Relationships Finding Love When You’re Forty and Happily Single
My identity is tied up in my singleness, my childlessness, and I’m not sure I want to let that go.
“If I were to have kids,” I tell my therapist, “I would feel like I’m betraying my tribe.” I laugh as I say it, aware of how ridiculous it sounds. She stares back at me from my dirt-speckled screen, a familiar face I have yet to meet in person. What I’m trying to say is that my identity is tied up in my singleness, my childlessness, and I’m not sure I want to let that go. The admission surprises me, not because it hasn’t struck hard when I imagine a baby in my home or a ring on my finger, but because I’m finally saying it out loud.
My eyes wander around my one-bedroom apartment, a small space that I’ve made my own with a floor-to-ceiling wall of books, mismatched furniture, and a cozy corner to write in. The coffee table where I prop my screen—my therapist—has furnished hundreds of dinners with friends; my patterned rug has faded from too many nights pacing and laughing on the phone. It is the first place I’ve lived as an adult that I don’t view as a temporary stopover before partnership and cohabitation, but as my home.
This identity has taken me a long time to settle into. It’s not just that I’ve been more or less single for over a decade, it’s that the period I spent alone—my late twenties to late thirties—was the point at which most of my friends entered serious partnerships and had children. At the time, it felt as if everyone’s lives were going one way, the way adult lives were supposed to go, and mine, another. At first, this was fine. Wrapped up in my career, it felt natural not to be in a relationship. As I crept into my thirties, though, pride gave way to shame. Even the friends I thought would never partner up were suddenly in relationships. It’s not that I was uninterested in dating; it’s just that nothing seemed to work. By my late thirties, I was neither proud nor ashamed; I was simply fine. I had figured out what happiness looked like for me, which—I’d only discovered once I stopped dating—was writing, friends, and a hefty dose of solitude.
This version of happiness wasn’t always easy to translate. Our world has a dearth of stories portraying single women satisfied on their own. And when I was flung from my cozy nest of solitude and pressed up against typical adult expectations, I still felt familiar flashes of failure, pangs of inadequacy.
Like when you arrive at a dinner party where everyone is partnered, eager to hear stories from “The Apps,” as though they’re foreign folklore, and you excuse yourself to the bathroom.
Like when coworkers ask what you did over the weekend, describing their plans in the plural, and it takes a minute to remember that though you saw no one but the imaginary characters in your half-finished novel, you did exactly what you wanted to do.
Like when your best friend shares that she is buying a house and planning for her second child, and your reaction is delayed a second too long because you’re telling yourself it’s okay for your lives to look different.
T he experience of solitude is vague and splintered. It can look a million different ways, which makes it hard to market, rendering it useless in a society organized by capitalism. In turn, structural incentives reward coupledom, and social constructs imply that if we are not partnered, we are incomplete, a lone half of a theoretical “whole .” Wedged in a culture that projects partnership and children as cornerstones of adulthood, I was haunted by their omissions u nless I collected alternative occurrences, versions of adult lives that normalized my own.
In my midthirties, I was ravenous for evidence of single, childless women. My social circle became a collection of smart, vibrant single women focusing on their art and work, versions of adulthood that did not rely on partnership but singular pockets of contentment. It wasn’t perfect, but it was free and honest. I liked the life I was constructing, and in their company, it was easy to. I devoured interviews with single women, writing by them, shows and films about them. In her book Motherhood , which has become a personal bible of sorts, Sheila Heti writes of not having children: “ How can I express the absence of this experience without making central the lack? . . . Maybe if I could somehow figure out what not having a child is an experience of—make it into an action, rather than the lack of an action—I might know what I was experiencing and not feel so much like I was waiting to act.”
In my midthirties, I was ravenous for evidence of single, childless women.
Until one day, chatting with younger friends grappling with their own singleness, I realized I was one of them, a woman living happily on her own.
Now, staring at my therapist, a few months away from turning forty, two toothbrushes hang in my bathroom, one dresser drawer is siphoned off for boxer briefs, Uniqlo socks, and Hanes T-shirts, and most nights I fall asleep beside my partner. People say “it happens” when you’re ready, or when you’re not looking, or when you least expect it, but after a certain point, I think it’s just luck. By the time I met Ben, the notion of love had been expelled from my brain like belief in the Tooth Fairy. But I went on the date anyway and it was clear very quickly that something fundamental between us worked.
Shortly after I told Ben I loved him, I had a dream that he’d inducted me into a cult. He is a warm, cheerful man and has been in relationships for most of his adult life. I, on the other hand, often feel like I’m watching myself in a movie even in our most mundane moments—doing errands shoulder to shoulder on a sunny Sunday afternoon, hosting another couple for dinner in an unrecognizably organized fashion, or just sipping coffee while reading the news. I feel like an interloper in partnership, a spy joining a club I don’t belong to.
The club has its benefits. It’s impossible to say whether being in a relationship or being single is easier or harder—one is not better or worse, and what makes people happy is unique to each person. But being in a healthy heterosexual relationship greases the wheels of everyday life in a culture, like ours, that values partnership. Buying a car, a vacation, a home, or nearly anything is easier when you can split the cost with someone else, not to mention the social comfort of having someone to make the decision with. If you need to stop working, you have someone to cover your health insurance. It is easier to have and raise children. It’s also, I’ve realized firsthand, easier to interact with other adults, who are mostly married and ever-so-slightly but visibly unnerved by a woman of a certain age who isn’t. When I mention Ben now, a specific and familiar tension feels diffused, as if people no longer feel they have to worry about me. Even sending pictures to the group chat on holidays feels a little more legitimate when there is another face in the frame. And it is easier to keep going each day if there’s someone beside you, bearing witness to your existence.
Of course, it is also harder in a million ways. You are constantly negotiating your life with someone else. A certain freedom is lost. Small things, like not exclusively eating dinner from my favorite takeout places every night, or limiting how often I stare at a blank Word doc in hopes of being struck by writing genius when we are sitting together at the table. But bigger things, too, like spending hours on the edge of an argument trying to understand his point of view and then swallowing my pride enough to let my own opinion bend, or releasing control—an even bigger swallow—and accepting it’s okay for someone I love to have a different opinion. And you don’t get to feel like you’re living for yourself, doing it on your own, because, in some essential way, you’re not. There is inherent compromise in partnership. There is beauty in this; I’m growing in ways I never could on my own. But I also find myself putting up with behavior I never thought I would because people aren’t perfect and continually questioning if my compromises are growth or regression. In a world where women are constantly, unconsciously even, making compromises every day, there is something tremendous about being a woman who is free from compromise in her personal life. I miss that.
There is inherent compromise in partnership.
One warm night in Brooklyn, walking back to my place, Ben and I pass a for-sale sign on a neighboring apartment. “I want to live together,” he says, stopping me on the sidewalk, “if you want that.” I am regularly stunned by his openness to commitment. I tell him I want that too, then quickly add “eventually.” A few months later, he admits he wants to have a child, if I want to. “I have no idea if I want to,” I tell him, and I see his confusion spread as he processes how a thirty-nine-year-old woman cannot have this figured out.
To live outside of the traditional family mold is a challenge. There is no one relying on you every day; you have to figure out your own way to matter. Suddenly, I feel like I have access to the more trodden path, which I was finally losing interest in. But this is the identity I’ve grown most connected to, the tribe I don’t want to betray: If all it takes for me to throw away that version of myself is finding a partner, it feels insincere—a betrayal, of sorts—as if my independence were more of a rationalization than a desire. I’m not ready to let it go.
Entering a partnership at forty feels a bit like leaving New York City, which I have not done, but I would be lying if I said I haven’t considered it. Partly, it’s the silly feeling of losing one’s toughness, but more precisely it’s the feeling of moving on from a piece of yourself you’ve grown to love. Many people leave New York and start a family when they’re young, treating singleness and cities as a feature of youth. But people who stay in New York, like those of us who stay single, start to appreciate things that can only be observed with time, and those pleasures have a way of imprinting themselves on who you are.
A friend emails me, a single woman a few years older than I am, to ask how I’m doing, and I consider not mentioning my boyfriend even though being in a relationship is by far the biggest change in my life since we last spoke. I edit the email draft eight times before I decide, finally, to say that I’m dating someone seriously, then add “ Very weird !” to signal that this is an anomaly, not Who-I-Am. When I meet other single women, I find myself adding a caveat to any mention of my boyfriend, explaining how long I was single before we got together, that I’ve never lived with anyone, essentially begging for acknowledgement that they understand that I understand. I want them to know they’re not alone, that their life is not defined by an omission. And, selfishly, I still want to be viewed as someone carving her own path.
I’m writing this from a cabin I’ve rented in upstate New York, a ritual of sorts that started years ago. When the sun sets, I call Ben, eager to hear his voice, and we recount the dumb details of our days. In the morning, jogging against the cold wind, the ladies of the mock-lifestyle podcast Poog cackling in my ear, I’m reminded of the comment to my therapist. If I did, ridiculously, have a tribe, I would long to be in theirs. The obvious, as it tends to on runs, reveals itself with the steady symbolic pattern of one foot in front of the other. The thing I covet is not a relationship status, but the ability to live on one’s own terms—being able to access one’s want as a woman or, at least, to be in honest pursuit of it. For me, being single was essential to starting that process, but relationship status is irrelevant to living honestly. I’ll always be drawn to women ruthlessly reckoning with themselves, doing it myself to a fault, and perhaps the sign of a good relationship—for me—is that that doesn’t change.
There are times when I wish I had kids when I was younger or had met the love of my life before a chunk of my habits were cast in something close to stone, but just as often there are times when it’s clear my version of partnership—not to mention myself—is deeply informed by the experience of its lack, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Our cultural idealization of traditional partnership seems just as precarious as the “go-girl” depiction of singledom. The truth is messier: Both are wonderful and awful, and if we’re lucky enough to appreciate both—not everyone can—we’ll always be left wanting.