Braitman is 58 now [and never married], though she has the carriage of a much younger woman.
But she wanted a partner. She still does.
Braitman grew up in Queens, watching her father dote on her mother. She saw her brother become a wonderful husband. She does not think marriage is broken and does not think life — at least her life — is better lived alone. It just worked out that way.
She went to college, moved across country, built a career in media. She dated, took up hobbies and developed a loving circle of friends. For most of her life, she assumed the right one would eventually show up. Now, she thinks there has been a detour.
After Thanksgiving last year, Braitman read a review of Diane Keaton’s new autobiography, “Then Again.” It contained this quote: “I never found a home in the arms of a man.”
The sentence laid Braitman flat. That’s her truth, too. Of all the men she has known romantically — and there have been plenty — none ever felt like home. It’s that plain. Whatever point-counterpoint, yin-yang recognition of a kindred other happens to people, it has not happened to her. At least, not yet.
We talk a lot about singles, but we don’t talk about this: what it’s like to live without a partner while longing for one, over years, then decades.
Just 51 percent of the adult population is married, down from 72 percent in 1960. So we talk about swinging, “Sex and the City” singles and extended adolescences. We talk about the delay of marriage or the rise of cohabitation and single motherhood. Depending on our perspective, we cheer the broadening definitions of family or bemoan the breakdown of the nuclear unit.
But the cousin or neighbor or co-worker who always seems to be on his or her own? We don’t give them much thought.
It’s easier not to. Perhaps as much as religion, our society hinges on belief in romantic love. How many songs and novels revolve around the long search and eventual discovery of a beloved? The phrase “happily ever after” implies a singular outcome: two lives made ever better by virtue of their union.
Never mind that close to half of marriages end in divorce, that many of those who stay married do so unhappily, and that, rationally, we all know life can be a struggle regardless of relationship status. Ninety percent of us will marry — often repeatedly — on the belief that marriage can add something fundamentally good to our lives.
Certainly, there’s a huge biological imperative to pair up — procreation and protection of the young used to demand it. But reproductive technologies have expanded our baby-making options, and security systems do a good job of deflecting predators. And we still want the ineffable. We want love.
The hope is for a constant companion who will bear intimate witness to our lives. Who will heighten our joy and ease our suffering. Who will be our designated collaborator and caretaker, sparing us the effort of constantly fending for ourselves.
And we’re promised as much. There is a lid for every pot, they say. Someone for everyone.
Hollywood promotes this idea and so do our overbearing aunts and women’s magazines. And so do I. Each week for this newspaper I write the story of two people who met, fell in love and married. When I sit down with couples, they often say things like, “When you know, you know.”
And I believe them. But I also know it doesn’t happen for everyone.
…In 10 years, this social psychologist [Bella DePaulo] has become the country’s leading expert on singledom. She has written three books and attracted a loyal following for her blog on the Psychology Today Web site.
Her message is that society has it all wrong about singles — casting the whole lot as miserable lonely hearts, too selfish or damaged to marry. Moreover, the stereotype leads to exclusion from dinner parties and the expectation that they’ll work holidays because there’s no family waiting at home.
DePaulo, now 58, began noticing the ostracization as an assistant professor at the University of Virginia. When no one wanted a weeknight assignment, it went to her, and while her colleagues were all chummy during the week, on weekends they left her out of social activities.
“Do they just not like me?” she’d wonder. “Or is it because I’m single and they’re coupled, and couples date other couples essentially.”
DePaulo began to ask other single people about their experiences and quickly found herself wrapped in late-night conversations about the judgments and pressures they face.
She delved into academic literature, expecting to find studies proclaiming married folks to have more happiness, health, wealth and longevity.
And she did. But much of the research was flawed. Her book, “Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After,” breaks down the findings of a 2004 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that garnered an online headline “Married Adults Are Healthiest.”. In fact, DePaulo writes, the study found that people who were married or had always been single were equally healthy. It was those who were cohabitating, separated, divorced or widowed who were significantly less well.
In response to claims that married people live longer, she points to a study that started in 1921 and tracked 1,528 11-year-olds throughout their lives. Those who either stayed single or stayed married lived the longest. Divorcees and widows had shorter lives. “What mattered was consistency,” she writes. “Not marriage.”
DePaulo’s analysis of a much-lauded happiness study argues that married people get a bump in happiness around their wedding, then return to about the same level of happiness they had before marriage. But the book does not dwell on the fact that single people, who had a slightly lower happiness level from the start, saw their contentment decline over the years. (On scale of one to 10, their average life satisfaction began at 7 and slipped to 6.6 after seven years. The average score of married people hovered around 7.2.)
DePaulo, now a visiting professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, is a warm, enthusiastic presence who wears a wide smile and no trace of makeup. Throughout high school and college she felt as if she were waiting for a switch to turn on that would finally make her want to find a partner.
Then, she realized there was no switch. “No,” she remembers thinking. “This is who I am. I’m single. I love it.”
….But as an adult, she found that the projection [of boring/ miserable spinster] bore no resemblance to the reality of her life. It could be lonely, yes, but she was not crabby or closed off. She has been active and perpetually open to the prospect of a life partner. But she has not found one, and so, she writes, “I decided to make the most of it, with as much grace, spirit and levity as possible.”
…Things would almost certainly be tougher for a single person with fewer friends or financial resources. But even for Braitman, it can be a struggle. Family reunions are fraught. Baby showers can be intensely awkward. And at weddings, she feels acutely alone. “Sometimes,” she says, “the only thing left is to know that it’s okay to be uncomfortable.”
….With the exception of a college girlfriend, no relationship lasted more than a few months. Dates often felt like job interviews, but he [James Geoffrey age 48] continued to accept offers of set-ups, certain his turn would come.
But four years ago, he realized it might not. And, more importantly, he wasn’t sure he wanted it to. “I decided, ‘No, it’s not right for me,’ ” he says. “There are a lot of nice girls out there, but I’m not the right guy for them.”
It became clear to Geoffrey that he liked his life as it was. The only unpleasant part was when he was questing for what it wasn’t. He had friends and travels and long summers at the pool. And he had peace.
“Day to day is probably when I most know that I want to be single,” says Geoffrey, who works in public affairs. “You deal with so much crap at work. By the time I leave work, I don’t want to deal with people any more.”
He thinks that it is perhaps easier for him than it would be for a woman. “Confirmed bachelor,” after all, has a more positive connotation than “old maid.”
But there are moments of sadness. Sometimes, he’ll pass a father with children on the street and think, “I would’ve been a good dad.”
….We assume a single life would be incomplete, and quite possibly awful. A 2010 survey of 18- to 25 year-olds found that their biggest fear for the future wasn’t illness or poverty. It was “being alone.”
And when we meet someone who hasn’t married by 40 or 50, we want an explanation. So, we assign one: He’s a commitment-phobe. She’s too picky. They all have “issues.” Because if there was no reason, it could happen to any of us — and that’s not a prospect we’re eager to confront.
Braitman, the blogger, knows people assume it’s somehow her fault, and they’re quick to try to fix the problem. “Everyone’s weighed in on it,” she says. “ ‘You should wear your clothes tight. You should not have short hair. You should dress more like a girl.’ I think I’ve heard everything.”
None of it feels like the truth. Of course she is selective — who isn’t? And haven’t other women with short hair found husbands? “I have the skills that I could be a good partner,” she says.
If it’s a person’s lot in life to live with a chronic disease or raise a child with disabilities, we are sympathetic. But if they don’t have a partner, we assume a character flaw.
“There is so much sadness and guilt and shame,” she says. “There’s a lot of shame. I think if you could just take some of that away it would make the whole thing a lot easier.”
Braitman once posted a “Husband Benefits Pie Chart,” delineating the ways in which she imagines life would be improved by a spouse. Companionship was the biggest portion, followed by financial stability, children and physical intimacy. One of the smaller slices just said, “Fitting in.” Having a husband would mean not having to explain herself, feel like a tag-along or an outcast.
….When Braitman started the blog, one of her goals was to answer the central question of her life: Why? Why had she stayed single when so many around her married. “Is it luck?” she wondered. “Is it fate? Is it 20 different things I could’ve done differently?”
But as months went by, she says, “I couldn’t come up with an answer. That’s when I just thought, ‘The answer is to stop asking the question — because there is no answer.’”