Dear lovely insightful people,
I am struggling with time passing and me continuing to be far away from the life I would like to live: I miss tangible sustainable community, and I long for being “equal partners in a very fun and exciting and safe relationship” (from a NYT article) with someone, and a family.
While my job is ok-ish, as is my health (i.e. some permanent conditions that I do address, nothing acute) — the big life sections are gaping holes: No significant other. No offspring.
And it doesn’t look like this will change anytime soon or at all.
Of course I might find a healthy relationship eventually; it is not impossibly impossible even when you’re 80. But the thing with continuing my family, breaking the cycle, and being able to pass on love and connection and values and valuables and so on, will not happen anymore (and I do not have siblings, it was all on me and I’m 41 now).
It looks like I am deemed to live a single life, where I do stuff and am socially active, but ultimately alone. Lonely. Meaningless.
It cannot be life to just keep going.
Like it’s nice to enjoy a coffee and watch the birds on the platform while you are waiting at the station, but when you are there to catch a train, and learn the train is delayed and then delayed some more and so on, the coffee and the birds are nice but not what you came for. And they do not get you to the place you were to go.
And no, I do not want to get comfortable on the windy platform of a train station.
If this is the life the universe or whoever decided for me — I do not consent!
Maybe you have clues how to deal with this?
I want to start by saying that there have been so many times in my life — most of it, in fact — that I have felt a lot of what you’re feeling. Your metaphor of waiting on the train platform and being able to see the bits of beauty and comfort that exist there but still wanting, so badly, for the train to arrive so you can get to where you want to go resonated really strongly with me. So first of all, I want you to know you’re absolutely not alone.
And yet, in this particular moment, as I write a reply to your letter, I find myself in a different emotional place. A novel one for me, in fact. It’s not that my life has changed dramatically in that time: I’m not in a relationship; most of my closest friends continue to live far away from me, and I haven’t been able to see many of them for years now because of the pandemic; and I continue to question why I expend so much time and energy on my day job when there are many other things I’d rather be doing. Yet, something has shifted, which I’ll get to presently, but I want to acknowledge that some of what I say below may not feel applicable or relevant to you. Regardless, I want to try to hold space here for both: for your (and my, really) pain and for the possibility that you may not feel this way forever.
So, let’s start with your letter. I really am sorry. It is so incredibly disappointing and heartbreaking to have something you want so badly, something that, in your value system, feels like the ultimate “point of it all” and for that to be just out of your grasp. There is a lot of very real grief in that.
One of my favorite advice pieces is an article on ambiguous grief by Lori Gottlieb from The Atlantic. As Gottlieb writes, “Ambiguous grief isn’t more or less painful than other types of grief — it’s just different. But one thing that does make it additionally challenging is that it tends to go unacknowledged.” In my own experience, acknowledging that grief both privately to myself and, eventually, more publicly has been incredibly valuable and important.
Recognizing, naming, and speaking the feelings won’t change the reality of your circumstances, of course. But what I read in your letter (and forgive me if I’m just projecting myself here) is a lot of frustration. Perhaps taking the time and space to acknowledge your pain, both with yourself, and with close friends and family, may help you let go of some of the frustration.
In my own experience, as I started talking to my friends and sisters about my feelings of sorrow and loneliness as a result of being chronically single, a few things happened.
First, I realized that while many of my friends are in partnered, long-term relationships, there are also several who aren’t. Hearing their experiences helped me feel less alone, knowing that they not only shared in my struggle but also felt the same types of loneliness and hopelessness that I did.
Second, I also found that many of my friends in committed relationships, and even those with families, struggled with that same loneliness and hopelessness. And, as I’ve been able to internalize that second one, I think that has — albeit slowly — allowed me to shift my perspective a bit. A loving, long-term relationship won’t save me from loneliness or my ever-present existential crisis about the point of my life. I have known this for a long, long time, but there is something about seeing friends in the kinds of healthy, long-term relationships that I have always dreamed of expressing the same things I have felt for so, so long. Really being there for, and also deeply empathizing with some of my closest friends has been incredibly powerful in terms of driving that message home.
At the same time, I do understand why you say that a single life feels meaningless. There was a time in my life where my professional pursuits consumed me, and I very quickly realized how empty those pursuits were. Racism and sexism were always going to hold me back, and increasingly I questioned (and continue to question, in the present) the ultimate purpose of any of the work that I do. And so, sometime around seven or so years ago, I started believing that the only thing that matters in life is the relationships we have.
For so long, I had wanted a romantic, partnered relationship, and the shift in my values made that desire even more intense. Alongside that, I watched so many of my closest friends and sisters make difficult decisions and, because of the way society is structured, ultimately prioritize romantic relationships and family over friendship. From all this, it followed, that the only real meaning in my life would be achieved by having a romantic relationship of my own. That might not be exactly how you landed at this conclusion yourself, but I share all of that to say: Please believe me when I say that for most of my adult life, I have also felt that a single life is lonely and meaningless.
But as one year after another goes by, and I remain single, and the prospects of that changing don’t look so great, my perspective on this has started to shift. If I had told myself that a year ago, I would’ve rolled my eyes and said that that’s just a trick of the mind. Yet here I am, and maybe it is a lie I’m telling myself, but the truth is, I am so much more at peace and, frankly, happier when I can really hold things from this place.
It’s true that the structure of society makes it hard to hold friendships as close as partnered relationships. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible to build deep, long-lasting connections with friends, even if you can’t speak with or see each other regularly. It might not be what you or I really want, but it’s also not nothing. A life full of rich and varied relationships also isn’t empty, even if it’s not the richness that you’re seeking. To quote from one of my favorite books, Ancillary Sword: “It wasn’t the same. It wasn’t what I wanted, not really, wasn’t what I knew I would always reach for. But it would have to be enough.”
And maybe that’s not really encouraging. Maybe that is just resignation, which is where I lived for years. But as I continue to ask myself the question, “Can this be enough?” that resignation has started to shift into an acceptance, which on occasion is even joyful. As many have written before me, there are some serious perks of being single. I live my life on my terms, filling up my days however I want and doing the mundane things in life according to my own particular habits.
Finally, I want to address this part of your letter, which I think is the hardest: “continuing my family, breaking the cycle, and being able to pass on love and connection and values and valuables and so on, will not happen.” Again, I really am sorry. We have gotten a letter previously in the A+ Advice Box from someone who wanted children but cannot have them, and again, that grief and pain is just so, so real. I can only imagine how that’s magnified by not having siblings and feeling like “it was all on me.”
I have never wanted to have children, especially biological children, so I can’t speak from a place of empathy, but when you mention “breaking the cycle” that implies to me a complicated family history. I, too, come from a complicated family, with an enduring history of abuse, and so I think a lot about “breaking the cycle.” I wonder if it would be useful to you to consider that in terms of the love you give yourself, rather than just what you impart on the next generation.
As for passing on “love and connection and values and valuables,” as I have gotten older I’ve started to think about this, even though I have no desire for children. But several of my close friends do have kids, and it’s important to me to spend time with them, building loving connections and sharing my values and, someday, valuables as well. In the same way that I suggested earlier to think more expansively about which relationships bring meaning to life, it might be helpful to think about generational connections and legacy more expansively as well.
Ultimately, I hope something in what I’ve written resonates for you, even though we seem to be in different parts of our journeys of making peace with this struggle. I really do feel your pain, and, honestly, I really am sorry for both of us. I don’t know why life is so fickle in this way. I want to leave you with something I have written previously for the A+ Advice Box in response to a related question:
“It is so, so incredibly painful to have something you want with all your heart and, as you said, you know that you don’t control whether or not you will ever achieve it. But somehow, we manage to build ourselves up from those places, even if we’re always living with a little bit of sadness. (Re-appropriating Eleanor Shellstrop there.) Trust that this is true for you, as well.”
You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.