A Joyous Life, Without Romance

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?'”

caroline knapp queen of finding happiness while single

Shout-out to Caroline Knapp, queen of writing stellar essays about finding happiness without a romantic partner. Image via thephoenix.com.

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.

kramerbooks pano shot the quiet voice thomas.jpg

A pano shot of Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe, where I intend to visit a lot over the next five years in D.C. My happy place, tbh.

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.


Filed under Personal, Society

16 responses to “A Joyous Life, Without Romance

  1. Well this indeed a timely question for me, having just gotten out of a 10-1/2 yr relationship. It is possible to find happiness outside of a relationship, although it is taking me personally awhile to really find it. I’ve spent so much of my adult life in a relationship I’ve forgotten what it means to be my own person. It was always “us” not “me”. I will always be a hopeless romantic and I hope that one day I can find a similar man to be romantic and not “emotionally constipated” as you so eloquently put it. In fact, being emotional mature is one of my big requirements next time around.

    • I’m sorry about the end of your relationship, Rachel, and I’m glad to hear that you know you want emotional maturity as a requirement for your next relationship. I’m wishing you the best as you search for connection and belonging in whatever form that manifests, romance included!

  2. Thomas, I’m just so glad you have time to blog again! I know you needed to prioritize education, but it good to have your lovely words and spirit back in the blogosphere. ❤

    First, thanks for talking about this! The situation you mentioned was a bit of a reprimand for me, as I've said similar things to my friends before. I'm always speaking from a sense of appreciation for the person and not intending to imply that they *need* to be in a romantic relationship. If the person is of the opposite gender (as I'm attracted to men), I generally just mean to imply my level of appreciation for them, i.e. "if I weren't already in a romantic relationship, I would be attracted to you." But that does imply a lot of things that I don't mean to imply. So I have to think about that a bit.

    Second, I'm not sure how I prioritize happiness outside my romantic relationship. Certainly I find happiness in many things that aren't attached to my romantic partner, but as I'm committed to him for life, my general life happiness is pretty inextricably tied to him. If we were to separate or if he died, my happiness would be significantly affected for a long time. But I'd like to think that in singleness before our relationship, I found peace and happiness without romance.

    Anyhow. I'm glad to hear that you are coming to more peace and joy without romance right now. There are advantages to singleness! And you are much loved and appreciated, regardless of romance status. Enjoy your conference. 🙂

    • Aw, thank you so much for your thoughtful comment! One of my favorite parts about getting back into blogging is reconnecting with writers and e-friends like yourself. (: I am glad that reading the post helped you to reconsider some of your past statements. I don’t think that people who conflate being in a romantic relationship and a person’s self-worth have bad intentions, but they’ve been socialized (as we all have) to view romance as the end game, as the most worthy type of relationship, as THE single thing in your life that should bring you the most happiness… and while that may be true for some people, it’s not for everyone, and that’s an equally valid way of living. I’m also happy to hear that you found peace and happiness without romance at one point in your life! Thank you again for your kind words, they mean a lot to me.

  3. I’ve always been pretty independent, and although I’ve been in three long-term relationships (well, two and a half!) I’ve never drawn all of my happiness from my primary emotional attachment type thing. Well, I did once, and that was my desperate oh god I’m almost 30 foolish mistake of a romance. Never again! I have noticed very much in my recent recovery from surgery that I have drawn much happiness and support from my friendship network, near and far, through physical visits and meetups in coffee houses and a constant stream of messages. The big things I looked forward to were two meetings with friends I don’t get to see very often. While my husband has taken care of my physical care and the housework, my walks and coffee shop visits have been taken care of by my friends. So I think I have a good balance. And you have plenty of time for all that shit, there is so much societal pressure and it is bullshit. I’m not defined as being successful by being married, I hope, but by managing my mental health, being a good citizen and helping others.

    • Yes I love this comment so much, thank you for sharing your wisdom as always Liz! Your last sentence really resonates with me, as I draw my sense of success from practicing compassion toward others and myself as well. It’s really cool that you’re able to articulate what you get from your husband as well as from friends and that you’ve moved past that not-so-great romance from earlier on in your life. Thank you for reading and for being a consistent source of hope and inspiration. (:

  4. I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot lately. Since summer has started I’ve been meeting up with my old friends from high school and the dreaded question(s) of whether I’m currently dating and/or why I’ve never have has been coming up a good bit. Though I know they mean well, I can’t help but get annoyed for the very reasons you state. People can be perfectly happy and fulfilled in a life without a romantic relationship, and, yes, self-worth is definitely not dependent on having a partner.

    Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that you’re not alone, Thomas! I’m 21 (and a half now, I guess) and still haven’t even had my first kiss yet. But I don’t feel embarrassed or “behind” about this even though society may suggest that I should. 😉

    And HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Celebrate your birthday properly and have loads of fun this weekend! XD

    • I’m glad to hear that you’re able to treat yourself with self-compassion Summer and that you’re recognizing that you don’t have to abide by what society expects from you when it comes to romantic relationships. (: You’re so well-read, passionate, intelligent and hard-working and having a romantic partner or not does not influence those characteristics. Thank you for being such a consistent reader and follower of this blog. (:

  5. Jas

    “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?” I love that you said this! I find myself equally fixated with the idea of romantic love one day being held to the same standards as the love we share with family, friends, even ourselves. How amazing would it be if we could culturally accomplish that, appreciating and cultivating the intimacies we have, or have the potential for, in our more platonic relationships? I recently finished bell hooks’ book “All About Love: New Visions” (hopefully I’ll get to reviewing this one) and she talked about this subject in detail at a point. It’s nice knowing I’m not the only one that considers these things!

    • Yes, exactly Jas! I’m so happy to e-meet someone who shares this vision – that we can elevate other forms of compassion so that they receive the same level of attention and praise as romantic love. I really want to read your thoughts on the bell hooks book; I just followed your blog and put the book higher on my to-read list. Let’s keep spreading the message that there are many other important forms of connection than romantic love, as I think our voices will have an impact. (:

  6. Rida

    I completely agree. I think we try to put romance higher in everything. Just the word “love” usually has only romantic and sexual to some. I think platonic love is just as important may be even more. I just recently turned 20 and i fallen in love with so many things and friends and it definitely makes me happy. I do not feel empty without romance. Not that i don’t think it would be great. That idea that romantic partners COMPLETE each other as if somehow without the other, one is incomplete is absurd to me.

    • Yes, I agree with you Rida! We’re not saying that romance is awful or atrocious, just that there are so many other worthwhile and important forms of love and connection that don’t receive the necessary amount of attention from society. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. (:

  7. A deliciously beautiful piece. I have pondered this type of insensitiviy for years and put down my own thoughts on it here:


    • Love this, thank you for sharing Marcus! I agree with you and I’m glad you’re adding your voice to the collective that resists monogamous romantic partnership as the only path to happiness. (:

  8. tej

    Hi 🙂 I’m new to your blog and this is the first post I’m reading, haha. I’ve been asked this question a lot even by complete strangers! I STILL don’t know how to respond as to WHY I don’t have a boyfriend. You can ask me why I don’t like to exercise in the morning, or why I don’t like going out every weekend. Why don’t I have a boyfriend, though? SIgh.

  9. Pingback: No Men, No Marriage, No Problem | the quiet voice

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