a top hat valentine: satisfied, single

from the top hat, in honor of you-know-what-day-it-is:

How can someone who likes sex and affection [like you, Emily] be so content being single?

Well, to start with, being single neither necessitates nor implies being without sex or affection. But let’s assume the question means something like, “Don’t you get lonely? Don’t you get horny? Don’t you wish you were in a relationship?”

From my point of view, the question is asking how I get the things a relationship offers, without a relationship. So let’s think in an organized way about what we give and receive in relationships.

I tend to boil it down to three things: respect, gratitude, and autonomy.

Respect includes a bunch of things, but essentially it’s unconditional positive regard, acceptance of everything inside you, 100%. Its opposite is contempt, feeling that your partner is inherently inferior to you. Respect is seeing your partner for precisely who they are and feeling that it’s all okay. You don’t need to fix them, they don’t need to change, you just need to find ways to collaborate. That’s respect.

Gratitude is appreciation, awareness of the positive things your partner brings to you. I have recommended emphasizing appreciation as a nice things to give your partner. Affection and sex fall into this group, I think. Gottman’s 5-to-1 ratio falls here.

Autonomy is a complicated one. We need, in our relationships, to be granted the freedom to act without reference to the relationship. It’s Gottman’s de-escalation skillset and Schnarch’s differentiation – validating yourself, regulating your own anxiety, not getting overreactive, and tolerating pain for growth. It’s what I call “staying over your own emotional center of gravity.” It’s being a grown-up. This really is terribly difficult and complicated and I’ll talk about it some other time.

Now, all of that is quite apart from all that is attachment, which I write about fairly often, including a primer on attachment styles and another on the “stages” of attachment. Attachment is a motivation system that bonds us to significant others, from adult caregivers to romantic partners. It affects things like breaking up, jealousy, and polyamory.

Attachment is the motivation system that pulls us into relationships, so that we can exchange social resources and get our needs meet, in the way that babies attach to adult caregivers in order to get food, warmth, affection, and protection. It’s what we tend to think of as “being in love,” and it might very well be what the questioner was thinking of when they asked how I could be content without it.

I believe relationships are intrinsically desirable. About 15 years ago I was in a play with a single woman in her 40s, who said to me one day, “I know women are supposed to be satisfied and happy without a man, but dammit I’m lonely!” And I, at the tender age of 19, said, “I think it’s normal for people want love and to feel its absence. I don’t think people should have to feel guilty for wanting love.”

Which I still believe. So essentially, the answer is that sometimes I do feel lonely and sometimes I do get horny, but even from the very beginning of my adult life I released guilt and shame about those feelings and just allow them to be true. And at the same time I’ve found ways to get my social needs met elsewhere. The real resources of relationships – respect, autonomy, and gratitude – can be practiced and exchanged in virtually any relationship. And attachment, though it’s intense and exciting and maybe even important in establishing a connection between two people, is not a drive; I can live a complete life without it.

In the meantime, I do believe that somewhere in the giant world of 6 billion or more people, there’s someone who’ll make a great life partner for me. (There are probably HUNDREDS of them. I bet some of them would be great for you, too.) And some time or other my path will cross theirs and I will recognize them, as I’ve recognized all the people who have become important in my life. And that will happen not when I put my life on hold and go looking, but rather when I live my life fully open to the possibility of it.

And so I wait. I live, I am open, and I am still. I am content being single because I choose it, because my life is rich with what’s important, because I gently acknowledge my desire for a relationship, and because I’d much rather be single than in a tepid or chaotic relationship. I wait contentedly because I know I can thrive while I wait.

Hell, is that any kind of answer? Does it help? Finding that kind of contentment is difficult and slow and more of a process than an achievement. Anyone can do it – you can do it – but it requires persistence and self-forgiveness, both of which require regular practice.