The Power of Being Single
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When my grandmother was dying, on her deathbed, I was talking to her and she put her hand onto mine and she said, “Michael I don’t want you to die alone.” It was part of an ongoing conversation we’d had about how important it was to have a partner. People talk about one of the reasons you do get involved with people is you want someone to take care of you because you don’t want to die alone. It scares you into being into a couple.
From my perspective, [my grandparents' relationship] was an excellent relationship. It was long. It was fruitful. They enjoyed each other’s company a great deal. And it was the way she mediated the whole world. She thought about her world as a shared experience with this other person, my grandfather Joe. There were all these moments throughout the 20th century that were narrated to me through her relationship, stories of WWII were really about my grandfather being on a boat in the South Pacific as a cook. A lot of people do this in their lives, think of people that are meaningful to them and attach the history that is swirling around them to that person. But nevertheless it starts to feel corseted, because there don’t appear to be that many instances in the world that allow you another way of organizing the world. How do people who are by themselves imagine themselves to belong to the world?
In the grand scheme of things, though, why is this an important issue?
If marriage and couples are supposed to be this magic bullet, and your relationship is the thing that is supposed to define and make the world for you, that’s putting an enormous amount of pressure on that relationship. This book is not against couples — it’s really against the primacy of the couple, the anxious over-importance of the couple that actually makes couples fail because you can’t by definition make a whole world out of one other person. If you try, you’re shrinking your world and your existence in the hope it’s going to cure everything. It creates a lot of distress and at the same time it’s invalidating your other experiences you had when you were by yourself, when you were dreaming up other kinds of associations you might have.
Can you imagine a presidential candidate being unmarried? The only people who can get into high political office while unmarried are basically Supreme Court justices and that creates an enormous amount of anxiety, gossip and innuendo.
Well, there were actually two single presidents, James Buchanan and Grover Cleveland, though he got married shortly after being elected. These days, though, I think you’re right — it’s almost impossible to imagine a single president. What do you think has changed?
Over time, love, marriage and romance just became less and less about property and the exchange of property and more of a personal choice. That had a lot to do with the industrial revolution and the rise of commodity culture and finance capital. And this is a hunch, but I think because it’s a personal choice and people are not moved to be married in the way they used to be, they have to be coerced. You have to convince people to be involved in this set of assumptions, traditions and rituals they think they most want to be involved in.
People get very angry when I say things like this. When I was in college most of my friends weren’t going to get married or take their partners’ names or have children; they weren’t going to take the typical route to mature adulthood that requires marriage and a baby. And all of them — all of them — have done that except for one, my friend Kate Bolick, who recently wrote “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” It showed off that you can be single and interesting and buy expensive clothing and go to great parties in New York for a little while but eventually you are going to grow up. Eventually, you’re going to wisen up, put a ring on it and go forward and be coupled and move to Connecticut. We aren’t going to pathologize you for playing around for a protracted amount of time, but eventually you’re going to have to settle. And the marker of success, the end of the romantic story, is riding off into the sunset with that person. But you don’t get to see the next 30 years of boredom, or anxiety, or terror or concern.