After marriage and now that I’m single, I fully appreciate what a lovely and valuable thing it is to live happily on my own.
At age 22, I married a man I’d been living with for a year and a half. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision made during a road trip from San Francisco to Reno. The fact that I chose to tie the knot in the divorce capital of the country should have clued me in to what lay ahead. By 30, I realized things weren’t working and moved out on my own. I was miserable. I still remember moping around my studio apartment, writing bad poetry and crying into my canned ravioli dinners. I wailed to anyone who would listen. How could people stand being single? The loneliness, the despair, the interminable quest for meaningful companionship!
And that was after just three weeks.
For the next few years, I fell in and out of a series of unfortunate relationships — sort of like that Lemony Snicket book, only with more sex — but when I hit 35, a funny thing happened.
I realized that I enjoyed my time alone more than the time I spent with the miscreants I’d paired up with to avoid feeling lonely. My single stretches — filled with a cadre of friends and a clutch of creative pursuits — smacked much more of substance and much less of need. I started to write more. I began composing on the piano. I became a red-hot aunt and traveled to Antarctica, Australia and the Kingdom of Tonga as part of a new job in adventure travel. I collected vintage sex manuals and vinyl records; I learned to play the accordion and joined a band.
Somehow, some way, I’d not only come to terms with my single life, I’d come to fully appreciate what a lovely and valuable thing it was to live happily on my own.
I’d discovered the gift of being single.
Little did I know I was part of a trend or a “singles sea change,” as Dr. Christine B. Whelan calls this shift in both individual attitudes and social demographics.
“People are marrying significantly later and they’re single for longer,” says Whelan, a social historian and author of Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women. “That means we have two choices. Either we can spend our single years being miserable about the fact we’re single or we can embrace all the benefits of the single life.”
Not surprisingly, statistics point to our preference for the latter.
In two 2006 Harris Interactive surveys of nearly 4,000 men and women ages 25-40, more than 90 percent of single women said they felt they could live a happy, fulfilled life regardless of marital status, and nearly the same percentage of single men said they too could be content on their own.
Getting past the panic years
Whelan, who’s interviewed thousands of single men and women over the years, says part of the attitude shift — my own as well as others’ — may simply have to do with getting older.
“I think there’s an age component to the comfort level,” she says. “Just like college and education are wasted on the young, the fun and fabulous things in your single life are wasted on panicked people in their 20s.” She believes that men and women in that age group often have a sense that life is passing them by, whereas people in their 30s and 40s have a different attitude.
“There’s much more confidence, much more acceptance of themselves,” she says. “You don’t hear the same kind of terror and anguish.”
Elyse Silvia, a 43-year-old Pilates instructor and mother from West Los Angeles, knows about this particular kind of T&A.
“In my line of work, I hear all the dating stories, all the stress,” says Silvia, who’s been married twice and single for the last five years. “These women seem to feel desperate instead of enjoying their life and their relationships. They’re worried about the bottom line: ‘Will he marry me? Will I have a child?’ I don’t have any of those pressures.”
Being single also means you don’t have to worry about making sure your spouse is comfortable with your hectic lifestyle.
“There’s a wonderful autonomy to being single,” says Jim Garfield, a divorced 44-year-old director of business development from Santa Monica. “It allows me to go, be and do whatever, whenever. I can move in lots of different circles, hang out with people who are 10 to 15 years younger or 10 to 15 years older. I can be a chameleon. I don’t have to worry about having someone with me who doesn’t appreciate going out for beers and chicken wings after the game.”
Fulfilling those dreams
For Stephanie Abdullah, a 38-year-old entertainment PR specialist from Hollywood, the autonomy has allowed her to pursue the career of a lifetime.
“I have the job I’ve always dreamed of,” says Abdullah, who’s been in two long-term relationships (including a marriage) and has been on her own for the last five years. “But entertainment publicity means working ’til the wee hours, working weekends, whatever. I can do that without any backlash of, ‘Why were you out so late?’ I’m having a ball. There are moments when I think, ‘Wow, if I were married, I couldn’t be doing this.’”
I can relate. My years in the single lane have allowed me to carve out a career as a freelance journalist, which means long hours at the keyboard and lots of introspection as those writing wheels turn. While being with a loving partner can be a fabulous thing (I’ve had some keepers along with the cads), it can also mean giving up — or at least cutting back on — creative freedom.
“I know a lot of long-term singles who really appreciate the ability to have some solitude,” says Keith Goettert, a 50-year-old technical engineer and longtime Angeleno who divorced two years ago. “Whether it’s our artistic pursuits, our mental gymnastics or just our mood of the moment, it’s nice to have that quiet time. I have an introverted side and some women don’t like that. They’re like, ‘Talk to me. Tell me what’s going on! What’s the issue here?’”
Check your own baggage, please
Sadly, there are many who assume singles do have issues — either with the fact that they’re single, or deeper, darker stuff that keeps them from finding “true happiness” as part of a married couple.
“Some people assume that singles are constantly obsessing about their status,” says Colleen Griffin, a 36-year-old art director and lifelong single from Los Angeles. “A couple of people actually tried to comfort me when my younger sister got married.”
Griffin says it’s all projection on their part, though.
“I’m not a fruit that has passed its sell-by date, and I’m not Bridget Jones,” she says. “I don’t hate kids, and I don’t think that married people are brainwashed sheep. I’m just enjoying my life and every good thing that comes my way.”
I couldn’t put it better myself.
Yes, there are times when I miss having a man around the house. It can be a real pain folding queen-size sheets by yourself. But I’m not about to short-sheet my life just because I’m desperate to be part of a matched set. If I meet someone extraordinary, someone who puts a skip in my step and a twinkle in my eye, then you bet I’ll be up for a romance. But I’m done pairing up with someone (anyone!) simply because I can’t face being alone.
I may still write bad poetry on occasion; I may still mope. Truly, what creative sort doesn’t? But my days of despair, of crying into a plate of canned ravioli are over. For one thing, I’m much more partial to the butternut squash variety — shared with friends at a favorite restaurant. For another, I’ve got much better things to do with my time than squander the best gift I’ve ever been given: a singularly happy life.