Jon Voight is the surprising inspiration for a story on the single life. (Vince Bucci/AP)

It was five or six years ago and I was working as an entertainment reporter. We were seated in a conference room where I was to interview him about a strange movie involving Mormon militiamen. He began talking about his life and wound around to the topic of love. He told me he believed that not everyone gets to have a great romantic love. That for some people the emotional space is taken up by imporant work or children or friends. And maybe in their next life, he said, those people would find a true love.

He shook himself out of the soliloquy after a few minutes, but the theory stuck with me.

For almost three years now I’ve written weekly profiles of couples getting married. It’s an interesting journalistic endeavor, and one I don’t take lightly. These are the stories of people’s lives — the ones that will likely be passed down to children and grandchildren. I feel honored to write them.

But I know there’s universal tendancy to whitewash the past and gloss over the messy parts of life. So I’m always grateful to couples who are honest about the complications and doubts and issues they grappled with before making their way down the aisle. My job is to earn a couple’s trust and then to listen, for however long it takes, for the full story to be told.

I was on my way to cover a wedding when I had the idea to explore the lives of people who haven’t found lasting love, which became the subject of this weekend’s Washington Post Magazine cover story.

From the time we read our first fairytale we’re taught that romantic love is the key to happiness. And the message is so ubiquituous it can seem as if we’re not complete, or fully mature, until we find “the one.” We imagine the lives of those who don’t find a partner to be so grim it can cause a shudder. I wanted to explore the deeper truth.

But while engaged couples are often eager to be written about, I knew it would be a much bigger challenge to find singles willing to talk openly about this. When I wrote a post on a Carolyn Hax chat saying I was looking for people who hadn’t found lasting love, however, my inbox quickly filled up with responses — though many asked that their names not be used.

Eventually I wound up focusing on four people who were gracious and utterly honest. As with the wedding stories, my job was to earn their trust and then to listen. Each of them spoke candidly about the joy and pain of single life and about the way their existences were misunderstood. And that, to me, was the biggest revelation. As a society, we’re so unwilling to look closely at the lives of people without partners, that we have no true conception of what it’s like.

One of my most interesting conversations was with Delaney Kempner, the college-age neice of 65-year old Aviva Kemper, who’s never married. A survey of people Delaney’s age found that for most, their biggest fear in life was “being alone.”

But Delaney grew up watching her aunt make movies, host dinner parties and fill her life with the love of friends and family. Bearing witness to that, Delaney says, made her understand that life without a partner, “is not something to be dreaded.”

I was grateful her aunt let me sit and listen so the rest of us could bear witness, too.


The single life: Some people never find the love of their lives. And live to tell about it.

Survey Results: What singles said about advantages, disadvantages, stigmas and goals

Q&A transcript: What Ellen McCarthy and Wendy Braitman had to say

Photos: When you never find the one