Dear Bitter Butch,
I am a 42 year old single woman. I have been struggling my whole adult life between solitude and the intimacy of a romantic relationship. I cherish closeness with people above all else, and derive much pleasure from my friendships and family. Sometimes I don’t feel human without the added intimacy that a sexual or romantic relationship brings to me as a person, and I know I have learned and grown in vitally important ways through my romantic affiliations.
However, even if I am with someone who I really like, and in what I feel is a good relationship, I slowly but surely become unhappy. And then sabotage the relationship to retrieve my independence.
At this point, shorter, “for fun” relationships aren’t interesting to me. I am only interested in being alone, or being in a deep, meaningful, and longer-term relationship.
Am I just an irredeemable spinster at heart, and need to accept it, or are there ways I could strictly maintain my independence while still being dependent on another person?
Even though I am aware I need this independence, when I start dating someone I even mildly like, I tend to lose all reason and just kind of dive in and become very emotionally absorbed.
Dear Sinning Spinster:
I so want to answer your questions.
And I will. I will try. I imagine that I’ll say something like: recognizing patterns you cannot seem to change even while watching yourself enact them seems like something that you should work on with a qualified therapist, and: don’t think of it as independence vs. dependence but instead interdependence.
But a few phrases you wrote keep leaping out at me that I need to address, first. And before I address them, I want to point out the state of the modern, American world as it is now — when you wrote these worrying phrases.
In our modern, American world those who dare to remain uncoupled in their middle age receive constant and intrusive queries as to the state of their dating life because people who have thoughtlessly coupled-up themselves literally have no idea what else to ask them.
In our modern, American world it is in insult to call someone a 40-year-old virgin, it is a shocking thing to go out to eat alone; it is unheard-of to go on vacation just because you wanna, all by yourself.
In our modern, American world everything is sold in pairs: a trip for two. Cell phone plans. Recipes. Tickets. You name it.
In our modern, American world inheritance, legal and financial choices, health care, credit, child custody, and even life-and-death decisions are hugely controlled by marriage.
The combination of stigma against single people and the assumption of coupledom, with the very real legal and financial ramifications of marriage, create a pressure to mate ‘for life’ so strong that it presses down on our eyeballs and warps our vision. It distorts our ability to see each other and our relationships for what they really are — or could be.
In this modern, American world, you wrote the following phrases:
“Sometimes I don’t feel human without the added intimacy of a romantic relationship,” and “I am only interested in being alone, or being in a deep, meaningful, and longer-term relationship.”
I realize this is just a letter and no one words things perfectly, but these phrases, together, point to a huge problem that your letter doesn’t even ask about: the fact that you, like pretty much every damn person in our culture, are completely unrealistic in your expectations for romance and in your ideas about what it means.
Now, popular opinion states that despite all of the pressures to couple I outline above and many, many more you should ALSO somehow be perfectly happy without a partner and nearly indifferent to whether or not you have one; you should be self-actualized, enormously delighted to stay at home polishing your elbows and reading above all else, and brimful of joy and self confidence — before you can even contemplate a romance. Romance should enhance your already perfect life! Columnists, women’s magazines, and self-help books crow. Take it or leave it! You should be JUST FINE without one!
I do not agree with this; it seems perfectly acceptable to crave companionship when you don’t have it. It seems perfectly fine to just be plain lonely and cranky if you have to stay home alone on a Saturday night (or if you force yourself to go out with friends when you’d rather be at home having sex with someone awesome).
But you said that you don’t feel human without this.
Think about what you are laying on this other person and on this relationship if you truly believe what you wrote: this person is responsible for making you feel like a human being.
That is a tall, tall order. And if you know you will not feel human if and when the relationship ends, of course you suddenly become incredibly emotionally absorbed. And of course you become anxious about it ending, and perhaps hasten its end with the anxiety. Your humanity is at stake!
There is no reason why you should not think your humanity is at stake; every single place you turn, someone is telling you that you really are only part of a person without your ‘better half.’
But I am asking you to resist this idea.
Another idea that I’d like you to resist: that you are only interested in “being in a deep, meaningful, and longer-term relationship.”
How is this to happen, if you are completely closed off from anything shorter or ‘for fun?’ What are deep, meaningful, and longer-term relationships if not ‘fun’ that just kept being fun, so you decided to keep the fun going? How are you to enjoy short-term, fun relationships (and some of them actually can be very meaningful) if you try to force them to be something they aren’t? All of this is an awful catch-22 for pretty much any relationship of any sort: long-term, short-term, fun, deep, shallow, quirky, surprising.
Do you have such strict prerequisites and expectations for platonic friendships? Or do you let your friendships slowly grow and blossom, fade and spring up again, become deeper through mutual admiration and time spent, or remain as warm acquaintanceships without going deeper? I’m going to guess, since you say you get enormous pleasure from your friendships, that you do allow platonic friendships a little more breathing room, a little less definition, a little more time and maybe a bit less attention.
You are not alone in your expectations, of course. Dating sites are full of people ONLY looking for committed relationships (or ONLY for sex; those are equally prescribed and probably equally doomed). So many people I know are so sure they know what the shape of their romantic relationships will be that they are unable to entertain the idea of any other shape they might come in.
If you feel inhuman as a single middle-aged woman, and you think that there is only one shape of relationship that will fit you, it’s because the entire damn world has told you that the only life worth living is that of a married person. Asking you to shrug off centuries of conditioning might be cruel of me.
But that’s what I’m asking you to do.
Well, maybe not shrug. Mightily fight and push and tear and yank at that horrible mantle of self-hating shit until you get it the fuck off of you. (Yes, probably with the help of a qualified therapist. Preferably one who is not hung up on finding The One.)
And then, after you’ve told those centuries of conditioning to go fuck themselves, you can take a look at whomever you’d like to get closer to as an already fully human person, who is curious about what it might be like to get to know this other already fully human other person, and maybe to have sex with them and see how great that could be, and if it’s fun, or also deep and meaningful, and if you want that person to stick around for a while.
And then maybe take it from there.
BITTER BUTCH aka Haddayr Copley-Woods is a queer, a cripple, a nerd, a mom to two kids with neurological differences, and has a truckload of opinions on everything including sex and relationships, parenting, disability issues, family relationships, work dynamics, gender/sexuality issues, and etiquette. You can reach her with all your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org