“What would you do if you knew you would never get married?” my therapist asked me.
“I’d probably kill myself,” I blurted, and was immediately shocked at both what I’d said and at its truthfulness. An unpartnered life seemed at that moment to be not worth living, even though I was in my mid-40s and had spent more of my adulthood single than not.
I’d started seeing my therapist again because my boyfriend of three years had suddenly ghosted me. After a highly emotional discussion about our future together, he stopped returning my phone calls or texts. I’d hoped we were headed toward making our connection more permanent, at least by moving in together.
As I desperately tried to figure out what was going on and save our relationship with tactics culled from Googling mental health and dating websites, I was barely sleeping and spent my waking hours in a kind of feral panic.
Unable to eat much, I lost 14 pounds in six weeks. I didn’t want to believe my ex could consciously treat me this way, so I decided he must have been having some sort of breakdown. I didn’t recognize that I was on my way to having one myself.
I’d always assumed I would get married eventually. Despite my long identification as a feminist, I thought marriage — the right marriage — would make life easier, an idea I picked up on from my mother. She was expecting to be a good Catholic wife and mother who’d stay at home with the kids. Unfortunately, she married her alcoholic high school sweetheart — charming, smart and handsome, but an undependable mess — and instead she ended up divorced and responsible for supporting two small children in the early 1970s.
Back then divorce was not as common as it is now, especially in our well-to-do Chicago suburb. I was acutely aware that my mom was the only divorcée among my friends’ parents and that we were the only ones who lived in a small apartment rather than a big house from which the dad set off to work every day.
While we never wanted for food or other basics, money was tight. An undercurrent of anxiety colored my childhood as my mom went out on dates and pined after a wealthy, emotionally unavailable boyfriend who took us out for ice cream in his Alfa Romeo and for trips on his boat.
Once, going through her purse for some reason, I found a scrap of paper on which she’d doodled her married name with the boyfriend. She grabbed it away, angry and humiliated.
“Don’t get married too young, but don’t wait too long — the men will be picked over,” she once told me.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that I would be living a much more diminished life ... if his actions, as cruel as they were, hadn’t forced me to wake up.”
My boyfriend’s abrupt exit and my subsequent near-breakdown forced me to do some soul-searching. I had to grapple with the increasingly likely possibility that I would not, in fact, ever get married, or at least not anytime soon. So what did I want my life to look like instead?
I was ashamed that I couldn’t even answer the question. I came to realize I had been using the goal of a partnership as a way to avoid taking responsibility for my own life.
I’d always been beset by feelings of anxiety and inadequacy at my jobs and in my writing. By hitching my cart to a man’s, I wouldn’t have to fully face them. I wouldn’t have to take as many risks, or the risks would be lessened because I’d be in a place of greater economic and emotional security. Or so I thought.
So I started asking myself what I wanted to do. Immediately, I knew I wanted to travel more. For my first post-breakup trip, I went to Tulum, Mexico, by myself. It was a little weird to be on my own in that extremely romantic place, but I truly relaxed, lying for hours in a hammock or on a lounge chair on the beach while waiters brought me margaritas.
When I showed up at the hot restaurant where advance reservations were a must, I scored a seat at the bar because I was on my own. I was often the only single traveler on snorkeling trips and other outings, but no one seemed to think it was that odd, or if they did, they were impressed rather than pitying.
Over the next few years, I went to Puerto Rico, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Turkey and all over the U.S. — almost always by myself.
In the meantime, Donald Trump was running for president, and his pussy-grabbing comments, allegations of sexual assault and history of insulting women were in the news every day. At the same time, the Me Too movement was gaining steam.
I became increasingly angry at the way too many men failed to show empathy for the harassment and unequal treatment women suffered, excusing Trump’s behavior and saying the Me Too movement had gone too far, just as powerful men started to be held accountable. I was horrified at how many white women voted for Trump, a candidate who represented a gendered status quo that I naively thought had been crumbling.
Suddenly, remaining single didn’t seem like bad luck or a personal failing ― it seemed like a valid choice and even an enviable status, something that more than one married person at my 30th high school reunion made sure to tell me.
While a committed relationship can undoubtedly enrich the lives of the people in it, as more friends divorced and broke up, I realized that all too often it requires sacrifices I wasn’t sure I was willing to make. And even when it’s good, the going can be just as tough as single life.
“You seem to think marriage makes everything great,” a friend who is in probably the best partnership I know of said to me at one point. “It doesn’t.”
So I stopped feeling ashamed and embarrassed about being one of the only older women in my large extended family who had never gotten married or had a kid. I stopped feeling helpless and alone when something went wrong with my condo or my car. I earned a master’s degree and graduated with a 4.0 GPA. And when I got laid off from my job, I had the confidence to go freelance so I could start living the life of greater freedom that I’d dreamed of — even knowing I’d still face those old feelings of fear and anxiety.
A love and dating coach whom I followed for a while in my doomed effort to get my ex back often counseled her heartbroken followers, “Someday you’ll be grateful to your ex for dumping you.”
There’s no doubt in my mind that I would be living a much more diminished life— and probably making the same mistakes with men over and over again, a dating version of Groundhog Day ― if his actions, as cruel as they were, hadn’t forced me to wake up.
One could argue I’ve gone too far the other way. I have pretty high standards for how I spend my limited free time, and, for the most part, the men I’ve met haven’t cleared the bar. Family members still occasionally make cat lady jokes. But I lived the first half of my life trying to fit myself into a mold to attract and keep a man. I think I’ll spend the second half trying to live the life that pleases me.
If that brings me a loving partnership, I’ll be very happy. But I’ll still be very happy if it doesn’t.