Table for One
To be single and okay, you first have to reject the pervasive story that coupledom is the only happy ending.
As a professional Diversity & Inclusion practitioner, I spend a lot of my time talking about race and gender, two identities that personally afford me, a white man, a great deal of privilege. I spend less time talking about the identities where I am not in the privileged camp. I’m gay, and while I don’t claim that homophobia is dead and gone by any means, I must admit that in my coastal urban bubble, it doesn’t scare me nearly as much as it used to. Maybe that’s because society is improving, or I’ve just gotten used to myself, or perhaps a bit of both. I’m also an atheist, which generally only draws the scorn of holly roller evangelicals, and honestly, I don’t care so much what they think. But there’s one other identity that hold that targets me — something about me that our culture holds a deep and abiding hatred for, and I hardly ever talk about that.
As someone who’s not actively looking for a partner, I suppose you could say that I’m single by choice at this point, although I might counter that I’m not averse to romantic love; it’s just difficult to date during a pandemic. And, it’s also true that if I never find a partner, soul mate, main squeeze, etc., I’ve decided that I’ll be just fine. I’m happy by choice, if nothing else.
But I do maintain that our culture hates us singletons, which makes my happiness anything but a default; in fact, it was a hard-won journey to be okay on my own. I’m funny, intelligent, very fun at parties, I have a wonderful community of friends, and quite frankly, my dog thinks I’m a god. But that’s always been true, and yet I’ve been miserable most of my adult life, sure that the only reason no one ever chose me was because I was essentially unlovable. It’s the one facet of my identity that family and friends alike have always been eager to fix, usually without asking me if I want a romantic partner or if so, what I might be looking for in a relationship. It was simply a given that together was better than alone, full stop.
As a longtime purveyor of popular culture, I give Hollywood a fair share of blame for this. I believe that stories are, in fact, the primary way that human beings understand the world around them. They teach us not only what to believe, but what to see. And in virtually all the stories we consume, we cannot conceive of a happy ending unless it contains a burgeoning romance.
As far back as 1944’s Gaslight, Ingrid Bergman was married to Charles Boyer, a greedy sociopath who was determined to drive her insane. Watching him inflict his psychological abuse upon her for over an hour, you ache for her freedom. When she (SPOILER) finally recognizes him for the monster that he is and frees herself from his clutches, that should be enough to make anyone cheer, but oh no — the story isn’t over until Joseph Cotton as a young police detective meets her on the roof and enfolds her into his arms. Now the credits can roll. The rest of the world swoons, but I’m always left thinking, MAYBE YOU SHOULD TAKE A BREAK, SWEETIE. FOR A MONTH, AT LEAST.
When I was a young single man, HBO’s Sex & the City was essential viewing among my friends. Finally, here was a show that made single people visible, and put them at its center. Of course, at least two of them were pining for a permanent mate, but that’s just realistic. And, when the series finally ended in 2004, the writers insisted that at least one of the four single women at the show’s center would be coupled off.
Naturally, I’m kidding. Nope, all four of them (even the legendary, libidinous Samantha Jones) needed to be “attached” for its audience to feel complete — and to this day, you cannot convince me that Mr. Big isn’t a narcissistic monster that Carrie Bradshaw would have been much happier without.
These are just two examples, but they’re indicative of the way we’ve been taught to understand happiness. Over and over again, we’ve been conditioned to believe that only by finding one’s (usually straight, usually monogamous, usually beautiful) soul mate can a story truly end happily.
And single people are not the only ones to suffer from this belief. I need both hands to count the number of close friends I’ve known who have stayed in abusive (emotionally, certainly, and some physically) relationships rather than join the dreaded, unloved singles of the world.
I’ll end by saying this: if anyone reads this and their first instinct is to feel sorry for me, then they have entirely missed my point. I’m wonderfully happy, finally. But I do bristle slightly when I see yet another jot of evidence of a world that pities me. The pity of others used to console me; now I find it mildly irritating. But my heart goes out to all the other singletons out there who perhaps haven’t yet realized that they are not only worthy of love … chances are, they’re surrounded by it, if they only muster the strength to notice.
Eric Peterson is a DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) practitioner who happily lives alone with a dog in Washington, DC. He hosts a podcast about old movies, and his first novel will be published by Bold Strokes Books in November 2021. This essay first appeared in Letters from CAMP Rehoboth, a newsmagazine for the LGBT/allied community of Rehoboth Beach, DE.