One of the most popular books in the 1970s was called Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask. When I was in high school, we used to pass it around in class, without its identifying book jacket, and read it surreptitiously. Now, in 2016, bookshelves are groaning under the weight of books about sex. What contemporary readers are more likely to crave are personal books about sweeping life changes, such as those that occur when people of a certain age suddenly become single. Barbara Ballinger and Margaret Crane wrote such a book and called it Suddenly Single After 50: The Girlfriends’ Guide to Navigating Loss, Restoring Hope, and Rebuilding Your Life. It could have been called Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Your Newly Single Life After 50, But Were Afraid to Ask.
Ballinger and Crane are longtime friends who have written previous books together. Both had been married with children. Ballinger became suddenly single in her 50s when her husband of 29 years gave her “the passion is gone” speech; they divorced. Crane became suddenly single at 64, when after 42 years of marriage, her husband died of cancer.
The two friends tell all. They start with their backstories, then take readers through those early wrenchingly painful months of grief and loss following the end of their marriages. They don’t dwell on the agony, though; the book is not a tear-jerker. They soon move past the chapter on what they miss most about their married lives to the steps involved in rebuilding their lives, such as dealing with new financial challenges, selling their homes and moving into unfamiliar places, navigating social life as solos instead of couples, entertaining, dating, and even making decisions about their final resting places.
Because Suddenly Single is the story of just two people, it is circumscribed in many significant ways. Both women married young, at 22, at a time when early marriage was the norm. One of them went straight from living with her parents to living with her husband — something quite unusual today. Both were accustomed to a reasonably comfortable life, financially.
More compelling than any of the idiosyncrasies in the two women’s stories were the universalities. Every human deals with pain and loss and disappointment. Every human tries to build or rebuild a life, even if it is not the one they anticipated. Everyone experiences struggles and joys. In some fundamental ways, the stories in Suddenly Single should have been irrelevant to my life; I will never experience divorce or widowhood because I have joyfully embraced lifelong singlehood. Yet I found Suddenly Single riveting. It is funny, wise, and practical, and it is written with a lot of heart.
Suddenly Single is first of all a memoir. But it is also a self-help book. To me, it was also an anthropological read: Oh, so that’s what it’s like to be suddenly single after 50, instead of living single all your life. It was also, in places, a horror story: Ballinger ended up going on 350 dates! (She, though, wasn’t horrified; she just kept them all straight with an Excel spreadsheet.)
The self-help parts were both quirky and satisfying. They mostly took the form of lists of hard-earned wisdom scattered throughout the book. These weren’t boring, predictable listicles, but personal and thoughtful observations. For example, Margaret Crane (whose husband Nolan died after a five-year illness) offered these lists:
- What I wish people had said when Nolan was ill
- What I wish people hadn’t asked when Nolan was ill
- What I wish people hadn’t asked or said when he died
- What I wish people would have said afterwards (and some did)
- What people did that most pleased and consoled me
Barbara Ballinger’s lists included “secrets of buying a house on your own” and “how to cook with a guy, eat together, and not spoil the brisket or the relationship.”
Over and over again throughout the book, Ballinger and Crane describe the kinds of things that made them, as newly single people, feel frightened or intimidated or demoralized. Going to social events alone, for example, and returning to a darkened home. One of Crane’s lists described “things I didn’t do and thought I’d never have to do.” (Her husband used to do them). They included, for example, fixing things, trimming bushes, hosting a dinner party solo, and helping her parents move. Crane described how good she felt about herself once she learned to do things such as pay bills, plan her own trips and travel alone, and subscribe to publications she enjoys. If you’ve been single all your life, you’ve been facing these kinds of things on your own for as long as you can remember. You’ve either figured out how to do them yourself, or you’ve found other people to hire or to help you. I think lifelong single people who read Suddenly Single will feel proud of themselves, never having realized that they deserve special credit for all that they’ve accomplished in their lives.
Or, if you are a lifelong single person who loves single life, like I am, it is even better than that. Some of the experiences that seem daunting to the newly single never scared us; some of them, we even embrace. I love the option of going to social events on my own — or going with friends or not going at all. And, I love coming home to an empty house. I would be disappointed if I couldn’t have my solitude and would have to continue interacting with other humans.
There were times when reading the book that I could have felt deeply offended. For example, when describing her fear of what her single life would be like, one of the authors wondered, “Would I have to hang out with single women most of the time?” I didn’t like the reminder that for some people, spending time with me, a single woman, might be considered sad. I cherish my time with my friends and never saw friendship as the booby prize you are stuck with until you find a mate. But I ended up grateful that the authors were willing to be honest about how they really felt. Their sentiments are part of the matrimania and singlism of our time, the unchallenged ideology that maintains that married people are simply better than single people.
The redemption came when the personal journeys of these two women led them to a more enlightened place. For decades, they had lived a life of privilege and had not even realized it. The privileges they enjoyed were the vast array of unearned social, cultural, political, legal, and financial rewards that people get simply for being married. Once they were unceremoniously deposited into single life, their new experiences were a revelation. They learned that single people are pitied. Single people are asked inappropriate questions. Single people are demoted from dinner and a movie on a Saturday night to lunch on a weekday, if they are included at all. Then, after they became coupled again, they vowed not to do to other single people what others had done to them. No ditching their single friends, and no demoting them to brunch or lunch.
In one of the most heartening sections of the book, Ballinger, having put in some serious time as a single person, shares the list of “what I found I loved about my new status.” She had discovered, as many lifelong single people have long known, that there are profound benefits to single life. For example:
“I could think of myself in a way I believe, rather than buy into what I’d been told. I could be a good role model to daughters and show them that the world doesn’t fall apart permanently when you don’t have a partner in your life; that you can be happy and thrive, successful in all sorts of ways even if you weren’t raised to think that way. I could stop reserving ‘I love you’ just for a spouse, but tell it to my close friends and family at the end of many conversations.”
Amen to that.
Suddenly Single After 50: The Girlfriends’ Guide to Navigating Loss, Restoring Hope, and Rebuilding Your Life
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, July 2016
Hardcover, 214 pages