By Chelsey Drysdale
“From a simple supply and demand point of view, women do have something to worry about,” Stanford economist Paul Oyer said earlier this year during an interview with the Dear Sugar Radio podcast. Based on his research, scarcity in the straight world is real; there’s an imbalance when it comes to women seeking men vs. men seeking women.
Oyer’s data supporting the notion “all the good ones are taken” confirmed what I’d been thinking for years. I found it oddly reassuring, as if a doctor had finally diagnosed unique symptoms of which there appeared to be no real origin.
“…and it gets much worse as [women] age,” Oyer said. “The numbers change dramatically starting really at age 30, but once you hit 40, it’s just pretty dramatic.”
I nodded as I drove near my tiny studio apartment in Long Beach, where I worked and lived alone.
Finally, I thought. Proof of what I already know. I’ve often thought, I’ve aged out of the market.
Maybe this information serves to reinforce my fear of “getting back out there,” providing me with an excuse to hide in an impenetrable bubble. The pain of loss is excruciating; the pain of loss multiple times is unbearable. But loneliness is debilitating too, and I don’t want to be alone forever. It’s not in my nature.
I’m a 43-year-old single, childless woman who anticipated having her own family and never doubted it would happen, until it didn’t. I married the wrong man when I was 32 and left my husband after six months under the naïve assumption I had plenty of time to find someone else with whom to procreate. I haven’t been in a committed relationship since 2008 and can measure bouts of abstinence in years. Unfortunately, I did what Oyer says many women do: In my 20s and 30s, I didn’t anticipate how quickly time would pass and how many fewer options I’d have as I aged. I devoted long stretches to people who weren’t a match for me, as I mustered the strength to stand up for what I wanted. I don’t regret not staying with any of the men I’ve dated. I just didn’t meet the right person at the right time.
The simple cause of the man shortage, Oyer said, is men die before women. The dearth of testosterone trickles down from people in their 70s and 80s to those in their 30s, and as early as their 20s.
“Plan accordingly,” he said.
I’ve sometimes had calamitous luck and timing and have made more than a fistful of iffy choices. I have come to terms with not having children, a devastating mourning process I worked through—as much as I ever will—by about age 40.
Nonetheless, I still want a committed romantic relationship. Marriage, however, is optional. I don’t need a piece of paper to tell me how much I mean to someone. But I miss kissing; I miss hand-holding; I miss sharing my days with someone, feeling the warmth of a loving person next to me at night, and I miss consistent sex accompanied by tenderness. I do not, however, miss indifferent men.
In the same three-part series, podcast hosts Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond interviewed Kate Bolick, a woman my age who says she’s happy to stay single—as in “unmarried.” She and I have differing definitions of “single.” In her interview, she didn’t mention she was in a fulfilling relationship, something I didn’t learn until reading her recent book Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own. I know couples who have been joyful together for years and never plan to marry. I don’t consider that single.
She believes, and I agree, traditional marriage for women is not the epitome of adult happiness. She embraces the single life and reimagines what bliss means for a woman who leads a solo existence; it’s what she wants, she shared during the podcast. But it seems her reimagining of the word “spinster” and her wish for the “novel pleasures of being alone” comes with an asterisk: one can be single and still have a partner. For someone who touts the pleasures of being on her own, her book suggests she never took a break from dating. But, as Bolick writes, “What bothered me was the assumption that because I was a woman in her early thirties I must be desperate for marriage.”
I wasn’t overly eager for marriage then either, but because I ached for a baby on a biological level, I thought love had a timeline. It was what I was supposed to do in my early 30s. In the end, however, my powerful maternal instincts didn’t undermine my rational understanding of what it meant to have babies with the wrong person. The moment I knew my marriage was over was when it dawned on me our lackluster sex life would never improve, and I was too young to resign myself to it. I didn’t realize I’d end up eventually not having any sex, and yet, I wouldn’t change my decision to leave; I never should have gotten married in the first place. If you ever question if someone is right for you, he’s not.
Bolick’s Spinster spends ample time glorifying the unaccompanied life of a creative person with the quiet space around her to absorb literature and write without distraction. She suggests a successful writing career and marriage are mutually exclusive. I disagree. Being with the right person means one can still take time for herself; the right man encourages his partner to be her best creative person. In fact, the right partner enhances a writing career, rather than stifles it. I want to share my creative life with someone who is like-minded. The mark of a great relationship is when two people can be independent together.
As a person who has been through my fair share of heartache and failed pairings, independence is something I’ve cultivated as an art form. I no longer have the emotional energy for anything that doesn’t have lasting potential, so I’ve become an expert at dating myself. I often enjoy eating out, seeing films, attending concerts, and even traveling alone. I recently elevated my one-woman adventures to new heights as I set off on an extended road trip with only what I could fit in my eight-year-old Honda Civic. I Airbnbed my way north from Southern California to Seattle, wine tasting in Napa, seeing a Shakespeare play in Ashland, hiking in Portland, and making one-night-only friends in cocktail bars. I ferried to Victoria and motored to Vancouver all on my own. But even in my absolute freedom when I was having a blast, there was often a faint partner-shaped hole in the passenger seat next to me or sitting across from me at a restaurant. And at the end of the day, my bed was still empty. Friends and border agents called me “brave.” I didn’t feel brave; I felt driven toward change.
Before I left, I was claustrophobic and sad in my box-size apartment. The incapacitating isolation threatened to consume me. I often wondered, “What does it take for someone to have a nervous breakdown, and what does an actual breakdown look like?”
In Spinster, Bolick says, “We like to pretend that only single people are lonely, and coupledom the cure.” As someone who has experienced unimaginable, gut-wrenching loneliness as a perpetual single person in recent years, I would never trade places with someone who is emotionally quarantined inside her relationship. I’ve been there too; that kind of desolation feels more permanent and unfixable. Even in the bleakest interludes of unwanted solitude, there’s still the remote twinkle of possibility something could change.
For a handful of years after my last major breakup, I did what Bolick did: “…where once I’d gone for emotionally available men, I was now irresistibly drawn to the noncommittal, who had no interest in making me their girlfriend.” She said she “made do with half measures.” Boy, do I understand that. When one is hurt enough times—or does the wounding—it’s a defense mechanism to be available to the unavailable. It’s a classic self-preservation tactic that backfires on someone like me, who underneath her attempts at flippant liaisons is a connection seeker at heart, a one-man woman who is loyal when she’s invested. The whimsical days of two-night stands are over for me. It’s remarkable I used to think I had to at least try to act on every twinge of physical attraction that brushed my arm, lest I squander an opportunity, however short or meaningless, as if it would never happen to me again, when it always did. Now I see it’s a choice. I can be drawn to someone who isn’t a viable option, acknowledge it as such, and walk away unharmed. It’s an instant self-esteem booster.
So, my five real relationships didn’t pan out; random hookups weren’t for me; and years of abstinence and too much time to fill didn’t cut it either. As Bolick writes, “when you’re single, you are often buried in time; your mouth and eyes and ears are stuffed with it.” Yes! While this may sound like heaven to someone who has a packed household to maintain, it’s not for me. So what’s the answer?
Many would say—and often have—“you just haven’t met the right guy yet,” with the emphasis on yet, as if it’s a foregone conclusion I will find love and be able to keep it.
Here’s the thing:
a) I have met the right guy, someone who could be “the one” if he was single, but how can I know we’d make it when the opportunity for exploration isn’t workable?
b) The universe owes me nothing. Not only is there not a timeline for love; there’s no guarantee love will ever happen again.
Some women merely have better fortune than others—and make better choices earlier on. I am friends with more than one woman who has met her perfect match—or least one of them, since there isn’t just one—but he’s already married. It’s common because life is messy; timing is haphazard and cruel, and there’s no such thing as fate. Likewise, I know plenty of couples who stay married and shouldn’t. They’ve settled, despite how fine they look in facebook photos. Their eyes reveal their starving souls. I’ve even known this to be true on certain wedding days. But unlike me, they are resigned. That’s their choice; it’s not mine.
All this tragedy doesn’t mean we have to give up hope. In fact, we can’t. Not even when an economist from Stanford implies single women in their 40s are screwed. If we give up on true love when that’s what we want, we are giving up on our basic human nature.
One of my favorite writers on the topic of singlehood is Sara Eckel. In an essay originally published on Dame, “The Problem with ‘Cool’ Single Women,” Eckel says, “I finally realized that my unsated desire for romantic love didn’t make me a joke—it made me a human being. At that point, I decided I probably didn’t need more maturity or self-esteem; I just needed a little luck.”
Eckel and I may be diehard romantics, but not everyone views the search for romantic love similarly. Take Lori Gottlieb, for instance, who wrote an essay for The Atlantic titled “Marry him! The case for settling for Mr. Good Enough.” In it she says, “Is it better to be alone, or to settle? My advice is this: Settle!” She says not to “worry about passion or intense connection.” She’s more concerned about having an “infrastructure in place to have a family.”
This dreadful advice breaks my heart. Settling results in marked discontent and opens up the likelihood for major complications if the one who settles later meets the person she should be with instead. If she doesn’t fall in love, she suffers because she’s giving up on real contentment. Settling means you don’t think you’re worth more. I’m of the mind that anyone who advises settling is the best option hasn’t been in love with someone with whom she’s comfortable to be herself, who loves her as is and lights up her world. You only get one life; hold out for something better, even if the wait is interminable.
As I read Gottlieb’s case for settling, I thought, Does she really believe marriage is more important than love? And why is marriage the defining factor for both her and Bolick, despite their opposing views? Whereas Bolick doesn’t ever plan to marry, yet continues to be in relationships and call herself a “spinster,” Gottlieb says marriage is the goal, and yet she says, “I know all this now, and yet—here’s the problem—much as I’d like to settle, I can’t seem to do it” because she didn’t do it young enough. Both of their arguments falter.
As for me, I’ve mastered the waiting game. Now that procreating isn’t part of the equation, I have time to be picky. Maybe I need to be more proactive and less fearful of online dating. Short of that, I don’t have a Magic 8 Ball to steer me toward the coordinates where I will find an available, suitable partner. Life didn’t play out as expected, so I embrace the unexpected. To retain hope for another go at true love, what choice do I have?
On bad days, I have the inclination to hunt Cupid and steal his arrows, but then I hear a success story on the Modern Love podcast or read a relationship essay with a positive outcome, and my threadbare heart swells in spite of itself, and I know deep down I’m still that idealistic teenager who knew her love was out there; it was only her mission to find him. Maybe I will find him; maybe I won’t, but I will never stop searching.
Chelsey Drysdale is an essayist and editor based in Southern California. Her essays have appeared in Book Lovers: Sexy Stories from Under the Covers, Bustle, Brevity, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Luna Luna Magazine, and Reservoir Journal. She is a contributor in The Best Advice in Six Words and CRUSH: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing and the Lasting Power of Their First Celebrity Crush. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and is seeking representation for her completed essay collection, Yes Girl. She retired from teaching high school English at 29. She can be found online at www.chelseydrysdale.com.