It’s hard to believe that two weeks ago, New York was luxuriating in a kind of golden age of relationships. If you were in one, you were most likely trying to make it better: learning to listen, learning how to argue constructively and accept responsibility. If you were single and looking for a relationship, there was no shortage of best-sellers and love-crazed sitcoms to confirm that yours was a valid, even noble, quest. The search for romantic connection was the dominant ideology of many New Yorkers’ lives. For many people, the only battle they had fought was the war of the sexes.
In the days following the attack on the World Trade Center, the Mayor urged a shaken public to get back to business as usual. And while many were able to return to their offices, many others were left wondering how, if ever, they would return to their social lives. Could we really go back to the way it was? And if we cannot, what does that mean?
“There are no social conventions that have been created, or contemplated, for this situation,” said a single hedge-fund manager. “If someone’s mother died, you know not to call them for a date, but for this there’s no etiquette.”
He asked a woman on a date a week after the attack. “I thought it would be good to be with someone I didn’t know. I had been with the same people, at so many memorial services, and I was all talked out,” he said. But like many people seeking distraction, he realized there was no avoiding Sept. 11. “There’s no way to not talk about it,” he said. “But you have to deal with a new kind of confusion, because people are in different mind-sets. If you go on a date now, you have to figure out, ‘Who am I dealing with? Are they incredibly emotional about the situation? Somewhat emotional? Not wanting to talk? And if they don’t want to talk, what’s wrong with them?'”
Several people interviewed wished to remain anonymous. As one woman put it, “I feel uncomfortable looking for love when so many people are looking for members of their family.”
While many people are reluctant to say that anything positive came out of the attack, others are quietly admitting that they’re encountering more depth and honesty in a generation which has been so abruptly introduced to its own mortality. These same people are wondering if the old poses and games will be replaced by emotional confessions and conversations about good versus evil.
A man whose cousin died in the attack said he’d asked a woman out for a drink a week later. “We talked about the attack,” he said. “We had a serious, meaningful conversation, which I’m always looking for anyway. The way she talked about the whole thing let me know what kind of person she was. I could tell from the way she approached the topic and her opinions that there’s a possibility for something more for us.”
If dates are helping some work through their emotional numbness, others said they found being single during this time extremely difficult.
Said a commercial agent, “There’s a badge of honor single people have when they say ‘It’s fine,’ or ‘It’s a choice rather than a fate,’ but this situation made them come out of the closet and admit their dirty little secret: that living with your dog or cat or plant is a lonely existence.”
A man who spent the last year traveling and dating different women said, “I think there are a lot of people who felt that when tragedy struck, it was a terrible time to be single. At the last minute you’re alive, you’d like someone else to call besides your mom.”
“People want to feel safe and reach out and bunker down together,” said Lisanne Godnick, a clinical social worker specializing in couples therapy. “The fantasy is that there’s more safety in numbers.”
The events of Sept. 11 appear to have acted as a spur for many couples. Jen Rudin, a casting director, started dating a man at the end of the summer. “I’ve had lots of bad nightmares since the explosions occurred,” she said. “Having someone you’re dating there made me sleep better. I found that I’ve actually gotten to know this guy a lot more based on the fact that this horrible situation has happened. You can spend months in the city dating people but not getting to know them on any deep level. It’s cut through some of the bullshit.”
Another woman who had been dating a man casually is now considering whether to move in with him-an idea that occurred to her as she was being evacuated from her apartment near the disaster site. Several couples reported that before the attack they’d spent one or two nights a week together; now they’re discussing living together.
Such instant intimacy may prove short-lived. “People who were once comfortable with flirting and superficial banter are trying to get to this deeper level that is not developmentally appropriate to the chronology of the relationship,” said Ms. Godnick. “Issues that wouldn’t come up until week 10 are coming up now-and it’s not going to work. These relationships are going to fall harder because they’re going to feel more intense than they are.”
In fact, some women admitted feeling too emotionally vulnerable to venture out socially.
“It’s been nine months since I’ve been with someone,” said a 28-year-old writer who lives in Long Island. “I went to a wedding Friday night and there was a guy there, and at one point we went up to the balcony and started kissing. He took my face in his hands and started saying reassuring things, cheesy things, being very intimate in a way that he probably wouldn’t have been before the disaster.”
She said she wasn’t going to call him. “I’m afraid of all my emotions with this, and if I were with someone, they might be privy to them,” she said. “So I just feel safer being alone.”
Mara Brandon, a massage therapist who spent time massaging firefighters at her local firehouse, which lost nine men, said she felt vulnerable in a different way. “Given the opportunity right now, I would screw my brains out just to affirm that I’m alive,” she said. “What’s a little casual sex when we all might die tomorrow?”
Even couples who’ve been together for years described feelings of confusion and guilt.
“I think for me, it made me see my boyfriend in a whole new way,” said a fashion journalist. “What if he was in that building? Could I go on? And if I thought yes-what would that mean?”
One of the questions many single people are struggling with is, “If I am going to move on with my life, what is appropriate?” The hedge-fund manager, who came home to an apartment covered in dust, said he forced himself to leave his house and CNN a few days after the attack. “I went down to the West Side Highway to cheer on the rescue workers,” he said. “And I was thinking, ‘There are so many hot girls here’-but then you go from menschy guy to scoundrel guy.”
Ms. Brandon, the massage therapist, wondered if men in Manhattan would be permanently altered. “I think the good guys have become better,” she said. “But I think other guys will use the tragedy and their experiences to get women. They’ll use it as a line.”
As for herself, Ms. Brandon said that the disaster has changed her approach to relationships. “Before, I was willing to settle for some stuff, but now I have less patience for the hemming and hawing, or the ‘I’m going to call you’ followed by no call,” she said. “I have less patience for the nonsense I used to think was part of the process. Now it’s put up or shut up.”
But the shared tragedy may lead to the very opposite of a longed-for “new sincerity.”
“This is a time when we are so out of control that people will try to control any way they can,” said Ms. Godnick. “Calling or not calling. Being unavailable. Being reclusive. Promiscuity. Any area you can put boundaries in, you will, because you feel like there are no safe boundaries. People are going to fall into two categories: those who want control and those who want to merge.”
The state of collective emotional flux has left many single New Yorkers wondering how much, and who, they can trust these days.
“I had to take four buses to get home,” said a woman about the afternoon of Sept 11. “Everyone was talking to everyone else, getting into different conversations about what happened. This guy got on and I thought, ‘He’s cute.’ We started talking and I missed my stop. We got off the bus and he walked me home and I gave him my card. Under normal circumstances, I would have never given a stranger my card. Then he called 15 minutes later to find out if I got home O.K. We made plans for Saturday, but then I couldn’t go with him because I was volunteering. A few days later, he e-mailed me to say he was too busy. It’s interesting, because that first day, New Yorkers needed to connect at any cost. But then people got back to their old habits.”
As New Yorkers pray that the worst is behind us-all the while knowing full well that it may not be-singles and couples will indeed get to back to business, as the Mayor asked. The question isn’t whether people will return to the all-consuming culture of relationships, but how. “I’d like to think we’re all changed people,” Ms. Brandon said. “But only time will tell.”