As the average age of marriage increases, our world contains a growing number of singles. While it’s unclear exactly how many of them will never marry or have children, I’ve seen projections estimating that as many as a quarter of Millennials will never marry.
Yet, so much of our cultural products seem oriented around romantic relationships, if not finding it, at least searching for it. As of yet there’s been little written exploring what it truly means to be single for the long haul.
Amy Key’s new memoir of her single life, Arrangements in Blue: Notes on Loving and Living Alone, is a book about that reality and her experience of it. The title is a reference to Joni Mitchell’s 1971 album Blue, which Key adores, and whose content and track list forms the organizing structure of the book.
Key is a 44 year old British poet. When I say that she’s a poet, I’m speaking professionally. She’s been paid for poems that were published in magazines, and appears to have two previous collections of her poetry published. She doesn’t make a living from this, obviously, but simply getting paid anything for poetry means she’s highly accomplished in her field.
She had lots of sex and relationships when she was a teenager and into her early 20s, complete with an abortion at age 19. However, without her fully realizing what had happened, sometime in her early 20s she had her last boyfriend, or the last relationship in which she could officially call someone her “boyfriend.”
I accepted love would bring me pain, so much so that joyful love became not an expectation, but an occasional gift. Love meant being prepared to bleed. I was ready to commit to it. But while I have certainly bled for romantic love, I’ve largely found myself living without it. The last time I had a boyfriend I was twenty-two. I’m about to turn forty-four. In my early years of knowing Blue I thought I was at the beginning of romantic love’s presence in my life. All beginnings incorporate the potential for an end, I just had no idea how rapidly I’d get there.
She continued to have sporadic sexual relationships after that, including an affair with a married man. She loved some of these men. But they did not love her in return but were merely taking advantage of what she had to offer. Unrequited love became a theme in her life.
Key openly acknowledges that even today, she still longs for a romantic relationship. She still wants it:
It might be that I will live the whole of my life attended by a sense of lack, romantic love eluding me, but I must be brave enough to say out loud, I did want it. I do want it. It’s still possible I’ll end up a victim of my own passivity, of my reluctance to expose myself to pain’s potential, but admitting this is my own kind of trying, of reaching towards love. That is something. I gave up my project of romance and now decades have passed. I want to find my way back to the road.
Plenitude of one love doesn’t reduce the pain or longing for a type of love you want but don’t have. Though I sometimes try to sell myself the idea that it does. Tell myself that the platonic love I have never lacked makes up for, or transcends, the lack of romantic love. I don’t buy it.
I still hope there is romantic love to come – I cannot give up hoping for it, but I don’t want to become unravelled by jealousy for everything that is not. I don’t want to pay attention to the epiphanic declarations of people with different experiences to me and use them as evidence that my life’s experience can never be equal to theirs.
When I have thrown coins into fountains and wells, it has been with a private wish for love. When I’ve blown the candles out on my birthday cakes. When I have drawn a card from the tarot, it has been in the hope for guidance about how to find love. When on one summer solstice I wrote something I wanted to manifest on a piece of paper and added it to the communal fire, that thing was romantic love. If I catch a shooting star, scatter the seeds of a dandelion clock with my breath, see a double fucking rainbow. None have yet been granted. I still wish.
It can be very difficult to admit that we want something, particularly when the prospect of getting it is presently dim. I know that I have historically been deeply hesitant to admit to plans or ambitions unless I was highly confident they would happen. For example, when I decided to run a marathon back in my early 30s, I didn’t tell a single soul about it until I had already run 16 miles several months in advance of the race. I am less like this today, but it required conscious work.
So I think there’s a natural human instinct to want to buffer ourselves against failure, especially public failure. This is doubly the case for women and relationships. A woman is supposed to need a man like a fish needs a bicycle. A admitted need for heterosexual romance and marriage seems to be a violation of the imperative of the sisterhood. It seems to admit weakness, that one can’t be complete without a man. A woman who says the sorts of things Key does can expect to get some, perhaps well intentioned, pushback from her peers. But for her, she doesn’t even need that, as she’s internalized as interior monologue the official positions of our society:
When I think about romantic love, I can feel stormed by failures. That it is weak to want it. That I’ve succumbed to lazy, heteronormative ideals of how life should be lived and what relationships and experiences are to be most valued.
My impression is that many single women in Key’s age bracket are far more unhappy about their status than they are letting on. Her openness about her desire for love, that it matters to her is a window opened into that experience.
One of the pains of being single is that Key can’t help but wonder what’s wrong with her, why men aren’t interested in a romantic relationship with her. Again, a very normal human response. In other contexts, I myself have wondered, “Why doesn’t anyone pick me?” She wonders if she’s sending off some subliminal signal that repels men. Is it that she’s too transparently needy? She cycles through the usual thoughts, blaming her weight, for example. But she she loses weight and gets skinny she discovers it doesn’t solve the problem. On to the next explanation.
Sometimes I read my teenage diaries intent on finding a solution to my lovelessness, or clues, at least, about why things have turned out this way. What ideas and behaviours took hold then, and might they give me keys to understanding myself?
But I’ve tried my best not to make the question ‘why am I single?’ even though it is something I ask myself and have many theories about.
Occasionally I try to catch myself in the act of being me, listen back to the snores, coughs and murmurs captured on my sleep app. I find this self-surveillance creepy, can only bear it for a few seconds, but I do it because I am desperate for feedback. Desperate to know what it is I need to change about myself. I’m afraid that it was my fault I was alone when I heard the worst news of my life; that when I received the most joyous news in my life, again, I was alone. I’m afraid these things tell me that I have done my life wrong.
The desire to identify our faults and improve is a good one at some level. At the same time, everybody has a rap sheet. No one can ever be perfect. Nor can we control what others do. Sometimes our number just comes up. We experience something bad, even terrible in life like being bullied in school, or losing our job, or failing to find love, but it’s not our fault. It’s just a product of fortune. Similarly, some of those who did end up in love, married were just lucky. They weren’t anything special and didn’t do anything special. Outcomes in this world are not always distributed on the basis of what we would perceive as merit.
Self-reflection and self-improvement are good, but too much self-recrimination is not, and that comes almost as naturally to us as refusing to accept our fair share of responsibility. Again, I suspect her experience here is common.
While Key acknowledges her longings and the affect being single has had on her, she doesn’t idealize romantic life either. Her parents were unhappily married, with her father having a long term ongoing affair, and eventually divorced. Her grandparents stayed together for life, but experienced a lot of serious hardship.
She doesn’t think single life is all awful either. During one phase of her life, she ameliorated her sorrows with debt fueled spending, running up quite a tab. But she’s able to dig out of that hole, taking a buyout from her government job and using that to pay off her bills while quickly transitioning to a new position. She saves and is able to buy an apartment of her own, something she thought was out of reach. In other words, she matured and grew up. She makes her apartment into a proper home for herself. She has friends. She throws parties. She’s professionally accomplished. A friend buys her a piano because this person wanted her to feel the joy of receiving an extravagant gift that one typically only receives from a lover. Her life is not empty as a result of singleness.
And yet - she still longs for love. There is an incompleteness. The book does a great job of capturing the balanced reality of life in the absence of a romantic partner.
Another thing that she does is describe the all too common change in perspective people have on children as they age. She has an abortion without regret at age 19. But at age 37, something happens and she is overwhelmed with the desire for a child.
I felt lucky to have escaped baby panic, that I’d somehow overrun the settings of my biology, which almost everyone told me I’d be faced with sooner or later, eluded the anguish of decision-making. So it was a shock when I woke up the day after my thirty-seventh birthday feeling a full-bodied desire and urgent need to have a child. I do not have a close relationship with certainty, so this was a highly unusual state of mind, and though I felt tremendously excited and motivated by this change in feeling, I felt surprised, too, that my desire had raced ahead and I’d only just caught up. It wasn’t a feeling that I could intellectualise, it seemed to radiate from a new influence within me – something organic and obscure, but persuasive.
She wants to pursue having a child on her own via a sperm donor, but without enough money for IVF, she has to try intrauterine insemination. It hasn’t worked, and although she’d still like a child, at age 44, she realizes that’s not likely at this point.
I have said many times that until age 35 or so, we are not capable of emotionally connecting to the future story arc of our lives. Before that age, we know that we have changed in the past, but we can’t fully understand that we will change in the future. We might intellectually acknowledge it, but we don’t really get it in our gut. We state confidently that we will never want children, even as we see people older than us change their mind about it. We can’t imagine that might happen to us. Our conviction on the matter seems so sure, so absolute. Thus it is tragic that many of the most consequential decisions of our lives, ones we cannot go back and change, are made at a point at which we don’t cannot comprehend their true significance to us.
I was one of those people who confidently affirmed never wanting children. Of course, that changed. Fortunately for me, I was able to have a child later in life at age 47. But let’s be honest, this is not ideal for child rearing, and means that my son will miss out on many years with his father that I had with mine. Also, I was only able to have one child. This too deprives him of the siblings I had. The truth is, these outcomes are a consequence of the decisions I made and the way I lived my life. Sometimes we realize we made a mistake, but it’s too late to reverse course.
In a previous era, society had guardrails and grooves that helped channel young people into good long term decisions. Parents and grandparents understood the story arc of life in the way that young adults do not. These forms of social pressure helped people avoid errors they would later regret. Today, these guides are gone from society, delegitimized even, and young people chafe at any parental pressures on how to live their lives, such as the proverbial mother asking her twentysomething daughter about when there might be a wedding happening.
We see that Key has passed beyond this threshold in that she is fully cognizant that it’s not just the past 20 years that she’s been single, but that there’s a future single life extending out ahead of her as well:
I know there’s a chance someone will read my story and think, twenty-two years alone, that’s nothing! Wait until it’s thirty, wait until it’s forty! Their head shaking at my naivety, the self-importance in my sadness.
I suspect that the prospect of many future decades alone is not something that Key fully grasped when she was 30. As with children, many younger adults who confidently profess that they would happy being single do not understand how their future self will think about that.
If I were to guess, I would think that the main audience for Arrangements in Blue will be other single women of a certain age. That’s been the people I’ve seen review it so far.
But I would like to suggest that this book would be a worthy read for those are married, and married during the normal window at which people do so today. I’d like to especially commend the book to pastors who married young. Key is an atheist. (She was also molested in church as a child). But this book offers insights into the reality of single life that might be beneficial in helping them pastor the growing numbers of singles in their pews. Because they simply cannot relate to what it truly means to live a life alone. Key gives us a window into what that life is really like.
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Powerful piece. I'll shamelessly suggest that all -- not some, but all -- of the following are probably necessary if she wants to have a shot at marriage:
1. Lose weight.
2. Consider whether her standards for men are unrealistically high
3. Ask some good husbands she knows whether there are aspects of her personality that she should work on
4. Engage with some sort of "trad" community (e.g. church) where the men are more likely to be marriage-minded than cads
5. Don't put out until (at the absolute least) having a serious talk about marriage, or (preferably) having a ring and a wedding date, or (best of all) the wedding night
Aaron, enjoyed these thoughts.
My impression is that, other than losing weight and otherwise improving their self-adornment, women aren't taught anything true and useful about *how* to land a husband. I wonder, what's the best source of good advice that would make a difference? I have a daughter now and am concerned largely for her sake.
Men are given plenty of useless advice about what attracts women, which Aaron has perceptively pointed out. But luckily the basic script that men are given for life is still a reasonable start: be athletic, get educated, get a good career. Plus men tend to naturally gain confidence as we age. And of course, men are inclined to seek out women, even if sex is sometimes the primary motivator, and men aren't receiving a potent, high-status message not to seek out women. And even if we were, men have a stronger inner compass in general and are less easily persuaded to follow society's script when it contradicts that compass.