Love and the Single Girl

Modern love can be summed up in one quick status update: It's complicated. In the final edition of a three-part series, we explore life on the front lines of singledom. For more insight, read these essays on love and race and love and money.

girl in window
(Image credit: Jo Metson Scott)


Putting themselves first and a wedding ring second, a new generation of women fights for their right to be left alone (literally!) - By Rebecca Traister

Call it the attack of the 50-foot single woman.

Recent months have seen an army of unmarried women taking over magazine racks (cover stories in The Atlantic and Boston), prime time (Girls, 2 Broke GirlsNew Girl), and bookshelves (Eric Klinenberg's Going Solo documents the huge number of women — 17 million — now living on their own). For legions of women, living single isn't news, it's life. You know, eating, sleeping, working, cleaning the refrigerator — just doing it all while not being married to a man. But to others, waking up in the morning husband-free seems to be some kind of affront. In March, Rush Limbaugh, fresh off his tirade against unmarried law student Sandra Fluke, laid into a 35-year-old female journalist, asking, "What is it with all these young, single white women?"

Limbaugh isn't alone in his anxiety about maritally uncommitted broads. Comedian Steve Harvey has spent years urging successful black women to ratchet down their standards and just get married already, while Lori Gottlieb's 2010 book, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, conveyed the same message to all professional women. Meanwhile, television writer Tracy McMillan's viral blog post, "Why You're Not Married," now expanded into a book, makes Limbaugh sound downright chivalrous; her damning explanations for extended singlehood include "You're a Bitch," "You're a Slut," and "You're Selfish."

What exactly is so threatening about a woman without a ring on her finger? What's she done to you? It's not like a failure to marry by 30 is the end of the world.

Except that the world as we've known it for a very long time — one in which a woman's value was tied to her role as a wife — is ending, right in front of us.

A recent Pew Research Center study found that barely half of American adults are married, a historic low. More striking: Only 20 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds are hitched. It's now standard for a woman to spend years on her own, learning, working, earning, socializing, having sex, and, yes, having babies in the manner she — and she alone — sees fit. To be more precise: We are living through the invention of independent female adulthood.

Make no mistake, this is a seismic shift. After a long history during which living solo would get you labeled a pathetic spinster or, if you were lucky, a sexual iconoclast, being recognized as an independent person rather than as someone's daughter, wife, or mother is a new, shiny kind of liberty for women, one that has unlocked all sorts of doors. Just 50 years ago, most women needed their husband's signature to open a bank account. (Some perspective: That's within Madonna's lifetime.) Today, according to a study of the country's 150 biggest cities, young, unmarried, childless women rake in more dough than their male counterparts. And getting ahead early is helping women do what had long seemed impossible: keep up with men financially, even if they do marry. In her new book, The Richer Sex, Liza Mundy predicts that working wives may outearn their husbands in the next generation.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. By no means do women dominate men — nor has that ever been the goal. Just look at the overall pay gap between men and women (still 15 percent) or at the gender breakdown of Congress (only 17 percent female). And for women, marrying later or never is not without tolls — just ask a single mother struggling to feed her family. But women have made swift strides, largely by establishing themselves outside of marriage — which isn't always well received by a society built on assumptions about men being on top and in charge.

It sometimes seems that women can't win, even a little, without someone declaring their successes a threat to men — la The Atlantic's buzzy cover story "The End of Men" — marriage, family, and society itself. That's not an exaggeration. Former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum has said, "We are seeing the fabric of this country fall apart, and it's ... because of single moms." That's certainly one (horrible) way to put it. The more honest take is that, as women follow more varied paths, we're all being forced to readjust our perceptions of what "normal" looks like when it comes to men, women, and families.

But here's a surprising truth that gets lost in all the fuss: Women staying single longer is good news for — of all things — marriage! The divorce rate is going down, especially for people who marry later in life. Why? Perhaps because women (and men) have more room to grow into their own lives before they try to fit into someone else's. Or maybe it's just because we all have a little more time to be choosy about whom we end up with for life.

Whatever the effect on "smug marrieds" and whatever blowback single women receive, their growing numbers offer a crucial lesson: There are many ways to live lives full of love and meaning. Our worth no longer hinges simply on whether we have found the right partner by a certain moment of our lives.

So don't be scared by the advancing army of single ladies. They're here to liberate us all.

girl with cat

(Image credit: Jo Metson Scott)


One woman's well-meaning father surprises her with an unconventional birthday gift: her very own online dating account - By Kim Gamble

My birthday falls six days after Valentine's Day, and from the time I was 16 until my late 20s, I viewed the proximity of the two dates as a second Christmas during which I expected to be showered with cards and gifts for the better part of a week. But now, as I creep into my mid-30s, the dates seem to work in tandem to remind me, in quick succession, that I'm alone and one year closer to staying that way.

The gift my father sent this year didn't make getting older any easier. On the morning of my birthday, I logged in to my e-mail to find a message from the online dating website eHarmony.

"Congratulations!" the message began. "Your dad has given you the gift of long-term love and companionship." A quick scroll down the page revealed that he'd purchased a three-month membership in my name. Stunned, I slammed my laptop shut and called him. "Is this a joke?" I asked as soon as he answered.

"Happy birthday! I thought you'd like it."

"Are you kidding? Dad, if I were 30 pounds overweight — "

"But you're not," he interrupted. "You're a very attractive woman."

"That isn't even what I was going to say! If I were 30 pounds overweight and you bought me a gym membership or sent me a bottle of diet pills, how do you think I'd interpret that?"

"Listen, I know several women, exactly like you ..."

He went on to list a number of smart, successful 30-somethings he knew who — he stressed — are totally normal yet had trouble meeting men until they went online. Had I been paying attention, I would have asked why he's so intimately familiar with the romantic struggles of women half his age, but I think I blacked out during that part of the conversation.

My issue with the gift wasn't rooted in skepticism about online dating; I have plenty of friends who have met their boyfriends and husbands this way. I was upset because my dad has always seemed to value and encourage my independence. Here is a man who rocked out with me on the dance floor at my younger sister's wedding when I showed up dateless, a man who spent two weeks traveling with me through Budapest and Prague, frequently remarking what a brave adult I'd become.

Suddenly, it felt like his support was waning. The eHarmony message might as well have read, "Guess what? Your dad is sick of pretending your lifestyle makes him comfortable. Can you get it together and get married already so he can relax? Is that really too much to ask?"

During the past 10 years, I've periodically put pressure on myself to settle down. However, my anxiety over finding someone is always quelled by an internal knowledge that I have a wonderfully full life, and that, romantically, everything will come together when it's the right time. I always thought my dad shared in that belief. But now I wondered: Is he genuinely concerned? Is my family worried? And what is it about my future without a husband that looks so bleak that this gift seemed like the only logical antidote?

"Don't read too much into it," my dad said a few days later. "I just want you to be happy. That's all."

I'm fortunate to have a father who usually knows best. He's a prudent figure who makes a mean cocktail, has a killer iPod mix, and has better financial tips than the anchors on CNBC. I suppose he's right that meeting someone would make me happier, but his support is more valuable than his dating advice. I'm confident I'll figure out my own love life. In the meantime, I plan to e-mail eHarmony, get a full refund, and use the money to buy myself a massage — now that's a birthday gift.

girl looking out window

(Image credit: Jo Metson Scott)


Music can help heal a broken heart — but can karaoke? - By Sadie Stein

After eight years together, my fiancé cheated on me and then dumped me. I was a wreck — I couldn't eat anything but vanilla cake from the grocery store or the eggplant dish from the Chinese take-out spot down the block. I wanted to call friends, but I felt like a burden, so I cried myself to sleep each night. Soon I went stir-crazy, and I started taking long walks through my Brooklyn neighborhood.

The pain of breaking up was searing, but just as painful as losing my fiancé was the reality of being single. I'd been part of a couple for almost a decade. I had met my fiancé when I was 26 and had never really been alone as an adult. Who was I without a guy? What did I like to eat? Did I have hobbies? How would I choose to spend a Saturday afternoon? The unknowns were terrifying.

It was during one of these aimless walks that I started to discover who I was. I'd been wandering along a strip of bars, feeling utterly single and sorry for myself, when I heard it: Someone was singing an enthusiastic, off-key version of Nat King Cole's "Avalon." I looked at the blackboard propped outside the bar where the music was coming from. "Karaoke, 9-12," it read. On a whim, I walked into the dark and somewhat crowded bar. The guy running the karaoke machine turned toward me. "New talent!" he shouted. "You're up, sweetheart!"

"No!" I gasped, appalled. Of course I had tried karaoke before, but during drunken nights out with friends. Or with my fiancé. Doing it alone seemed pathetic to the point of grotesque. But this man was having none of it. "Come on!" he said. "We'll be nice, I promise."

I was about to turn and leave, but, What the hell? I thought. I grabbed the songbook and ran my finger down the listings, searching for inspiration. My go-to song had always been Tracey Ullman's "They Don't Know," but now I associated that with my ex. What about ABBA? I could do that; people knew the songs and would (hopefully) sing along. I chose "S.O.S." It was thematic and it was my initials — that was a sign, right?

I started softly, my voice shaking. But by the time I hit the chorus, I was feeling it — and as more people started filtering into the bar, a crowd gathered around me. I felt elated for the first time in months and stayed there for another two hours, finishing with a cathartic "You Oughta Know" by Alanis Morissette. And as I walked home, I had a skip in my step. I liked the idea of being ballsy enough to do karaoke alone. Maybe that was part of the new, single me.

I didn't plan to make it a regular thing. But I'd be taking my nightly walks along the same route and I'd inevitably hear singing, and I guess I wanted to be that slightly weird, independent single girl again. I mentioned these outings to no one, which made me feel more empowered — I was performing just for myself. And in doing that, I was starting to become comfortable with myself as a single woman: unafraid, goofy, someone who didn't need to apologize for how she spent an evening. It started with solo karaoke, but soon it was more — I started going out to dinner, stopping by a wine bar to enjoy a glass of Merlot, or seeing a movie, all by myself. Maybe I wasn't half of a couple anymore, but I was becoming someone even more exciting: a person in her own right, and a damn odd one. I liked her! For the first time in my life, I was happy in my own company.

As the summer progressed, my repertoire began changing, too. I didn't want to do ballads and Liz Phair covers anymore; I wanted to branch out. The night I did a sultry "Fever" by Peggy Lee was an artistic breakthrough — who knew I had it in me? One night, flushed from a spirited rendition of "I Want You to Want Me," a guy approached me. "You seemed so confident up there," he said, "and doing karaoke alone is kind of badass." I didn't go out with him — I wasn't ready — but the attention gave me a high. The new single me was kind of badass.

Six months into my new phase, I met Matthew. He was sweet and adventurous, and we began seeing each other regularly. I did less and less karaoke.

One night, some friends invited us to the bar where I'd been a karaoke regular. When the bartender and the DJ greeted me by name, Matthew was puzzled, even more so when they requested Fleetwood Mac's "Everywhere" just for me. I smiled — and realized it was fun to have someone to sing for, too. I didn't need an audience — singing alone had taught me I was just fine being single — but someone to enjoy the new person I'd become? That was different. And yes, in case you're wondering, there will be karaoke at our wedding.

girl in field

(Image credit: Jo Metson Scott)


How one divorcée navigates a social landscape dominated by couples - By Katherine Lanpher

I'm having a simple supper at the bar of a neighborhood trattoria when the hostess taps me on the shoulder. Would I mind sliding down a seat so that a couple can use the stools on either side of me?

She was nice about it. But as I move my bruschetta, purse, coat, and drink, it occurs to me: It'd be hard to find a more literal example of a single person's lot in our two-by-two world. Um, could you move over? A couple needs that space. It's date night.

I've had residencies in both countries — Singleland and Coupledom. I spent my 20s overwhelmed by a checklist of cultural expectations: Graduate from college? Check. Launch career? Check. Get married? Check. My nuptials were a week before my 30th birthday, and I spent the bulk of the following decade living in a blur of motion, figuring out how to throw dinner parties, get promoted, and get pregnant.

My career blossomed. I mastered place cards and knife rests. But my marriage foundered because of the stresses of infertility. By my early 40s, I was divorced and childless. So when I got a job offer to cohost a radio show in Manhattan — a chance to leave my life in St. Paul, Minnesota, and start over — I took it.

Now here I am in New York, a single woman in the dawn of my 50s. This was not on that checklist I envisioned years ago. The very idea would have made me shudder. I saw the world as a Noah's Ark of couples, and I wanted to be on that boat. But now I don't need to be; I can make my own.

When I think of how married people and single people hear the details of each other's lives, it's like we're trying to pick up radio signals from another country, ears pressed to the wireless, fingers carefully turning the dial through the static. But some of my married friends don't even try to tune in. Their lack of interest in my love life would annoy me except for this: I often did the same when I was married. Oh, are people out there still dating? Glad I don't have to worry about that anymore.

A few years ago, in a fit of dating derring-do, I asked a married male friend if he knew anyone I could possibly date.

He looked so stricken you might have thought I had asked him to go find me a living dinosaur egg. That I could sit on.

"What's wrong?" I teased him. "Is it that hard?"

"It's just — it's just that it would be difficult to find someone good enough," he stammered gallantly.

Maybe he was looking at the wrong demographic. My last two flirtations have been with men a dozen years my junior. They've made up for those parties where I'm the only single woman around and the only available men are the ones serving canapés.

And it's odd how people — strangers — can judge a single woman in midlife. As a guest at a 4-year-old's birthday party who showed up with gifts but no kids or husband, I found myself under scrutiny. "Why are you here?" one married mother asked. "I love children," I responded, although her effrontery tempted me to add, "broiled, with fries on the side."

Another time, when I had shoulder surgery, I took a predawn cab to the hospital. It was so early, I went by myself.

"What do you mean you're having surgery?" the cab driver demanded gruffly. "You're alone! No one goes to surgery alone!"

My friends who arrived to take me home after the operation — a married mother of three and a single mother of two — laughed with me when I told them that story. They are part of my extended family here in my new life. We share new puppies and everyday dilemmas, Thanksgivings, and vacations.

That girl who made the checklist? If I could go back in time, I'd put my arms around her and tell her that life in either Singleland or Coupledom is what you make of it. I'd tell her how much I love my life right now — my friends, my work, my home. Last year at a Thanksgiving feast I hosted, there were 24 people at the table — married couples, single parents, single men and women, gay people, straight people, newlyweds, and children. I've built my own ark, and it's come as you are.

And there's always room for one more. Or even two. But next time, if I move over for you, maybe you can pick up the tab for the bruschetta.

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