“For a long time, I prayed to find someone to share my life with — a romantic partner, ideally a spouse,” Beth O’Donnell, a single woman in Philadelphia, told me. She yearned for someone who would be there with her for the big things and the small ones, the person who would be tuned into the ongoing story of her life, just as she would be for theirs.
Liz, a single woman in Akron, Ohio, has had those kinds of romantic relationships in her life. When they end, she said, “having someone to tell everything is something I miss acutely.”
If you are single, who will be that person — your partner and the witness to your life? Thirteen years ago on “Grey’s Anatomy,” when Cristina Yang told her beloved friend Meredith Grey, “You are my person,” we heard an affirmative answer to that question. It stuck.
For decades, I have been asking single people to tell me about the people who matter to them. Now I just ask — who is your person? — and they know exactly what I mean. In a recent discussion, their answers have included:
“My best friend since primary school. I’ve known her since I was 4. She’s my soul mate.”
“My adult daughter.”
“A 51-year-old man. It feels like we’ve known each other forever.” (This was from a 60-year-old woman describing a friend.)
“A married woman who lives far away. I visit every summer and we email five or six times a day.”
When I was in graduate school, and then again for a few years at my first university position, I had a close friend I talked to nearly every evening, sometimes at length. Often, that was after we had already spent time with one another during the day.
But do these kinds of relationships measure up? “Oh, we’re just friends,” is how we talk about our platonic relationships, as if even the closest of our friendships that are not of the exalted romantic variety are not all that valuable. We wonder: Are they relationships of true value?
Some scholars of adult attachment theorized that they were not. But when that prediction was put to the test, it failed. Single people, it turned out, often have relationships with friends, siblings, parents and grown children that meet all the criteria for genuine attachments.
For every single person who responds to my question by naming their person, there is another who describes “the ones” instead of “the one.” Sylvia, a 56-year-old lifelong single woman, said, “I have overlapping ‘my people’ rather than one person. They get me and I get them. We debrief difficult experiences, we laugh and we problem-solve, and congratulate and celebrate.” Author and Solo-ish contributor Vicki Larson has 12 friends she calls “The Lovelies.” Her relationships with most of them have lasted longer than either of her two marriages. “We have laughed, cried, comforted, confessed, complained, discussed, celebrated, hiked, vacationed, cooked, and kicked back one too many glasses of wine together,” Larson wrote. She doesn’t know how she would have gotten through her divorces without them.
O’Donnell is no longer praying for a spouse. “Today,” she says, “I love my life.” She, too, has her convoy of friends: “There’s the friend I go to sporting events with, there’s the friend I go to comedy clubs with, there’s the friend I go out to the local bar with, there’s one neighbor I’m close with, there’s a college roommate I spend every Thursday night with, there’s the three friends I drink champagne with every Christmas but only ever see them on Christmas.”
The insecurity generator that is popular culture has a question for Beth and Vicki and Sylvia: Are they missing out on something by spreading their love rather than pouring it all into one person? When Jerry Maguire said, “You complete me,” he was locking eyes with that one special person. Lyrics such as “You’re my everything” (which have appeared in dozens of albums and songs) idealize “the one,” not “the ones.”
The investment of all your relationship capital into just one person is probably fine when things are going smoothly. But it’s risky. In their study of personal communities, Liz Spencer and Ray Pahl asked 60 adults to locate the important people in their lives by writing their names in a set of concentric circles. Some of the married people put only their partner in their innermost circle, the place reserved for the people to whom they felt closest. Compared with the participants who described more diverse communities in which friends and relatives had prominent positions, the people with “you are my everything” mentalities had poorer mental health.
In another set of studies, participants nominated the people who were especially helpful to them in several emotion-laden situations — for example, cheering them up when they were sad; calming them down when they were anxious or angry; or feeling happy for them when they had good news. Again, having just one person who completes you was a ticket to vulnerability. People who named a variety of emotion specialists were more satisfied with their lives.
Then there are the people whose first reaction to highly emotional news is to sit with it, alone.
When my father was 64, he had an undiagnosed abdominal aneurysm that burst. He had a wife, four grown children and two grandchildren, but he was dead before any of us could get to his side. I was hundreds of miles away. Before my mother called to tell me the news, she asked a friend who lived nearby to be there for me in case I wanted company.
Eventually, I would want to tell that story to as many people as I could find to listen to it. But at first, I did not want to see anyone. I just wanted to be alone.
For the longest time, I thought that was pretty weird. But then in 2011, Carol S. Kahn asked me to be one of the readers of her dissertation, “Not the Loneliest Number.” Kahn conducted in-depth interviews with 14 lifelong single people ranging in age from late 40s to late 80s. In response to the question, “If you got really good news or really bad news right now, what would you do?,” eight of them said they would first want to process the news on their own. Some single people, Kahn believes, can be their own sources of comfort and security.
Maybe there are people who rarely feel the need to share their life experiences with others. In a study of elderly people in rural Wales, Clare Wenger and Vanessa Burholt identified a group of people who were objectively isolated but did not feel lonely. None of them had children. Some had spent the previous Christmas alone by choice and told the interviewers that they enjoyed their own company.
I enjoy my own company, too, and left to my own devices, could go for a while without talking to anyone. During those years when I had nightly conversations with friends, it was the other person who initiated the calls. Both were married. With them, and with just about every other long-standing friendship I’ve ever had with a married person, there came a time when they told me something they had not told their spouse.
That doesn’t make me special. In a study in which 52 married mothers were asked how often they discussed each of 10 marital concerns with their spouse and a close friend, their spouse heard no more than their friend for eight of them. The women discussed their in-laws more often with their friends. Only when it came to family finances did they favor their spouse.
I’m not dismissing “Jerry Maguire” relationships out of hand. I believe that for some people, a romantic partner will be the person with whom they share nearly everything, the only person with whom they want to share everything — and they will find that deeply satisfying.
But the belief that everyone aspires to such a thing, or does best with that arrangement, is a myth. Many happily married people are off spilling to their friends. Many single people have their “person” who means just as much to them as any romantic partner could to someone else. Other single people have a village rather than just one person, and they revel in that. Still others are not all that invested in having a “person” or a tribe — and sometimes they, too, are doing just fine.