Singletude: A Positive Blog for Singles

Singletude is a positive, supportive singles blog about life choices for the new single majority. It's about dating and relationships, yes, but it's also about the other 90% of your life--family, friends, career, hobbies--and flying solo and sane in this crazy, coupled world. Singletude isn't about denying loneliness. It's about realizing that whether you're single by choice or by circumstance, this single life is your life to live.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Singletude Profiled at Onely

Newsflash! Singletude was profiled today at Onely: Single and Happy as part of their series "Some Like It Single," which features blogs with a pro-singles focus. (There must be an award for stuffing the word "single" into a sentence as many times as I just did, heh heh.) Longtime friends Lisa and Christina, who share blogging duties at Onely, are writerly academics, and it shows in their articulate posts, which will introduce you to such concepts as "heteronormativity" and "singlism." Their blog takes a provocative look at cultural assumptions about singleness, both in their private lives and in the wider spheres of advertising, entertainment, politics, and other American institutions. It will challenge, educate, and enlighten you without ever sacrificing its charming readability.

Please stop in and check out Onely's Singletude review, then stick around for an in-depth exploration of what it means to be single in our coupled world!

Do you have a question for Clever Elsie about some aspect of the single life? Have a rant or rave about singlehood? Write in, and you just might see your question in a Singletude Q&A or your rant or rave in a Singletude Sound-off!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Bad Marriages Break Men's Hearts, Too

As a postscript to "Bad Marriages Break (Women's) Hearts," I'd like to share an article that I found just a day or two after I last blogged. "Bad Marriages Harder on Women's Health" by Kathleen Doheny appeared in the online edition of U.S. News & World Report as a response to the aforementioned research linking stressful marriage to an increased risk of metabolic syndrome in women. However, this version of the report included some info that the others conveniently omitted.

Specifically, the U.S. News article includes commentary from Dr. Debra Umberson of the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Umberson, who is also an expert on the health effects of marital stress, reveals that her research paints a different picture--one with a much darker palette for men: "'Basically, we find that marital strain undermines the health of men and women,' she says, adding that perhaps the men in [Nancy] Henry's study had their health influenced in a different way." (ital added)

According to her CV, Umberson has been publishing her work on the interaction between gender and marital conflict for several years now, yet I can't recall major media players jumping all over it in the way they did the recent University of Utah study. (Correct me if I'm wrong, please. Some of you may remember news stories that I'm forgetting.) Could it be that the American media is not as interested in publicizing how unhappy relationships affect men's health? If not, why not?

My initial thought was that with so many men defecting from traditional marriage bonds, conservative-slanted publications might be squelching any research that would further dissuade them from tying the knot. But then it occurred to me that we also live in a society that clings to certain preconceptions about gender roles which make it less acceptable for men to be emotionally invested in their relationships or to exhibit depression and other outward signs of distress over relationship conflict. Women's magazines remind us that relationships aren't central to a man's identity, that instead of moping by the phone and overanalyzing with friends, a guy lets his troubles roll off his back along with big drops of sweat at the gym. In effect, American women are taught that relationship failure will leave them on the verge of collapse, while men are taught that their hearts should take a lickin' and keep on tickin'. So the suppression of research proving that men aren't as invulnerable as we'd like to think fits the dominant cultural message about gender roles.

Whatever the reason that Umberson's findings were overlooked, Singletude is setting the record straight for readers here: Marital problems depress both women and men and may increase the likelihood that both sexes will develop health issues. Henry's research is not and surely will not be the final word.

Whew! Just had to get that off my chest. Now back to your regularly scheduled blogging!

Do you think more public attention is paid to research that reinforces gender stereotypes as opposed to research that disproves them? Can you think of any other reasons that Henry's study was so well publicized while Umberson's contradictory results were not? What do you think might explain the discrepancy between their conclusions? Have you noticed news sources applying selective reporting to singles issues as well?

Fun Link of the Day

Do you have a question for Clever Elsie about some aspect of the single life? Have a rant or rave about singlehood? Write in, and you just might see your question in a Singletude Q&A or your rant or rave in a Singletude Sound-off!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Bad Marriages Break (Women's) Hearts

No, that title is not a juicy little morsel of schadenfreude. I'm not the kind of single who's always itching to sink my teeth into the misery of some poor unhappily married couple. Singletude wants single and married people alike to be happy. However, acquiring a marriage license doesn't guarantee happiness any more than singleness guarantees multiple cat ownership, which is why research warning of the pitfalls of the marriage made in hell is so desperately needed.

The research in question hails from the University of Utah. Ordinarily, I would pick one news report from a major media outlet and respond to it, but rather than reprinting a standard press release, most web sites chose to conduct their own interviews, so no single article captured the full picture, a fact I found interesting in itself. In summary, the study revealed a link between stressful marriages and metabolic syndrome in women.1-5 Metabolic syndrome is characterized by high blood pressure, blood sugar, and triglycerides; low HDL, the form of cholesterol considered "good"; and obesity in the abdominal region. All these symptoms put one at increased risk of heart attack1-5, stroke1,3,4, and diabetes1-5. The study also showed a correlation between marital strife and depression in both sexes1-5, and we know that depression can lead to health problems. However, oddly enough, unhappily married men were not more likely than their contented counterparts to develop metabolic syndrome.1-5

The study followed 276 couples.1-5 Sources couldn't seem to agree on whether couples had been married for 201,3 or 272,4,5 years on average or on the participants' age range, cited alternately as 40-701 or 32-762,5. The couples filled out questionnaires about marital conflict and depression levels and were then examined at the university's health clinic. Encouragingly for the married set, only 27% of women and 22% of men reported unhappy marriages.2,5 (I say "only" because I found this figure to be low, though I'm sure any bad marriage is one bad marriage too many for the people involved.)

The gender difference in incidence of metabolic syndrome was hypothesized to be due to the more central role that relationships play in women's heads--err, lives.2 One of the study's authors, Ph.D. candidate Nancy Henry, said, "Women seem to nurture relationships more than men do and attach significance to the emotions within relationships more than men do. ...Men...don't take as much stock in relationships with respect to their self-image, their self-concept, and those kinds of things."2 The symptoms of metabolic syndrome were probably caused by the flood of stress hormones that accompany relationship conflict.1,2,5 One commentator, Christine Northam, a couples therapist, also attributed the results to "the fact that women's hormonal profile[s are] more complex than men's." She then claimed that "women...tend to worry more about their health than men [do]," presumably increasing stress.4

Only one report, based on the university's press release, mentioned that previous divorce was also a risk factor and skimmed over this bit of trivia as quickly as possible.1,3 I emphasize it here because it was in line with previous research pointing to relationship loss as the major predictor of unhappiness, not singleness.

All the articles suggested modifications to diet and exercise routines to improve cardiovascular health1-5, and two promoted counseling2,5, but all of them were careful to clarify that they weren't recommending that women ditch their husbands en masse.1-5 Instead, Dr. Tim Smith of the U. of UT hoped that partners would focus on "the quality of [their] emotional and family lives." His goals for troubled couples included "getting along better and enjoying each other more, improving [their] mood."1

While Singletude is thankful for any study that shatters the myth of the marriage panacea, it would be even better if the researchers had included single men and women as a basis for comparison. At what rate do singles develop metabolic syndrome? What are the levels of depression among singles? How do never-married singles differ on these measures from divorced or widowed singles?

Furthermore, I'm a little troubled at the attitudes toward divorce that cropped up in these articles. On one hand, much of the media preferred to ignore the finding that divorce was a significant contributor to coronary disease. As noted earlier, the loss of a relationship can have deleterious effects on both physical and psychological health. On this matter, singles advocates and the pro-marriage crowd are aligned--we both want to publicize the profound impact of divorce. Curiously, the media didn't take advantage of that opportunity here.

They did, however, make it plain that the researchers discouraged divorce. Their prescription was "improving intimate relationships,"1 as well as committing to healthier eating and exercise habits. There was no discussion of how participants could magically "improve their relationships" after 20 years or more of presumably trying to do just that. Perhaps the researchers have been concocting an oxytocin nasal spray currently awaiting FDA approval. This study would make great promotional literature!

Far be it from me to portray divorce as a desirable solution to marital discord, but I also recognize that sometimes it's necessary. The divorced may be, on average, less happy and healthy than singles or the happily married, but how do they stack up against the unhappily married? Do these researchers expect us to believe that the unhappily married really have it better off? If you're married to a chronic cheater, an abuser (physical or emotional), a criminal, an addict, or even someone who just makes you miserable every day, day after day...sometimes the initial pain of separation may be worth the years of peace and stability that follow. And some singles-again do--gasp--get a second chance at love!

Again, I don't mean to push divorce as an acceptable escape hatch from problems that are better addressed by working on your own faults and foibles, but it bothers me that the researchers refuse to acknowledge that sometimes it is a sad but unavoidable outcome. I wish I'd seen a quote that sounded more like this: "The results of this study shouldn't be seen as justification to walk out on your spouse, and we hope that your first line of defense against these symptoms will be to get counseling and tackle interpersonal problems that might be defeating your relationship. But sometimes, unfortunately, a relationship may be so emotionally unhealthy and unsalvageable that it is in your best interest, physically and psychologically, to end it." What's wrong with that (other than that it doesn't fit into the agenda of a matrimaniacal society)?

Most of all, I'm concerned about what this study says about gender relations and the casual attitude with which Henry dismissed the health dangers to women as part and parcel of the natural female preoccupation with relationships. There are two disturbing assumptions here. The first is that women should derive so much of their psychological wellbeing from marriage, and the second is that men should not. Though the researchers gave lip service to reducing relational conflict, I get the sense that they are tolerant of normative expectations that a woman should invest more in a relationship than a man. I ask you, dear readers, to consider whether that very attitude may even be causing some of the marital problems that these couples face. I also find it interesting that there were no differences between husbands and wives on measures of depression. In opposition to Henry's conclusion, this implies to me that both sexes are equally stressed by interpersonal conflict and that women's bodies simply have a harder time recuperating from it. This would be a physiobiological difference, not a difference in relationship investment.

In general, though, I'm encouraged by this study. It honestly describes the health consequences of strained marital relations and doesn't try to obfuscate the data to further a conservative ideology that marriage cures all ills. That's a step in the right direction. Now if only these researchers can turn their baby step into a giant leap...

What do you think about this study? Why do you think women in troubled marriages had a higher incidence of metabolic syndrome than their male partners did? What do you think about the researchers' conclusions regarding why unhappily married women are at greater health risk than their husbands? Do you agree with the researchers about what should be done to minimize that risk? Do you believe that a bad marriage is better or worse than a divorce?


1. University of Utah
4. BBC News

Fun Link of the Day

Do you have a question for Clever Elsie about some aspect of the single life? Have a rant or rave about singlehood? Write in, and you just might see your question in a Singletude Q&A or your rant or rave in a Singletude Sound-off!

Friday, March 13, 2009

When Relationship Compromise Is Self-compromise

Relationships demand compromise. We hear it again and again from well-meaning friends, relatives, and mental health counselors. At the same time, a long list of teachers, mentors, and great philosophers remind us to be true to ourselves, to follow our hearts. When I was growing up, one of my favorite quotes was:

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. --Henry David Thoreau

If there's a message of compromise in there somewhere, it's using a pretty good cloaking device!

If you do have hopes of one day sharing your life with a significant other, a certain amount of compromise will be inevitable to keep the peace. But when does it become self-compromise to the point that you are now marching to someone else's drummer?

I pondered over whether or not to publish this post for a good week since the question arises from a matter in my personal life, and I've made it a point that Singletude is not a personal blog. And yet, I think this question is so universally applicable that it would be a lost opportunity not to address it here. So bear with me while I invite you to step into my world for a moment.

Recently, I ended a relationship with a man I'll call Andrew. (Yes, a relationship. Didn't think I had those, huh? ;)) He was a beautiful person in many ways, so it pained me deeply when things didn't work out between us. But the problem was that he and I had numerous lifestyle and belief differences which would have demanded a great deal of compromise had we decided to build our lives together. As I began to realize how vast our differences were, I found myself sinking into depression due to both the impending loss of someone I cared for so much and the self-doubt and -criticism stirred by our disagreements.

Since there were lots of things that Andrew and I loved about each other, he hoped we could compromise, reminding me that that's what people do in relationships. But it hurt to know that there were so many aspects of myself that he wanted me to change. (To be fair, it probably hurt him that some of his life choices, values, and habits were hard for me to accept, as well.) I started questioning everything from my career path to my philosophy of child rearing to my artistic sensibilities, wondering if he was right that these were areas in which I needed to compromise in the interest of reaching a middle ground with someone who had different ideas. Andrew assured me that a willingness to compromise was a mark of maturity and dedication to a relationship, and I knew that, to an extent, he was right.

To an extent. Those were the operative words. My relationship with Andrew highlighted a question I'd been puzzling over for awhile on my own: When is compromise an appropriate sacrifice for the betterment of a relationship, and when is it too costly a self-sacrifice?

As time passed and I tried on some of those compromises for size, I felt worse and worse about what I was compromising. Although I thought the world of Andrew, I was less and less excited about us as the sacrifices I would have to make mounted and I felt increasingly less accepted for who I was. It occurred to me that my singletude was slipping away, and I began to feel like a hypocrite. (For those not in the know, singletude isn't the attitude that it's necessarily better to be single than coupled but that it's definitely better to be single than in a relationship in which you can't be a happy, healthy individual.)

To compound my confusion, I wondered if I was just unhappy because I had unrealistic ideas about relationships. Perhaps all long-term relationships would require this kind of compromise, in which case the problem was me and my own self-centeredness. After all, the compromises Andrew was asking of me didn't seem unreasonable in his eyes, just as the compromises I was asking of him didn't seem unreasonable in mine. Yet, in the end, neither of us was willing to change.

Some observers may see one or both of us as selfish, stubborn, or intolerant. Others may wave the banner of independence and laud us for following our own paths and refusing to change for anyone else. I suspect that for most relationships to succeed, a certain amount of compromise is a necessary ingredient. But there's a fine, almost invisible line between what you should and shouldn't compromise, and equally blurry is the degree to which you should compromise on it.

Let me clearly state that I don't think love should be measured by that line. I know there are people who believe that love should conquer all and that if you don't practically rip your heart out in sacrifice, you must not have valued the relationship enough. I say that if you rip your heart out in sacrifice, you have nothing left to love with. Selflessness is admirable but not when you give up so much of yourself that you become an empty shell. I don't believe that kind of self-compromise is indicative of love any more than any other act of self-hatred. So I think it's unfair and inaccurate to surmise that Andrew and I (or any other couple in a similar situation) could've made it work if only we'd loved each other more.

For most people, though, I think it can be difficult, as it was for me, to discern when you're exercising your heart, making it work a little harder for someone else, from when you're on the verge of sacrificing it. By no means have I come up with a foolproof method of distinguishing between the two conditions, but I think my recent experience did teach me a few rules of thumb about when to compromise and when to stand your ground. Here are some questions you should ask yourself before you compromise for your partner (and please be aware that these can apply to any relationship, not just a romantic one):

1. Will this compromise affect my day-to-day happiness?

Many compromises involve relatively minor changes to your daily routine that have little impact on your overall life satisfaction. For instance, let's say your alarm is set to a death metal station, but your mate doesn't like to be blasted out of a sound sleep every morning. He or she prefers to wake up to the gentle strains of Beethoven, which, while not your ideal, don't make you wish someone would knock you back out when you wake. Setting the alarm to a classical station is, therefore, a reasonable compromise. Yeah, you'll miss your Slayer, but it won't, er, kill you.

Other compromises concern situations or events that occur so rarely that they have little significance for your general happiness. For example, your families may live far apart, forcing you to compromise on where you spend the holidays. However, this is a conflict you only face once a year, so it doesn't even register as a blip on your radar of relationship satisfaction the rest of the time.

On the other hand, some compromises threaten to dig deep, permanent trenches in your happiness. Let's say a woman deeply desires a large family and marries a man who doesn't really want kids. They compromise and have one baby. The painful result is that every day the woman longs to have more children while the man resents the work he has to invest in just one. Maybe another couple can't agree on where to live. The man grew up on a ranch in Wyoming, loves it there, and can't imagine living anywhere else. The woman craves a fast-paced city lifestyle and favors Boston, New York, or Washington, DC. They compromise by settling in a small city in the Midwest, but the man always misses the big open skies of Wyoming, and the woman chafes for a bigger, busier metropolis. These are examples of compromises that impinge on day-to-day happiness. And the unhappier you are, the more stressful it will be to your relationship.

2. Will this compromise change who I am?

Some well-intentioned people may advise you not to compromise on certain values that they consider integral to who you are, such as religious practices or the pursuit of various career goals or hobbies. But really only you can determine how important something is to your sense of self. Someone might be fine with promising to raise his children Catholic so that he can marry a Catholic wife, whereas someone else might be so committed to her Muslim faith that she would have to turn off her conscience to raise her children in another religion. A young dental hygienist may not feel defined by her job and have no trouble giving it up if her significant other got a promotion that would take them overseas, whereas a college professor's position may be central to his identity so that he would be devastated if he had to leave his department due to his partner's relocation.

In short, you should steer clear of any compromise that would alter a core part of yourself that you highly value. I emphasize those last words because change is good when you're ready and willing for it. But if changing yourself is tantamount to revoking the beliefs, values, interests, or objectives that are most important to you, then you will end up unhappy, which will take an equally unhappy toll on your relationship, as discussed in 1. Besides, what does it say about your partner's love for you if he or she wants you to change the very things that make you who you are? Answer: Nothing good.

3. Is my partner compromising too?

This is a biggey, and the answer has to be yes. The definition of compromise is "a settlement of differences by mutual concessions; an agreement reached by adjustment of conflicting or opposing claims, principles, etc., by reciprocal modification of demands." (italics added) A one-sided compromise is like one hand clapping. Compromise only deserves that label when both partners are meeting each other halfway.

you accomplish that is up to you. You might agree to give up something this time if your partner will give up something next time, take on a new responsibility if your partner will help with it, or do something you both like instead of something just one of you loves. All of these are different examples of compromise, but what they have in common is that both partners are sacrificing.

If you're the only one sacrificing, or if you're sacrificing more than your partner, you'll be headed straight back down that road to Unhappyville. Granted, the equity of compromise is subjective, but what matters is that you and your loved one believe your compromise is equitable. For instance, if you're both okay with dividing labor along traditional male-female lines, fine. But if one of you thinks he or she is getting shafted in that role, then you have a problem.

4. Am I really willing to make this compromise?

The worst thing you can do when negotiating a compromise is to vow that changes are forthcoming only to relapse into old habits when asked to make good on your promise. For compromise to work, you need to commit to it. It may seem like the perfect solution to offer to cook dinner while your honey vaccuums the floor, but when you repeatedly "forget" to go to the grocery store or schedule too many business dinners, all bets are off, and your partner will be even more disgruntled than before because you reneged on your word. Before you agree to a compromise, be honest with yourself and your partner about what compromises you're really willing to make. To continue with the example above, if you recoil at the sight of raw chicken fillets and have convinced yourself by now that you like burnt toast, a compromise that has you wearing a chef's hat is unrealistic.

Instead, look for compromises that you know you can carry out with a little effort. So maybe you can't deliver in the kitchen. Okay. Then you might do the laundry or take care of the lawn or put the kids to bed every night. Whatever the compromise, you have to sincerely be willing to tackle and follow through with it.

This also means believing in the compromise. On some level, you have to agree that it's necessary and the right thing to do so that even if it wasn't your first choice, you know that it is, nevertheless, a good choice. By the same token, once you've settled on the compromise, you shouldn't feel resentful or regretful about it. If you do, that's a sign that you may want to return to the preceding guidelines to see how your compromise stacks up.

Ultimately, if you can't embrace the compromise and stick to it, it will be a sticking point for your relationship. There's no justification for spinning your wheels into the ground if you know that you can't get behind a compromise with enough faith and determination to push your relationship out of a rut.

Now, there is one question that you might think I've left out. On the contrary, it's the question that I hope you won't ask when judging whether you should compromise in a relationship: Do I love him/her enough to compromise?

People ask this question all the time, and I believe it contributes to many devastating choices. Why? Because, as I said earlier, compromise is not a measure of love and should not be used that way. If the compromise you're contemplating will have such a detrimental effect on you that you need to reevaluate your whole relationship, then it's a compromise that violates at least one of the principles above. And if you compromise under those conditions, you compromise yourself. Any decision made out of self-compromise is not a decision made out of love. It may be made out of fear (of losing someone), guilt (of seeming selfish), ignorance (of alternatives), or self-righteousness (another discussion in itself). But not love. Love is absent from any compromise that engenders chronic unhappiness, is inconsistent with one's identity, unfairly burdens one partner, or is insincerely made.

Please note that I'm not saying someone who makes such a compromise doesn't love his or her partner. But I'm also not saying that he or she does. What I'm saying is that love has nothing to do with it. The reason I'm so exacting about this is because too many people make untenable compromises because they've bought the lie that compromise is a measure of love, and the more you love, the more you compromise. Believe me, you can love someone more than a fish loves the water and still not want to compromise yourself for him or her, and, conversely, people who do self-compromise don't do it out of love. Yeah, I know that will leave a bad taste in the mouth of anyone who has a martyr complex, so if it's any comfort to you, I was one of your number for years and am not pointing any fingers.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not arguing that love doesn't entail giving generously to your partner. But you shouldn't give yourself away in the process. When the potential for self-compromise threatens to become reality, sometimes the most loving thing you can do is walk away rather than ask someone else to change for you.

Where do you draw the line between healthy compromise and unhealthy self-sacrifice in a relationship? Have you ever been in a relationship in which you compromised too much? How did you recognize that you had compromised too much? Did you choose to be single, or did you stay in the relationship? What advice would you give to someone trying to decide between singlehood and self-compromise for the sake of a relationship?

Fun Link of the Day

Do you have a question for Clever Elsie about some aspect of the single life? Have a rant or rave about singlehood? Write in, and you just might see your question in a Singletude Q&A or your rant or rave in a Singletude Sound-off!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Single Homebuyers: How to Buy Your Dream House, Part I

Calling all single house hunters! So you've considered whether single homeownership is right for you, and you've decided that being home alone isn't just for formerly cute child actors. Well, you're in the nick of time. Interest rates are at an all-time low, it's a buyer's market, and President Obama just introduced a significant tax credit for homebuyers. You're ready to pluck your castle out of the sky, set it down at the end of a cul-de-sac, preferably next to an in-ground pool, and pay property taxes for the pleasure of doing so. If that sounds like a little piece of heaven to you, then it's time to figure out how to lasso your castle and bring it down to earth!

Your home may well be the biggest purchase you ever make, so the process of house hunting, bidding, and closing can be intimidating even when you have support. When you're on your own, it may seem insurmountable, especially if you're a first-time homebuyer. That's why Singletude is going to break it down into digestible steps.

Before you dial a realtor about that three-bedroom, 2.5-bath steal in the paper, you'll want to prepare yourself for the financial reality of buying your own house. This entails completing a bunch of mundane tasks before you start on the fun part. But if you do the legwork now, you'll be perfectly positioned to make a move on your dream house. Here are the steps you'll need to take in advance:

1. Got credit?
Check your credit reports from the three major credit reporting agencies, Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. You are entitled to one free report from each agency every year. You can order them separately or all at once. If you notice anything fishy, get that squared away before you continue down the road to your new home. In this economy, lenders are tightening their fists, so you should do everything in your power to reverse a poor credit score and aim for 740 or higher. To that end, rid yourself of credit card debt or at least reduce it to no more than 25-30% of your available credit. Don't open new credit accounts or make major purchases prior to applying for a mortgage. If late payments are a problem, adopt a strict schedule to pay your bills on time. (Hint: Many banks let you authorize automatic electronic payments so that forgetfulness or procrastination won't trip you up.)

2. Bank on your savings.
The gold standard for mortgage down payments has long been 20% of the purchase price. During the housing boom, lenders catered to the nesting frenzy by doling out loans requiring as little as 5%, 3%, or even 0% down, but these liberal lending practices backfired on both banks and homeowners when the recession hit. Most financial advisers agree that the bigger the down payment, the better, but that can be problematic for singles, who don't have a second income to set aside.

Luckily, singles who are scrimping for a down payment have options to help finance that house of dreams. Some mine their retirement accounts, particularly IRAs 0r 401(k)s. An IRA is a good source of funding because there's no early withdrawal penalty if the money is used towards your first home. (Your withdrawal will be taxed, though.) Tapping a 401(k) is trickier. Although you can borrow up to the lesser of $50,000 or 50% of the sales price--and the loan won't count as debt when qualifying for a mortgage--you only have five years to pay it back with interest before taxes and penalties kick in, and if you quit your job or get laid off, the payback period is shortened to a near impossible 90 days.

A popular alternative that doesn't tamper with savings is for parents or other family members to either gift money or participate in a shared equity mortgage, contributing the down payment as a kind of loan that can be returned with interest in the form of a cut of the profit from the sale of the house.

If your father isn't Daddy Warbucks, though, there's still hope in the form of nonprofit state housing finance agencies and other down payment assistance programs, which offer cut rate loans to those of modest means. (Beware, though, that if your financial situation improves dramatically or if you try to "flip" the house, you may be heavily taxed.) Most of these are backed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), though some have private funding, such as Habitat for Humanity. FHA-insured loans are subject to stricter regulations since the passage of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008. For instance, the minimum down payment has increased from 3% to 3.5%, and 5-10% is even better. Also long gone is the much-abused seller down payment assistance program. However, remember that this new legislation is in place to ensure that you don't bite off a bigger mortgage than you can chew.

Now perhaps you're a single who finds yourself in special circumstances. For example, maybe you're a veteran. If so, you're entitled to a loan from the VA. Or maybe you work for a large corporation, in which case it may have a plan to assist employees with down payments.

3. Do the math.

Figure out how much house you can get for your money before you fall in love with that 10,000 square foot mall--err, manse--on a hill. A good rule of thumb is that the house you buy should cost no more than 2.5 times your annual income, but your other expenses, such as student loans, car payments, or credit card debt, may modify your maximum. You can calculate your debt-to-income ratio using a basic formula or input the relevant info and leave the dirty work to an online computer. Ideally, the total monthly cost of all your obligations should not be more than 36% of your monthly income. However, understand that even today's wary lenders may qualify you for a mortgage that exceeds what you can realistically pay each month. So determine how much you can handle yourself, and don't let desperate mortgage brokers talk you into a risky venture. They are infamous for doing just that to inexperienced singles, as we will see later!

4. Obtain your seal of approval.
The only surefire way to know what you're qualified to shop for is to get pre-approved for a mortgage. Pre-approval makes the whole process, from house hunting to bidding to closing, faster, smoother, and less anxiety-provoking. When you visit lenders, be prepared to present your bank statements, assets, proof of income, tax returns, credit history, and records of any outstanding debts.

Don't hesitate to shop around for the financial institution that can give you the best deal. The Internet is a great place to start, but don't overlook local, more personalized banks, which may be hungrier for your business. When making your decision, ask about factors like interest and annual percentage rate (APR), third-party vendor fees, which can add up quickly, rate locks, and prepayment penalties. Sound mind-boggling? See this list for a rundown of questions you should direct to any potential lender. Another talking point should be, well, points! The mortgage game is likely the only one you'll play in which buying points isn't cheating. Each point you buy, typically for a fee equalling 1% of the mortage, will reduce your interest rate by about .25%.

You may also contract a broker (or multiple brokers) to help simplify your decision, but be sure to get full disclosure of his or her fees and verify that he or she is contracted as your agent. Otherwise, that chuckling, cherub-faced broker who looks like the second coming of Santa Claus can sell you on a loan that makes him fatter in the pockets while you're left tightening your belt.

Though the U.S. isn't known as a marketplace for hagglers, this is one purchase you can negotiate. Make it known that you're considering competitive rates from other lenders. Ask your broker outright if the interest rate he or she has quoted was the lowest rate offered that day. Request that he or she make a list of all the costs associated with the loan so you can see the big picture, then bargain for a reduction on the interest rate, points, or other fees. (Check that Mr. or Ms. Craftypants doesn't reduce one fee while increasing another!)

Most importantly, stay alert to singlism. Throughout your journey to the perfect home, you may confront discrimination against singles, which is magnified if you're a woman, a person of color, or both. That's why you should take care to dress and speak professionally, familiarizing yourself with the lexicon of mortgage lenders before you meet with brokers. You may need to be especially forceful when bargaining, so an appearance of self-confidence is key.

One more thing--please remember that pre-qualification is not pre-approval. The former is a much less thorough assessment that can result in an inaccurate loan estimate, so make sure you're getting pre-approved, not pre-qualified.

5. Borrow on your future.
In the wake of the housing market collapse, be aware that you won't see the menu of loans that characterized the early half of the decade. Again, remember that this was a necessary correction that will help keep you from overtaxing a stressed budget and succumbing to foreclosure! The best choice by far, if you can qualify for it, is a fixed-rate loan, and the bigger your down payment and better your credit score, the lower your interest rate will be. Fixed-rate loans usually have a term of 15 or 30 years, and, as of this writing, the current interest rate averages 4.9% for a 15-year loan and 5.4% for a 30-year.

Unfortunately, not everyone falls in the upper end of the credit-worthy bell curve that qualifies would-be homeowners for fixed-rate loans. Before the housing bubble burst, flooding the market with foreclosures, a crop of so-called exotic loans sprang up to fill the void between homebuyers' dreams and interest rate realities. Many of these loans can be grouped under the header of adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs), which have fluctuating interest rates. Like insidious, creepy-crawly critters lurking in the basement, ARMs come in many different breeds, shapes, and sizes, but, sooner or later, they're all liable to sting when you least expect it. Particularly dangerous varieties of ARM include the hybrid ARM, in which a fixed rate expires and becomes variable after five or ten years; the interest-only (I-O) mortgage, which permits the homebuyer to pay just interest on the loan for five or ten years; the negative amortization (NegAm) mortgage, in which not even full interest is paid each month so that it accrues on the balance; and the payment-option ARM, which advertises shockingly low-interest "teaser rates" for a few months to encourage homebuyers to dig themselves into an upside down grave.

The victims of these predatory lending practices were the most vulnerable homebuyers, the ones who couldn't afford hefty down payments and didn't qualify for guaranteed low interest rates. They were young professionals, students, and--you guessed it--singles. They gambled on rising wages and home appreciation to offset the doubled or even tripled monthly premiums they would eventually face. When the recession collected on its debt, they lost. Single women in particular were targeted by predatory lenders who convinced them that exotic ARMs were their only option even when they qualified for far better rates. Some lenders went so far as to promise that ARMs could be refinanced at a fixed rate, only to renege later, and the most unscrupulous deceived singles into believing that their ARMs actually were fixed-rate!

Nowadays, "exotics" have fallen out of favor with lenders and buyers alike. But traditional ARMs, whose main high-risk proposition is a variable interest rate, are still part of the mortgage landscape for "subprime" borrowers. Although these loans have not caused as many headaches as expected in recent months, a future resurgence in interest rates could send millions of homeowners into default. If you must accept an ARM, protect yourself by asking the tough questions upfront. Before you sign anything, you should know...

...if you will need private mortgage insurance (PMI), a common requirement for non-FHA ARMs.
...the APR, when it's increasing, and by how much.
...the length of your adjustment period (the time between interest rate changes), which can be anywhere from one month to several years. the interest rate will be calculated.
...the cap on your interest rate.
...the cap on negative amortization if negative amortization is a possibility. long the points you buy will apply.
...if you can convert the ARM to a fixed-rate mortgage and, if so, when and at what interest rate.
...if there will be prepayment penalties should you sell or refinance.
...the worst case scenario (i.e. your monthly payment at its highest should interest rates peak).

The last is the most important because, based on that worst case scenario, you can now conduct a thorough self-examination. ARMs work best for homebuyers who will only be paying an adjustable rate in the short term. So if you plan to sell or refinance at a fixed rate in a few years, an ARM may be worth the risk when interest rates are low, as they are now. However, if you're in it for the long haul, be honest with yourself about whether you can afford the worst case scenario. Unless you're in one of a very limited number of professions, such as law or medicine, in which the timetable for a salary increase is virtually guaranteed, you can't be sure that you'll get that promotion next year or that you'll even have a job, for that matter. And don't forget to account for ongoing expenses that might become part of your life in a few years (think car payments, student loans, and the like).

recommends that you take out an ARM only if you can carry the heaviest monthly payments in the worst case scenario on your current savings for at least six months. That way, if you are deprived of your anticipated source of income at a time when interest rates soar, you will have a cushion between you and your creditors while you find work, refinance, or sell. If you don't have access to that kind of money, then I say start saving. By the time you do, you just may qualify for a fixed-rate mortgage anyway. ;)

In the end, if you realize that you can't afford a single-home mortgage at this stage in life, don't despair! If you're determined to go it alone, you may find that a condo or townhouse is the right size at the right price for a starter. Or, if that's still beyond your reach, perhaps the goal of single homeownership will be your motivation to learn financial discipline or advance your career.

On the other hand, if you believe in teamwork, you may want to join thousands of singles who have paired up with family members or friends to purchase a house together. Since these arrangements aren't formed with the automatic protections that married couples enjoy, you should have a real estate lawyer draw up a legal agreement specifying how the costs of homeownership will be shared and how the profits will be distributed should one or both of you wish to sell. But for open-minded, flexible singles who know each other well and are committed to each other's welfare, buying a home together is the perfect strategy to break free from the tyranny of an economic system that all but restricts quality housing to married couples.

If you're a would-be single homeowner who was dreading the mortgage pre-approval process, hopefully you're now more informed and therefore more confident about applying. The better prepared you are, the more likely it is that you can avoid marital status discrimination and secure the most advantageous loan for you! When our single homebuying series continues, we'll jump right into the good stuff: house hunting. It's not just for TV. :)

If you're an aspiring single homeowner, what tips can you give to singles who are trying to improve their credit and increase their savings? If you're already a single homeowner, what advice would you give to other single homebuyers about the mortgage pre-approval process? What kind of mortgage would you recommend to first-time single homebuyers? Did you experience any singlism when applying? Would you ever consider buying a house with a friend or family member who was not a romantic partner? Why or why not?

Fun Link of the Day

Do you have a question for Clever Elsie about some aspect of the single life? Have a rant or rave about singlehood? Write in, and you just might see your question in a Singletude Q&A or your rant or rave in a Singletude Sound-off!