By Maggie Shipstead
What’s caring? And what’s just offensive? The author of the smart and savvy novel Seating Arrangements weighs in.
1) “Don’t worry. He’s out there.”
Here’s the thing about being a single woman. Pretty much nobody will ever believe that you’re okay with being female and unattached, let alone believe that you might be happy about it. I have lots of conversations in which I’m asked if I’m dating anyone, and I say, “No, not for a while.” Then I add that it’s cool, because I’ve been working a lot and I like not being beholden to anyone else’s schedule. I also like having experiences, especially when I travel, that aren’t filtered through anyone else’s moods or needs. In response, I am assured that I shouldn’t worry because he’s out there.
Well, of course he is. There are more than six billion people on this planet. Even adjusting for age, and the ability to speak English and whatever other criteria strike your fancy, there are probably, I don’t know, a hundred thousand men I could spend my life with in reasonable contentment. It’s not that I don’t want the comfort and solidarity (not to mention joy) of having a partner. But, if it’s not in the cards for a theoretical He to emerge from Out There at a realistically workable moment for both of us, do I want to set myself up to think that my life -- my one, precious chance at existence -- is somehow incomplete? A failure? Unless I’m talking to some bona fide clairvoyants, when people jump to tell me not to worry about being alone forever, what they’re really saying is that they expect me to be worried. And that makes me feel kind of bad. And kind of worried.
2) “Have you ever thought about dating online?”
I promise, all single women in America have thought about dating online. Most of us (along with single men) have friends who met their boyfriends or girlfriends or spouses online and so we know the whole enterprise can work out really well. But you have to be ready for the dating equivalent of a rummage sale. You have to be feeling brave and game and energetic enough that a series of disappointing encounters won’t sap you of your optimism.
I tried online dating for about two weeks when I was 23 and living in Iowa and had just gone through a bad breakup. I met a divorced geologist who had a 6-year-old son named Thor or Odin or something, and for our second date, I agreed to go on a night hike. I repeat: a night hike. I might as well have said that my hobbies included being murdered. We drove for half an hour out of Iowa City, and then marched off into the wilderness along with a flashlight, my dog and a few cans of PBR. Pretty soon a man wearing a headlamp and carrying a rifle came walking out of the night. “What’re you out for?” the geologist asked. “Coon,” replied the man before disappearing again.
I wasn’t murdered, and I didn’t fall for the geologist. When he dropped me off after our hike, I was worried he would try to kiss me, and so I hugged him goodbye with an empty can of PBR in one hand and a full bag of dog poop in the other. Not long afterward, I decided I was too raw from my breakup to be online, and right as I went to deactivate my account, I got a message from a cop in Cedar Rapids. He was, to be blunt, crazy hot, but he mixed up “your” and “you’re.” I debated for a few minutes while studying a hunky photo of him wakeboarding, and then wrote back, telling him I’d decided it wasn’t a good time for me to be dating.
I still regret that one. Apostrophes are overrated.
3) “Just play the field! It’s so exciting!”
The problem with playing the field is that, in practice, it usually means spending time with people you don’t like very much and probably having some not-great sex with them. Then, if you meet someone you like and with whom you have good sex and he likes you too, you usually lose interest in the rest. There’s this idea floating around that playing the field means twirling like Marilyn Monroe from the arms of one handsome tuxedoed man to the next, winking and vamping. But, in practice, you end up in bars very late at night, your standards dropping by the minute, looking around and wondering if you should just bite the bullet and go home with that creepy guy who’s licking the rim of his martini glass at you because, after all, you’re supposed to be playing the field and it’s supposed to be exciting.
4) “If I were in a different place in my life, I would want to be with you.”
This has been said to me by two different guys. On both occasions, I was hurt but also kind of awestruck by the mighty ego that could generate such an obnoxious sentence. The first time, a boyfriend was breaking up with me, and I think he was trying to soften the blow and also suggest a narrative in which we would go our separate ways, sample life’s many delights and then eventually reunite. The second time, someone I wasn’t actually romantically interested in offered me that lovely sentence as, I think, a compliment. All it really means is, “You’re not right for me, but I’m such a catch I don’t want to devastate you all at once, and I would also like it if you continued to lavish me with attention, please.”
I’m not underestimating the importance of timing, however. People do separate and come back together, and that seems natural and actually pretty romantic. But nobody wants to feel like they’re being put in storage while their future partner sows his wild oats. Men of Earth: If you think you need more time, you’re just going to have to zip your lip, cross your fingers and let her go.
5) “Is this your boyfriend?”
When you’re single and you show up somewhere with a dude, even a dude who is, say, your uncle and, you’d like to think, obviously not your boyfriend, some people demand an immediate verbal explanation of your relationship. The boyfriend question is especially awkward when the dude in question is someone you wouldn’t mind having as a boyfriend or at least as a make-out partner, and you don’t want to ruin things by saying either, “Fingers crossed!” or, out of nervousness, “Him? No. Just friends.” We are not walking, talking Facebook profiles. We are, sometimes, just a couple of people hanging out, seeing what happens.
6) “Maybe you should freeze your eggs.”
Maybe. And maybe you should get a nose job. Or maybe you should have some other invasive, expensive, elective medical procedure that I will suggest in a cavalier manner.
Fertility is a big deal. It is the source of anxiety, frustration and heartbreak for lots of women. And, day to day, there’s not all that much a girl can do about it except hope that if she wants kids, when she wants kids, she’ll be able to have them. So, doing your best clock impression is not helpful. This isn’t an episode of 24. This is my uterus.
7) “Maybe you’re trying too hard/not trying hard enough.”
As long as you’re out there living your life in a way that, when you look back in 20 years, it won’t seem like wasted time (for example: “that time I dated a sociopath for four years because I was afraid no one else would not-love me the same way”) or pointless wallowing (for example: Cheetos, Real Housewives), I think you’re doing great. People will say things about your singleness that will rub you the wrong way, even when they mean well, and people will also say the right thing at the right time. I’m not saying we single ones aren’t allowed to feel sad about being alone sometimes or to long for a partner. I’m just saying it’s a huge bummer that our culture operates on the assumption that singleness equals unhappiness, especially for women. Being simultaneously single and female is not a situation that automatically calls for consolation, strategizing, faux-commiseration, tiptoeing, reassurance, cheerleading, tarot-card reading, life-coaching or detective work. I think it’s worth trying to make the best of the single times because -- believe me -- when you realize you’re alone and content, it’s a moment of real liberation.
But, also, don’t worry. He’s totally out there.
Maggie Shipstead is the author of Seating Arrangementsnow out in paperback.