Love is hard, especially these days. No one knows what the relationship rules are anymore! Small disappointments get magnified, injuries fester, disenchantment is inevitable. Things break, and you find yourself resorting to deadly euphemisms like “We grew apart,” because you can’t understand how it all went so wrong.
I’m speaking of the demise of my longstanding crush-from-afar on author and columnist Sandra Tsing Loh, whose irreverence and insouciance had always inspired my tender adoration, and who recently upset me deeply by publishing a moralizing paean to domestic coupledom titled “Does Living Alone Drive You Mad?” in New York magazine. As everyone who’s followed her romantic upheavals already knew (it’s been a frequent topic of her columns), a few years ago Sandra ditched her husband of 20 years for a new love, with whom she’s now set up housekeeping. This is great, and I applaud anyone who refuses to settle for the torpor of an unhappy marriage.
But what peeved me was the gratuitous takedown of live-alones, in a manner that seemed rather self-validating. Her single friends now in their 40s and 50s were “contracting a bit,” wrote Tsing Loh. (Being single and living alone were conflated throughout.) “Once they seemed spontaneous, but they have now become scattered; once independent, now almost unmoored.” Indeed, living alone is health-endangering: You have less room in your life for other people, and it’s bad for your immune system. Her conflation of coupledom and health especially annoyed me: We all know that “health” is, in our culture, synonymous with moral rectitude. A therapist friend she quotes says her single patients are going progressively batty—worrying excessively about Ebola and ISIS, overly attached to their pets.
It all seemed so oddly … defensive.
And now, along comes Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, in which we learn that being single is preferable, and solitude a balm for the soul (at least Bolick’s), something she’d previously explained in a popular cover story in the Atlantic, and reiterates now at book length. Part memoir, part capsule histories of five women writers who’ve inspired her (her “awakeners”), the book recounts her personal journey to arrive at this conclusion. It may be the opposite conclusion from Tsing Loh’s, though Bolick seems equally in quest of validation. But what is this need for authors—by which I mean female authors—to defend the domestic arrangements they happen to have chosen? Why don’t men feel the same need to elaborately justify their romantic lifestyles?
Let me put my personal cards on the table before venturing further. In my life, I’ve been single, I’ve been coupled, I’ve co-habited (for a 12-year stretch), and I’ve been—and currently am—what I learned from Bolick’s book is known as a LAT, or “Living Apart Together.” All these situations have—to state the obvious—their advantages and disadvantages. I don’t have much of a dog in this race, in other words.
I should, however, add that I’ve always been fairly indifferent to the lures of legal marriage. It’s not my fantasy of personal culmination and I don’t care to invite the state any further into my private life than necessary, especially when the conditions under which you can end a marriage, should you choose, vary according to the whims of state legislators and the caprices of individual judges, further compounded by the venal ineptitude of divorce lawyers—as anyone who’s been in a contested divorce or settlement will probably attest.
Maybe I’m a female outlier. But the premise Bolick seeks to overturn—that in this society “you are born, you grow up, you become a wife”—seems already long overturned to me. From the book’s very first sentence, I was feeling qualms about the acuity of Bolick’s social generalizations and insights about gender progress.
Whom to marry and when it will happen—these two questions define every woman’s existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn’t practice. She may grow up to love women instead of men, or to decide she simply doesn’t believe in marriage. No matter. These dual contingencies govern her until they’re answered, even if the answers are nobody and never.
All this seems far too sweeping. Is marriage really the basis of female ontology in 2015? The thing that defines every last one of us? Can it be true that men are “still expected to be breadwinners and providers”—or true as late as the year 2000, as Bolick asserts further down? True that “we” continue to organize our lives around marriage, and “we” will keep on doing it for as long as we fall in love, and “we like to pretend that only single people are lonely, and coupledom the cure”?
Were any of this actually so, then Bolick’s decision to reject marriage for the single life might be the courageous act she suggests it is. But having made more or less the same decision, I can say that frankly it never seemed all that daring to me. I’d feel a little self-dramatizing going on about my tough choices. And with one-half of women over 18 currently unmarried (Bolick says one-third, but it’s more), we both have lots of company these days. No doubt not all single women are so ecstatic about being axed from the marriage rosters—the demographic shifts of the last few decades have sowed a lot of confusion, and probably more than a little dismay. For some, there are too many choices, and for others distressingly few.
Into this breach steps Bolick, offering her own story as inspiration to other spinsters, but it’s sometimes confusing how she thinks it could help. When she laments that being single means having no one to help make difficult decisions or comfort you at the end of a bad day, it’s as though for her being married is a synonym for being loved, as though marriage is the only emotionally stabilizing kind of relationship. But rejecting marriage is one thing, being uncoupled is another, and living alone an entirely separate thing: You can be coupled, unmarried, live alone, and still find comfort at the end of the day.
As Bolick obviously knows: She’s had boyfriends and relationships of varying durations, though whenever one goes on too long she gets antsy and wants solitude (yet too much solitude can be a problem too). Usually there’s a big explosion six months in and things end. Still, she’s plagued by the conviction that she should be leading a more conventional life (there’d once been a “marry by 30” self-imposed deadline), though there are also intimations that she loses herself too completely in a man, and worries her needs will overwhelm the other person. Nevertheless, she’s had lots of dating success and has interesting things to say about it as a form of self-discovery.
Which brings us to the matter of the book jacket. I assume it was the marketing department’s idea—though not such a great one—to feature Bolick herself on the cover, pertly posed on a vintage settee holding a tea cup, garbed in a short dress and heels. Slim and exceptionally pretty, with lustrous red-hair cascading down her shoulders, shapely legs crossed—clearly she’s a spinster by choice! She could be married in a heartbeat! Message received.
It’s a message that doesn’t exactly allay the anxieties the book claims to be militating against—namely that we spinsters aren’t choosing our fates, we’re just losers in the marriage market. Au contraire, since single life for Bolick is a dizzying whirl of dates and parties, a steady supply of lively boyfriends, and even the occasional proposal.
If you’re attractive, in your 30s, and connected to the Manhattan publishing world, you can probably attend multiple parties a week if you’re on the right lists, meet multiple available (if evasive) men, and barely spend a night alone. But let’s be honest. The reality is that for every decade older or 10 pounds heavier or number of hours outside of New York, the social prospects get dimmer. A few years ago a single writer in her 60s confessed to me, unhappily, that she hadn’t had sex in six years.
This isn’t Bolick’s problem. Hers is the embarrassment-of-riches dilemma, which can get a little trying to read about. Indeed, the quantity of dates became so oppressive she finally had to take an enforced sabbatical to get any writing done. Perhaps this isn’t the general situation.
Still, as someone who believes that traditionalism is the enemy of women, I applaud anyone’s efforts to break free of whatever traditions she feels chained to. But for writers, clichés are a form of tradition too: an unthinking repetition of conventions and received ideas. It’s no great help that Bolick leans so often on the linguistic ones while purporting to jettison the social ones. “My heart beat faster”; “My heart hummed”; “A chill went through me”; “My heart slammed shut”; “My knees actually, literally, went weak”; “My heart caught in my throat”; “I almost trembled to open it” (this about a bottle of perfume).
The clichés started to seem symptomatic of some impediment, a blockage to thinking and acting in independent ways. Here’s someone who wants to be unshackled from convention, but is tied to such used-up ideas. We all struggle this way obviously, but writers have a special burden: to produce fresh thoughts and fresh language.
The deeper question about women’s relationship to conventionality might be why it’s apparently a bigger factor for us than for men. For Bolick, the answer is fear—her personal fear about becoming a bag lady or a cat lady, both living proof of what it means not to be loved. I understand the anxiety. My own general conclusion is that happiness in love is mostly a matter of luck and timing, though that’s a different issue than whether to get married. A few pages from the end, Bolick reveals that she too has come to think the married versus single question is a false binary. But it’s a false binary the book has spent nearly 300 pages rehearsing.
Things end on a victorious note: Bolick has acquired a new boyfriend who’s seven years younger, lives 40 minutes away, and is everything she’d always dreamed of in a lover (earning many accolades about his height and character). Though the story could easily have gone otherwise, no?
There are plenty of people, single and married, on whom the love gods haven’t smiled. Hooray for those who find a beloved—or even rarer, compatibility. But making a virtue out of romantic success—and what else is a prince who arrives in the last act but the insignia of virtue rewarded?—stigmatizes everyone for whom the right lover or spouse has thus far failed to materialize. It also makes the book seem disingenuous: all this celebration of the spinster, only to be rescued in the end? I’m not saying Bolick shouldn’t have a great boyfriend. It’s the book that didn’t need him.
I do agree with Bolick that being single requires a lot of improvisation. Coupledom, married or not, is a structure, and a mailing address for your emotions and needs—at least when things are going well. And I completely agree that coupledom encourages static ways of being, “with each partner exaggerating or repressing certain qualities in relation to the other’s.” Where I disagree is that making one’s own life choices requires so much self-justification, or that anyone needs to have—as Bolick previously felt—“a very good explanation” for not marrying. It’s an explanation the book seems unnecessarily intent on providing, despite being billed as a progress report.
It’s depressing that women seem to keep forgetting that basically we can do whatever we want. And thus the master’s house keeps getting dismantled, then reconstructed, then dismantled all over again, one dreary brick at a time.
Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick. Crown.