Being Single in a Couple’s World
My journey through the Singleton Inquisition. Was there something wrong with me, going solo for so many years?
The Singleton Inquisition first came for me while I was shopping for skis at a Seattle sporting goods store. I was 29, and just out of a seven-year relationship, a breakup that precipitated a move from New York City back to my hometown.
A handsome outdoorsman with a full head of wavy hair greeted me between a rack of parkas, his arms extended. I recognized him as an old high school pal I hadn’t seen in ten years.
The Outdoorsman filled me in on his recent second wedding, looking me over from head to toe. All the while I’m staring back, shocked that someone my age was already divorced.
“You seem like a catch. Why aren’t you married?” he asked.
Why aren’t I married? I ran my fingers over a row of coats and went with the first thing that came to me.
“I’m sitting my first one out.”
I was never in a great hurry to partner up and settle down. To leave home and have adventures, yes, but to marry and have a family, hell no. And not because I had a crap childhood.
I grew up in a woodsy Seattle suburb near Lake Washington, with a father who cooked frittatas on Sunday morning, a mother who loved sunset picnics and the National Parks, and a younger brother who I largely ignored. It was the late 1960s/early 1970s. I was a daydreamy tomboy who wanted nothing more than to go outside and ride bikes, make forts in the “Creepy Woods”, and cruise the public swim docks until sundown.
As a teen, I had my crushes and boyfriends but I was consumed with my life: school, sports (swimming, gymnastic, track, soccer, dance classes), and piano. I dreamed about life with a college degree, a high-powered career that took me to European countries, where I gathered with dignitaries and artists, speaking French and Italian. I wanted to play “Claire de Lune” by heart, be a fit weekend athlete, and one day, when I was good and ready, I’d marry, and after a few years together, then have kids.
In other words, I was not super keen on the domestic chapter of life.
So when the Outdoorsman jumped on my marital status, I dismissed it as a random fly ball of myopia — his problem, not mine! — and carried on with creating a life in Seattle.
This was only the beginning of my Singleton Inquisition.
The Singleton Inquisition is an era defined by the unsolicited (and ultimately unanswerable) questions, comments and editorials that puts a person’s unmarried-ness on display; it’s a prolonged period of examination where a group of partnered friends gather around a white board to solve a logic puzzle that is your love life.
You know the Inquisition has come for you when any number of citizens (friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues, kids, baristas, neighbors, nieces and nephews, godchildren, bosses, old friends, even dates) query your uncoupled status like a passport agent, because:
Why on earth would a person wander the world in this unsavory state of solo-ness?
You might not see the Inquisition coming at first
It’s a slow injection: a question here (“Do you like men?”), a comment there (“You’re too comfortable being single!”), and an Inquisition best-of: (“You just need to get out there!”).
In the beginning, you shrug it all off because you think their sleep-deprived, new-parent life is as unenviable as they think your dinner-for-one life is. But the Inquisition is relentless. People insist on offering diagnoses and prescriptions — “I see you with an intellectual surfer!”; “You’re too independent!”; “Be open-minded, give him a chance!”
These people — some of whom really care about you — are so convincing, it’s easy to think that yes, perhaps you do need to re-examine your, well, entire life. This is how the Inquisition gets under your skin and takes root; no matter what kind of respectable life you’ve built for yourself, a weather system of existential doubt settles in.
I’m here to tell you what I wish I’d known as I lumbered through 17–years of being single, which included a few short love affairs and random relationship flurries. I’m here to tell you what really is the matter with people who are single after 30, and still unmarried after 40.
The Inquisition in your twenties
When you’re in your mid-20s, the Singleton Inquisition is a softer probe, like a job interviewer scanning a graduate’s quarter-page resume — you’re racking up experience. There’s time.
But as you approach the latter part of this decade, the heat turns up. You must either commit to the relationship you’re in (by 27 I started hearing, “Have you talked about marriage?”), or move on to a more viable partner.
Being fresh out of a long-term relationship at 29, I got a pass for about six months and played the Recovering Card for as long as I could. I casually dated men I met at parties, concerts, through friends, and work. I was curious to explore, but not ready to commit.
All the while, the Inquisition circled, dropping this popular question into the ring:
“What are you looking for?”
This is a tricky one. On one hand, learning from past relationships and refining your preferences is important; but the idea that you need a specific, clear vision of your future mate is poppycock. Works for some, doesn’t for others.
The Law of Attraction people insist on precision — “Write down the color of his bedroom walls, his salary, his favorite sports!” On the occasions I bent to this theory, my list included:
athletic, smart, professional, affectionate, arts-appreciating, handsome, funny, broad shoulders, outdoorsy but not mountain-man crazy, likes rock ’n’ roll and classical music, is into me.
When I was coerced into sharing What I Wanted with the Married and Partnered, here were some typical responses:
“Well yeah, who wouldn’t!”
“Someone’s being mighty idealistic!”
Aha, the Inquisition admonished, now we understand! It’s this Unrealistic Love List that has you standing alone at another wedding buffet making conversation with the caterer.
Well-intentioned matchmaking friends would listen to my List, nod thoughtfully, then set me up with someone with whom I had nothing in common except for the fact we were both single — which explained the astrologist draped in purple who asked, “why are your chakras so closed?” at a hotel brunch.
The Inquisition in your early 30s
Next up on the Inquisition is the Gong of Time. It goes like this:
“What are you waiting for? You’re not getting any younger!”
When I threw myself a thirtieth birthday bash, I crowded into my small kitchen with a handful of girlfriends. One of the recently-marrieds pointed to a writer friend who had arrived by himself, then looked me in the eye and said:
“Stop waiting around like you have all the time in the world. Get him while you can!”
A week later I had dinner with a single girlfriend. I told her about the remarks at my party.
“They think we’re old!” I said to my friend in disbelief.
“Yeah, well. Maybe not old,” she stammered. “But things better change if I’m going to have a station wagon full of kids!”
“There’s plenty of time,” I insisted.
My friend put her fork down and leaned over her half-eaten salmon.
“What on earth would make you think that?” Her eyes were panicked discs of hazel on white. I went home that night rattled, feeling the blood chugging through my heart while the occasional car rolled by.
Could it be, I wondered, that I need to wake up, grow up and get real? The Inquisition had its foot in the door.
The next day I had breakfast at my parents’ and shared my concerns.
“What if I’m the last one standing?” I moaned.
“Oh don’t be ridiculous,” my dad said as my mom chuckled. “Marriage isn’t something to rush into, Tatyanachka. Take your time.”
Guess who wasn’t participating in my Inquisition?
My enablers, my role models, my parents. Married in 1959, my mom was 27 and had me, her firstborn, at 31; my father was 34 at their wedding and almost 39 when I came along.
For their generation, they were late to the altar and almost ancient parents. I leaned into their delayed timeline like something inherited — what’s the rush? Meanwhile, people around me coupled and procreated, leaving me behind as if they were boats sailing out of a harbor. When my younger brother got engaged at 29, my mom’s comment was, “he’s a bit young.”
And then, after attending consecutive weddings, alone; after ending a year-long relationship with a man I met at one of these weddings; as more friends had kids, and I became a godmother as a once-again freshly single woman, age 32 — a year after my mom gave birth to me — time didn’t seem so expansive.
The runway was shortening.
In the quiet of night, as I lay awake in bed staring at a dimpled ceiling, I felt a settling in of aloneness. I longed for a built-in playmate, someone to walk with through Volunteer Park’s dahlia garden, discussing what we’d cook for dinner. I wanted a plus-one by my side for weddings and parties.
But singletons, beware.
Unless you want to put yourself before the Inquisition’s firing line, keep these thoughts to yourself (or discuss only with another singleton)!
The second you show a vulnerability, the Inquisition will batter the hell out of you.
Reliable daily-life joys, like sipping a brown-sugar latte in your cozy chair while staring at the lake will be infused with suspicion: Is there something better you could be doing, out there — like scrounging up a romantic partner?
The Inquisition in your mid-30s
When I hit my mid-30s and became an aunt for the first time, the Inquisition turned into a chorus of last calls and action items. Making matter worse, I no longer had the breezy, cavalier attitude of younger years, as proved by this après-ski gathering with mostly married friends.
“Tatyana, how’s the dating going?” one of the women asked.
“Oh, you know.” (They didn’t.) “Nothing major.” I could feel my sloping shoulders and long face.
There had been two disappointing dates. One was a handsome, broody co-worker who talked about mathematical formulas and the drugs he wanted to try; the other was a newly separated weight lifter who told me about his tantric sex experiments — on himself.
“Still single, eh?” one of the men said, removing his ski jacket. “What are you gonna do about it?”
This is a quintessentially hetero male question, from the Fixer Gender, one that states: There is something very wrong here, let’s turn that ship around ASAP. I wanted to push a fork through the eyes of these Inquisitioners.
“I think you’re too picky,” another voice in the crowd suggested. This is an Inquisition favorite. It indicts the singleton and explains it away.
People who have spent their adult years partnered up might believe a relationship is as attainable as, say, driving around town looking for a place to eat. If you continue to go relationship hungry, then it’s on you, like the picky eater who can’t find anything on the voluminous menu at Cheesecake Factory. When people call you “picky,” there’s no convincing them otherwise, it’s best to agree.
“Maybe,” I shrugged. There were five seconds of silence and then the Grand Chorus of the Inquisition:
“I know! You just need to get out there!”
This, exclaimed by the petite cutie-pie mother-of-two who married her high school sweetheart and never had to get out there a day in her life.
“Get out there?” I exhaled. “I get up at six, exercise, go to a coffee shop and write, then go to work for an entire day. You want me to do more? Why can’t I go home at the end of a day, just like you?”
I could feel the heat climbing up my spine, as I dropped eggshells around our crowded table. Of course, the irony here is that some of my ski pals were new parents and would love to be getting out there — but they would do so without the pressure of mate-finding.
Why can’t a singleton settle into, if not a domestic coupled life, then at least a domestic single life, and go home for a quiet evening at the end of the day?
The Inquisition as you approach 40
The Singleton Inquisition waged on as I moved through my late thirties, and toward forty (it took a break for one year, from 37 to 38, when I dated a grad student nine years my junior). My love life might have been flat for a lot of this decade, but professionally and creatively it was quite lively.
I went from freelance journalist to content writer in the brand-new internet world of the mid-1990s, jumping from startup to startup; in 2000, I rode out the dot-com recession in an MFA program, writing fiction and poetry, and holding workshops in my living room.
And so, I moved into the next phase of the Inquisition: An Independent Modern Women, which by default, crowned me a feminist in the eyes of the Inquisition.
When I was 38, fresh out of my grad-school romance, I had lunch with my childhood friend Linda. A graphic designer, she married in her mid-20s and had two daughters by the time she was 30. Over lamb burgers, Linda told me about a woman she greatly admired who married at 45.
“I think you’re an extraordinary woman, like my friend, living on your own terms,” she said. “You’re a real independent woman, a modern Wonder Woman!”
It was one of the more empowering conversations around being single — suggesting it was my choice — so I put on my super-cool modern woman façade while shrieking to myself in protest: Forty-five?
I didn’t want to circle the perimeter of Normal Life and be relegated to the Unique Super-Cool Modern Wonder Woman corner of the world. I wanted to join the flow of humanity, to mate up and get invited to couples’ dinner parties and participate in couples’ ski trips, get pregnant, have morning sickness and get so bloated that my finger swelled over an unfathomable wedding ring.
Why not be both — married and uniquely super cool and modern?
“I think it’s so cool the way you’re living,” Linda said as we paid the bill.
I was discovering the real modern women (after all, what’s more Wonder Woman-esque than being married, a professional, and a wife?) were grateful that someone was out there living the independent solo life that corresponded with a feminist ideal — and grateful it wasn’t them.
The Inquisition in your 40s
And then, as you chug into your 40s, something happens.
There’s a shift.
The Inquisition quiets down, like traffic after midnight. Society averts its gaze and applies it to the next generation of unmarrieds, the ones with procreating potential.
“Have you noticed,” I said to another forty-something singleton friend, “how peaceful it is now? People have given up on us, and don’t harass us about being single.”
My friend stared into space. To her it was a chilling loss, to me a relief.
However, a hand-off had occurred. The interrogations happening out there were now setting up camp in here.
I had internalized the Inquisition and was increasingly a-swirl with:
Do I need to get out there more? Is there something wrong with me? Why does Amy find so many men to date and I’ve gone a whole year without? Am I really too selfish? What does my solo-ness say about me?
As I entered my 40s, still single, my life changed when I joined a Masters swim group, a nationwide swim organization for anyone over 18. While my team included swimmers in their mid-20s up to seventy-something, the average age was around 45, and made up the core of my new community of friends.
Monday through Friday we swam from 5–6 a.m., sauna’d, had coffee together then hugged and went off to work. On Saturdays there were bike rides; on Sunday, trail runs, and by Memorial Day we were swimming in Lake Washington. Some weekends we piled into cars and caravanned to Eastern Washington to cycle through the undulating prairies, or to Canada for triathlon training in sage-covered Penticton.
A lot of these sporty pals were married or partnered up; almost as many couples had kids as didn’t, and there were a few other singletons like me. But really, it didn’t matter. The great equalizer was Sports.
To have stumbled into a community that was not family- or couples-focused, where everyone showed up solo, mate-less, and played the way I really wanted to play was a paradise. I was fit, focused, training obsessed, and too happily pooped to fret about a mate.
Of course, my sports life didn’t stop the midlife portion of the Inquisition from presenting. This is a more curious, exploratory phase, where instead of pressing you to get on with things, or get out there, people are trying to make sense of how you arrived at forty, unmarried. The domino fall of questions goes something like this:
“Have you ever been married?”
“Not even once?
“Have you been engaged?” After hearing no, no, no and no, there’s a hopeful nudge forward:
“Have you come close?”
These questions are a prelude for the next chorus in the midlife Inquisition theme:
“How can YOU be single?”
One morning while sitting in the sauna after a Friday sprint set, one of the Marrieds asked if I was still single.
“I just don’t get it,” he huffed. “How can it be that you’re still single?”
This is annoying because the Inquisitor is demanding an explanation, as if A) I owe him one and B) there is one. This statement implies there’s something inherently wrong with being single and the singleton. (I was once asked, “what’s wrong with you?” which I appreciated for the way it cut to the chase.)
There’s also an accusatory undercurrent: if someone like me really wanted to join the married club I would. I was just being careless, lazy even, like a billionaire sitting in the back row of the plane because I made my reservations too late.
Here’s a variation on that theme:
“I can’t believe someone hasn’t come along and snatched you up!”
These spin-offs of “how can you be single,” and “why hasn’t someone grabbed you?” are mainly posed to women.
Single women are seen as unclaimed, while single men are simply undecided. This suggests that being single is something that is happening to women. We’re not like men, who are in charge of their romantic destinies.
If men are single at 40, they’re George-Cloonyesque bachelors. If women are, we’re the Unwanteds sitting at home with a pile of cats on our laps watching Lifetime movies.
I’ve had many single male friends over the years who also wanted someone to share their lives with, and wrestled with their continued solo status. However, when we compared notes around our respective Inquisitions, my male soloists were never asked why they were single; they were asked when they were going to choose someone and settle down.
Ahem, women are choosing too. “No thank-you” is as much of a choice as “yes.”
The Inquisition in your mid-40s
When I found myself turning the corner of 45, as an on-and-off-again relationship ended after the sort-of boyfriend moved across the country, I was left with a longing for a mate that settled in like a yawning hunger.
I slept with a pillow against my back and created a surrogate spooner, desperate for comfort. I was officially midway through my life. I was a person without a mate; a woman without children; a writer without a book, and a professional still hustling after work. I fed myself helpings right off the Inquisition’s plate:
What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I get it together here? Am I a female Peter Pan? Will I always be alone?
Step 1: Stare down the Inquisition
I decided to lean into my own private Inquisition. I plowed down every internal obstacle and inspected every possible pathology that might explain why I continued to be single at midlife.
I considered an unacknowledged fear of commitment, an aversion to being loved, that I was rude, intimidating, too critical, immature, insensitive, a lone wolf or still filling the racing shoes of Atalanta, the mythic huntress who wanted to remain solo, running wild through the forests. Maybe I was too picky.
Bullshit, all of it! There was no reason.
With a more curious approach, I started to break down the singleton theories, starting with being too picky.
“Have you seen some of the jokers I was willing to consider?” I screeched to a friend, thinking back to the depressed two-timer, the tantric-pushing divorcee, the I-need-my-space single dad, men who talked about their exes non-stop — and men who weren’t particularly kind or interested in me, but who I was willing to consider anyway because I was being open-minded!
“Why are you single?,” the world asks and asks. “Why aren’t you married?”
Who the hell knows.
Let’s face it: All types of people get married. Well-adjusted citizens and psychopaths; drug addicts, compulsive philanderers; trauma victims, neurotics, narcissists, perverts, loners, and prudes.
The “reasons” for anyone being single — especially chronically single — don’t hold up. For every “too career-focused,” there’s a workaholic mistress of industry with two kids and a devoted husband; for every “too intimidating” there’s the overbearing she-wolf whose unpopular opinions drain the air out of dinner parties while her adoring husband sits patiently by.
For every “so immature”, “self-absorbed” or “crazy drunk”, there’s the husband who sneaks out at night to get high; the colleague who belittles her wife while regaling her recent promotion all through happy hour; the drunk who routinely grabs people’s crotches at parties; the twice-married heroin addict, the gamblers, the two-timers, the thieves, the fussbudgets, the control freaks. All married!
A moment of desperation
I rounded the curve of 46, an aging soloist. One morning in February, I woke to my heart racing, sweat pooling on my belly, and a snap of anxiety:
I was going to meet menopause before a husband. Time had crashed through my bedroom ceiling and landed, drywall and all, in a pile on my bed.
After circling my neighborhood beach in a lumpy down coat over pajamas, on the phone with my best formerly-singleton girlfriend who was now in a promising relationship, I signed up for the matchmaking service through which my friend met her fabulous beau.
After five months of dinners with prospective husbands I had nothing in common with, my mind was a clanging symphony of self-doubt:
“Will I ever meet someone?” “Will I die alone? “Is it better to be lonely and single than dating and despairing?”
One morning, swimming laps of backstroke, the Why-Me ruminating was in full swing, each thought vying for attention as the volume rose like a stereo being turned up and up and up — until an amp blew.
Something in me snapped and let go. I didn’t know why I was single; I didn’t know why my life was the way it was, and I didn’t need to spend one more second figuring it out. There was no answer and I was going to stop the fruitless, torturous search. I ended my own personal Singleton Inquisition, and got on with things.
Life isn’t meant to make sense — it’s mean to be lived
Here are four things the Inquisition tells you about meeting a romantic partner:
1. “You’ll meet someone when you least expect it.”
2. “You want to meet someone when you’re happy.”
3. “You’ll meet him when you have your life together.”
4. “You don’t want to be desperate.”
I’m not sure how the Inquisition unfolds in your fifties, because I got married at 49-and-three-quarters. At 47, I fell in love with a genteel, silver-haired man and broke every one of the four rules listed above. When I met my husband, I was:
1. enrolled in a matchmaking service, so highly expecting to meet someone;
2. unhappy enough to consider anti-depressants;
3. struggling to get business clients and pay my bills;
4. waking up at 3 a.m. desperate to meet someone before menopause kicked in.
We met at a swimmers’ Friday coffee. He was newly widowed, a grandfather, retired, a homebody, but also kind, thoughtful, funny, and tender. More importantly, he loved the shit out of me and was his own person.
If I could go back and change anything about the last few years of being single, it would be to have spent more time living as if I would meet someone and less time ruminating over my romantic fate.
What I can’t do, with hindsight, is say: “Aha, I now understand the reason for my decades of solo life. It all makes sense!”
Instead, here’s my conclusion:
What’s wrong with a woman who marries, finally, three months shy of her fiftieth birthday?
Nothing — at least there’s nothing more wrong with her than anyone else who’s partnered up.
What’s a love-hungry singleton do during the lonely seasons, a pandemic even?
Get through it the best way s/he/they/we knows how, like anyone else.
Why is a decent-enough person left longing for companionship at 30 or 52 or 64, while everyone around her couples up?
Who the hell knows. There is no reason.
There never was and there never will be.
Don’t waste another moment of your wild and precious life looking for one.