by Greta Christina
"I love being single. It's almost like being rich."
-Sue Grafton, D Is For Deadbeat
So here's the deal. I'm a reasonably happy single person. Really. No kidding. I don't mean that I'm happy in spite of being single, either. I'm happy, at least partly, because I'm single. I enjoy the condition. I think about the years I've been single, and the years I've been in serious long-term committed relationships, and there's just no comparison. When I was part of a couple, the world felt like a billion-dollar unpaid credit card bill. Now I'm single, and the world feels like Disneyland.
I'm a happy single person. And I keep running into an assumption that the phrase "happy single person" is a contradiction in terms. So, according to the world around me, I'm a contradiction in terms.
I want to talk about how that feels.
I've been single for over ten years; and here are a few reasons why.
I like leaving my clothes on the floor.
I like leaving the dishes in the sink for a week.
I like sprawling across the bed, thrashing around, snoring, scratching, and hogging the blankets.
I like setting the alarm for nine and hitting the snooze a dozen or so times, and finally hauling my ass out of bed at about ten-thirty.
I like spending hours at a time not talking to anybody, not wondering what anyone else is thinking, just alone with my crazy thoughts.
I like staying in bed 'til noon on weekends, then getting up and putting on loud music, puttering around making breakfast and reading the paper, and not dealing with anyone until I'm thoroughly awake and ready to cope with the world.
I like taking credit for my achievements and responsibility for my failures. (Well, to be honest, I don't actually like taking responsibility for my failures...but I'm willing to do it, and I like learning from my failures and then taking credit for what I've learned.)
I like coming to the end of a workday and thinking to myself, What would I like to do this evening? Do I want to go to a movie? Do I want to write? Do I want to see what Marian's up to? Do I want to clean my room and listen to the ballgame on the radio? What do I feel like doing? and then deciding, and then doing it, without consulting anybody, without having to check in.
I like thinking about my future, my predictions and plans and delusions of grandeur, and then living out that future as best I can. I like cutting my path in the world, using my own values and abilities and perceptions. And I like doing it with my own distinct vision, without consulting anybody, without checking in.
I like listening to my moods, following my instincts, sitting still and being silent and paying attention to what happens next. And I like acting on it. Now. Without consulting anybody, without checking in.
This business of not consulting or checking in is obviously pretty crucial. It can be very hard to distinguish between what I think and what other people think; what I want and what other people want; what I feel and what other people feel. Blame it on my poor sad dysfunctional childhood, if you like. But I need a great deal of clear quiet space around me in order to hear my own voice. If I'm always consulting with someone else to find out what they want, it's very easy to get their voice confused with my own. And it becomes doubly, triply, a hundred times more confusing when the other voice is one I hear day in and day out, and furthermore is one I don't want to displease. When I don't have to constantly check in with someone else to make my decisions, it's much easier to discover who I am and what it is I do.
I've been single for over ten years. And here are some things that have made that choice difficult.
The first time I said out loud, "I like being single," I felt like a subversive.
The first time I said, "I don't want to be in a relationship," I felt like a coward.
The first time I said, "I'm not willing to give anyone else power over my life," I felt as if I'd said, "I'm not willing to be a woman."
You see, whenever I say I don't want to be in a capital-R Relationship, I hear a chorus of voices telling me I'm "afraid of commitment" or "afraid of intimacy." When I say I like my life as a single person and don't want that to change, my words are seen as self-deception. When I say I enjoy solitude and need lots of it, it's called an unhealthy detachment from the human race. It makes it damned difficult for me to feel confident about what I'm doing. A choice that works for me and makes me happy is pitied at best and sneered at at worst. In fact, choosing to stay single isn't really acknowledged as a free choice at all. It's seen as either sour grapes, pretending not to want what I haven't got, or an unconscious defense mechanism stemming from fear.
And although I wish it were otherwise, when I think about the world's opinion of single people, the main feeling I get is a thin layer of rebellious, pissed-off, you-can't-tell-me-what-to-do exasperation poorly concealing the fear that they might be right. It can be very hard to resist feeling that they, the elusive but ever-present "they," might, in their collective wisdom and experience, know better than I do. When it seems that the entire human race is either coupled or hell-bent on getting that way, it can make staying single feel inhuman, like I'm resisting nature or destiny. When everyone wants to be in love and assumes I want it too, it can make me wonder if I'm deceiving myself. When I face the pity and contempt people have for someone who "can't find anybody" or "can't settle down," it can trash my self-confidence, leaving me feeling unlovable and pathetic. And when I look at mass-culture-land, at books and movies and songs and TV, and see almost nobody who doesn't have a sweetie and isn't looking for a sweetie and stays that way for the duration of the story and isn't a hopeless neurotic fuckup, it can make me wonder if what I want to do is even possible.
It's especially hard since, to be completely honest, my belief that being single is right for me isn't simple or obvious, and I question it fairly frequently. There are times when I get lonely, when I wish for the reassurance of regular company or want to share the running commentary in my head with another soul. When I get sick or sad or just plain horny -- and I get just plain horny a lot -- I think about how nice it might be to have someone around who'd bring me soup and dry my tears and screw me silly on a regular basis. And although I love the freedom I have to make my life's plans without consulting anybody, I'm not so crazy about the particular loneliness that comes because nobody consults me about their life's plans.
So even without the influence of my culture, this hasn't been an easy choice for me. And the pressure to give up the choice makes it hard to let myself even question it. Feeling defensive and rebellious about being told what to do makes it hard to believe that the choice is really free. I'm often afraid to re-evaluate it; if I ever feel differently and decide to change my mind, it might feel like caving in. Since I don't get a lot of support for this way of life, I worry that letting myself question the decision will undermine it.
I suspect this whole thing might be somewhat easier if I were a guy. When I think about deliberately staying single, it often feels like I'm deliberately ripping out my ovaries. Men who avoid relationships are at least understood, even if they're not 100% accepted. It's a cultural stereotype, for Christ's sake, a goddamn comedic standard -- the carefree bachelor, the reluctant bridegroom, the frantic boyfriend dodging his girlfriend's efforts to pressure him into marriage. But there's no female counterpart to the happy carefree bachelor. What we have instead is the dried-up old maid.
Which makes me crazy. For about a million reasons it makes me crazy, and if I go into the million reasons I'm going to turn argumentative and politically self-righteous. All the political theory in the world won't change the fact that choosing to be single has done serious damage to my image of myself as a woman. There are times when I feel like a caricature of a straight man, and an asshole straight man at that. You know the type: competitive, self-involved, emotionally defensive, defined and obsessed by work, unwilling or unable to make a commitment, always on the prowl for sex. The ones that women who love too much fall in love with before they find the self-help books. I sometimes think I should carry a warning sign around my neck: "I Am The Lover Your Therapist Warned You About."
I know I'm not being fair to myself. I know that wanting to be single doesn't make me a bad person or an un-woman. But the feeling is real, even if it's not accurate or fair, and it's only one of the ways this stuff makes me crazy. It drives me nuts having to spend time unlearning this stupid shit. It's such a waste. I have better things to do with my life.
One of the hardest things about writing this has been letting go of wanting to prove my point. When I first conceived of the piece, I wanted to change hearts and minds, to convince other single people that they were okay and to persuade the world at large to get off my back. "A rational yet powerful argument against the moral imperative placed on partnered relationships -- Susan Sontag," or something along those lines. I didn't want to permit any ambiguity, any hint that the choice might involve some sacrifice and loss, anything at all that might weaken my case. I wanted to convince the world -- and more importantly, myself -- that my position was one of wisdom and insight and unparalleled vision. I wanted to be The Voice of Reason.
But the decision didn't come from reason. It wasn't arrived at thoughtfully; hell, it wasn't even arrived at consciously. I didn't sit down one weekend making a list of the pros and cons of single versus coupled and conclude that single was my most viable option. All the reasons I've given here, all the explanations and insights, they weren't arguments. They were discoveries, recognitions. They explained a decision that had already been made. They were answers to a question.
The question was this: If I really want a relationship, if I'm really as lonely as my whining and bitching would indicate, then why have I been single for so many years? I asked myself this, fully expecting my soul-searching to produce its usual all-purpose therapy-junkie answer: you're afraid to take risks, you're threatened by intimacy, you're unwilling to make yourself vulnerable, blah blah blah. What I discovered instead, much to my surprise, was that I'd been single for years because I liked it. Preferred it, in fact.
This was not the answer I'd expected, and at first I was suspicious; it could have been denial or defensiveness, especially since my all-purpose insight fit the question so neatly. But I've almost always found that decisions brought on by my fear of risk, etc., make me feel confined and meek and apprehensive. This one didn't. This one made me feel alive, and full of mischief, and free. And the answer I'd discovered had a quality to it, that weird clarity that comes when you recognize an obvious truth that contradicts everything you know.
So everything I knew was wrong. For only about the billionth time. One of these days, I suppose I'll get used to that happening. And as earth-shattering revelations go, I can think of a dozen freakier ones right off the top of my head. It's not so bad to realize that you only thought you were dissatisfied, when you're actually pretty happy the way you are.
Copyright 1996 Greta Christina. Originally published in San Francisco Frontiers.
Note: I am, in fact, no longer single. I wrote this piece in 1996; about two years later, I fell in love with Ingrid. And yet I still stand by every word I wrote here. I still think being single is a valid choice; I still get pissed at the assumption that everyone wants to be, and should be, coupled (in fact, I feel strongly that this is why so many people are in such sucky relationships); and I actually think my relationship with Ingrid is better because I know I can be happy and functional on my own. So there.