I’m thinking of one of my high school teachers, whom we called a “confirmed bachelor.” We whispered rumors about how he lost his fiancee tragically at a young age. The story gave this quiet man an aura of romance and possibility, but we had no idea if it was true.
Twenty years later and single myself, I find myself wondering why we told that story. We treated it as fact, a necessary explanation for why a perfectly nice man was single. Today I see that story as proof that, as long as we’re not psychopaths or living in an abbey, single people are treated as if there must be some heartbreaking reason for their condition, beyond the happenstance of life.
Countless movies, books, televisions shows, musicals and operas teach us to believe there’s someone out there for everyone: Just wish on a star, or get a makeover, or take a chance and boom! True love will find you. So if you haven’t found that person — or lost him somehow — people have trouble understanding why.
This assumption that I’m wanly pining for someone is pinned on me all the time. People assume that I still yearn for my college boyfriend or that I’m madly in love with my gay best friend of over 20 years. To me, my life seems whole, busy and full as-is. But others seem to think it lacks an important quality — a partner.
For some, that glaring absence can be explained only by some horrible flaw I must possess or a love gone wrong in my past. Although I have many faults, I’ve never noticed that folks who are in relationships are perfect. And when I look back at my romantic history, I think: “That’s a lot of bullets dodged.” Sometimes I wish I did long for a particular person, because it would make me, like my former teacher, an object of sympathy and romance instead of what I am: a boring old single person who hasn’t met any guy I like more than my independence.
The theory that there’s a lid for every pot dates back at least as far as Plato, who wrote that there were three genders: man, woman and a fusion of both. Zeus split them all into two as a punishment for humanity’s pride. So, according to Plato, we’ve been searching for our other half ever since.
An idea that is so culturally ingrained can be damaging. I spoke with Mandy Len Catron, author of an upcoming book of essays about love (and the viral New York Times Modern Love essay on the 36 questions that lead to love) about why singledom is viewed as wrong. “Most of our conventional love stories imply that love is a reward for goodness and virtue,” she said. “Cinderella is a classic example of this. They implicitly suggest that those who are in a mutual romantic relationship are loved because they are fundamentally deserving of love.” Logically, of course, that means “the other unstated implication of this is that those who are not loved” — the so-called chronically single — “are not deserving of love. They are broken.”
“We still tend to create a narrative to make sense of why someone is single: He’s too picky, she’s too prudish, he’s commitment-phobic,” Catron points out. “These ideas are all pretty short-sighted, but I think they make us feel like love is predictable and follows some internal logic.” Thus, it follows that if we know someone is a perfectly good person, and they’re single, there must be a reason. Cue the tragic backstory.
Despite my deep belief in the power and purpose of love, I’ve come to believe that there isn’t someone for everyone. Some people find that deep, soulful connection with a romantic partner; others have deep bonds with people who aren’t romantic. For example, I have those kinds of close relationships with my mom, my best friend, my brother and sister-in-law’s dog. And sure, it’d be great to feel that kind of connection with a romantic partner. But I haven’t yet, and I’m perfectly fine if it never happens.
Assuming that singles have messed up something in the past can be maddening to hear. It’s also diminishing. There are far more interesting possibilities for us when we allow single people to just be solo, not pining, nor full of remorse, nor in the midst of a years-long plot to win back their high school boyfriend. Instead of making assumptions, or believing gossip, try just letting the person be. Or if you must know, ask and listen to their answer. Don’t just shoehorn them into a prefab way of seeing the world.