And when we meet someone who hasn’t married by 40 or 50, we want an explanation. So, we assign one: He’s a commitment-phobe. She’s too picky. They all have “issues.” Because if there was no reason, it could happen to any of us — and that’s not a prospect we’re eager to confront.
Braitman, the blogger, knows people assume it’s somehow her fault, and they’re quick to try to fix the problem. “Everyone’s weighed in on it,” she says. “ ‘You should wear your clothes tight. You should not have short hair. You should dress more like a girl.’ I think I’ve heard everything.”
None of it feels like the truth. Of course she is selective — who isn’t? And haven’t other women with short hair found husbands? “I have the skills that I could be a good partner,” she says.
If it’s a person’s lot in life to live with a chronic disease or raise a child with disabilities, we are sympathetic. But if they don’t have a partner, we assume a character flaw.
“There is so much sadness and guilt and shame,” she says. “There’s a lot of shame. I think if you could just take some of that away it would make the whole thing a lot easier.”
Braitman once posted a “Husband Benefits Pie Chart,” delineating the ways in which she imagines life would be improved by a spouse. Companionship was the biggest portion, followed by financial stability, children and physical intimacy. One of the smaller slices just said, “Fitting in.” Having a husband would mean not having to explain herself, feel like a tag-along or an outcast.
Braitman is stretched out on the floor of the condominium she bought last year. It is the first home she’s ever owned. For nine years, she lived with her best friend, a gay man named William. The period “was a good respite,” she says. “It was like getting off the wheel and having a built-in life that was just there.”
But as William’s partner prepared to move in last year, Braitman began to feel extraneous and decided it was time for a place of her own. (“Gay marriage is liberating for everyone except their single friends,” she jokes.)
For months, she searched for the right place. “I had a list of the things that I wanted, and none of the places I looked at really lived up to that,” she says. “I started to think, ‘Well, maybe I’m just too picky. Maybe this is just like what everyone says about me and men.’ ”
Then, a two-bedroom near West Hollywood dropped into her price bracket. It had most of what she wanted, so the day after she saw it, she made an offer. Today, it is filled with modern furniture, art books and a closet devoted solely to shoes.
“It was just this metaphor for, ‘All right, it had enough of what I wanted, and I understood its value,’ ” she says. “I’m certain it would be the same if I met the right guy.”
* * *
I first met Aviva Kempner at a wedding I was covering. She introduced herself and said she reads the love stories religiously, analyzing each pair’s saga with friends.
Kempner has played matchmaker for 10 couples. Three more — including her brother and sister-in-law — met at gatherings she hosted. Another pair is living together.
“I’m the biggest romantic in the world,” she says over a lunch of fried tofu and broccoli. She grew up watching romantic movies with her mother every Sunday and woke at 5 a.m. to see last year’s royal wedding. But she never married.
She is a 65-year-old documentary filmmaker who lives in a Northwest Washington house filled with colorful ceramic tiles and her mother’s abstract paintings. She has thick black hair, full eyebrows and a way of bringing everyone she meets into her circle.
There were long relationships — two years, seven years — but each ended short of the altar. Two of the men went on to marry the next woman they were with, so Kempner jokes that she “whips them into shape.”
She wanted children. And for a while, she thought seriously about having one on her own. Then, she got wrapped up with a documentary and, well, it just didn’t happen. Kempner regrets it, but says her films are her babies. And she is extraordinarily close to her three nieces, who push her constantly to try online dating.
Delaney Kempner, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Michigan, says her aunt has shaped the way she thinks about single life. “It’s not something to be dreaded,” she says. But she still hopes Kempner will find a great guy. “She doesn’t need someone to make her happy, but it would make me so happy to know that that this one last part of her life would be fulfilled.”
Online dating seems like too much gamesmanship, but Kempner is always on the lookout. Her dream now is to meet a nice, single grandfather. That way she could become a grandma, at least.
Sometimes, the people she introduces promise to set her up in return. “But,” she says, “The line I always get is, ‘Oh it has to be someone very special.’ Which of course is what I want to hear but, you know....” It usually doesn’t happen.
At the end of our lunch I ask Kempner if solo life is as bad as society would have us believe.
After a beat, she says, “I think if I found true love now, it would be the icing on the cake — but the cake is still pretty good.”
* * *
When Braitman started the blog, one of her goals was to answer the central question of her life: Why? Why had she stayed single when so many around her married. “Is it luck?” she wondered. “Is it fate? Is it 20 different things I could’ve done differently?”
But as months went by, she says, “I couldn’t come up with an answer. That’s when I just thought, ‘The answer is to stop asking the question — because there is no answer.’”
Again and again, she catalogued all the men she has known, trying to figure out if she missed something in one of them. “But I can’t look at my past and think, ‘He’s the one who got away,’” she says.
And she feels equally confident in her decision not to pretend some wrong guy was the right one. “Settling just never seemed like the right move,” Braitman says. “Because that, I think, tears at your soul.”
What Braitman still has is hope. It can be tricky, some days, to balance hope with acceptance, but at her core, she believes the right guy might still come along.
Though she loathes “high-volume dating,” she knows she needs to get back on a dating Web site. “It’s hard in modern life to connect with people. I just don’t know another way around it,” she says. “I want to have romance. I want to have sex.”
And if she has those things, but never meets a long-term companion, she will be okay. Twice a day, Braitman reminds herself to be grateful for all that she has: good health, great friends, a lovely new home and a poodle mix named Rose who is always happy to cuddle.
She has a nourishing spiritual life and has become politically active, lobbying on behalf of L.A.’s immigrant communities. She has ballet and the blog and letters from people who have found solace in her words.
After several hours in Braitman’s comfortable home, with Rose curled up on the couch, it’s striking to think about how much of the distress surrounding her singleness stems not from her actual existence, but the reactions of others, whether real or perceived.
“I’ve survived and had a really full, rich, interesting life,” she says. “Part of writing about it is spreading the good news: Move on, there’s nothing to pity here.”
There’s no way of knowing how a movie about Braitman’s life would end. But perhaps that’s not the point. Maybe the point is that it would be surprising, compelling and deep. And that its theme would be universal.
“It’s about having something we want and not getting it,” she says. “And then how do you live your life and have it be good?
“That’s life. That’s what living is. For everyone.”
Ellen McCarthy is a Washington Post staff writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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Q&A transcript: What Ellen McCarthy and Wendy Braitman had to say
Reporting on relationships: How this story came to be