“Have you ever dated someone because you were too lazy to commit suicide?” — Judy Tenuta
It’s not even two months into the new year, and lonely people everywhere — still licking their wounds from the holiday season — must brace themselves for the annual barrage of advertisements depicting lovers in tender embraces exchanging puppydog glances, diamonds, flowers and chocolates — Happy Valentine’s Day.
Bargains on personal ads and online dating services along with magazine guides for surviving the dreaded holiday send a message to singles that not being coupled makes them honorary members of the Losers Club. But there are plenty of people who are content without a partner, and trends indicate that fewer adults are jumping into marriage. In 2006 there were 100 million unmarried adults in the U.S., one third of whom had never been married.
Amy Alkon, whose popular “Advice Goddess” column is nationally syndicated, calls Valentine’s Day the “National Day of Insincerity” and doesn’t believe in soul mates. The idea that one person will somehow make your life perfect, she says, is misguided. “The truth is, if you have a rich life filled with activities and friends you’re not going to be that sad person in an apartment with the one light bulb swinging over your head.”
The myth that a single life is not a successful life is a “bill of goods” that Alkon says we don’t need to buy. Author Bella DePaulo (Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, 2006, St. Martin’s Press) says being single is not synonymous with being lonely. In her book she cites one of the steps a dating guru suggests to avoid depression and embarrassment on Valentine’s Day: “For a little end-of-the-day affection, kiss your pets if you have any.”
While many singles would label themselves “alone,” most people are not navigating life totally solo. The majority of single adults have close friends, social networks, colleagues and hobbies. Ironically, Alkon says that sometimes having too much of a life narrows the possibilities for romance. “People are made to feel like they’re losers if they don’t have a partner, and the truth is the more unique you are, the more you develop yourself, the harder it will be to find a partner because you rule out very many people.”
Alice Miller, a hip, attractive 40-year-old graphic artist from Ventura who’s never been married and has no kids, is not compelled to find a mate. “I’m really fine being alone,” she says. Despite some external pressure from family, she feels no internal pressure to couple or procreate. Her grandmother accuses her of being too picky, but as she gets older, her standards get higher. She no longer ignores red flags.
Alkon says most relationships fail because people don’t honestly assess potential partners. This is especially true when they’re desperate to find someone. “It’s like going to the grocery store when you’re hungry,” she says. “You’re looking to believe somebody is the right person … so you’re prone, much more than you would be, to ignore all the warning signs that they’re not a good partner, they don’t match you. It’s a very good way to put on a deep set of blinders.”
Lamar Miles, a 42-year-old teacher and musician from Port Hueneme, would like to find someone to share life with, but he’s content for the time being. I love myself and I’m very happy,” he says. “I’m not going to sacrifice my core beliefs just to be paired up.” Like Miller, he blames betraying his instincts for previous relationship problems.
Looking for a mate can be an exhausting proposition with long hours spent mining dating Web sites and obsessing over who’s responding to your profile. For many single people, the pursuit of a fulfilling life requires dating to take a back seat.
Miller spent much of her adult life in one relationship or another. But since returning to school to cultivate a highly specialized career, she has found herself living an almost “monastic” lifestyle. “For the first time in my life,” she says, “I’m truly doing something for myself, for my future.”
Ali Kay, an outgoing 38-year-old writer from Ventura, made a conscious decision to put her career first and let the chips fall where they may. “I’m constantly pursuing my dream,” she says. “I’ve wanted that more than a husband, so I’m living out the result.” Despite her ambition, Kay, who publishes a hilarious confessional dating column in a local community paper, is not happy to be alone, but she has learned how to be happy while she’s alone. “I’m always looking for the next big distraction to keep myself occupied, so I don’t think about how lonely I am,” she says. “But then at the end of the day, I think, ‘Wow, I just did that by myself.’ I like my alone time and I value my space, but it would be so cool to share my life with someone.’”
A common battle cry from the frontlines of singledom is, “I don’t want to die alone!” or Chapter 11 in DePaulo’s book: “You Will Grow Old Alone and You Will Die in a Room by Yourself Where No One Will Find You for Weeks.” Alkon recalls a letter she received from a woman who scolded her for advising a reader to leave an abusive relationship. The reader was afraid the abused woman might end up dying alone. “So I cited a friend of mine, Cathy Seipp [a well-loved newspaper columnist who died of cancer in 2007],” said Alkon. “She was divorced, but she died crowded. She had all her friends around her.” The whole “dying alone” argument is a matter of perception.
“The thing about dying alone is, you spend very little of your life dying.” Alkon says. “Maybe it’s like three minutes, or 30 seconds, or if it’s really awful it’s a few months, but you spend most of your life living. If you have friends in your life, if you have a rich life and stuff that you’re doing and people that excite you and you’re a good friend and you have good friends, your life is not going to be some pathetic hell.”
Miles understands the fear of dying alone, but says, were he to become terminally ill, his friends would be there for him. “I’m not too proud to reach out to friends and say, ‘I need you.’ ” For Kay, the issue isn’t necessarily dying alone. “I don’t want to end up alone,” she says. “Nobody does. My mom is 63 and her worst fear is ending up alone.”
Studies have indicated that people live longer when they’re partnered. Alkon steers away from what she regards as generalizations, though she tends to believe men are healthier when they’re in relationships. Especially, she says, when the relationship is happy because “they’re looked after.” Bestselling author DePaulo agrees: the emphasis is on the word “happy.” She writes, “When you compare unhappiness levels across groups, no one matches the unhappily married in misery — not divorced people, not widowed people, and not people who have always been single.”
Another romantic myth that’s permeated social culture in epic proportions is the idea that we are somehow incomplete without a life partner. Music, especially older popular music, is laden with lyrics like “You are everything” or “Without you I’m nothing,” “All I need is you,” “I don’t wanna live without your love,” and the list goes on. There is the implication that living life without a significant, singular other makes us inadequate.
“I think of myself as a work in progress,” says Alkon, “I never think of myself as complete.” Miles, who was married during his 20s, is repelled by women who approach him from the perspective that they are incomplete without a partner. “If I meet someone who feels like that,” he says, “I’m going to run the other way. You’ve got to love yourself first.”
Kay, on the other hand, having never been married, does feel somewhat incomplete without a mate. “It’s as vital as breathing for me,” she says. “I feel like I’m half living because I don’t have anyone to share the joys with or to come home to every day. I don’t feel like I’m experiencing the true capacity of love and living.”
Though Miles doesn’t share Kay’s fervor for companionship, he is not immune to loneliness. To assuage the occasional aches of singularity, he engages in various gratifying activities. “I’ll play music — music has saved my life so many times — or spend time with friends.” Miles also finds working out to be of great benefit. “Sometimes when I go to the gym, intellectually the loneliness will still be there but [the exercise] will soften the feelings.”
Miller is generally too busy to feel lonely, but on occasion, like this past New Year’s Eve when she decided to lie low and stay in, a certain awareness of her aloneness creeps in. Her response to such feelings is, like Miles and Kay, to distract herself with friends and activities, both of which she has in abundance.
Even when loneliness isn’t begging for space in the single person’s consciousness, the primal desire to procreate sometimes nips at the heels. Who doesn’t remember the classic scene from My Cousin Vinny when Marisa Tomei, glorious in her floral jumpsuit, explains in no uncertain terms to Joe Pesci that her biological clock is ticking, and the way things are going she’ll never get married. Recent studies have determined that it’s not only women who hear the distant tick-tock, but Alkon warns that choosing a mate only because you can’t find the snooze button could yield regrettable results.
“To run your life based on the fact that your eggs are aging is the worst way to choose a partner,” she says.
Miller recalls that in her mid- to late-30s she began to ponder the waning of her procreative peak, but “it’s not a gripping thing.” Kay feels that if she does want children, she has maybe two good years to find a man to settle down with. “Janet Jackson just had a baby at 42, but maybe that’s not my path,” she concedes. Miles is also not champing at the bit to populate the planet. “There are a lot of times I’d like to have kids, but I almost feel like, at this point, I’d want them so my mom could be a grandma more than for me to be a daddy.” He adds, “Teaching elementary school doesn’t make me want to go out and make babies,” he jokes.
Getting hitched because you want children with your genetic makeup goes back to the desperation problem. Whether someone is desperate because they’re lonely or because they want to create a life, they’re still desperate. And desperation almost always leads to an unfortunate outcome. “Desperation is the worst state to be in if you’re looking for a partner,” she says. “You have to make your life satisfying without another person. It’s actually only when you’re happy alone that you are ready to have another person in your life.”
With that said, it would seem to follow that Miller, Alice and Kay have something to look forward to soon besides self-actualization. Until then, Miles says, he won’t settle for anything less than his ideal. “I want the fireworks,” he says. “I want the whole package, emotional and physical compatibility.”
Besides her dating column, Kay also writes full time for a wedding publication. The irony of this is not lost on her, yet she remains wholly optimistic. “I’m a crusader for love,” she says. And despite the many frogs she’s found herself kissing, she never loses her sense of humor. “I actually call myself a professional dating stuntwoman,” she says. “I take all the falls, the injuries the heartbreaks, and I still keep going back out there,” she says. “Of all the bad dates and horrendous heartbreaks, I have to laugh at it. It’s the only thing that keeps me getting back on the horse.”