Life Advice



Erika Ettin: 'Never married' doesn't mean 'never in a relationship'

Erika Ettin, Tribune News Service on

Published in Dating Advice

The other day, a 60-something widowed female client of mine received a message on from an accomplished, seemingly nice man. In her first response back to him, she asked — point blank — “Why have you never been married?” He replied very politely, saying that it was a combination of things, some work-related and some more personal. But do I think he owed her a response? No, I don’t.

I promptly wrote this message to my client:

One note of feedback: I know it's tempting to ask why someone hasn't been married before, but there are often so many variables that can't be distilled into one message, especially one to a stranger. So I do encourage you to get to know someone before asking that personal question because it unnecessarily puts someone on the defensive. Again, I understand why you'd ask. I just want you to get to know the person in the present, not based on his past. And I, of course, want the same for you. Plus, there is something to be said for the lack of baggage.

She answered:

I take your point about marriage questions, but “never married” is a warning sign that the guy doesn’t know how to have a relationship. I would never ask someone why they got divorced as an opening question.

And I said:


I just don’t want to make assumptions based on someone's past. I see both sides because I work with a number of people who have not been married, yet have had serious relationships, some longer than many marriages. It doesn't mean that they don't know how to have a relationship at all. Marriage isn't necessarily the end goal for everyone. The question actually seems similar to asking someone why he got divorced, which I'd also never recommend. I'd much rather know who someone is today based on his past experiences (hopefully wiser from them) vs. based solely on those experiences in a vacuum. Just something to keep in mind when trying to look at the other side. There's no right or wrong — just sharing another perspective.

She took my feedback well, which I appreciated. I don’t try to change people’s minds but rather get them to ask themselves “why?” Why is something important? Why is that information necessary? Why do I feel the need to ask this question immediately?

About two years ago, a 58-year-old male client made a similar statement to me: “I’ll never date someone who has not been married. They’re all afraid of commitment.” I actually flipped this on its head and asked, “Have you ever been with someone divorced who is afraid of commitment?” His answer? “Of course.” So, it’s not the marital status that causes someone to be afraid of commitment at all.

Just like in statistics, it’s really easy to manipulate data (and our minds) to draw any conclusion we’re looking for, often proving ourselves right if that’s the goal. So if you assume someone who has never been married can’t have an intimate relationship, then you will find examples to support that. It’s the same as if someone is, say, a lawyer, and you find reasons to believe they are argumentative. Or if someone is not a parent and you find reasons to believe they are selfish.

Rarely is it such a simple case of cause and effect. As I told my client, there are a wealth of variables at play. When it comes down to it, more important than someone’s past is how that person uses those experiences to become the person they are today.

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