The holidays can be a wonderful time of year for many reasons — winter activities, lavish meals, gifts given and received, and spending time with the people closest to you. They can also be pretty difficult, however, if those loved ones want to pester you about the state of your romantic life.
Specifically, one thing single people hate to hear is the dreaded question: “So, are you seeing anyone?” (Or “Why haven’t you settled down yet?”)
There tends to be a lot wrapped up in a simple question like that — an assumption that you should be seeing someone, that you’re at that stage of your life now where you should either be playing the field or settling down, that there’s no real difference between being lonely and being alone.
All of that is bogus, and if you’re hit with that question and those assumptions all at once in front of a group of people or once everyone’s had a bit to drink (or both), the whole thing can become incredibly unpleasant.
Luckily for you, there are ways to deal with the situation that’ll leave you feeling less like you’re winded and more like you’re winning. Since everyone is different — and everyone’s relatives are different — here are a variety of strategies to help you out.
1. Ask Something Right Back
In sports, it’s often said that the best defense is a good offense, meaning if you’re good enough on the attack, you won’t need to defend as much. If a question, like, say, “So are you still single?” feels cruel and calculated to put you on the defensive, you can always flip that dynamic right back around on the question asker.
As Lesli Doares, couples consultant and author of Blueprint for a Lasting Marriage: How to Create Your Happily Ever After With More Intention, Less Work, puts it, “There are nosy people in all areas of our lives. But just because they want to know something […], it doesn’t mean we have to provide the information they are interested in. It is imperative that if someone asks you a question, they receive a response. But the response does not have to answer the question asked.”
Most people don’t really consider that because they’re used to good-faith question/answer dynamics. But if you have reason to believe that the person is asking just to make you squirm, well, two can play at that game.
Izolda Trakhtenberg, IST, LLC, communication workshop leader and author of the book Speak From Within: Engage, Inspire, and Motivate Any Audience, suggests this asking-the-asker tactic could be useful to help you out in these circumstances.
“The best way is to turn your answer into a question. And remember to ask questions that require thoughtful answers. In other words, don’t ask questions that can be answered with a couple of facts. Instead, ask “how” or “what” questions. Those require some thought and perhaps even a story. Your relative starts thinking about the answer. Then, you steer the conversation onto other topics without answering the question.”
Try something like this on for size:
“Ugh, I wish! I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. How did you two meet each other, anyway?”
Of course, there’s no need to make this a strictly conflict-oriented dynamic. It also works as an avenue to a fun and light discussion if you ask the right question.
“Remember to avoid questions that start with ‘when’ and ‘where,’” cautions Trakhtenberg. “They can be answered with a fact and won’t derail your prying relative from their initial question. ‘How’ and ‘what’ questions require thought and will turn the conversation onto the relative. They will then enjoy it even more because they’re talking about themselves. You’ll free yourself from talking about an uncomfortable topic, and you’ll make relatives happy and nostalgic. It’s a super simple technique, and it works.”
2. Deflect or Bow Out
Don’t want to talk about something? Don’t! If you’re not comfortable getting into a war of words and you really do not want to talk about it, you have a few options at your disposal for squirming out with your dignity intact. Most people have enough emotional intelligence to drop something if someone responds to a question by deflecting with a non-response or by exiting the conversation.
Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., LMFT, psychotherapist and author of It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction, suggests that one tactic that can work well is simply not responding.
“Just look the person in the eye and remain silent,” advises Tessina. “There’s no need to say anything. Your silence will speak volumes. Let the silence hang in the air a moment, and then bring up a totally different topic, like, ‘Isn’t it a lovely day?’ Or, if you feel very insulted, just walk away and speak with someone else. If you’re so upset you can’t control your retort, then say ‘excuse me’ and quickly go to the bathroom, which is a safe haven where you can compose yourself.”
“Ooh, it’s tough-question-o’clock already! I’d love to answer that, but unfortunately, I really have to use the washroom quite urgently.”
Doares favors a bit more of a diplomatic response, suggesting that you simply shift topics.
“Redirecting the question politely, instead of getting into a conversation you don’t want to have or getting upset about it, puts you back in charge of what you are willing to talk about,” she says. “Being light but clear is the way to get this boundary established.”
3. Be Honest
This might not be your favorite option, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good one. Talking about something you’re not super comfortable about is often scary, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world.
If the question asker is well-meaning and you don’t have any reason to suspect that they or other people present will make a big deal of it, you could always try just being honest. Devoreaux Walton, a confidence coach at The Modern Lady, suggests that this approach might not actually be that bad.
“Because this is a family member, and not a random stranger at the grocery store or a co-worker at the office, you can be at ease with divulging personal information and details, if you choose,” says Walton.
“Any answer you give can be honest. Perhaps you are dating and simply haven’t found anyone worthy of commitment, or perhaps dating is not a priority right now because you are focused on other things, like career or travel.”
Walton also notes that a little pinch of humor can go a long way in a situation like this. Throwing in a joke or two (self-deprecating or otherwise) can turn an unpleasant conversation into a nice memory if you can make people laugh at what you’re saying.
If your family’s thick-skinned enough, you could try to make the joke about someone else in the room, with something like this, perhaps:
“Well, you know I’ve been single for a while now … almost as long as Uncle Willy has been bald!”
Or make the joke about current events or the world at large:
“Yeah, I’d better hurry up and find someone soon before the oceans rise up and swallow my future wife!”
4. Shift the Conversation Private
The truth is that in a void, this question isn’t necessarily the landmine that it might feel like in a group setting. Sure, it can be embarrassing to talk about private, personal details that you’re a little bit embarrassed by in front of the whole family, but it’s always possible that the person asking is genuinely curious and isn’t aware of the angst they’re causing.
As Jor-El Caraballo, a relationship therapist and co-creator of Viva Wellness, points out, “Sometimes a relative’s intentions around this question might be unclear, and when bombarded with this question, it can certainly feel kind of threatening or a judgement on you and your value. Take a moment to have a real conversation about it, and something interesting might come up that could help better the relationship altogether.”
If that’s the case, you could consider saying something like:
“Let’s not talk about it right now in front of everyone. I’ll come find you afterwards and we can talk about it privately.”
That shifts the tone in a big way: You’re acknowledging that the asker has a right to want to know, but also that you’re uncomfortable answering in the current situation.
Whatever you do, do your best not to become nasty and mean — that’s just counterproductive.
“Be sure not to attack them or their motives,” says Raffi Bilek, LCSW-C, therapist and director of the Baltimore Therapy Center. “Especially if it’s a friend of family member, they often do think they’re trying to be helpful and may not take well to the implication that they aren’t. And don’t feel you need to explain yourself any more than you are comfortable. You have the right to set your own boundaries.”