you to know they're not single, instead of just normal conversation as per usual?
posted by Grither at 12:37 PM on June 2, 2011 [8 favorites]

Based on my age (41) and complete lack of even the tiniest nibbles from men on dating sites (except ones that are over 70), I'd say yes, but it's impossible to guess at any one individual's reason for doing anything.
posted by Melismata at 12:40 PM on June 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

There is such a notion but it may not be what is causing this behavior.

Perhaps they are just being polite? When they realize you are single it must have come up in conversation somehow. To me it's just natural politeness to discuss their own state. Compare to if they found out you are married: "Oh you're married? My gf and I live together." Same thing.

Sure some might be thinking those negative things about you but why dwell on that? Start by assuming the best of people and let them screw it up from there.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:40 PM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

So why is it that, when I meet partnered men socially and they realize that I am single, many seem to mention their unavailability as early and often as possible?

I think a lot of people do this just to get it out of the way. So if you're single and looking you'll get the message. And if you're single and not looking you won't care at all. This has nothing to do with desperation, to my read, it's just people innocuously employing a social courtesy in case you might be looking. You're not. There's nothing about what they're saying that implies anything about you personally. If you think this is implying that you are desperate or predatory, I think that may be on you a little.

Relatedly: there is one stereotype of the women with the biological clock ticking that I think a lot of people either buy into and/or know someone who fits and so may be overgeneralizing. So in your age range [which is also my age range, hello!] people may presume that you are one of those chomping-at-the-bit-must-have-babies people they've heard so much about. I have had a few friends in their late thirties, mostly women but not all, who got very goal-oriented about their dating, such that if the person they were talking to wasn't at least somewhat open to married-with-kids in a short timeframe, they'd quickly move on because they were On A Schedule. So, if you were someone who knew people like this you might, again, make a quick "get it out of the way" note to spare people's time.

I'm a woman now with a long distance boyfriend. Many people start out thinking I am single because of no immediately-obvious boyfriend. I'll often mention him early on if I'm talking to someone who is single-and-looking just to make things clear but it's not because I think the other person is desperate or otherwise weird, it's just sort of manners.
posted by jessamyn at 12:46 PM on June 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

"Mentioning their unavailability" and "mentioning that they're with someone" are not exactly the same thing.

The former could reasonably be construed has having something to do with their thoughts on your wanting another partner.

The latter is making polite conversation on the subject at hand.

General references to spouses/girlfriends seem a lot more like the latter than the former.
posted by valkyryn at 12:47 PM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Some men might do this just to let you know they are not trying to hit on you, thus freeing you both up to have a conversation without second-guessing or misinterpreting motives.
posted by The Deej at 12:51 PM on June 2, 2011 [34 favorites]

My husband does this with most if not all the single women he meets (he is a realtor so he meets tons of folks.) It's just a habit he has just in case. When he really feels that someone is on the make (not that often but it has come up a time or two) he makes sure to bring me with him next time he talks to them.

I wouldn't take it personally. In fact, I reflexively mention my own marital status around single men myself (the older ones) specifically because I don't want them to think I am flirting with them.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:53 PM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

You could also explain the same actions by supposing that these men find themselves attracted to you. When they learn that you're single, they feel compelled to set boundaries lest they become tempted to flirt with you.

I have no idea if that's necessarily the right explanation either, but I'm just saying that you've taken to the least generous interpretation of the data here.
posted by the jam at 12:54 PM on June 2, 2011 [5 favorites]

I find it pretty common for new straight male friends / lesbian female friends or exclusive or uninterested people in general to drop direct hints about these things. Making availability / unavailability as clear as possible without being gauche is just something that happens when people meet I think.
posted by idiopath at 1:02 PM on June 2, 2011

You know, I used to feel the same way back when I was single. Thing is, I don't talk about my boyfriend much and there's no other indication that he's around, yet I feel like guys are much less... defensive around me now. I have no evidence for this, but I think it's a combination of my being less sensitive (I just don't care what they think of me as much as I used to, and am less hyper-aware of their status-talk) And that they pick up on that and don't feel like they have to address it.

In other words, maybe yes to both of your questions.
posted by ldthomps at 1:06 PM on June 2, 2011

Hmm, I mention my wife constantly, especially if I am talking with a woman who I am sure is single. I don't know why I do it, and I don't think it's necessary to analyze why I do it.

In relation to your question, I certainly don't do it because I think a newly single woman of >45 must be desperate for a new partner.

However, most newly single woman I know personally of around that age group are desperate for a new partner, given that they talk very candidly regarding such topic and don't stop talking about it until they get one...........
posted by TinWhistle at 1:06 PM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm 41 and I mention my wife in conversation a lot, because she's a big part of my life and she's kind of neat and she does a lot of stuff that I sometimes find myself talking to people about, such as gardening and singing.

It's possible some of the people I mention her to are single women in their forties. It's also possible some of them might be looking to date someone and, when I mention my wife, they mentally check the "not available" box in their brain. I have even occasionally seen a sudden look of disappointment and a quick end to the conversation after I bring her up. It's very likely I'm imaging that, though. It's easy to make up stories in our heads as to why people do the things they do.

My point is, a lot of people talk about their spouses and there are a number of reasons why they do this. Some might be doing it because they think you're lookin' to make a baby ASAP, some might do it just because their spouse is part of who they are.

I also play with my wedding ring a lot on my finger, which could be interpreted to mean "LOOK AT MY RING I AM MARRIED CAN'T YOU TAKE A HINT?" but I play with anything I can get my fingers on. I also peel the labels off every beer bottle I ever come in contact with.

But to answer your question: No. I do not tend to think newly single women in their 40s are desperate to find a partner. If anything, I tend to think someone of that age knows what the hell they're doing and if they're out of a relationship they may be all about being single for a while.
posted by bondcliff at 1:09 PM on June 2, 2011 [6 favorites]

I also play with my wedding ring a lot on my finger, which could be interpreted to mean...

Not to be derailly, but I'm a man who has worn a wedding ring on and off for decades, and I can confidently state that in my own experience, the presence of the ring greatly increases the number of interested parties, or at least the amount of "hitting on" received. Significantly.

I think TinWhistle and others are nudging at a likely truth here, and while it might not necessary to analyze, it sure is interesting. At least some of these men are probably uncomfortable when talking to you. They may be dealing with some inner signals, and subconsciously they decide they'd really better express their "unavailability" to you, posthaste.

Think of it as a little desperation on their part. A psychic defense mechanism.

In other words, what is happening to you might say good things about your own appeal.
posted by rokusan at 1:19 PM on June 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

I came in here to say pretty much what bondcliff said. It's hard for me to get through a conversation of much length about myself without invoking my wife at some point.

I realized after one breakup that, for the previous couple years, I almost never used the first-person singular, only the first-person plural. I decided this was kind of unhealthy, so when I got into another relationship, I made a conscious effort to talk about "me" not "us" with other people. Eventually this started to feel contrived and I stopped making the effort.

So it's possible that people are dropping hints. It's also possible that you're just newly sensitive to their conversational habits.
posted by adamrice at 1:21 PM on June 2, 2011

when I meet partnered men socially and they realize that I am single, many seem to mention their unavailability as early and often as possible?

I suppose it depends on how they're coming by this realization, but my first thought when reading the sentence above is that's just how smalltalk goes. if someone mentions their relationship status to me, I'm probably going to reply by mentioning mine in turn.

Having said that, I'm like a lot of the previous posters in that I'm likely mention my relationship status (taken) just to get it out of the way, so that no-one is getting any mixed messages.
posted by lekvar at 1:35 PM on June 2, 2011

Some of these men will be attracted to you and they are ensuring that they behave themselves around you. Some of them will think that you might think they're single and are trying to assert boundaries. Some men will be in awful marriages and will be trying to convince themselves that they're happy and so will mention their SO as much as humanly possible in order to persuade you (them, everyone) that everything's fine. Some men will think you might be up for a threesome. Some men love their partners so much they can't stop referring to them.

Generally though - they are attracted to you and they are trying to make themselves think with their brains (hey, I have a wife) and not with their dicks.
posted by mleigh at 2:01 PM on June 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

I am not in your age bracket, but I often drop in a mention of my gf in an innocuous manner in conversation with someone I just met for two reasons.. 1) she's a big part of my life, so it crops up naturally. 2) i try and be a friendly person in general, and sometimes this has been misinterpreted by women as me flirting with them. dropping the fact that i am partnered is just away of me avoiding that potential awkwardness, and it's not b/c I am scared that the person I have just met is predatory or even looking, or necessarily even interested in me in any meaningful way. It's just something that is "out there", and I've had it done to me when I've been single and chatting with a partnered woman. I didn't read any hostility into it.

So unless they are specifically saying "I am unavailable" as opposed to just mentioning the existence of their partner, I think you're probably reading too much into it.
posted by modernnomad at 2:02 PM on June 2, 2011

As with bondclif, I do mention my wife a fair bit, as she's a big part of how my life works and what I think about. I've also found mentioning her tends to deflate tension with other women, so that we can just have a conversation rather than having to worry about strutting around each other's plumage. Win-win really.
posted by bonehead at 2:10 PM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well it depends. If they're mentioning their partners, that's just normal conversation.


Because you would be so disappointed, wouldn't you, that such a great catch is unavailable to you? At least, unavailable for a committed relationship. Because he's taken. And therefore you can't have him. Because somebody else got there first. Is that clear. He is not-available-a-mundo.

posted by tel3path at 2:24 PM on June 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Men have lots of motives for sharing their relationship status when they meet someone for the first time. I seriously doubt it's because they're uninterested and assume you were in a hurry to get naked until you learned their status. It's genuinely something decent people may bring up early because it's part of who they are and possibly, since they don't know you well, they want to put more information out there with the hope that some of it is relevant so conversation can continue without awkward silence.

So, yes, you're being oversensitive.*

(*For purposes of this response, I'm assuming you're not dressing to inspire wanton lust in all men who see you or engaging in activities or movements that may be interpreted as signals of interest.)
posted by Hylas at 2:52 PM on June 2, 2011

Being a nearing-40 single man, I sympathize with the men you're asking about. I did pretty well with the ladies in college, but it was nothing compared to the attention I get now from single 40-something women. Other than having all my hair I'm not much of a catch, so I assume the primary motivator is desperation.

What I used to find flattering is now just annoying, so I tend to bring up my SO very soon into conversations with women I meet.
posted by coolguymichael at 3:33 PM on June 2, 2011

I bring up my marital status with pretty much every woman I meet to avoid any misunderstandings...
posted by schyler523 at 3:54 PM on June 2, 2011

This happens to me all the time and I'm in my 30's and married. So it might not be because of your relationship status. Maybe it's "I don't want her to think I'm flirting with her". Which is good, right? You're seen as a woman with whom available men would flirt.
posted by Knowyournuts at 3:58 PM on June 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've actually felt embarrassed for and by my interlocutor's nearly context-free repetition of references to a spouse or girlfriend.

I'm a little south of 40, and I run into this once in a while -- not in the general social situations everyone above is referencing though.

It's almost always from someone who works in a store or business in some sort. Somehow in the course of asking if they carry product XYZ, or would ABC work for what I'm trying to do, they feel it necessary to suddenly tell me their wife is studying underwater basketweaving or something.

Generally they seem nervous, and continue to be nervous until say something like "Oh, how interesting, does she weave in saltwater or freshwater?", at which point the man is reassured that I have realized he is married and we can get back to discussing the merits of various grades of tires or whatnot.

It seems very odd and out of place -- generally it's not cropping up naturally, it's some sort of thing that has no relevance to the topic at hand, and if I just ignore it there will be other comments, and they stop once I say the "Oh how interesting" bit.

I'm a bit puzzled and a little annoyed by it myself, and in some ways it seems like I'm being rejected without having even attempted to flirt with the guy... but it seems like men sometimes see nearly any interaction as flirtation.

I try to view it in a way similar to Knowyournuts's explanation, that you're seen as someone who would be desirable to flirt with (and perhaps a bit of the men seeing themselves as someone available women would be throwing themselves at as well).
posted by yohko at 4:28 PM on June 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Possible suggestion if their repetition gets annoyingly frequent: people often quit repeating themselves if you let them know you heard them. So, if you're getting irritated, maybe make their current relationship into the conversation topic. "Well, you and your girlfriend certainly sound quite devoted to one another. How wonderful. What is she like? How did you meet? What do the two of you like to do in your free time?"
posted by salvia at 4:50 PM on June 2, 2011

How do they realize you're single? If you're talking about it a lot, or forwardly, they may think, "Okay! She's given me the cue that we're talking about our relationship statuses now! So I'll tell you I'm married!"

In other words, you may be inadvertently leading them right up to the disclosure. I think there's always an awkward moment when a single person and a partnered person of compatible sexual orientation meet in a social setting and realize they've just established that one is sexually unavailable to the other. Not an asshole moment, just a moment to reassess the expectations of the conversation. Perhaps the man becomes concerned that he led you on or let you down, and conceals his sense of failure (men hate failure!) with babble about his LOVELY WIFE to show he's not an asshole, he's a really nice guy, he has this LOVELY WIFE HE CAN'T STOP TALKING ABOUT so the sexually available female won't flirt and make him feel conflicted.

FWIW, this happened a lot when I was a single late-20-and early 30-something, too, so I think it's Mars/Venus more than age.
posted by thinkingwoman at 7:46 PM on June 2, 2011

I occasionally run into something similar to this at, strangely enough, the grocery store. I am a short woman and sometimes, when I can't reach an item, I'll ask the first tall person I see to reach it for me. Every so often the immediate response is "I'm with my wife". I then retort, "oh good, do you think she could reach it for me?". Yeah, it's annoying, and what I'd like to say is "dude, get over yourself, I just want the mustard, I'm not going to touch you or anything" but what the hell, I guess they're misinterpreting the condiment lust in my eyes for designs on their virtue.
posted by Allee Katze at 8:04 PM on June 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

I think it is basic getting to know you chatter that you failed to notice before. As others have suggested, I think I'm probably likely to respond to someone relating in whatever way their relational status by relating my own. If you told me about your dog I'd tell you about my cat.

If anything I think I'm more likely to relate my status to give the signal "don't worry, even though you just told me you're single, I'm not going to hit on you".

I believe you when you say you are not conflicted about being single and not wanting to jump into dating, but maybe you are feeling some concern about how you are viewed socially? American society, for example, has a really hard time with any female celebrity being single, especially when she's hitting middle age, much more so than with the men.

I definitely don't have any sense of single women in their 40s or whatever being especially predatory or desperate, that just seems like dumb TV stuff to me.
posted by nanojath at 9:04 PM on June 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've been on the other side of this too. For instance, one time I went into a paint store to look at color chips and the paint guy started making conversation. It seemed pretty natural to mention agreeing on paint colors with my boyfriend and I wasn't bringing it up because I thought he was hitting on me, just because it was the natural place to go with the conversation. He got visibly annoyed and said something rather brusque.
It's normal for you to think about it, but you're probably over thinking it. I'm a not-newly single 40 something lady myself and was pretty raw about this type of thing right after the breakup, but now I've settled back down and don't pay as much attention.
posted by jenfu at 9:15 AM on June 3, 2011

I think preemptive disclosure of one's relationship status is a habit one learns pretty quickly, after only a few awkward experiences, and if people are in fact doing that, then it really doesn't reflect on you at all. I'm a 31-year-old female, and I've often found myself making sure to mention my boyfriends, or, now, husband very early in any conversation. I'm not exactly a spectacular raving beauty, and I am in no way convinced that absolutely everyone I speak to is stricken immediately with unslakeable (or even very moderate) lust upon setting eyes on me. But, even though it can feel slightly awkward to shoehorn one's unavailability into a conversation, it's a LOT less awkward than suddenly realizing that the other party *does* cherish An Interest, and wow, you had no clue.

At this point, all of my friends know that I'm happily in a monogamous relationship, and have no designs on disrupting that. And when I go out socially to clubs and such, my husband usually goes with me, and is obviously With Me. So I grew very accustomed to not being hit on, and sort of started assuming I was no longer attractive and didn't need to worry about it anymore. Went out with a couple of female friends a few weeks ago and got into a lovely conversation with a gentleman I had never met before. And oh, *drat*, I had forgotten all about the sinking feeling in one's stomach when you're suddenly afraid that you might, completely innocently, have led someone on about your availability. It would have been easier if I had thought to mention my relationship status earlier on. Probably for both of us. I had really been enjoying that conversation, too.

So it's probably not about you. It's just that a few situations like that really emphasize the value of being upfront, even in a slightly unnatural way. Then you know no one on *any* side of the interaction has any mistaken impressions.
posted by Because at 12:06 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Standard first conversation fodder for most people over the age of 30:
1) Profession
2) Partnered/not partnered
3) Children/no children
posted by Jacqueline at 1:25 AM on June 4, 2011

Oh, and if one has a partner, one usually mentions one's partners profession, and if one has school age or adult children, one usually mentions where/what they're studying or what their professions are.

It's really just standard getting-to-know-you stuff. It would only seem weird to me if a guy felt compelled to mention his marital status before he mentioned his profession, since "What do you do?" almost always come up before partners and kids. But maybe that's changing with the recession.
posted by Jacqueline at 1:30 AM on June 4, 2011

« Older Should I give up Malibu Stacy?   |   When do I worry about my kid not getting enough... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.