We often celebrate the power and pleasures of the single life, but skim over one of its harshest realities: loneliness
Dec 29, 2017 Briony Smith 97Once a week, I grab sushi takeout: green dragon roll, spicy salmon roll, miso soup. As the waiter finishes taking my order, I brace myself for the final question of the transaction: “How many chopsticks?” Right eye slightly a-twitch, I say, “Just one.” Sometimes I contemplate lying, “Oh, two, please!” because I’m so, so over the Sad Single Person Meal trope, but I never cave. It’s always “Just one, thanks.”
Are you thinking, Listen to this sad-sack bitch. Doesn’t she have anything better to do than mope about her chopsticks? Maybe he’s just asking because it’s enough food for two people. Maybe she’s fat and weird, and that’s why she’s single? Because there’s always a reason, right? But what if there isn’t?
I’m relatively delightful: sweet, fun, smart and outgoing. I’m cute enough. I have a job that pays me to watch TV and talk about movies and interview celebrities. I have a social life packed with besties and beloved co-workers. I’m on Tinder, OkCupid and Plenty of Fish. I go on dates. I am aware that, at 32, my eggs are jettisoning out of my dusty uterus at an alarming rate.
The Perennially Single BitchDespite all this, I am a perennially single bitch (PSB), i.e., a non–cat lady with a full life who remains single. I have been alone for the past two years and, prior to my last boyfriend (we were together for seven months), for another three years—just like so many women in North America right now. In 1981, 26 percent of Canadians aged 25 to 29 were unmarried. In 2016 (the last year census numbers were gathered), that number skyrocketed to 57 percent. During that time, the percentage of unmarried women in their early 30s jumped from 10 to 34 percent.
As a result, recent years have seen a rise in single-lady-friendly lit, with uplifting titles affirming the pleasures of life uncoupled, including the 2011 book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone by Eric Klinenberg and Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own (Crown, $20) by Kate Bolick, author of the 2011 viral Atlantic article “All the Single Ladies.” I read Spinster and, while Bolick is a spectacular mind and first-rate writer, it gave me zero solace. I’d hoped to find war stories from a fellow PSB struggling with the garbage part of long-term singlehood: loneliness.
The book is, rather, Bolick’s celebration of five historical spinsters who crafted exciting lives despite their lack of husbands, as well as an exploration of Bolick’s ambivalence toward the outdated idea of mandatory marriage. I called Bolick when I finished the book. “How do you reconcile having a rich life and being lonely?” I asked. She replied: “It’s about not organizing your life around another person—when you shut all the doors and prioritize the relationship above everything else. I like to have a balance, where my friendships are as important as my romantic relationship, which is as important as my work.” But what if there is no romantic relationship? Does my yearning for a mate make me lame? Bolick urges women to “make a life of one’s own.” Done. But I also want to make a life with someone else (and maybe a kid or three).
In It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single, a 2014 tome I found more comforting, author Sara Eckel points out that people are happy to write memoirs about eating disorders, crack addictions, cheating people out of their life savings, being Jenny McCarthy. But almost no tell-alls explore loneliness in depth. Even the word “lonely” feels ugly. I’ve dropped it in heart-to-hearts with everyone from my BFFs to my mother and watched their faces twist in embarrassment.
This is because loneliness reads as weakness. Melanie Notkin, author of the 2014 book Otherhood: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness, believes our longing for companionship is often maligned because it doesn’t jibe with people’s ideas of boss bitchdom. “It doesn’t feel feminist, the wait for love: ‘If you really want to be a mother, go out and have a baby on your own.’ But that’s what feminism gives us, the ability to make choices that we didn’t have a generation ago, to have the love and the child with that love,” Notkin says. “The truth is that we are modern, independent women who yearn for traditional dating and romance. It’s not a non-feminist thing to say. It’s actually quite feminist to admit what you want.” Yet the persistent perception is that loneliness is something empowered women shouldn’t deign to suffer—something that can be fixed with yoga or a new dating app. Alternatively, it can appear like it’s our fault: we’re too picky, too selfish.
It also sounds straight-up sad. That’s why I initially resisted writing this piece. I cringe when I imagine it going into print—and then onto the Internet for all eternity—for my exes to see and future dates to find lurking in my Google results.
But f-ck it. We’re all humans here, so I’ll do it: I’m coming out as lonely.
Loneliness is physicalIt’s a dull sort of pain, like a poke in the eye or the slow ebb of cramps. Often I don’t feel it for a while; there’s a new crush, perhaps, a big project at work, springtime. But then I’ll experience a moment, most often when I am coming home from the cozy confines of dinner or a movie night at a couple’s house, that reminds me I am alone. The pain leaps suddenly, like the horrible surge of heat when you remember you forgot to do something important. Sometimes it spills out of me in tears that trickle down from behind my sunglasses as I sit on the streetcar on my way home from work, inching home toward another solitary meal, another night alone in bed. I burst into my apartment and cry and cry and cry, standing in the middle of the living room. It’s an involuntary physical reaction to the lack: of someone beside me on the streetcar, of someone waiting for me on the couch. And I let the pain flow through me, feel it race up and down and through the conductor of my body. Then I climb into bed and try not to think, How can I last another night in this same bed in this same room in this same loveless life and wake up alone and do it again the next day and the next and the next?
Such freak-outs aren’t just painful (and mega-mortifying to admit publicly): they could be slowly killing me. In his 2009 book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, John T. Cacioppo, director of the Center of Cognitive & Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, reveals that feelings of isolation like mine can cause high blood pressure, increase stress hormones, impair immune function and accelerate aging, and, he says ominously, may be “hastening millions of people to an early grave.” I do have scary-high blood pressure, caused in part, I assume, by the stress of a high-intensity job—sans someone at home to provide soothing cuddles and reality-show commentary—and in part by the fact that I sometimes alleviate said stress with late-night junk-food bacchanals. While waiting for my post-bar Uber a few weeks ago, I overheard a bro refer to my 2 a.m. poutine as my “boyfriend for the night.”
Welcome to the freak showIt’s easy for PSBs to feel like freaks when the coupled world constantly reminds us of our single status. Bella DePaulo, author of 2006’s Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, calls this ghettoization “singlism.” Even the shoeshine guy at the airport recently opened with, “You married?” (When he heard my answer, he stuck out his tongue and made a face.) The older I get, the more party guest lists become standardized into 40 billion couples, a handful of fun gays and a pack of dolled-up PSBs. Friends badger me to lift the No Boyfriends Allowed, Goddamnit rule at my annual cottage weekend. Weddings are the most extreme torture of all. The answer to, “Will there be any single dudes there?” always results in some variation of, “No, but please do enjoy the quarantine pen set up at the back of the banquet hall with the spotty teen cousins and wizened old aunties.” (At one wedding I attended, the MC announced, “Don’t worry about getting too drunk. Briony is single. I’m sure she’ll… take care of you.”) We’re also denied the sweet financial bounty of tax breaks; double occupancy rates at hotels; engagement party, bridal shower and wedding presents; and sharing a down payment on a house. “Everyone is so mom-, love- and couples-focused that we’re ignored,” Notkin says. “No one hears us, understands us or acknowledges us.”
Coupled BFFs just don’t understandThe isolation intensifies as friends are—bless—often useless when it comes to offering support, simply because they eschew listening in favour of cheerleading and advice. “How can you be lonely?” they cry. “You are never alone! You have such a rich life! You don’t need a man to complete you!” Or, “Stop obsessing about finding a boyfriend. Just live your life and work out/smile/go out more, and he will come to you.” One pal insisted I had been concentrating too much on my job. “Career woman” is one of the most common—and most misogynist—cop-outs. No one uses the term “career man.” And the phrase reinforces a myth that PSBs prioritize work over finding a partner. I know many accomplished PSBs who work 60-plus hours a week: none of them have eschewed dating for career and, in fact, most of them work hard to carve out time to meet men. None of us are waking up one day and saying, “LOL I TOTALLY FORGOT TO DATE FOR 10 YEARS BETTER GET GOING BEFORE I’M BARREN.” We have been dating the whole time—we just haven’t found our matches.
I’m a monster, and other conspiracy theoriesAlbert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Slogging along solo for ages has made me doubt my sanity as life starts to feel like an episode of The Twilight Zone. At first, I thought, I’m bangable. Fun. I have enough dates and flings and past boyfriends to confirm that I’m not a complete monstrosity. But as the months of singledom slip into years, doubt rears. If I was a lovable human, logically, I would have love, no? I imagine a third-act twist where cleaning out my parents’ filing cabinets would unearth paperwork revealing I am actually the beneficiary of the top-secret make-work program Societal Integration for Chuds and Other Undesirables, which states that I’m allowed to have a cool job and extensive social circle, but I should under no circumstances be allowed to breed.
I’ve tumbled many times into the crevasse between self-love and self-loathing, eyeball to eyeball with my flaws and wondering which of those pernicious little bastards is driving away potential husbands. Is it my oft-messy apartment? My loud laugh? My strong opinions? If I fixed these things, would I have more luck? This obsession with dating success by way of self-improvement is a by-product of western society’s can-do ideal, according to Eckel: “Any problem you have, you can solve it. You’re the master of your own destiny. The flip side to that, however, is that if you’re going through a hard time, it’s your fault.” I tried, for a long time, to eradicate my undesirable bits. Some changes made me a better person, like going to the gym and softening my bitchy resting face. But other things I did to placate dudes—like switching out boner-killing fashion in favour of dressing down in jeans and sneaks—I eventually gave up. There’s only so much of myself I can change before there’s nothing left. “Maybe the reason these women are single isn’t that there’s something wrong with them,” says Eckel. “It’s that there’s something right with them.”
It takes strength to hold out for a person who loves you just the way you are. I’m asked on dates by so-so guys that I politely decline. I don’t frantically prolong fizzling flings. I could have married my lovely ex years ago. Not having someone is hard, but settling for just anyone is harder.
Feral Cat SyndromeThere is an upside to our noble refusal to settle; PSBs do indeed enjoy giddying freedom and wide-open swaths of time and space to pursue adventure and wonderment. But I also spend a lot of time with the same damn person: myself. Just as Bolick warned against disappearing into a relationship, you can also disappear into yourself. This is what I call Feral Cat Syndrome. I become too wild, too unused to human contact, too worn down by dating. I favour Broad City over yet another book launch or synth-pop show or house party where I hope there will be someone vaguely hittable. I let my OkCupid matches pile up, sick of composing witty openers. My body aches for snuggles. I debate sleeping with a ripped 22-year-old Tinder jock just to make sure my vagina still works. My bad habits flare up, whether it’s drunken belligerence or skipping eye makeup.
Dating really is a nefarious little game, isn’t it? If you want to stop dating, you have to keep dating to find the partner who will take you out of the running. All the exhausting gym-going and smiling and battling Feral Cat Syndrome and Tindering won’t guarantee a boyfriend—whether I meet my dream piece or not comes down to chance. It’s maddening. That’s what PSBs must make peace with every day: uncertainty. Want a kid? A house? In most cases, it’s only realistic if you couple up. Until then, I’m in limbo.
PSB PSAPSBs already know that all we can do while waiting for the right partner is to live a life of meaning, of love for family and friends, of passion and pursuit of beauty. We got it. All we need—in addition to your hot friend’s number—is a little empathy for the pain, the isolation, the frustration, the exhaustion, the helplessness, the loneliness. (And all those bloody weddings.) If a PSB tells you she is sick of singledom, if she is brave enough to tell you she is lonely, don’t rush into offering advice or compliments or strategies. Just say, “That must be hard. How are you doing?”
Share the burden and end the shame. I may be lonely, but I am not alone.
This article was originally published in May 2015.