Earlier this year, I went to a dinner party at a friend’s house. The household and guests slowly assembled in the kitchen, opening and closing cabinets, moving a stack of plates from a shelf to a table, volunteering for a deli beer run, until finally a meal was prepared. It was a nice dinner, and by the end, sated and a little buzzed, one of my fellow diners asked me, “So what’s going on in your life? With romance?”
This is not an unusual question and it wouldn’t have been particularly memorable, except that I was feeling vulnerable and open after consuming so much home cooked food. And beer. So I answered honestly, and said, “I don’t really know if I’m ever going to date anyone ever again.”
Almost before I had finished my sentence, this friend was shaking her head and rolling her eyes. In turn, everyone around me denied that I was facing the rest of my life alone. They asked if I’d heard of this thing called Tinder? Well, what about OKCupid? Everyone who thinks they’re never going to meet someone meets someone right then. It’s when you’re least expecting it, boom, love happens. Look at us!
So I did look. Everyone at the table was in a committed relationship. Each person had experienced a moment when they thought they’d never meet anyone, and been proven wrong. They were certain, looking at me, that I was just them in the past, in that moment Before. Soon, sooner than I could imagine, I’d be in the After. I just had to wait and be patient because my special someone is coming as fast as they can. For a moment I struggled to express that, no, maybe they’re not, and again I was hushed with reassurances. Humiliatingly, tears welled. I shrugged. I said, “Yeah, I know.”
It has been almost three years since I’ve had sex, more than six since I was in a serious relationship. Dating was fun while it lasted, but it now all feels very much over. I don’t know that it really matters why I’m single, nor am I particularly interested in the eternal back and forth over who has it better: couples, singles, the hardworking polyamorous—we all suffer and benefit from our respective situations. Anyone can feel alone. Anyone can feel they are striving for intimacy and connection, even if they’re in a partnership. But for the first time ever, single adult women outnumber married adult women in the U.S., and the narrative around our experience hasn’t evolved with the numbers.
Once you’ve transitioned past romantic dry spell to scorched-earth vagina, it isn’t loneliness that’s difficult to contend with. I am quite excellent at being by myself. I have learned to enjoy my own company and when I’m not enjoying it, the world offers plenty of distractions.
The difficulty is in the inability to talk about it, the lack of language to explain how you’re looking at your life. No one who cares about you wants to hear that you’ve “given up,” but there aren’t many other ways to describe this strange single purgatory that goes on ad infinitum, yet could theoretically end any second. I am never allowed to talk for long about what’s really going on with me and romance. That makes it a hell of a lot harder to live with.
Let’s take getting dumped as an example. In my years of semi-voluntary celibacy, I have several friends who have been in multiple relationships, some of them quite passionate and committed, but with barely a pause in between each one. The immediate sense of loss after a relationship is painful, but at least there’s a word for it: heartbreak. I have no simple way to describe the slow, dull ache of separation from physical and emotional intimacy after years without it. To roll on the floor drunk-sobbing about being single at this point would be ludicrous. It would also be absurd, and cruel, to say to someone who just broke up with their lover, “I’ve heard all this before, and I’ll hear it again before I get a turn.” But I have wanted, in moments of exasperation or bitterness, to say it.
Love and relationships are also, among other things, a marker of time. “Forever” frequently begins in love, though it is theoretically as tenuous as the single state. Looking ahead, if I really am riding this train to the end of the tracks, I don’t see any of the grand events in my future that help ground and timeline human existence, the events being in love provides. After my best friend got married she told me she cried all the next day, overwhelmed by the outpouring of affection from everyone she knew. She deserves it all, but years later, still single, I’ve realized that there will be no similar ceremonious acknowledgment of my life or my relationships with friends and family. Until I’m dead, I guess, but that won’t be very fun for me. Anchoring my existence without the signposts of commitment, or children, is a lot of work, and sometimes I feel myself giving up on it, drifting off into a grey directionless space in danger of floating completely away.
Weddings and heartbreak are all intense moments in the journey of love, and they both make you feel alive as hell. There is something wildly cathartic about going nuts immediately after love ends, eating tubs of ice cream while watching TV, leaning on your girlfriends for emotional support, kissing the wrong person some drunken night out on the town. Then as time goes on and the kisses end, you’re just someone eating ice cream. It’s not an emotional high or low. It’s your life, and a life that confuses and depresses people. I know when I try to tell a friend that I think I will be alone forever, they are imagining bleakness. They want it to stop. They want to give advice without acknowledging the subtext of offering a solution to my “problem.”
The underlying message in those platitudes is that I need to just keep on wishing and hoping and waiting. Just wait, and wait, because something better than the life you have is guaranteed. Love is guaranteed. But it’s not, is it? Not at all, not even for someone like me, who they maybe think is cool, reasonably attractive, and not obviously insane. I wanted to cry at that dinner table, because keeping up the farce that I’m still waiting means staying still. It means diminishing the life I do lead, which is a good one. I’ll never be free to say that I’m alone forever, only that I’m in a holding pattern until real life begins.