An edited version of this piece was originally published on AlterNet. This is the complete, unedited version.
How long should you wait after a relationship ends to get involved with someone new?
And is that even the right question to be asking?
I write a lot about the hazards of making decisions about sex and relationships by default. I’ve written about the problem of default decisions in relationships generally, and I’ve written about the specific default decisions people often make in their relationships — when and whether to have kids, to get married, to be monogamous, and so on.
But there’s a major decision people typically make about their long-term romantic relationships — a decision that these particular questions don’t touch on.
And that’s the decision about whether to even get into a relationship at all.
In American culture, it’s generally assumed that everybody wants to be married, or to be in a long-term relationship. It’s assumed that everybody should be hitched up, and that everybody would be better off that way. Oh, sure, if you’ve just broken up with someone, it’s considered prudent to take a break between relationships. But it’s generally assumed that this break is just that — a break. A temporary pause in the normal, correct state of affairs: the state of being in love. It’s assumed that, once a decent interval has passed, of course you’ll want to get back in the love game.
And this assumption drives me up a tree. More so than almost any other default assumption about relationships.
This may sound odd coming from me. If you’ve read my writing at all — and especially if you’ve read my writing about sex and love — there’s a word you’ll inevitably see come up, again and again and again. That word: Ingrid.
Ingrid and I are very happily married. We’ve been married for six and a half years (or five years, or two and a half years, depending on which of our three weddings in the shifting “same- sex marriage” winds you’re talking about), and we’ve been together for close to thirteen years. I talk about Ingrid, and about our marriage, in earnest, passionate, lavishly purple prose that sometimes verges on nauseating. And largely because of Ingrid, I am a huge fan of love, and of marriage, and of putting in the hard work of making love and marriage last.
I was single for twelve years before Ingrid and I fell in love.
Very happily single.
And I am also a huge fan of being single. I am a huge fan of taking time after a relationship ends: time to consider, not just when to be coupled again and with whom, but whether to be coupled again. I am a huge fan of learning to be okay about being single: learning, not just to be okay with it, but to be actively happy about it. I am a huge fan of seeing our choices about romantic relationships include the choice, “None of the above.”
I’m not alone in this. According to Dr. Marty Klein, Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and Certified Sex Therapist (and author of five books on sexuality as well as the Sexual Intelligence blog), the consensus in the therapeutic community is that taking time to be alone after a breakup is, if not essential, certainly very beneficial to making future relationships work. Klein thinks this time gives people the space, not only to grieve over the loss of a relationship, but to grow. Being single, he says, gives people room to rethink old habits — habits that may have caused problems for their relationships in the past. It lets them learn more about who they are, and what they really want in a relationship… and whether a relationship is even what they want at all.
But how does that work?
How can I be an advocate, both for happy marriage, and for happy bachelor/ bachelorette-hood?
There are two basic things going on here. They’re going to seem paradoxical, but they’re really not. Paradox resolution is forthcoming, I promise.
Thing One: Being single for so long was, in and of itself, awesome.
Thing Two: Being single for so long has made my marriage stronger.
Let’s get to Thing One first. Being single for twelve years was one of the best experiences of my life. It taught me self-reliance. It taught me self-confidence. It taught me an immense amount about who I was and what I wanted and how I felt about myself and the world. It taught me how to keep myself company. It taught me how to keep myself sane.
And for most of those years, it was just plain fun. I did what I wanted to, when I wanted to do it. I went to the movies when I wanted. I hung out with my friends when I wanted. I went out to nightclubs or sex clubs or nerdy folk dances when I wanted. I sat on the sofa eating ice cream and watching “Star Trek” when I wanted. I let the dishes rot in the sink when I felt like it. (And I felt like it a lot.) I fucked dozens of different women: casual personal-ad hookups, ongoing fuckbuddies who became genuine friends, women at sex clubs whose names I never knew.
I never would have known how valuable and fun being single was if I hadn’t thought to try it. As Dr. Charlie Glickman, AASECT Certified Sexuality Educator and Ph.D. in Adult Sexuality Education, said when I asked him about this, “I’ve always said that the only way to know for sure if something works for you is to try it on. Whether that’s a shirt or a relationship, we can often make educated guesses but until we take it off the hanger and put it on, we don’t really know for sure. I’ve spoken with a lot of people who thought that a particular sexual activity or relationship structure wouldn’t work for them until they tried it.”
And obviously, we can’t try out a relationship option — including the “None” option — unless we know it’s both available and valid. You can’t try on a shirt if you don’t know it’s on the rack… and you’re a lot less likely to try on a shirt if your friends are all telling you it’s ugly.
An important point to make here: For most of those twelve solo years, I wasn’t just happily single. I was consciously and deliberately single. I wasn’t single for twelve years out of bad luck or bad vibes or bad dating skills. I was single because I chose to be single. By the time I fell in love with Ingrid, I was beginning to question my singlehood and to be open to the possibility of a serious relationship… but for most of those twelve years, I actively resisted them. I made it clear to anyone I was dating, right at the outset, that dating me was not going to end with us walking down the aisle. My personal ads always said things like, “Seeking casual flings or ongoing sexual friendships; not seeking LTR.” Or, if I was in a blunter mood, “I’m happy being single and don’t want a wife.”
So why the hell did I get married?
That brings us to Thing Two, and the apparent paradox. Yes, being single for so long was a completely valuable and fun experience for its own sake.
And at the same time: My marriage with Ingrid is much stronger because of the years I spent on my own. Being single for twelve years laid the emotional foundation for my side of this marriage. A significant part of it, anyway.
Some of that is because, when I was single, I did a whole lot of soul-searching. About love, and about a bucketload of other stuff. Having room to just be myself for a few years gave me the chance to figure out some bad emotional habits… and to unlearn them. I learned how to sort out what I wanted and felt from what other people told me I should want and feel. I learned how to balance assertiveness and clarity with generosity and kindness — or, as I put it to a friend recently, how to find the window between being a demanding, high-maintenance asshole and being a doormat. I learned how to ask for what I wanted and needed and deserved, without alienating people or wrecking relationships. I learned why I kept being attracted to fucked-up, emotionally broken drug addicts… and I learned how not to be. I learned how to find the sexiness and the intensity and the compelling sense of fascination and intrigue — in sane, balanced, stable people.
And without all that, I doubt that my relationship with Ingrid would have lasted six months — much less thirteen years.
But there’s something else here: something more crucial, something that’s right at the heart of this apparent paradox I keep talking about.
Knowing that I can be happily single makes it easier to be happily married.
My marriage is stronger because I see it as a real choice. I don’t feel trapped into it. It’s not a default slot I fell into, and I’m not afraid that I could never be happy on my own. It’s a real choice — a choice between genuinely competing options, with real plusses and minuses to each of them.
I’m not with Ingrid because I’m afraid of being alone. I’m with Ingrid because I want to be with Ingrid.
So when I’m feeling cranky about something that’s less than perfect in our marriage — a compromise we made about money that I’m not totally happy with, a party I promised to go to that I just don’t feel like coping with, an evening when we’re both tired and cranky and irritable and are snapping at each other, the fact that I have to do the dinner dishes even though I’m really not in the mood and really just want to sit on the sofa watching “Star Trek” — the upsets aren’t compounded by feeling trapped into them. The large conflicts and small irritations that come with any long-term relationship are much easier to deal with when I remember that this is my choice. Remembering that this is my choice reminds why I made it — and why I continue to make it. It reminds me that I make this choice because I am passionately in love with Ingrid, because I feel more like myself with her than I have with any other person I’ve ever known, because my life with her is richer and stronger and way more fun than life without her, because she is an extraordinary person and I am intensely lucky to have her in my life at all… and lucky beyond my wildest dreams to get to share every day of my life with her.
(I warned you. Purple prose, verging on nauseating.)
And the flip side of that is true as well. When I’m feeling happy about our marriage — which is most of the time, by a significant margin — that happiness is enhanced by the freedom with which we chose it. Our happiness isn’t something we fell into by accident; it’s not a slot we got slotted into and that we were lucky enough to fit. We chose it. And we’ve worked our asses off for it. So it feels like ours. It feels like it belongs to us.
But as passionate as I feel about this question of choice — of making our own conscious decisions about our own damn relationships, and not letting ourselves get slotted into them by default — I have to admit that things aren’t always that simple. More choices don’t always make us happier. Some research suggests that having too many choices can make us as unhappy as not having any. It can overwhelm us, paralyze us, make us anxious about whether our choices are right, make us blame ourselves when things don’t work out, create a perpetual loop of second-guessing, raise our expectations to an impossible level. (Think about shopping for olive oil. If there’s only one kind on the grocery store shelf, we don’t much like that, especially if it’s a kind we don’t like… but if there are a hundred varieties, that can be just as frustrating.)
This is a point Dr. Klein was emphatic about. When I interviewed him about this question — about default decisions in general, and about the specific default decision of being coupled over being single — he pointed out that not everybody is as enamored of choice as I am. Personally, he also has a strong philosophical attachment to making his own free choices about his own life… but from a practical, clinical perspective, he recognizes that many people are happier, and better able to get on with their lives, when they let some of their decisions, big or small, be made by social consensus.
And while Dr. Glickman is another fan of tailoring our relationships to fit instead of just buying them off the rack, he also acknowledges the challenges to this approach. “The more you move away from the default option,” he says, “the harder it is to find role models, which can feel really unstable as well as making it more difficult because you might not think of a possible solution to the challenges you face.”
So I guess that’s what I’m trying to do here. I’m not trying to make a new rule that everyone has to follow. I’m trying to be a role model for an option some people might not have considered. As much as the demanding, high-maintenance asshole in me would love to tell everyone to live their lives exactly like I do, I can’t in good conscience do that. I’m not going to argue that absolutely everybody should be single, and should try to be happy being single, for X amount of time before they get coupled again. I know that isn’t right for everyone. (After all, while I’d been single for twelve years before Ingrid and I fell in love, Ingrid herself had only been single for five months. And while she’d had times before that when she was single for longer, she acknowledges that she wasn’t really happy about it. She made the best of it, but it wasn’t what she would have chosen.)
I’m not saying that the way I did it is the only way, or even the best way. I don’t want to replace the old set of Thou Shalts with a new one.
I’m just trying to say: Being single is an option. It’s a valid option: temporarily, or indefinitely. It’s one that some people are genuinely happy with. I was, for close to twelve years. If you tend to feel trapped in relationships — or if you get panicky and freaked-out when you’re not in one — it’s an option you might consider. It’s an option that might make you happy, just because it’s fun and cool and valuable for its own sake. And it’s an option that might do a world of good for any future relationships.
I’m not trying to say, “Thou Shalt.”
I’m just trying to say, “Thou Might.”