August 12, 2015
On Being Single
“I can’t find a relationship,” the dejected man in my office says. In fact, he has solid relationships with many long-standing and valued friends and family members, but they don’t count. Only romantic relationships are “relationships.” It's all too easy to devalue our platonic relationships when we don't have a romantic one (that is, if we want one), especially if we believe, as many seem to do, that romantic love is the only road to emotional health and happiness.
There is a popular faith in the saving power of romantic love that is almost mystical. Many who doubt that perfect happiness can be found in Divine love demonstrate little skepticism when it comes to the belief that sexual love is the one true path to total fulfillment. Popular songs and films about romantic love celebrate it with a fervor and in a language once reserved for religious devotion. (You’re my all and everything, our love is perfect and eternal, etc.) So many of us believe that somewhere out there is my soul mate – the one human being on the planet who was specially created to meet all my needs. He or she will be great sex, of course, but will also understand me completely, love me unconditionally, forgive all my shortcomings and always know exactly what I feel and need without my ever having to say anything. The faith in romantic love as salvation is a kind of religion.
One of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies on happiness followed 268 Harvard undergraduates for 75 years to see what brought them joy. After nearly a lifetime of tracking, researchers did conclude that fulfillment was overwhelmingly found in one thing: relationships -- but not necessarily romantic relationships. "Joy is connection," George Vaillant, the Harvard psychiatrist who directed the study from 1972 to 2004, said. “The more areas in your life you can make connection, the better." This is good news, but it isn't exactly common knowledge, and single men and women often feel that there must be something wrong with them if they don’t have a partner. In fact, sometimes the reverse is true. I’ve known many people who persist in relationships that are living hells of abuse and destructiveness because they have no capacity for emotional independence and are terrified of being alone. Maybe people in such relationships could stand to learn a thing or two about emotional health from their single friends.
Many of the world’s most productive and creative people were single. Here’s a random sample: Henry David Thoreau (who said “I never found the companion who was so companionable as solitude”), Susan B. Anthony (who said “Independence is happiness.”), Vivaldi, Louisa May Alcott, Beethoven, Harper Lee, Sir Isaac Newton, Florence Nightingale, Voltaire, and on and on. Not everyone finds their fulfillment in romantic partnerships.
I think three attitudes are important for anyone who wants to be both single and sane. First, it’s important to let go of any notion that life doesn’t begin, or is incomplete, until the partner shows up. Second, we need to let go of the passivity that characterizes so many devotees of romanticism, and to think of love in terms of loving rather than being loved. Third, we need to value all forms of love, not just romantic love. Here’s a modern translation of a poem by Hafiz which expresses a beautiful ideal: Admit something/Everyone you see, you say to them, “Love me.”/Of course you do not do this out loud, otherwise someone would call the cops./Still, though, think about this, this great pull in us to connect./Why not become the one who lives with a full moon in each eye that is always saying,/With that sweet moon language, what every other eye in this world is dying to hear?
I wonder how our lives would change if, instead of being so preoccupied with finding a partner, we devoted the same passion to the question “How can I open my heart and extend my love to others ever more effectively?” Is that just a utopian dream on my part? Maybe. But I have noticed that those who take this ideal seriously do seem to be the ones most likely to find what measure of Utopia is to be found in this life.
© Tom Moon, 2015