The psychologist and author Lori Gottlieb (whose 2019 book Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is one of my favorite books of the year and will certainly make an appearance or ten on this blog in the future) recently articulated a truth about prolonged singledom in a way that crystallized it for me.
A reader had written into her “Ask a Therapist” column in The Atlantic expressing their frustration with how their coupled friends act around them: complaining about their partners, making jokes about how lucky they are to be single, getting too much of a kick from their awful dating stories, etc. These are complaints many of us can relate to. While there’s much to be said about this, and perhaps I’ll write about it some other time, what I want to focus on today is Gottlieb’s response.
She replied by highlighting the loss involved in prolonged singledom. Specifically, it’s a kind of grief known as “ambiguous loss.” This isn’t the grief of mourning a loved one, but the kinds of grief that tend to be secret or unacknowledged: the grief of losing a spouse to mental illness or dementia, the grief of not being able to get pregnant, the grief of miscarriage, and, yes, the grief of prolonged singledom.
This framing resonated strongly with me because coming to terms with ambiguous loss in other areas of my life was a big part of the healing work I had to do to get my shit together a few years ago. While I had used words like loss and grief to describe those experiences, I realized that I had only been using them metaphorically and so hadn’t engaged with the real work that they involve. Accepting those losses — the collapse of my faith several years prior and a relationship I hadn’t allowed myself to grieve because it hadn’t been a “real” relationship — as real loss that needed time and energy and healing work was so needful for me. And so is dealing with my singleness in this way.
My life is good — very good. And if my life always looks like it does today, I’ll consider myself lucky, because my life is meaningful, intentional, constructive, and creative. But my life also feels profoundly wrong. Not “I wish I could afford a second bedroom” wrong, but existentially wrong. Every time I come home to an empty apartment, every time I cook dinner for one, every time I fall asleep in an empty bed, every time I leave a party and instinctively go to collect my person only to remember that he doesn’t exist, it feels wrong. Deep down to the bone, heartbreakingly wrong. Recognizing the loss of those imagined ‘right’ todays isn’t wallowing in self-pity; it doesn’t mean I think my life is devoid of meaning. It doesn’t mean I am ungrateful for the good things in life. It just acknowledges reality.
The older I get, it’s not just wrong todays I have to mourn but also lost tomorrows: not only big the big milestones that won’t happen, but sometimes the hardest losses are the smallest things, like how every one more good day I’m single is one less good day I’ll be able to spend with my husband (if he appears at all).
So okay, there’s ambiguous loss associated with unwanted prolonged singledom. What do we do about it? First, just talking about it is helpful. As I said in the first post on this blog, one of the hardest things about being single is how hard it is to talk about. Finding an outlet is super helpful. Second, acknowledge the ambiguous loss as legitimate loss and allow yourself to grieve what needs to be grieved. Sometimes this may just involve being good to yourself — having a drink with friends or soaking in a bubble bath. Other times, it may need some actual grief work. This is what I did a few years ago when I realized I needed to grieve the things I’d lost; I got about a dozen books on loss out from the library and did all of the exercises that seemed remotely applicable. (I even wrote a goodbye letter to my old relationship with God, as weird as that sounds.) There’s nothing magic about such exercises, but they help the process of metabolizing our experiences, of cherishing the good and letting go of what needs to be let go.
Lastly, remember that these things aren’t linear. Even if most days are great, there will likely be a bad day scattered in there too. This doesn’t mean you aren’t doing well; it doesn’t mean you’re backsliding. It’s just the way grief works.