As more and more of her peers begin pairing off into couples, a happily single Emily Heist Moss fears being left out in a world that seems to be made for two.
Eric Klinenberg’s 2012 book Going Solo investigates what he calls “the biggest demographic shift since the Baby Boom,” the rise of the singleton. Specifically, Klinenberg explores the trend toward solo dwelling—28% of all U.S. households are single occupancy—and the impact this shift has on family structure and social expectations.
For me, the aha! moment in Klinenberg’s book was that the average American spends more of their adult life alone than partnered. While most Americans will get married at some point, the combination of delaying marriage, higher divorce rates, and outliving a spouse means that of your adult years, it’s exceedingly likely you will spend a big chunk of them on your own.
With those numbers swimming in my head, it seems to me that putting the true-happiness-eggs in the marriage basket, or even the permanent partner basket if I decide the ceremony is not for me, might not be my wisest bet. That doesn’t mean I kick the whole idea of marriage to the curb, but it does mean that I want to think hard about where I put my social energy and how coupledom, or not, will shape my future.
Everyone warned me it was coming, the era of the “couple,” but I didn’t really believe them. You turn 25, they said, and people start operating as twosomes, cohabitation becomes the norm, and wedding invitations start flowing in at a rate that constantly drains your bank account. A few weeks ago, at 24, I would have scoffed. That’s ridiculous, we’re in our early 20s! Those are adult things, and we’re not adults! We’re fresh out of school, usually broke, bouncing between jobs, waffling about grad school, drinking too much wine, and eating brunch at 2pm. We’re kids!
Now, three weeks on the other side of 25, it somehow seems much more reasonable. As my dad pointed out on my birthday, we’re closer to 30 than 20 (he was getting me back for making a similar observation about his 55th). The delusion that we’re in our mid-20s is just not sustainable anymore; it’s official, it’s happening, the era of the couple is upon us. But what about those of us not in couples (or in no hurry to get there)? Where do we fit as the social scene swings toward two-person activities? My bulletin board is only just now filling with neatly printed invitations, but I’m already feeling like an outsider.
As we stare down the other side of this decade, my fear is that if I don’t go the couple route, or at a different pace, the social scene will shift and there may not be space for puzzle pieces shaped liked me. If four couples are going out to dinner, do they invite the single friend? If three couples plan a tropical vacation, who wants a seventh wheel? There’s almost certainly an element of paranoia in my anxiety, but I can already feel the structure of events starting to form around the two-person unit. Remember in Lord of the Flies when Sam and Eric became “Samneric”? That’s how it starts—people start to blend into each other, and to make plans with one is to expect the other.
Some part of my fear is driven by the specific worry that my lack of desire for coupledom reflects some deeper value rift between me and my peers, one that will only get bigger over time. That’s not to say I don’t ever want to be part of a couple, or that I don’t (eventually) hope for a long-term relationship, but that when I hear others talk about coupledom as the pinnacle of everything, the “one true way to be happy,” the “best kind of love,” I feel like we are speaking different languages. To my mind, if I might spend half of my adult life not in a couple, then I better know how to be happy on my own and that means investing the kinds of connections that might sustain me before, during, or after a relationship.
Even during the uncoupled periods, I’m not truly on my own, right? There are best friends, close friends, once-a-month friends. There are family members to call, out-of-towners to Skype with, pen pals to write to, and bus drivers who smile at me because they see me every morning. The human network from which I can derive a sense of connection, a sense of grounding, is much wider and more layered than I think. Sometimes that’s easy to forget when you find yourself in the dumps because it feels like everyone else has a boyfriend.
Not to be the pessimistic down-on-love poster child of divorce (ahem…), but we all know that the likelihood of a marriage lasting forever hovers right around 50%. And even if you are eternally confident in the longevity of your own commitment, what if you don’t meet your spouse until you’re 35? What if you lose a spouse early? What if life factors collide in unpredictable ways and result in you spending some portion of your adult years as a “singleton?” It’s not unlikely, and the primacy we put on the “one true love” leaves us emotionally and socially ill equipped to handle it. At least, it leaves me feeling emotionally and socially ill equipped.
I want to be clear. Although I am a child of divorce, I am not down on love. I am not down on monogamy or commitment or marriage. I am down on the idea that being unpartnered, whether permanently or temporarily, is somehow an unusual, or regrettable state of affairs. It’s not unusual, statistically speaking, and it’s only considered regrettable because we still perpetuate the myth that there’s one primary path to happiness.
In fact, I am the opposite of down on love. I am up on love, all kinds of love, familial love, romantic love, platonic love, stranger love, puppy love, new love, old love, all the love. I want to be surrounded by so much love that for whatever duration of my adult life I spend as a singleton, whether that ends next week or next year or it doesn’t end, I never feel like I’m missing out on the rich stuff.
Role/Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has been published at Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.