When I got dumped, and I mean, majorly, after-five-plus-years-everyone-thought-you’d-get-married, dumped, a million people told me it would be a good thing if I were single for a while. At the time I held it against them. My take was that they were saying I was needy and dependent and should get my sh-t together without further inflicting it on the public at large. First off, how the heck did they know what was best for me in my time of need? I thought the ideal solution would include a bevy of suitors and looking good in revenge. Secondly, why would the answer to my newfound loneliness be solitude? A delectable but casual rebound seemed far more appropriate.
I was however one of those people who had hardly been single since puberty. Someone whose relationships unfortunately often overlapped. And somehow despite my best intentions I internalized their admonishment. Officially speaking,(meaning Facebook) I haven’t called a fellow my boyfriend in the last half decade. While my best friend might find some of that time debateable-a whole separate conversation would need to be had over what counts as being in a relationship with someone- I can say that I have been commitment free. Able to make my own decisions, “follow my own drummer” and screw whoever I like. That’s what being single means to me. What a 180 I’ve made in terms of preference and perspective from when I couldn’t imagine life alone.
While I am loathe to give into a dialectic that defines being single as either a defect vs. a strength, I can’t help now perceiving coupling as a fear based decision. Something tied to our fear of mortality and of helplessness without a help-mate. A while back there was an article on the teenage brain in National Geographic. One of the things it talked about was a study on decision making that looked at how teenagers perceived risk differently from adults. It used a scenario in which the participants decided on whether or not to run a yellow light. The results showed that teenagers had the same level of judgment but that their actions were dependent on there being peers in the room. When their friends were around they took more risks to show off.
What struck me most was the part that talked about how teens perceive social acceptance as a life or death proposition. It made me think about all the recent bullying deaths and how being ostracized was so traumatic to those who ultimately killed themselves. It makes sense when you think about it on an evolutionary level. There is safety in numbers. We generally speaking feel safer when not alone. There are shared resources, skill sets and deterrent force. The sense that one has utterly failed at the task of assimilation and will be alone in life must be terrifying and overwhelming. And the adolescent phase is when it counts. When I think about who I consider my closest friends/allies I realize that I collected the majority during those same formative years. I was trying to build a community that would sustain me in my adult life. Indeed, especially during the time in which I’ve been single, those relationships have been crucial.
The phenomenon in which people, when coupled, isolate themselves from their friends and community is an unhealthy one. I know a bunch of girls who regret having let their platonic relationships dissolve when they fell in love. Later when their significant other is less dreamy, they wish they had outside support. It is also unfair to demand that one person fulfill the totality of one’s emotional needs. Anyone would seem needy under that guise.
So much of what we do is still animal thinking. I am not a proponent of some of what has been extrapolated. I don’t for instance believe that men are hardwired to seek multiple partners, while women benefit from a single mate scenario. I doubt if anything that people are hardwired for monogamy at all- (see the book Sex at Dawn) but I do believe that most unconscious decisions are based in fear. We are programmed for survival above all.
I think it is brave to be single. It takes courage. Even if it’s not by choice. I learned a lot about keeping myself company in the last few years. I found a few pitfalls along the way,(who knew I was so annoying?) but those too taught me more about who I am. At this point being single feels safer oddly enough. Less chance for surprises and disappointment.
So… I think it is also brave though to give love a try. Whether for the first time or the fifth. I don’t mean to make it seem more noble to stand alone like the great American ideal intones. Being with others means vulnerability. Being vulnerable takes strength. Trust is inherently a leap of faith. It isn’t predicated on evidence or logic alone. It has some relationship to reciprocity but the two are not mutually intertwined. Ideally we want to take the sense of self developed independently and preserve it while accepting and appreciating another human being. We want to see and be seen. This is really hard work. When that alchemy happens it is worth the heartbreak that might be to come later. My mom said, when I was feeling rather desolate, that I shouldn’t worry about being able to love again. Time will pass. You know how to love and be loved, that is what’s important. That’s what we all have to keep practicing. Single or not.