Cynthia Nixon, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall and Kristin Davis in “Sex and the City 2” (Credit: New Line CInema)
“If you think the San Francisco dating scene is bad, wait till you get to New York,” people warned me
By: Emily J. Smith/Salon.com
“Don’t give up, ” my friend urged me, my shoulder in her hand, a vodka martini in mine. “You’ll find something that feels right eventually.”
I realized that it had somehow, unbelievably, been a decade since I was in love. I’d had relationships — some serious, one as short as a day, and more two- to three-month experiments than I could count — but for the most part, for the bulk of my adult life, I had been single. Those 10 years crept up quickly. I love being alone. I can, often to my own detriment, fill hours, days, sometimes weeks, with actives of complete solitude without a speck of loneliness.
There was no rush in my twenties. Intent on my career, being single felt more like a badge than a blemish. I watched friends from high school, then couples from college, pair up and settle down. Not me. I wanted independence, self-discovery, the autonomy to make my own choices. I moved to an apartment in the East Village and jumped head-first into a fancy consulting job, followed by a cross-country move to California for business school. I met other women with ambitious goals and strong ideals and we clung to one another, our new friendships built on shared challenges and tools we were just learning to articulate. We reminded each other not to over-apologize, shared tips on power stances that felt so goofy but worked so well, urged one another to speak up and ask for what we wanted; tools the other 75 percent of the student body, for the most part, didn’t need to think about.
In the spring of 2012 I turned 30. With grad school behind us, my friends and I settled into good positions at good jobs, found livable-sized apartments in San Francisco, built lives we were proud of. And then, as if someone had given a signal that I clearly didn’t catch, my friends started getting married. Women I never thought of as codependent, couples I never imagined needing the safety of marriage; because they weren’t, they didn’t. They were just in love, and it was time.
Like all good business school graduates, my friends and I did the math — if you wanted to date someone for a few years before marriage, and then live together for a few years before kids, and then maybe even have another kid, and do it all before 40 — well, yeah, it was time. So while some started sporting rings, my still-single friends and I doubled down on dating. And although I had never in my life imagined a wedding dress, and still didn’t really get the point of an engagement ring, I found myself in a wedding wind tunnel; everyone around me either getting married or trying to.
In San Francisco that meant downloading every possible dating app. Many of us were averaging at least three dates a week and meeting regularly to discuss our progress. Spreadsheets may or may not have been involved. Google doc shares abounded. We listened to each other’s stories with care, assuring one another that of course he must be a literal psychopath if he never called back after such an intimate night, or that he wasn’t worth a goddamn second if he couldn’t even schedule a date 24 hours in advance. For years, we were each other’s support — emotionally and physically. We chaperoned wisdom teeth removals, held surprise birthday parties, gave each other pep talks before big meetings, cooked dinner together on Sunday nights. Being single in a world of couples made us not only appreciate, but prioritize one another. We were family.
But eventually, I had to move closer to my real family. My parents were getting older, and California, no matter how great my friends were, would never be home. And, although I was scared to admit it, at 34, I needed a change.
“If you think the San Francisco dating scene is bad, wait till you get to New York,” people warned me. I would widen my eyes to try and look scared, but the truth was, I couldn’t wait. If I knew one thing about my move back to New York, it was that I did not want to date.
Dating had sucked the life out of me. I was sick of telling my story, a story that not long ago felt unique and personal, but now felt empty and scripted. I was sick of throwing out commentary on hot topics like Instagram (what I consider the essence of our culture’s narcissism) and board games (painful distractions from any attempt at real connection) — comments that used to feel contrarian and clever but now, almost five years later, seemed manufactured, an assembly line of remarks. I was sick of trying to prove myself through intimate life details to people who weren’t even worth the time it took to program their names in my phone. With each date I felt more like the profile I was trying to represent, and less like an actual person. I would re-read my profiles on each site often, to remind myself what my date was expecting. It felt so off — it wasn’t me — but when I tried to change it, I drew a blank. Maybe it was?
When I moved to New York I went from having a family of friends who knew every detail of my life to having a handful of acquaintances who knew nothing at all.
“It’s hard to meet people in New York,” I heard people say, “Everyone’s so busy.” Again, I feigned concern.
New York, with its large, faceless crowds and anything-goes attitude, felt like a shield from the wedding wind. I knew no one, and even though I was smack in the middle of the densest U.S. city, it felt like a vacuum. And in that vacuum, without anyone watching or any force pushing me, I stopped dating. I had no one to report to. I deleted all the apps on my phone. Instead, I started doing something I loved but never thought worth my time — I started writing. I spent almost every night alone with my laptop. At first I was afraid to admit that I was spending so much time on something that seemed, in terms of life milestones, completely pointless. I didn’t know how to write; my career was in tech. But it was all I wanted to do, and with no one to answer to, there was no reason not to. I started going to classes and workshops and spent most of my Friday nights on the couch with an essay and a box of cereal. I woke up early, eager to sit down and put words to paper before my real job.
“Wild, I know…” I would joke to my friends back in San Francisco about my nights alone in New York. But compared to my chronic online dating, it really was.
“Doing what you want” is a loaded, indecipherable phrase for women. It’s nearly impossible to know what you actually want when expectations are piled high. I always assumed that having kids was part of adulthood— what people did when they grew up, the next step to becoming a whole, fulfilled person — and that getting married was the necessary precursor. But when I asked myself: do I actually want children? I had no idea. A caretaker, I am not. Pets frighten me and I’ve never owned a plant because I don’t understand why anyone would want to waste time watering it. But I identify as an achiever, and so the thought of not getting married and having kids — something so core to what I’ve always imagined as the female experience, something that seemed so simple for everyone else in the world — was terrifying. It felt like failure.
Letting myself escape the tunnel at a moment when I was supposed to be reaching the end, really did feel wild. Being happy on my own terms was a relief, even if happiness for me meant pulling my hair out over an essay for weeks at a time without leaving my studio. Even if happiness for me meant something entirely different than what everyone said happiness for me should mean.
I still go on the occasional date, and if I meet someone I get along with, I’m still excited by it. But I’ve allowed myself the possibility that maybe, ten years later, there’s still no rush. If I don’t meet someone who makes me happier than I make myself, then maybe that’s OK; I don’t need to go out of my way to search for something I’m not even sure I want. In many ways, that uncertainty is a gift. For women who know they want biological children, the pressure is real. Real, physical limitations accelerate the need to find a partner, and my sympathies, for that grueling task, in a society that pathologizes women who go steadily after what they want, is enormous. I am rooting like crazy for my friends who are searching on a timeline, and for every one of their priorities, so long as they’re desired, not assumed.
People’s assumptions hit me daily. I have nothing of interest to report to colleagues when they ask what’s new. When I say I spent the weekend writing — not for work, just pleasure — most people stare at me as if I told them I spent the weekend walking in circles on the sidewalk. Unable to find the right response, they want to ask “why?” but choose a polite “cool” instead.
My lack of concern concerns others. They think I have given up. But — often to my own detriment — I’ve never been one to give up. And so this concept of giving up haunts me. I think about it for days, and then months, and now years until I asked myself what it is exactly that I’m giving up. And when I look at the relationships I’ve surrounded myself with — my friends who still call me when they need someone to listen or understand or laugh, or my family who I can now see regularly, or myself who I finally, years later, feel re-acquainted with — I realize it’s not connection that I’m forfeiting, and it’s not the potential for love that I’m losing. I am giving up on the notion that finding a partner comes before all else. I’m giving up on other’s people’s expectations of what it means to be a woman and getting closer to defining that for myself. And it’s been a long time since something felt so right.