- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 5, 2000

Shirley Robinson calls it "the developmental progression of singleness." She spent her 20s living in a small Indiana town, oblivious to the fact she was single, since most of her friends were also.

A job change brought her to the Washington area (she now lives in Silver Spring), where she became immersed in the singles class at her church. Most of her friends were still single, but now she was more aware of it.

But as she got into her 30s, she says she got tired of hanging around singles constantly and began getting more involved in a cross section of people, older mentors, disabled children, a church Bible study of singles and married couples.

Now she is 43, still never married, and she finds herself attending weddings where her connection isn't with the bride, it's with the bride's mother.

"I used to think [mothers of brides] were really old when I was younger," she says with a laugh. "I don't feel old at all."

Miss Robinson adapts to a social life centered around married family and friends with that young-at-heart spirit and a twinkle in her eye. But she admits the process of working through being the "fifth wheel" in gatherings with her friends wasn't easy. For many singles in the Washington area, it's still not easy.

Singles and married couples alike say they struggle maintaining friendships with one another. Children, hectic work schedules and changing priorities are all hurdles to be cleared. The key, both sides say, is having a little understanding and revisiting, sometimes of how the other half lives and being adaptable. The effort, many single and married friends say, is worth it.

The 'Think Tank'

They call themselves the "Think Tank," a loose collection of 15 to 20 single and married men in their late 20s or early 30s, most of whom are from Texas. They met each other through work, social gatherings and coincidence, and now they get together every other week or so to play golf, have dinner, or, as is the case on this recent Wednesday night, meet at ESPNZone in the District to celebrate the birthdays of two of their members.

They all say there has been no trouble maintaining their relationships after marriage.

"It's been very easy," says one birthday boy, Army Capt. Mike Neri of Dumfries, Va., who is turning 30. "The single guys we hang out with don't mind the fact I'm married. It's not like, 'Oh no, you're married, you can't come out anymore.' My wife [Susan] comes out with the group sometimes and hangs out with the other wives. There's been mutual respect, not labeling or anything you're married, you're not married."

"Everybody's been so flexible and supportive," says the other birthday boy, Trey Henderson of Alexandria, a legislative aide for a House subcommittee and a single. "That's been what's made it work."

The wives and girlfriends help it work.

"Oh yes, it's been fun," says Susan Neri, who has been married to Capt. Neri for five years. "When the Think Tank gets together, it's just the guys, and that's fine. They have a great time together. But there are plenty of times like tonight when we can all come out, too, and hang out with them and with each other."

Adaptability, it seems, is the key for all friends on both sides of the marriage aisle.

"That's been a choice I've had to make," says Miss Robinson, an occupational therapist in Silver Spring. "When I have friends who get married, I'm the one who seems to be in an easier position to be adaptable and to continue the contact. When that person gets married, she enters into a whole new family system and they expect more limitations than I do. Unless I'm willing to adapt… . Most of my friends' husbands want me around, but I have to adapt to that, too having a husband in the picture."

That flexibility and sense of humor extends even to her own sisters.

"I've just chosen what I have to do," she says. "With my own blood sisters, I'm the wild-and-crazy aunt who adapts to their schedule."

But Miss Robinson says her conversion process wasn't easy. It took several years and several influential books to help her adjust her outlook.

Many singles find it hard to build the kind of flexibility Miss Robinson describes into their schedules, what with the long workweeks and many hobbies and leisure activities singles often have.

"[Married friends] don't have time to go out dancing or go out to the movies," says Karen Wilson of Burtonsville, a software engineer at Verizon. "I don't see my married friends doing that. I have to constantly make new friends so I have people to do things with, like swing dancing. And if they get married, it's a cycle over and over. It makes it really hard.

"Of course, as a single person, I can't understand all the nuances of married life, and I don't think married people understand the difficulties I have with loneliness, problems with roommates, dating, the discouragement about the future."

Ellen Nunnelee, a flower nursery manager in the District who has been married for 12 years, says scheduling time with anybody, married or single, can take extensive planning with her husband, Frank Lennox.

"Frank travels a great deal, and between that and the fact this area is such a busy world, you almost have to pull out your calendar to do something with anybody," she says.

Crossing the threshold

One of Kimberly Hartke's favorite quotes is from Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," where a father of a marriage-age daughter remarks, "I don't like it when people marry because they go away."

Marriage was foremost on the Reston homemaker's mind when she started an organization a few years ago, True Love Ministries (www.truelove.org), which helps direct single Christian women toward healthy marriages.

Mrs. Hartke says single women struggle much more than single men with the issue of maintaining friendships with married friends, largely because of that Austen quote.

"There's a line of demarcation once women cross that threshold," she says. "Almost universally, those friendships are cut off or damaged to a very strong degree. There are very few instances where a married woman reached back across that threshold with compassion and empathy. More often than not, [when a friend marries], single women go their separate ways and console each other."

Miss Wilson agrees that single women do struggle more relating with married friends.

"Men relate on a totally different level," she says. "It does affect women more when there's a change in relationship like that because we're more relationship-oriented."

Miss Wilson finds that among her married girlfriends, the topic of conversation in group situations is almost always marriages and child-rearing.

"I try to stay with that as much as I can and act interested, but sometimes part of you just walks away," she says.

Dennis Crowley of Fairfax, a single in his 40s, says men often undergo similar feelings. He says he has a good friend who is now married and who he seldom sees because of all the time he spends with his wife and children.

"It's a little different, but I understand," Mr. Crowley says.

On the other hand, Mr. Crowley points to another way marriage can strain friendships if the friends are of the opposite sex. Mr. Crowley says marriage can make those friendships feel "weird."

"I think women all of a sudden feel weird contacting friends of the opposite sex when they get married," he says. "It's like they're not being faithful."

He says he had a good female friend whose husband got jealous if they talked on the phone.

"There was nothing there in the first place," he says. "That's why she married this guy."

Divorce can complicate matters even more, because married and single friends often find themselves having to choose between maintaining friendships with one spouse or the other. And even in situations where that isn't a problem, where the friends didn't know the ex-spouse that well, there's still sometimes a question of how to treat their divorced friend.

'Being available'

Kay Lynch of Richmond went through that after she and her first husband divorced. She said a couple at her church really befriended her after the divorce, counseling her and taking calls from her day or night.

That friendship, she says, has made her more of a friend for Martha Goodman, a single friend and a technical recruiter in Richmond. The two women say they enjoy a friendship that is just as strong now as it was when Mrs. Lynch remarried six years ago, even though Mrs. Lynch has had two children since then.

"I guess probably the key thing is being available," says Mrs. Lynch, a stay-at-home mother of two small boys, Daniel and Matthew. "It is a great relationship. I've really enjoyed my relationship with Martha. It's hard when you have young children sometimes to make the time, but being available and being a friend are the key things."

Miss Goodman says she and Mrs. Lynch have "really ministered to each other" through their ability to talk about different issues from their different perspectives. Miss Goodman says she sometimes wishes she could have this kind of friendship with some of her other married friends, but that hasn't happened because her friends have either moved away or become consumed by married life.

"I think some people who get married don't know what to do with singles," Miss Goodman says.

That's not a problem for Mrs. Lynch, who says with a laugh, "There are benefits that go both ways. I'm usually very busy and Martha has helped me run errands when I'm sick and watched my kids. There are some nice perks."

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