It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single
We met in a bar in Brooklyn, a hipster version of an old Italian social club. He was nice-enough-looking, a bit grayer and heavier than his profile picture, but no doubt so was I. We chatted about the neighborhood—the dog park we liked, the Asian fusion restaurant we were sorry was closing—and gave each other vital stats—years lived in New York, number of brothers and sisters.
“How long has it been since your last relationship?” he asked, his voice clipped, a dental hygienist inquiring about my flossing routine.
“Three years,” I lied. The truth was closer to six.
He leaned back, looking at me in a cool and curious way, like I was a restaurant with too few customers, a house that had been listed too long.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“But you’re attractive?” he asked, as if he wasn’t sure anymore. As if I could help him out with this.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” I said. “I don’t know why.”
Of course, I was outraged. I finished my ginger old-fashioned. I said I had to get up early. But in truth, his question was no worse than the one I asked myself nearly every day. It wasn’t full-blown self-loathing, more a feeling that snuck up unawares, a hollowness that hit me in the chest at certain times—a long subway ride home from a mediocre date, a Sunday-night phone conversation with a married friend who suddenly says she has to go, her husband just took the roast out of the oven.
Why was I unable to find the thing that mattered to me most? I was trying so hard—obeying the incessant drumbeat to “get out there,” dutifully mining my psyche for any emotional blockages that might be preventing me from finding lifelong love. I took hour-long commutes to attend the birthday parties of coworkers’ friends and went to the midnight shows of college acquaintances’ bands. I spent countless hours and dollars on yoga, gym memberships, and other forms of personal maintenance. And yet, there it was. I was a woman in her late thirties, alone. What was wrong? What was wrong with me?
As I speak with other people who stayed single well into their adulthood—and whose unattached state was not a choice—I hear that toxic question more than any other. These are intelligent, grown-up professionals—newspaper reporters, university professors, entrepreneurs—who drive their mothers to the doctor and look after their nieces and nephews. They have close friends, solid workout routines, and positions on their local community boards.
But that one thing is missing, and many singles can’t pretend it doesn’t matter to them.
As much as they would like to live up to the cultural ideal of the perfectly autonomous singleton—that fiery free spirit who won’t be weighed down by a relationship—that’s not their reality. They don’t want to settle, but they do want a partner. And so they ask the question—why? In this earnest soul-search, they find many different, often conflicting explanations:
“You’re too picky.”
“You’re too desperate.”
“You’re too independent.”
“You’re too needy.”
“You’re too intimidating.”
“You’re too negative.”
“You’re too unrealistic.”
“You have low self-esteem.”
When you’re a single person who would rather not be, the pathologies are endless. Even when you push back—“What do you mean I’m too independent? Are you suggesting I quit my job and move in with my parents?”—the sheer number of possible explanations can make even the most self-possessed singleton doubt herself. Surely one of them must stick.
We’re a nation that believes strongly in personal efficacy—if there’s something in your life that isn’t working quite the way you’d like, then the problem must begin and end with you. Even people diagnosed with serious illnesses are instructed to maintain a positive attitude, as if that will make the cancer go away. Many of these prescriptions come from a well-intentioned place—of course, it is a good idea to take charge of your life and work toward a happier future. Of course, we understand that if we crave life’s rewards—interesting jobs, nice homes, rich social networks—we’ll need to apply ourselves.
But the myth that we’re 100 percent in control of what happens in our lives makes us extremely hard on ourselves, and single people especially, so eager to solve this riddle of Why, are often willing to accept the premise that some fatal personality flaw is preventing them from finding lifelong love.
For me, solace came from the place where single women usually take comfort: my other single friends. We’d gather on Friday and Saturday nights, swapping funny and tragic stories of our dismal dating lives, reassuring one another of our collective beauty, intelligence, and kindness, marveling at the idiocy of men who failed to see this in our friends.
Mostly, we would try to make sense of it all. Why wasn’t this happening? Were our married friends really so much more desirable or emotionally healthy than we were? Once in a while, someone would declare that married women were actually quite miserable, that they envied us. But this theory never got too far—we knew our married friends wouldn’t switch places with us, no matter how much they complained about their husbands.
Of course, there are many popular books and television shows that detail the lives of such women, but in those stories adorable, self-deprecating men constantly approach the heroines in parks and bus stops and ask them to dinner. Even in her edgier iterations, the sitcom single woman never stays alone for long. Instead, she skips from one sexy-but-flawed man to the next. My friends and I had various dates and mini-relationships, but mostly we were alone.
We had each other of course, but not in the perfectly synced way our television counterparts did. We didn’t live in the same apartment building and pop in unannounced to make grilled-cheese sandwiches or coach each other for job interviews. We weren’t always available for emergency brunches or last-minute trips to Jamaica. Instead, we had complicated, independent lives wending down many different paths, lives that sometimes had us working sixteen-hour days, or moving out of state, or navigating a fledging romance. We saw each other the way most urban professionals do—by booking dates days or weeks in advance. That meant that we were frequently alone, with time.
Since I believed the conventional wisdom that I could “work on myself” in order to be “ready for love,” I approached those quiet evenings and weekends with industry. I knew the deal: If I was looking for another person to make me happy, I’d be sorely disappointed. No one would love me until I learned to love myself. So: Time to get crackin’!
In many ways, I did “improve.” I conquered my fear of public speaking, taught myself to cook, learned to do a handstand. I also expanded my social circle—throwing dinner parties, joining summer-house shares, attending artist colonies. I had a lot of fun and made many new friends. But I was still unattached, and in the dark of Saturday night, I still wondered: “What’s wrong with me?”
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