Presenting “Single Ladies,” five days of essays about the ups and downs of being a woman, uncoupled.
Two days before Christmas, I received word that my divorce from my husband had gone through. The notice came in the form of a weirdly tone-deaf email from our mediator, Rachel. “Merry Christmas!” it began. “This just received, in time for a new start for the new year!”
I cried for a few minutes. I didn’t understand, nor appreciate, Rachel’s strange cheerfulness, but she had done a fine job administering the legal aftermath of our split. And I’d have been lying if I said I didn’t feel some measure of relief that the horribly sad and occasionally humiliating situation was legally, officially over. I’d predicted it some 20 years earlier.
It was late spring of 1990, and I was sitting in a high-school communications class alongside about two dozen other students who’d been asked — by a bored instructor who was just as ready for the school year to be over as we were — to construct an ink-and-posterboard timeline of the lives we would someday lead. Most everyone sketched out similar achievements and similar outcomes: We would attend and graduate from college. Some would go on to get graduate degrees; others, like me, would join the workforce and establish our careers – in my case, as a writer for magazines in New York. But my third decade of life diverged sharply from that imagined by my peers. Like them, I predicted I would fall in love and get married. Unlike them, I would also get divorced.
The students snickered. The instructor feigned shock. I simply shrugged. It would have been easy for someone to interpret my cynicism about marriage as the provocative posturing of a high-school sophomore — a daughter of divorce who had never had a boyfriend, much less kissed a boy. And that someone would have probably been right. But my pessimism about long-term, legally recognized monogamy was more than this: It was a reflection of broader trends — by the year 2000, 40 percent of marriages were ending in divorce — and an overidentification, perhaps even a romanticization of, the single life. For whatever reason, the most productive, passionate, and self-actualized people I knew (or admired from afar) had spent large portions of their lives alone. Women, in particular, seemed to blossom personally and professionally when their attentions were directed not toward their spouses or offspring, but themselves. For a certain type of creative, highly sensitive soul, I believed, singledom was a feature, not a bug.
This isn’t to say that I enjoyed being alone. Like any young heterosexual woman who grew up believing that the quantity (and quality) of male attention she received had a direct correlation with her worth to the world, I often loathed my single status. And my 20s did not disabuse me of the notion that an absence of romantic attachments was my lot in life, my default operating state. From the mid-90s to the mid-aughts, when I met the man who would become my husband, my assignations with the opposite sex felt less like a series of adventures than humiliations: unrequited obsessions with unavailable or uninterested men, and a slew of sub-par paramours, like the functioning heroin addict who knocked me up, disappeared, and ended up inspiring a deeply researched anthology about women’s angry, affair-ending letters. Even the introduction and adoption of online dating — this was turn-of-the-century NYC, after all — resulted in more continued frustrations and emotional disappointments. By the time I hit 30, I felt like I’d come to terms with the idea that there were two types of women in the world: The lucky, unthreatening, and predictably pretty ones — usually in relationships but occasionally single — and the unlucky ones, like me: usually single but occasionally in relationships.
I wish I’d looked at things differently back then. I wish I’d had the generosity of spirit toward myself not to interpret my chronic and seemingly pathological failures at romance as confirmation of my undesirability, but to allow for the possibility that maybe my interior and exterior circumstances were simply not set up for serial coupling. Though I considered myself a fairly social person, my most important moments, stretching back into early childhood, had been solo experiences: walks I’d taken, toys I’d played with, books I’d savored, dances I’d choreographed, dramas I’d enacted, ballads I’d belted, words I’d written. I savored the company of friends and family and considered myself extremely intuitive and emotionally open, but I had to admit that other folks sometimes got in the way of my keeping my own great company.
This, in fact, may have been what I was getting at in that classroom in the spring of 1990, when I announced to the assembled students that, like them, I planned on getting married at some point, and then unmarried. Looking back on it, I see the protestations and bluster of an ambitious but insecure young woman who wanted desperately to avoid admitting needing anything – or anybody – lest she put herself in the precarious position of inviting pain and agony into her life. But I also see an independent being allowing herself the option of being happy alone, of anticipating, perhaps, the small but steadily growing revolution of young women who had decided that life didn’t begin with the successful acquisition of partnership and marriage, it was just buoyed by it.
I still believe that singledom, at least for me, is a feature, not a bug. And, just eight weeks after finding myself officially, legally, divorced, I’m understandably gun-shy about the idea that I might ever walk down an aisle – or in my case, the hallways of the City Clerk’s Marriage Bureau – again. (“Maybe you’ll get remarried,” my high-school teacher had offered, helpfully. “Maybe I won’t,” I responded.) The fact is that, though I loved my husband, I didn’t tell him when we were married that no small part of me was convinced we would get divorced, or that, when he’d lost his wedding ring in a lagoon off the coast of Kauai two days into our honeymoon, that the loss had felt preordained, the universe’s way of previewing our eventual split. I don’t know that I’ll ever really decide whether or not my fatalism about marriage explained why everything ended, but I’m sure it didn’t help.
The return to my identity as a single person hasn’t been without its difficult moments – I spent much of late 2014 and early 2015 not just mourning the end of my marriage but deeply depressed and convinced that I would never love so deeply again. But I also suspected that the split was more of a gift than a curse; eventually I even began to regard my unattached status as a cause for more celebration than consternation, a time when the possibilities afforded me feel almost terrifyingly, thrillingly open. (Perhaps this is part of getting older. At the very least, it feels a lot wiser.)
It seems hard for a few of my friends, even the single ones, to completely grok this subtle shift in attitude. “You’ll meet the next important man in your life when you least expect it, when you’re feeling satisfied and nourished by your life alone,” a friend, also divorced, reassured me at dinner a few weeks ago. I knew what she meant and nodded in agreement, but inside, my heart sank just a smidgen. I’m just starting to feel satisfied, I wanted to protest, and I’m pretty sure I want to keep being single a whole lot longer.