How Being Single Saved Me
Confessions of a thirty-something Cosmogirl
Ed note: this essay was originally published in collaboration with legendary magazine editor Atoosa Rubenstein. I’m publishing it again here, ahead of Valentine’s Day, because even though I’m currently partnered, I remember all too well the sting of loneliness February 14 can bring. Working through the abandonment pain of my adolescence was something I put off for many years, but that very work is exactly what prepared me for the most loving, healthy relationship of my adult life. Finding “my person” was a lot harder than swiping on an app, as you’ll read below. And now that I’m in a healthy relationship, the real work of maintaining it begins. All said, dating is incredibly disheartening sometimes, and so is marriage. There is nothing wrong with you. Take heed, dear hearts. I’m thinking of you, single or coupled.
I locked myself out last night.
It has only happened once before, some time and one house ago. I had just returned from a near-perfect first date; the wine-soaked kind where the night slips away into wee hours because you never want it to end. I didn’t realize my keys were locked in the restaurant’s valet stand until after we had parted ways, and when he called to check that I was tucked in safely, I lied and told him yes. I wasn’t going to taint a perfect evening by showing my imperfections right off the bat. If I had to sleep in my goddamn garage, so be it. At least I’d have my dignity.
Growing up, I had to be very independent. My dad cheated on my mom with his secretary, and my parents went through an ugly, protracted divorce right as I began high school. Like millions of latchkey kids before me, I found myself splitting time between Mom’s house and Dad’s. They wouldn’t speak to each other, communicating only through my sister and me, which made every little thing — a new pair of jeans, money for a class trip — a deeply stressful negotiation I had to facilitate. “I paid for the last thing, ask your mother.”
Those weeks at my dad’s house were some of my first real times with him. He wasn’t around much when I was little, always busy with work. My mom did most of the heavy lifting. Even so, I never got the impression he was all that interested me until I started living with him half-time.
“You know, as a kid, I didn’t really know what to do with you,” he said to me once. “Toddlers aren’t that interesting to me. There’s no exchange there. But now that you’re older, I can talk to you! This is great. You’re a lot like me, you know. I can’t wait until you’re old enough to have a drink with me.”
For the first time in my life, I was having real conversations with my dad. This initially felt exciting, but his house turned out to be a very unstable place. It was then that I figured out he had been hiding an alcohol and drug addiction from my sister and me for many years. While he tried to maintain the facade at first, it quickly fell away under the presence of a teenager’s discerning eye.
With no warning, he would vacillate from being charming, loving, and attentive to full of rage. His moods varied widely from day to day. Sometimes, I felt like nobody in the world understood me as he did. Other times, he was hysterically sobbing, telling me every sordid detail of his marriage to my mom. Still others, he was screaming and flailing so manically, I would call a friend, begging her to pick me up, because I didn’t feel safe.
Everything about him was shrouded in secrecy. At his house, there was a private backroom — “the study” — with its own entrance that we were forbidden to enter. I went looking for a missing CD in there a few years later and found drugs all over his desk. No wonder. Another day, he forgot to pick me up from an extracurricular, and a caring chaperone named Shane had to drive me home. When we got to his house, Shane dropped me off and waited as I stood staring at the door. Confused, he asked why I was standing on the front porch knocking. It was then that he learned I wasn’t allowed a key to my dad’s house.
My dad did eventually open the door. He was in his bathrobe, looking very caught off-guard. He leaned his head out, clearly embarrassed. He invited Shane and me in. There, behind him, was the secretary he had cheated on my mom with, the one he swore he’d broken things off with. Politely, I awkwardly introduced everyone, then walked Shane out, thanking him for bringing me home. Then I closed myself in my bedroom and sobbed.
Back then, help was simply not on the table for me. Instead, I was expected to be the help. For my parents: the mediator, the negotiator, the therapist. For my younger sister: the protector, the fighter. I became accustomed to fixing things and relying on myself. It has made me the kind of adult who can read any person and any situation in a blink — because I grew up having to anticipate my father’s random explosions. It has also made me anxious about abandonment. After all, having needs in my household meant rejection, rage, stress. I didn’t like being a burden to my parents. So, I learned to attach a great deal of shame to needing support.
That evening after the date, when I locked myself out, I was mortified to call my date and tell him what had happened. Detecting the break in my voice, he eventually pulled the truth out of me. I took a car across town to (very humbly) sleep at his house. A gentleman, he gave me his bed, slept on the couch, and politely wished me well as I raced out the next morning, humiliated. When I finally got into my house, I called my girlfriends to confidently report that yes, I had a very good first date and no, he would never be speaking to me again. I felt so much shame about needing his help.
We ended up going out for months after that.
But there was no chivalrous date to rescue me last night. Just my dog, peering at me with curiosity through the window, anxious for me to walk through a door I couldn’t. So, I sat there, on the little communal patio outside my condo building, at 1:00 in the morning, feeling completely helpless. Panicked, my fight-or-flight kicked in. Here was my old friend, Anxiety, back to remind me to shut down and self-protect. Calling a locksmith did not even cross my blanked-out mind. I simply froze in place and resigned myself to the idea that I would probably have to sleep outside, waiting for the sun to rise, and my neighbors with it.
Being locked out of your house in the middle of the night is particularly vulnerable when you’re a single woman living by yourself. It’s these tiny, universal aggressions that cast the ugliest light on being alone because they catch you the most off-guard.
When I was 20, I drove home for the holiday break in an old Mercedes my dad had given me. It was a beautiful classic car, but completely impractical for a college student. It guzzled gas. Barely went above 50 mph. The seatbelts didn’t buckle.
It only took my mom one look at that car to pick up the phone, call her friend at the dealership, and put me in something reliable by the holiday's end. I asked her what we were going to do with the Mercedes. I was terrified it was going to enrage my dad that I was giving it back. Since moving out, he had gone from in-person screaming fits to calling me on the phone for my routine doses of verbal abuse. Still not speaking to him, my mom told me to leave the car in front of his house, and not to worry about it. So that’s what I did.
He called me that evening as angry as I have ever heard him, clearly very drunk. I was sobbing over the phone, trembling and shaking so hard I could barely hold it to my ear. I told him I was sorry, I begged him to forgive me. But he just kept screaming at me: How stupid I was, how horrible my mother was, a lot of expletives. This went on for about fifteen minutes. Then suddenly, his tone changed. He became very quiet. “Dad?” I squeaked. I didn’t know if he was still there. “Jessica. I am [expletive] finished with you. I do not care to hear from you. I do not care to hear about you. You are dead to me. Goodbye.”
He hung up on me, and I haven’t spoken to him since.
It makes sense then, that staying unmarried in my 20’s suited me just fine, for the most part. Why did I need to risk the hard-won bubble of safety I so thoroughly constructed? Why risk abandonment all over again? I could certainly provide for myself: My independence has been riding shotgun since I was 14. Did I want to find a partner? Sure. But that could wait. Maybe forever.
Inching towards my thirties, those feelings began to change. At first, not because I genuinely wanted to have kids, or even get married. But I did want to move through the rest of my life in a socially acceptable way, with a presumed support system in place.
When you’re a child, that support system is supposed to be your parents. As a young adult, it becomes your friends. But there comes a certain age where even the closest friends begin to float away — partnering, taking on mortgages — and begin the cycle anew for their children. That’s how it “should" go, anyway.
But it doesn’t for all of us: The Leftovers. And what to do then?
Being single in my 20’s was fabulous in a lot of ways, but as life wears on, I’m ever more reminded that we live inside a system designed for pairs. Systemic traditions like marriage began to appeal to me. Love is great, sure. But there is also a simple pragmatism to the search for a partner: Who will care for me if I fall terminally ill? Who will I lean on when my parents grow old? Who will be there to let the dog out? To run the trash to the curb? Who will bring me coffee in the morning?
Who will I call when I'm locked out?
The pressure of tradition is easy to buck when you’re booked and busy. But the unwelcome arrival of a global pandemic was a full-stop moment. Isolation did nothing to dwindle my loneliness. But it did suspend the partner pressure, a comfort I sunk into with quiet relief. I thought this COVID thing was only going to be a few weeks long, so I took the time to invest in my own pet projects, become a more voracious reader, and a better cook. Life could wait a bit, I reasoned. I was going to make the best of being stuck at home and kick some quarantine ass!
What actually happened, of course, is completely different. The outcry and agony of 2020 only underlined my solitude. As the months wore on, all of the cookbooks in the world couldn’t distract me. I was forced to sit still and face my issues.
It was then that I dove deep back into therapy. If I was going to be locked in an 18-month staring contest with my issues, I was going to have to do the hard thing. I was going to have to ask for help.
Over Zoom, I let someone inside my head — a professional de-tangler. I began to remember experiences with my father that teenage me went to great trouble to bury deep within my subconscious. I joked with my therapist that she was like Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible — suspended carefully in a vault, above a thousand tiny booby traps.
With childhood trauma, nothing is ever linear, especially when it takes a very real toll on your adult life. But after those first few difficult months, I genuinely thought I’d taken the discomfort I felt with being single, turned it inside out, and examined its very guts. I realized that I did want real love. I admitted I wanted a partner and learned that the search didn’t need to be a source of trauma and sorrow in itself. I assigned language to the many things I felt that had never before been named or validated. I collected a toolbox of coping mechanisms. And I began to think differently about the why of dating.
Slowly, I backed away from the avoidant men who I was bonding with over shared trauma. I stopped dating men who reminded me of my father, who I realized I’d chosen so that I could “fix” in them what I never could in him. It was hard unpacking those nightmares, and I was tired. After all, what was happening in the world was far more concerning. Gradually, my attention migrated to news and activism instead of healing. I believed I had conquered the glaring loneliness of my pre-vaccination life — that I was poised for a victorious return to the dating pool, on no one’s terms but my own.
That is why finding myself on the wrong side of my own front door smarted. I thought I overcame this fear of feeling like a burden. I thought I had given myself permission to be vulnerable. Why couldn’t I just get past my hubris and reach out to a friend? And for a while that night, I sat in the dark, feeling sorry for myself, playing dead. My other old friend, Loneliness, came roaring back for a minute. Anxiety. Then Doubt and his buddy, Shame. I wondered if I would have been in this fix, had I put less time into my career and married my college boyfriend.
But the latent sting of vulnerability usually leads to something good. It uncovered my deep knowing and I did eventually get inside that night. I remembered that I had a loving and supportive social circle: It didn’t take long for my friend Daniel to reply to my call for help and offer me his guest room. That morning, I watched his partner bring him coffee in bed — it was just a tiny bit of help, and there was no shame in that.
My phone buzzed. A text message from the girlfriend I was with the night before. “Omg!” She said. “Your keys fell between the seats in my car! I’m on my way over to Daniel’s right now. I’ll bring you home!” Salvation.
As I walked through my front door, my dog affectionately rushed to greet me, and I looked around the home I’d made for myself. I saw the stacks of magazines with my bylines. The freshly-made bed, exactly as I’d left it. The faint fragrance of lingering perfume. I felt proud. Here I was, standing in the middle of a wonderful life. At that moment, it dawned on me that what I really felt proud of was that I was finally ready to share it. A life that despite my stubborn, hard-won independence, I’d had a lot of love and help to arrive at. A partner would be a value-add, but not the key to happiness. I could afford to wait for the right one to come along. That was going to be worth the work.
The next day, I promptly bought a lockbox. Nobody may be coming to rescue me next time, but I could sure as hell save myself.