When I was a child, I was so lonely I would call the radio station to talk to the DJ. Sharon, or Dave, or whoever graced the airwaves, were always referencing their funny conversations and giving shoutouts to listeners who would call to request songs. They seemed available to me. I’d call and wait on hold, hoping to request Alanis Morrisette and talk about whatever particular thing was on my mind. It never occurred to me that this was work for them, and that they probably had more to do than chat with a strange seven-year-old on the horn.
Whether it was a byproduct of being in the middle of big age gaps with my half-brothers, or of moving to a new city nearly every year, or something else, I spent large swaths of my time in my own company. I learned to appreciate solitude and found salves for loneliness in literature, in imagination, in journaling, and quickly began to prefer my time alone to my time with others. I preferred talking to adults, because at least then they knew about books, and they could have a full conversation without resorting to a childishness I resented even when I possessed it.
This changed as I got older. After a very lonely adolescence, punctuated by theatre friends and older boyfriends and college parties and being snuck into bars, I turned into a social butterfly. I’d hang out with anyone, just for the company, even if I found them distasteful. The primary question was about whether they were entertaining, rather than if they were worthwhile or even someone I actually liked.
Throughout my early twenties, I became a regular barfly, befriending the bartenders and middle aged alcoholics who haunted whatever pub I found myself residing closest to. I’d throw back whiskeys, read a book, and argue with just about any dumb motherfucker who thought he had something to say. And, in a spectacular turn of predictably Freudian fate, I found myself recreating my relationships with my dysfunctional family, diving headfirst into a slew of people who often found their salvation in bars and the substances that frequented them: alcoholics and speed addicts who were looking to fill a void with anything that came their way, including me.
In the last year and a half, it feels like the child who ran solo has returned with a vengeance. Most of my time is spent working, or reading, or embroidering. I speak to fewer people, and my desire to speak to any people rarely exists. Sometimes I feel as if I’m sequestering myself too much, and I wonder how much solitude is considered healthy.
A running trend in this year’s reading: books that explore what it means to be a single woman in the modern world. I started with bell hooks’ Communion: The Female Search for Love, then Kate Bolick’s Spinster, with a break to read the writing of women with complicated romantic, sexual, and often solitary lives (Maeve Brennan; Mary McCarthy), and then Rebecca Traister’s All The Single Ladies.
Sometimes it’s embarrassing–how on the nose this all feels: I’m an unattached adult woman, living in a small studio with a fat cat and a powerful vibrator, reading extensive analyses on her own not-so-singular single existence.
The narratives fed to me about who this makes me or what I am supposed to be pull me in so many different directions. Should I be happy? Should I be lonely? Should I be trying harder to find a partner? Should I be focusing on work? Should I be planning for a long life alone? Should I be hopeful? Should I be less jaded? Should I be less stringent in my romantic pursuits? Should I be more compromising? What should I feel? What should I be?
Since my last relationship, which was with an abusive, manipulative person (the extent of his bad behavior only coming to light years later), and in many ways due to my last relationship, as well as the string of emotionally unavailable addicts I continue to find myself enmeshed with, I’ve been going to Al-Anon. I've been working on developing better boundaries, and being more upfront about how I feel. I’ve been trying to find ways to be more vulnerable, more initially assertive about what I actually want and feel, and establish and uphold boundaries, hoping that it means I can avoid the resentment that eventually sets in when I don’t.
This, and all the reading I have done lately, still leaves me confused. I’ve immersed myself in my life–in both paid and creative work, in building community, in books, in physical activity, in hobbies, in self-improvement. Sometimes it feels like a chore, but most of the time, it leads to an overwhelming sense of contentment; after all, being on my own is one thousand percent better than being in a bad relationship. If I had to do this forever, just like this, could I? I suspect the answer is yes. But do I want to? And if I don’t, how much control do I have over that anyway?
The downside of solitude, and a string of romantic and sexual connections that lack any kind of healthy intimacy, is that I have rarely, if ever, felt seen. Maybe it happened once, a long time ago. Mostly I’ve felt like an actor, playing the role of Great Date or Decent Fuck or Ego Boost. Rather than being recognized as a whole person, I often feel like an accessory–something to be set down on the shelf when not in use, merely a mechanism used to get a man to what he wants to feel about himself.
I’m just as responsible for this as anyone else, because I’d willingly play the role. Recently, I told someone that I’m a shoehorn, always saying, “Goddamn it, it may not be a perfect fit, but we’re going to make it work.”
Put me in a tight space; press your heel against me. I’ve got this.
It used to make me angry. Sometimes, it still does. In the past, that anger would drive me to intentionally destroy the image of myself I’d created–the best self I aspire to be–a reliable, compassionate, communicative person. If you can’t see me when I’m being kind, I’ll make sure you see me now. You’ll know who I am because I left a fire behind in my wake. I’ll prove you wrong by burning the city down as I walk away.
Recently, I broke things off with a man who told me he “wanted to be selfish for the first time in [his] life.”
Again, I found myself re-negotiating what I know and what I want, and briefly fell back into the same trap–trying to accommodate someone else’s desires, hoping this would be enough for them to Think I’m Great and really see me.
There’s an insecurity that comes with my internal conflict: The unabashed enjoyment of my own autonomy and seclusion, while also a yearning to care, to connect, to feel recognized for more than merely the function I can temporarily serve. How can these two things coexist?
It feels irreconcilable, and the latter of the two sometimes feels wrong, especially when rationally speaking, anything resembling marriage, monogamy, and even just long-term involvement with men tends to serve women poorly–financially, mentally, emotionally, physically. Even now–even today.
In All The Single Ladies, Rebecca Traister shares research on the creation of and backlash against “hookup culture,” and how although there has been a lot of pearl-clutching on the matter, there are many women who actively pursue promiscuity as a means of exploration, physical release, and fun, without compromising their ambitions or their focus to a relationship. In Spinster, Kate Bolick shares research on her five literary loves and the way they conducted themselves–often in and out of relationships, marriages, and sexual dalliances, and how it affected their work, their health, and their lives overall.
Not too long ago, I stumbled across a thread on Metafilter about emotional labor, and I found so much of my own participation in relationships reflected back to me–the demand of compromise of identity and focus; the responsibility of acting as receptionist, assistant, chef, maid, counselor, date, sexual companion, and more, regardless of how good at any of those particular things or how much they actually want to play those roles women are. The exhaustion of assertion that becomes a necessity, because your male partners often either cannot or will not show up for you and perform that emotional labor unless you ask, plan, and structure it for them, while failure to simply show up and do those things on your own makes you a Bad Partner, a Bad Woman.
Relationships may give you societal cookies of approval, but on a logistical level, look like a nightmare if you want to maintain your own autonomy. Existing in anything even remotely egalitarian seems to be a true rarity. This is something that women have known for a long time, and if the research that Bolick and Traister have set forth is to be relied on, economic freedom and the shift in social structures have allowed women to act on it.
But what do we do when we’ve done the casual sex thing, the non-monogamous thing, the fun and freewheeling thing, and now find little satisfaction in exerting effort into meaningless connections? Is it possible to feel both things–to be thrown into one’s life, to be ambitious and to want something more than a typically less-than-satisfying fuck?
Sometimes I feel like a failure because balancing my own (perhaps overly) active sex drive with my desire for a connection that has depth and at least the potential for longevity feels like an impossibility. It feels like I must be doing something wrong, because while I focus on my own life and enjoy so much of it, I still give a damn about wanting to be close to someone. So much of today’s dating wisdom states that you meet someone when you aren’t looking (“You’ll find them when you least expect it!”), or that if you care too much, it will never happen, but I can’t pretend I don’t give a shit.
After a few drinks, I told the man who wanted to be selfish, “I like you. I’m sorry, but I like you,” and he cut me off, telling me not to apologize for that. I replied, “But I am. I am so sorry, because I wish I could just fuck you and not care about it, but I can’t flirt with closed doors anymore.”
I don’t begrudge anyone their desire for selfishness, but I am not willing to compromise myself to serve it anymore. I’d rather be alone than be treated like an instrument. I’m selfish, too–as much as anyone else–and I’m not here to pretend that I’m not anymore. More than anything, I want that to be seen–not as a means to an end, but as my own person, and I want someone who wants me to see them, too. There are many men I’ve believed to be worth the emotional labor I invested in them–which they gladly accepted; I want someone to find me worth that effort, too.