In her book Spinster, a memoir and an examination on what it means to be a single adult woman in contemporary America, Kate Bolick writes: “Whom to marry, and when it will happen–these two questions define every woman’s existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn’t practice. She may grow up tolove women instead of men, or to decide she simply doesn’t believe in marriage. No matter. These dual contingencies govern her until they’re answered, even if the answers are nobody and never.”
Bolick’s book found me at an appropriate time in my life. As I entered my thirties and exited a significant relationship, I could feel my odds dwindling. The older you get, the more people treat singleness as a sort of pathology. Women turn 30, their friends begin pairing off and shacking up, and suddenly singleness goes from being fun and exciting to being sad and embarrassing. Statistically speaking, the odds are against me. Every year older a woman is, the lower the chance that she will get married. I’ve passed from “let me introduce you to my hot friend” to “I don’t know anyone single” and “I know you’re not a kid person, but what about this divorced guy who needs help taking care of his three children?”
Being in a relationship–even it’s a flawed one, or an unhappy one–is seen as a mark of maturity. It’s one of the things we check off of our list of what makes someone “well-adjusted,” like having a steady job or opening a 401(k). People tell you that they want you to find someone because they think it is only through this someone that you will be whole, fulfilled, happy. The Mandarin lessons, trips around the world, volunteer projects,and competitive marathons are not hobbies; they’re the way you fill up space until you find a person to fill it with. Your friends assure you that you’ll find The One someday, and that you shouldn’t lose hope. They, of course, mean well. But as I become less and less interested in terrible first dates and tenuous online “matches,” I’ve come to a conclusion: instead of saying “You’re going to meet Mr. Right,” I wish people would add “… but if you don’t, that’s fine too.”
The truth is, I need to be equally at peace with both outcomes. I might meet someone and get married, but I also might not. Do I want to live my life idling, waiting for a hypothetical man to come along, or do I want to barrel ahead, pursuing my dreams, doing work that matters to me, and building my non-romantic relationships, as if nothing else matters? I spent most of my high school and college years firmly in the first mindset. Guys would come along, I’d sacrifice school and friends and my own interests in his service, we’d break up, and I’d find myself unmoored until someone else came along to fix and save me. Sometimes a boyfriend would tell me “everything’s going to be all right.” It was what I wanted to hear, and I appreciated it. But it wasn’t true.
I might get a six-figure advance for my next book, but I might not. I might get promoted at my job, but I might not. My cat might live forever (and I really, really hope she does), but she might not. In America, with its near-cult of relentless positivity, anticipating anything less than total happiness is looked at as pessimism.
But I’ve always been happier when I know all my options and feel in charge of them. I feel braver when I know the what the worst possible outcome could be and then push on ahead anyway, unafraid. Most of the greatest things that have ever happened to me happened when I took a risk on something—traveling alone, writing a book, moving to a new city where I didn’t know anyone and trying to carve out a life there. Sure, some of those things might be fun to do with a partner, but I gained strength and power from knowing that I can do them on my own and have a blast in the meantime.I might meet someone, but I might not. I might meet him and have it not work out, or I might meet him and find that life has other plans for us. What I need is to be comfortable enough in my own skin that I’ll be happy no matter where my romantic life goes. As John Candy’s character in Cool Runnings says: “a gold medal is a wonderful thing. But if you’re not enough without one, you’ll never be enough with one.”
[Image via Warner Bros.]