A few months ago, I got breakfast with two friends in one of our college’s cozy cafes. We had not hung out all semester, so I enjoyed catching up, until the topic turned to relationships and one of them said, “Thomas, I don’t know why you don’t have, like, three boyfriends, especially because you’re so caring and funny and smart. Why are you even single?”
This friend’s well-intentioned yet insulting comment stunned me so much that I let it go. I laughed it off and said something like “why would I date men if they are socialized to be emotionally constipated anyway?” Underneath this jab at the patriarchy, I felt hurt, because this friend implied that my kindness, humor, and intelligence meant less because they did not find me a boyfriend, that my self-worth in some capacity should come from having a romantic partner, which it does not. If I could have a do-over, I might raise the question, “Why does society permit you to question the authenticity of my happiness without a romantic partner, when I know how awful you would feel if I said ‘why have you only been able to be happy with a romantic partner? Isn’t that weird when you’re so nice and talented?'”
The answer to my question: we as a society glorify romantic love above all else. As Caroline Knapp writes in her revelatory essay “The Merry Recluse”, “we live in a culture… that uses partnership as a measure of mental health and social normalcy. Answer affirmatively (yes, I get lonely), and you sound sorrowful, the slightly pathetic outsider; answer negatively (nope, I’m quite content, thank you very much) and you sound hermetic, incapable of following the accepted path to human happiness, pathologically disengaged somehow.” We see this external pressure to date everywhere. Movies and television shows almost always include or end with a romantic pairing, no matter the genre. On Facebook, people receive tons of likes (i.e., positive reinforcement) for being “in a relationship” or for sharing pictures of their engagements, weddings, and honeymoons. Popular music extols romantic relationships, even unhealthy ones (I always say that Adele would not have a career if everyone felt satisfied in their relationships, or felt satisfied without them.) Dating apps – which exist to make a profit, as does the institution of marriage in many ways – imply that you are missing out and incomplete unless you match with “the one.” And do not get me started on how even the law perpetuates singleism, granting married individuals immense privileges solely based on the fact that they are married, when everyone should receive these benefits.
One of my most pressing qualms with this prioritization of romance centers on how we perceive attaining a romantic relationship as the most essential form of attaining intimacy and commitment. Yes, I can see how sharing both sex and an emotional connection with one person may differentiate the intimacy of romance from the intimacy of other relationships. But you can gain meaningful intimacy in a diversity of ways: through friendships and familial bonds, through learning about and improving yourself in therapy, and through connecting with a variety of communities and causes. I have committed deeply to all of these forms of intimacy, and I scoff at the notion that I somehow fear intimacy and/or commitment just because I do not actively want a boyfriend
, like, I literally share my whole life on the internet, how much more intimate can I really get. Imagine a world in which people put as much time and effort into their activism and their friendships and their self-care as they did on seeking out romance: where would we be?
This questioning of romance and its prominence in society leads me to ask: how do we cultivate joy outside of the paradigm of romantic love? As someone who used to value male validation and develop borderline-obsessive crushes on men, it took me time and effort. I first worked to internalize that my self-worth does not stem from whether I want or have a romantic partner. This idea seems most pronounced in those attracted to men, especially women, who are socialized to view their self-esteem as contingent upon being in a romantic relationship. I also found role models who share similar values with me who have succeeded and cultivated happiness without romantic partners (e.g., Hanya Yanagihara and Caroline Knapp). Perhaps the most important step: recognizing that I define my own happiness and that happiness can come from sources outside of romantic love, wanting to get married, etc. I do not write this post to suggest that everyone should avoid dating or to cast judgement on people who engage in romantic relationships. Rather, I argue against the notion that “you should love yourself so that you can love others.” Loving yourself – and potentially your friends, your broader community, and the causes dear to your heart – is enough. We can transcend the notion that the narrative ends with romance. We can open our hearts to other stories too.
The other day I found joy in the space between an independent bookstore and a D.C. Panera Bread. I had just gone on a date with a man I met on Tinder – right before I stopped using the app – and I decided I did not want more than an acquaintanceship with him, for various reasons. I had leftover free time afterward so I decided to explore the city, my “Riots Not Diets” tote bag slung across my left shoulder and my headphones blasting Ariana Grande’s stellar Dangerous Woman album. I felt so satisfied with myself that the date, the man, and dating and men in general did not cross my mind once that sunny Sunday afternoon. After having graduated from college and surviving wisdom teeth surgery about a week ago, I loved that I could walk around the city, uninhibited by responsibility and lucky enough to have a healthy body. In other words, I felt happy: my plans for the afternoon involved visiting the famed Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe, eating dinner at Panera while texting dear friends, and basking in the radiance of my own company. I worked so hard and had so many privileges to get to this point, where I trusted myself and my completeness and my love for books and friends and making the world a better place. I lived, and live, a joyous life indeed.
What are your thoughts on romance? How have you found happiness outside of it, whether you are in a romantic relationship or not? I suppose that you can prioritize other things even when you do date someone, though studies have shown that married people spend less time with their friends and families. Anyway, I turn 22 on Thursday and will be at a conference in Boston then, so I look forward to posting again next week and I hope everyone has a wonderful next few days.