Recently, I was invited to have Nigerian food in another borough by a couple who are members of my least-favorite new subculture: radical foodies, people who try to convince you that there is no more noble pursuit than spending $26 on a small saucer of jellyfish pâté. When I called to say I couldn’t make it, I was informed that another woman had declined the invitation because “her boyfriend has been working a lot lately and they needed some time together,” and that a different pair didn’t want to get a baby-sitter. I felt confident my “No” would take its place alongside the others.
“You don’t have any excuse,” I was told when I finally admitted under cross-examination that I really just wanted a night at home.
“Come on,” she added brightly. “It’ll just be you and us!”
Hearing this reminded me that I have long thought that “one” should be officially replaced as the loneliest number. The true winner is definitely three.
As the conversation continued, it became clear that this friend thought I had nothing but time on my hands-I mean, what else could I have to do? I certainly didn’t need to coordinate my schedule with anyone else. Just what was I doing with all my time? And why was it so exhausting?
While it is simply understood that relationships require maintenance, people don’t realize how much maintenance it takes to be single. These are often the same people who say, “You need to make finding a relationship your No. 1 priority!”-only to complain later that you never seem to have any time to spend with them.
One of the biggest problems in tending to your single life is that there is no consistency. I often feel like I have much in common with someone who lived in a MASH unit-except instead of hearing “The North Koreans are advancing! Move out!”, I might get a call at 10 p.m. saying, “There’s a great party on Mercer! Let’s go!” I must be ready to don my uniform in seconds.
Also like a soldier, you must be constantly prepared at all times for a possible attack-not by a hostile army, but instead by that special someone. It won’t be Korea, but it might just be Fairway. Instead of a flak jacket, I have been known to wear low-riding Juicy sweatpants. A friend of mine, who once said that being single is “constantly negotiating hope versus despair,” pointed out that for many people, “The fantasy is always at play in the back of your mind,” and so you are always “on”-which is, yes, exhausting.
Another part of the problem is that much your time is spent pursuing things that are disposable. With children or a relationship, you’re putting time into something concrete: Hello Kitty goody bags for a first birthday party, or a long discussion about better ways to express your anger to your partner. But when you’re single, you might spend 45 minutes on the phone with a man whom your brother-in-laws’ parents haven’t met-but his parents, you are assured, are just lovely … and excellent golfers. You’re investing precious time in the dating equivalent of an empty lot in Florida: It could be a gold mine, or you could go broke. A different week, you might spend several hours talking to someone you will end up having dinner with only once, but which can add up to eight hours altogether: phone time (five hours) plus dinner (three). Think what you could do with eight extra hours in your week. Or you get cajoled into meeting a man for “just one drink; half an hour, tops”-but with the time spent getting ready, getting there, staying for a reasonable amount of time and getting home, you’ve used up three hours.
In addition, while many single people will tell their single friends the gory details of a third date (20 total hours logged, including phone calls, and that doesn’t include prep time and transportation) with a man who said he was crazy about you but had “relationship issues” (translation: “I’d like to sleep with you and then tell you in six months, ‘I told you so'”), they are often reluctant to share this information with their non-single friends. This is because it’s not uncommon to tell a married friend you are feeling great-only to have her reach across the table, grab your hand, her voice choking, and say, ” Uch , you’re so strong. I don’t know if I could be as strong in your position.”
Indeed, I’ve noticed a divide between many married people with children and their single, childless friends. A corporate headhunter I know said she recalled being at a dinner “with a bunch of married friends, all of whom had kids or were getting pregnant, and one of them was talking about a woman at her office in her 30’s who had ‘no life-you know, no husband or kids.’ I was so taken aback. I wanted to say, ‘I’m in my 30’s and I have no husband or children. Do you think I don’t have a life?'”
Another woman who admitted recently she is getting “very, very scared” that she’ll never meet anyone told me, “With your single friends, you can talk for hours about some guy who hasn’t called you and focus on yourself. They understand. But with mothers especially, your life always has to take second billing. because that’s the natural order of things. If you’re ready to stick your head in an oven, it would take a back seat to someone’s son falling off the sofa.”
And so we often remain silent, further adding to the appearance that we have all the time in the world.
Ironically, while a multimedia industry has sprouted up to dispel the myth of the lonely, single woman in a string tie counting her cats, it is responsible for a whole new set of misconceptions.Noweveryone thinks they know how kooky it is to be single because they watch television shows that glamorize pithy evenings out at the Park, where any problems are treated as whimsical aches. The words “single” and “dating” don’t help, either, as they suggest something flirty and fun, rather than something depressing and resulting in many empty Snackwell’s boxes. In the days of Looking for Mr. Goodbar , when being single was treated as painful and serious-the stuff of noir drama!-the maintenance involved was clear. The bottom line was that as a person alone, you had to deal with everything alone.
It’s interesting that while this generation has swung the pendulum in the opposite direction, the result is no more enlightening.