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Being Credentialed

by Miriam Greenwald



Some years ago I made the acquaintance of a tour guide who was uncommonly knowledgeable about everything, not just the details in a guide book. He was filled with enough facts to win several game shows handily. Yet his formal education had stopped at high school. He could easily out teach a college professor, yet because he didn't have a certain duly authorized piece of paper it was unlikely he would be outlining courses of study or leading seminars.

In some people's eyes being married is like having a college degree. In both cases a piece of paper makes it official. And in both cases that piece of paper plus a ceremony bestows a halo on the main participants, the halo of maturity and fulfillment, whether completely deserved or not.

Looking more closely, in regard to marriage, do people really undergo such a positive, even metaphysical sea change once they tie the knot ? Hardly likely. Whatever a marriage is composed of is brought to it, although some couples swear some mystical synergy has occurred and they have undergone an ineffable transformation once they've, say, made their living together an official fact of life with the paperwork and vows. After all, it's a major rite of passage. Another segment of life has been ceremoniously set apart, sanctified. The problem is that not only is the state of matrimony thought to be intrinsically sacred (holy matrimony, after all) but also the couple. The very fact of getting married is supposed to elevate them, but look at all the cases of marital discord and abuse.

Now, what of the solo single, who isn't, by definition, even in a relationship? Not so many passages or public sea changes in life, not so differentiation, no central rite of passage to celebrate.

Years ago there was talk of singularity ceremonies, the idea of which even inspired a few segments in a comic strip. Not a bad idea, except it doesn't really mark a change in a life, except perhaps inwardly. Marriage, on the other had, is a publicly acknowledged change in status and it has inspired the growth of an entire industry. Weddings become more lavish every year. But the life of a solo single is not commonly celebrated in a codified, institutionalized act or ceremony. Days pass, things go on as they did before. And of course, that halo effect is missing, unless a single person without any partner, bravely facing life alone, is looked at as a martyred saint, and such figures aren't very popular today.

The code word, after all, is accomplishment. Accomplishment that is obvious to the rest of the world. There. I have finished college and achieved a bachelor's degree. I have completed my master's. I passed the interview. I have a wonderful career. I have found someone and become engaged in the course of all my success. Wait a minute. You mean to say you were never engaged? There's no outward sign you've accomplished what we've expected. Where are the papers attesting to your accomplishing singlehood?

What criteria have you mastered that you can now be granted a certificate, a diploma, a license? Oh, singledom is an ongoing thing. Where are your credentials?

Becoming part of a couple and getting into college have something in common. The older solo single, even if single by choice, has, to others, not passed the relationship SATs. We solo singles have to keep up our own continuing education. But don't couples? And not just the Marriage Encounter stuff.

But, like doctors and lawyers, who forever maintain certain designations after their names, for couples, once married, forever changed, even if widowed or divorced. For women it's what used to be joked about as the M.R.S. degree. And even though the honorific before his name doesn't change, a man, too, is supposed to be subtly different (also off limits), even superior, simply because he has acquired a wife. He's married.

The married couple is credentialed. There's a wedding ring.

The way older nontraditional students used to be discouraged from college, older solo singles are dismissed as marriage material, as if they have an expiration date stamped on their foreheads. If they haven't been married by now, or ever been in a relationship they have failed in their quest for credentials. They have failed to make the grade, whatever that means. Not!

And speaking of grades, since somebody ahs to graduate at the bottom of the class, not all professionals are geniuses. Not all married people are mature or wise. But the diploma stays on the wall. Why is even the most dysfunctional couple elevated above the best adjusted single person? Because according to society the very fact of being perpetually single brings into question everything else. Or if you are truly alone, how, according to others, can you by definition be well adjusted? Since only the credentials of marriage attest to "normal" adjustment! And that is a lot of nonsense.

Anyone want a slice of singularity cake?


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