Can You Be Single And Still Live a Full Life?


Note: I previously wrote this for another website right after my father died. I’ve never published it here.

I have a playlist on my phone labeled “Story of My Life.” Included on this list are songs that I’ve always found to encapsulate various tipping points in my life. One of these songs is “Being Alive” from the Stephen Sondheim musical Company. The musical follows Bobby, a life- long bachelor in his mid-thirties, and his married friends. Bobby struggles with deciding what it is he wants for himself in terms of love and commitment. While at his surprise birthday party, and after the constant pressure from his friends to settle down, Bobby has an epiphany.  He sits at the piano and begins to explain to his friends, through song, why he’s so ambivalent about love. As he lists his excuses for why he continues to bounce from woman to woman, his friends chime in with their rebuttals.

You’ve got so many reasons for not being with someone, but Robert you haven’t got one good reason for being alone.

My father died unexpectedly when I was 43. As I walked off the grass at the cemetery I told myself that this was it. Now I was truly on my own. My Dad was one of the two male constants in my life. The other was a close friend from college. I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or bad thing that I was sated by such limited attention. The youngest of five daughters, I never knew what it meant to be a priority. Up until just a few years ago I’m not even sure I understood that need.  My sisters were all much older than me, and my mother got sick when I was 3. She died when I was 7. Much of my time as a child was spent reading or trying to invent new toys or playing with friends at their house. I was always sort of independent and emotionally self-sufficient.

I moved to Manhattan at 22 years old, not knowing a soul. At 23 I found my first apartment. I have lived alone since then. Want to know a secret? I like it. That’s as good a reason as any to be single. Sometimes I wonder if some people truly want a partnership or if they just want attention or someone by their side to validate their life and choices.

If you ask me, I think many of us long to be a part of the Couple Club, regardless of how vehemently we deny it. I’ve found myself looking at a Facebook status update announcing an engagement and, for a brief moment, wishing it was mine. It wasn’t the engagement I longed for. It was the moment in the spotlight that I momentarily craved. That’s not a good enough reason to settle down. Neither is the fear of being alone.

Don’t be afraid it won’t be perfect. The only thing to be afraid of is that it won’t be.

My father ended up marrying my step-mother when I was 10. At 86, my father elected to have a surgery that he hoped would help him make it to 90. He chose the surgery because my step-mother’s health had been greatly compromised due to scleroderma. His choice to go for this procedure was made so that he could be around to take care of his wife during what he believed to be her last few years. He never recovered from the surgery.

In a morbid twist of fate, my step-mother began having back pain about 6 weeks after my Dad passed away. A month later she was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. 5 weeks later she died.

If it weren’t so tragic it would be romantic. Here were two people so devoted to each other that they couldn’t live without the other. As children we read about fictional heroes who die defending the women they love. I grew up with my own real life Prince Charming. He had cared for his first wife, my mother, all through her cancer battle, carrying her from room to room so she could look out the window or watch us open Christmas presents. He refused to let anybody else take her into Boston for her chemotherapy sessions. He was by her side, always.

These were the examples of commitment that were set for me. I matured believing that this was what marriage was about: sacrifice, devotion, compromise. At 44, I’m not sure how much I’m willing to sacrifice. “That’s because you haven’t met the right person” many people say. Is that it? Or have I just become profoundly intolerant of anything and anyone who doesn’t live their life as I do?

If I can have what my father had not once but twice, I will jump right into that fire without hesitation. Anything less than that would be a failure and that isn’t an option for me when it comes to commitment.

Want something. Want something.

After my father died I was sifting through files and forms trying to organize my life. I came across a letter he had sent me a few years earlier. This particular excerpt hit me the hardest:

Now, to answer a question you ask me most of the time to which I always say it is up to you if you find someone. My real answer is that I hope so before my time is up. I would ask God for nothing more than to see you happily married.

I hate that my Dad worried that I would have no one to care for me. That’s what drove me so hard to find a partner. I lived so long fearing the idea of being alone that it led me down some really counter-productive paths. When my father died I wasn’t the mess I thought I would be. I was able to get my life together in ways I had struggled to achieve while he was alive. It was like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. The pressure was gone.

I do want something. I do. I think I’m just determined to define it on my own terms. I suppose fear is a great motivator for coupling up, but what if someone doesn’t fear being single?

Alone is alone, not alive.

I can remember someone once saying to me that I didn’t want to keep dating multiple people, likening it to a game of musical chairs.

“You don’t want to end up without a chair” he said, as if standing alone, chair-less, was a fate worse than death.

Yet another married friend scoffed when I told him that I was happy with the non-monogamous lifestyle I had crafted for myself.

“I think you still want a relationship” he said. I tried to explain that I do have relationships. What I don’t have (and what I don’t offer indiscriminately) is commitment.  While that is still a possibility for me, I have to truly want it, as my Dad would say.

It’s much better living it than looking at it.

I guess what I struggle with is the concept of how marriage and long-term commitment are the only options if someone wishes to live a full life. I certainly won’t deny the benefits of having a partner. Of course having someone to lean on and support you enhances and can improve the quality of your life. But it’s not impossible to cultivate a life that you love on your own and still reap some form of reward.

In Company, the story ends with Bobby realizing that maybe his friends were right all along. The audience is given their happy ending and everything is tied up nicely. To some, loose ends are like puzzles with one piece missing. There’s a sense that something is unfinished.

What if Company was re-written to take place today, in 2013, instead of the 1970’s when it was originally set? I wonder how the audience would have reacted if Bobby had told all his friends to butt out of his life and stop projecting all of their fears on to him. In my version Bobby turns around and flips off his friends and says, “Misery does love Company!” (Get it???) and then exits stage left. To me, that’s a happy ending. But that’s because I don’t need everything to make sense or look a certain way in order to consider it worthwhile.  The pieces I need to create the picture are all in place.




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13 Responses to “Can You Be Single And Still Live a Full Life?”

  1. Noquay Says:

    I too grew up very independent. None of my assortment of parents had the ability to be there for me or themselves so I quickly learned life skills, grew up fast. By 15, I was pretty much running the household, by 17, I left the family, raising a brother and working my way through college. Since “the family thing” had such a negative connotation, I chose not to marry a same aged peer or have children. I have been married/single, both intentionally and unintentionally, and partnered. You absolutely have to be able to be totally alone in order to be a whole, worthy partner to anyone healthy. This includes life skills as well as interpersonal skills. I have seen soooo many female peers and both male and female students settle for less-than and often abusive relationships because they are incapable of being alone.

  2. Mostboringgirl Says:

    I don’t look back on anyone and think, “That’s the one who got away.” It’s sometimes annoying to be The Last Single One, but I figure it’s better to be alone than in a bad marriage. I’ll live.

  3. Sarah Says:

    I think, yes. I also think you can be married/ coupled and still have an empty life.

    • em Says:

      this is an excellent point. I’ve read that there’s no greater loneliness than feeling alone in your marriage.

  4. KK Says:

    i can say with all honesty that the main reason why I want to find someone whom I want to marry and who wants to marry me is because I absolutely do not want to die alone in a bed, and so I would like to have children to be there with me. And I do not want to raise children on my own. My mother’s sister had my mother with her when she died and i know that my mother was the only person she wanted with her when she died and I am so fucking happy my mother was there. And I also know that I do not have that relationship with my brother and so I need to find that for myself.

    This whole piece kind of read like you were trying to defend your decisions. If you are happy with your life, that is what matters. And people are afraid of what is different. Also? Anyone who doubts you’re really happy? Probably not so happy themselves. Your dad sounds really amazing. You, your mom, and your sisters are lucky to have known a man like him. I would add your step-mother as well, but you what about what she did and so…I guess she was lucky as well, but…she seems like she was quite…sucky.

    • Eliza Says:

      KK. There are no guarantees in life. You can be married (happily)…for many years…have children (a full house) – and STILL die alone…in bed or elsewhere! You never know. Or sadly enough, your spouse can pass away prior to your death. Or your children can grow apart, or live in another city or country. And yes, they will be there, in other ways. But may not be physically present, or able to literally be with you. As for raising a child on your own, that can be a possibility too. There are no guarantees that your marriage will thrive. When you have inner happiness, and find contentment in where you are now, in the here and NOW…in spite of being on your own, or being a single parent…that’s when you have discovered freedom, and a weight is lifted, and the pressure is gone to couple down. There is nothing to defend. Nothing innately wrong with being single. I have experienced something similar to Moxie and have even been told by my own mother (probably with good intentions – and worry coming from her heart) “I worry for you”. I asked why? and she replied “Because, I want you to meet someone to take care of you”, “don’t want you to be alone, when I am gone”. That’s just a parent being a parent. I realized that after many years of thinking of it as negativity. It comes from a place of concern. I get it. Every parent wants to know their child is in good hands.

  5. Parenting Says:

    I really enjoyed this piece. It was introspective without pitty or apology.

    One thing I am wondering, though, do people actually believe the single life is empty or is this something single people think society believes of them? I dont think anyone would say Isaac Newton or Condoleezza Rice lived an empty life.

  6. TwoCents Says:

    I’ve been thinking about this since I read it yesterday. I think the key is being happy (genuinely) wherever you are. Both in and out of relationships, I’ve lost myself and become miserable when I stopped focusing on the things that make me happiest (writing, travel, etc) and stopped appreciating what I had. I think it’s the wishing for the next thing that spoils what people already have and makes them miserable. When you’re single you (royal you) want a relationship. When you’re in the relationship you want to be married. When you’re married you want the baby. When you have the baby you want to be able to go out…(these are all broad generalizations, I know). It’s never-ending and easily sucks the joy out of the moment/life. I’m not saying there can’t be a desire for more, but it has to be tempered with an acknowledgement that what you have now is something you once longed for (time to write, good friends, money to travel, whatever your thing is).

  7. Ben Iyyar Says:

    I was single for the greater part of my life and I was very miserable with being single all that time. There are people who are just fine alone, and those like me who are not. I knew in my heart that I wanted,indeed, I HAD to have wife and a family to be happy. At age 34 I was fortunate to find my wife and live pretty much happily ever after, almost 35 yrs later.
    I feel that most men and even many women desire the stability and warmth of a loving and happy marriage, ’til death do you part if you will. I also realize how difficult it is to find a suitable partner, someone relatively emotionally undamaged from a broken marriage, relationship, or a lousy childhood who can still trust others and relate positively to them. I came from a very unhappy and deeply broken family, alcoholism, my Dad in a wheel chair from MS, my Mother stressed to the max trying to support a sick husband and three kids, we were emotionally wrecked, but my story is really not so much different from so many others. Many of us have poor family relationships, broken marriages and relationships litter our lives, and yet we still want that warm loving partner to sleep with at night and wake up to in the morning.
    I understood that as badly broken I was, I was going to have to do what was necessary for me to find love and happiness with a wife and family. This is not the proposed future for everyone. Some people are just too broken by life and failed relationships to ever have stable relationship, but these are very few, most of us are emotionally able to relate to enough people to find a loving partner and marry them. I did change my behavior and therapy did help me correct some character flaws thaws and ways of relating to women which were more fulfilling for me and her!
    I also knew that I would not find a suitable partner immediately, and that most of the women I dated were NOT for me as I was not for them, but I had to keep looking to find the partner I desired who also desired me back, not so easy by the way!
    Again, many people thrive being single, some for all time, some just when they are young, and far too many after a very bad breakup, but in my experience, most of us us want and need a loving partner to share our lives with after we mature. Certainly there are no guarantees that ANY relationship will succeed, people change, grow older, become less healthy, change jobs, or where we live, illnesses of our partners or kids, loss and death also, sometimes we just cannot go on with our partners. Yet healthy, loving, and happy relationships are wonderful and can often help to overcome the crises that life throws at us. Loving, happy, and fulfilling marriages and long term relationships are difficult to achieve, but most people need and want exactly that!

  8. John Says:

    I have certainly argued with you about some of the things on your blog. But I have to call a spade a spade- this is an excellent post. My only question to you is why would you publish it on another site instead of your own (at first)?

    This is like a singer giving one of his songs to another artist and it turns out to be a Top 10 hit. I think this post could be one of your very best. Glad you got around to posting it here. This is a Top 10.

  9. BCAinNC Says:

    Great post! And I totally get it. I have been thinking about this very thing a lot lately as my 50th birthday is quickly approaching and I am for all intents and purposes, single. I was married briefly (2 years, then widowed) and lived with a man for 10 years. We’re still great friends and I like him much more now than I ever did when we were a “couple”. All that aside, when I pause for reflection and am really honest with myself, the times I’ve been most happy is when I am single. I’ve always liked living alone and prefer it. I think relationships are better when everyone has their own “treehouse” in which to retreat. Live close, visit often is my favorite mantra for relationships at this stage.

    I think it is easy to get caught up in the fantasy of marriage and partnerships as I too, get wistful when I see engagement posts on Facebook. I believe we are all conditioned from a young age to think that this is what we should want, the whole marriage/family routine. But then I look around me and see the divorces, the compromised marriages, the seismic cracks in these so-called solid unions. I learned a long time ago to never envy anyone’s relationship because you never really know what is going on.

    The kind of commitment your father exhibited is so rare these days. I, too, had such a high bar set by my father that it makes finding something comparable almost impossible. The older I get, the more comfortable I am with my decisions. There is a lot to be said for living your life on your own terms. The only thing I really want now out of a relationship is companionship, kindness and some common interests. The marriage/family thing has zero appeal at this stage. Luckily I’ve found a man who shares my philosophy. It’s enough for now.

    I say celebrate yourself and your choices. We’re lucky to live in a day and age that we have the option to make those choices that are not necessarily the mainstream.

    And just and FYI about all the people who have families out of fear of dying alone—I volunteer with Hospice and I see people with big families die alone all the time. A family is no guarantee. You can build a strong family out of people who are not necessarily related to you.

  10. Katie Says:

    I think there are pros and cons to being single, partnered or married. I think it’s sad that people are told they can’t be fulfilled single because no one can decide that except you. You could be married and miserable or single and miserable. I wonder if it is more associated with the individual than actually being single or partnered. Your articles are always thought provoking and I thank you for that.

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