For the last six years, Robin Turner, a 49-year-old author and educator who lives in Atlanta, has been single. “It just happened,” she told me. She said she started feeling a lot more comfortable with her relationship status at the start of 2020. “Really right before COVID, when all of this stuff was happening, I was just like, you know, Robin, I'm glad I don't have anybody that’s up under me all the time,” she said cheerily. There was also her mother’s response to the death in 2018 of Turner’s father, her husband of 50 years. “I saw how strong she's been,” Turner said, “[and] how she's able to deal, and I'm just like, if she can go on and crack jokes and be content, I can do that too.”
Turner’s last relationship, which lasted about five years, was going swimmingly — until it wasn’t. When she and her former partner met, they were both on the same page about not having children, something Turner has known about herself since she was 16 years old. “We meshed, we clicked, like everything was perfect,” she said. “And then, as time [went on], he just changed his mind, which he has a right to do.” While it was devastating, Turner was adamant: She did not want to have children. “I can't be mad at him for changing his mind,” she said.
In choosing to be single and child-free, Turner’s relationship with herself has blossomed. “All my time is for me. I don't have to dress up for anyone but me. I don't have to shave. It's so freeing to go out and not worry about how I look, will someone find me attractive or not,” she said. “I find that I have more confidence and security within myself. I am not looking to [a partner] for validation.”
Turner is just one of hundreds of singles who responded to a BuzzFeed News callout asking the unattached if they were happy. The submissions were varied, from people who had been single for just a few months to those who had been going solo for much of their lives. There were people who had suffered one heartbreak too many, people who had become disillusioned with the dating scene, and former self-proclaimed “hopeless romantics,” but there were also submissions from people who were aromantic or asexual (yes, there’s a difference), as well as those whose lives were already so full that they did not necessarily see the need for the addition of a romantic partner.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with wanting a romantic relationship. As human beings, we all desire connection and companionship, but there is a dominant narrative in American society that there’s one perfect match for everyone and, once we find this person, life will, presumably, all fall into place. But being single, especially for the millennial generation and the oldest members of Gen Z, is a growing trend. According to a 2019 Washington Post article, more than half of people between the ages of 18 and 34 “do not have a steady romantic partner.” Additionally, celebrities like Tracee Ellis Ross have publicly embraced their singleness, helping to destigmatize being single and childless past a certain age.
“It's so freeing to go out and not worry about how I look, will someone find me attractive or not.”
When she was in graduate school for creative writing, Jessie Atkin, 32, met a guy who would eventually propose to her. “He was a good person” who checked “all the boxes that you assume need to be checked to go forward, have a serious relationship, possibly get married, have a family,” she said. Though the relationship seemed perfect, Atkin said there was something off with how she “was feeling internally.” Friends and family told Atkin that this feeling “was going to change,” but it never did, and as a result, she called off the engagement.
For Atkin, who has been single for three and a half years, that nagging feeling was a “lack of certain sexual attraction.” She had finally come to terms with her asexuality. “There was no sort of change in my wanting or my desire for that aspect of a relationship,” she told me, referring to her lack of sexual attraction. She also realized that communication in the relationship was a “significant” issue between the two. “Whether you're asexual, whether you're heterosexual, communication and being able to be honest and fully yourself with someone is important,” she said. “If I can't share how I'm feeling or who I am with you, then obviously spending my life with you is not going to be the best choice.”
Coming out as ace, Atkin said, has made her “less selfish.” She prioritizes her needs and makes the conscious choice of being more present and involved with friends and family. “I'm more available, and that's a choice. I've definitely been able to expand my friend circles and divide my time in a different and more meaningful way,” she said. Atkin doesn’t think holding one type of relationship, especially a romantic or sexual relationship, is really healthy. “I think it's much healthier to have a number of incredibly important relationships in your life.”
“I think it's much healthier to have a number of incredibly important relationships in your life.”
Similarly, there’s Oliver, a 27-year-old project manager living in Germany who has been single for the last seven years. Oliver is trans and identifies as panromantic asexual. “I can feel romantic attraction towards people regardless of their gender, but I feel no sexual attraction towards people of any gender,” he said. Oliver said his last relationship was tumultuous, as he was with someone who didn’t accept him being trans or his lack of desire to not have sex. And though that relationship was some time ago, he is still very much affected by it. “To be honest, I feel like maybe I haven't [healed],” he said. “I feel like the ‘good’ answer here would be that I have and am fully certain that my decision to stay single is not influenced by me not being healed — but that wouldn't be the truth.”
The relationship caused trust issues, he said. “As a queer person, it can be very hard to find help after a toxic relationship, and I mostly dealt with my feelings all on my own, which isn't the best way to heal.” Still, Oliver told me he feels more of a sense of freedom now that he has leaned into hobbies, such as writing and singing. “I don't have to worry how ‘dateable’ my hobbies make me or if they are interesting enough for a potential partner,” he said.
William Ryan, 65, a Brooklyn-based psychologist who specializes in couples therapy, would agree. “We can find all kinds of companionship,” he told me. “It's not [just] with a romantic or sexual lover.” Ryan wants to support and facilitate the idea of autonomy, he said, especially for people with romantic love, who may not deem themselves complete or whole without a romantic relationship. “[Therapists] want people who can stand on their own two feet. We don’t want people who are jonesing for a relationship like a fix that they can depend on,” he said.
Grant, a 25-year-old gay man based in Dallas who has been single for the last four years, became much more at ease with his life as a single person after a lot of self-reflection. He told me that while in college, romantic relationships “were most definitely a focal point in my life that caused me a lot of stress and anxiety.” This unease manifested as he looked at people around him — mostly family — who went to college, got married, and had children. “A lot of times you kind of start to think like, ‘Oh man, like if everybody else is doing this and this is what their path is, why is it not mine? What am I doing? What do I need to do differently so that I can also relate and have the same experience that my friends and family are going through?” he said.
“We can find all kinds of companionship, not [just] with a romantic or sexual lover.”
Because of his job working in operations at Amazon, Grant typically moves every six to eight months, which is what helped him realize how self-sufficient he has been on his own. “It's hard when you're not put into a position where you have to have a good relationship with yourself, [and] to really understand what that means and how to go about doing that. For me, it was a lot of like, how do I fill my time? What are my interests? What are the things that I can do by myself to really like thoroughly, and organically, entertain myself?” he said. While he has embraced his single life, Grant has begun to date more regularly and would like an intimate relationship one day when he finds someone who truly complements him. “Although I would like companionship, I am not willing to settle for someone, even if they are a great person,” he said. “I cannot accept being with someone if I am not finding myself desiring to spend my free time alongside them.”
While there are singles who are content with being by themselves until they find a match, there are a faction of folks who are single and have completely divested themselves of the idea of romantic relationships altogether. This was the case for Lisa, a 37-year-old therapist based in Colorado.
The pandemic was the “defining moment” for Lisa, who has been single for most of her life, for her to accept that being in a relationship wasn’t what she actually wanted. Before the pandemic, she had been in a relationship with someone for two years, and last March it finally became clear what she wanted her life to look like. “I don't want kids, so the traditional family trajectory wasn't something that I was going to do. I've known that for a while,” she told me. “And then something this last year really clicked in and the whole traditional, romantic, sexual, whatever partnership, one person is your everything. Yeah, I'm not interested in that. That's not what I'm doing.” Lisa said her partner wanted to be prioritized above the other relationships she had in her life, which wasn’t going to work for her. “I've already built up these other relationships that are just as important, if not more so, and that led me to recognize, ‘Oh, wait a second. I could actually structure my life so that I don't need that one person.”
Right now, Lisa lives with two other people. They were all working from home and naturally “shifted into more of an intentional living space, which I think we all were looking for.” Together, they cook and share meals together, have deepened their bonds, and have tentatively discussed plans to live in a communal environment long term. “We have very similar values, we want very similar things for ourselves,” she said.
Breakups can be especially brutal — to the mind, but especially the heart — and for some, it can be hard to pursue romantic love with the same amount of enthusiasm once you’ve been burned. This was sort of how it went for Elyse, 35, an administration analyst living in California who has been single for eight and half years. “I grew up on romantic comedies just like everyone else and I always believed in the happy ending, but now at this stage, I know that it's not the rule,” she told me. “It's more of the exception.”
Her ex-boyfriend, Elyse said, was someone she had dated, on-again, off-again, for about a decade. They had progressed to a point where she thought this relationship would be forever, but when all was said and done, the vibe from her ex was pretty much an “‘I love you, but... kind of thing’ on his part.” For a while, the fact that she had thought this person loved her unnerved Elyse, which made her doubt herself and her own feelings generally. “The thought that I felt loved, even though it wasn't there, I didn't trust my judgment anymore. You know, it was kind of like, if I believe that, what else will I believe that isn't true?” she told me. Time has helped Elyse get over the breakup and, in the last few years, she has been able to dispel some preconceived notions about relationships that weren’t helpful.
She credits reading articles from the “Every Single Day” series by the former Refinery 29 dating and relationships writer Shani Silver, as well as simply allowing herself to view the idea of relationships from a different perspective. She ditched what she calls her “woe is me” attitude and began to be inspired by how her single friends were living their lives. “I saw that [being single] wasn't something to fight against. It was something to experience.”
Like Elyse, a lot of singles I spoke with had had revelations about themselves and what they want out of life. Silas Atkins, 42, does business-to-business customer service for a living, and for the last two years, he has been divorced from his wife of nearly 20 years. “I realized I did not know what I wanted for myself,” he said, “let alone in a relationship. I felt it was time to explore what I needed and could bring to a relationship.” The relationship had been rocky in its waning years, he said, and it became especially clear they were no longer a match because they had different views on social issues. Atkins told me he had become more invested in causes typically championed by marginalized communities, including being an advocate for Black Lives Matter and paying closer attention to systemic issues that plague minorities in the US. “I've just seen [the] other sides of things, that prior to this, I was privileged enough not to have to. I want to be able to know exactly what I want romantically, as well as have these passions and find someone who will be a better match for that, because my ex is very much on the other side of [social issues].”
“I was like, I'm in a relationship. I should be happy. So this should fix me. This should make me feel better. And of course not at all what happened because that's not how life works.”
Now that he’s single, Atkins said he has been able to recall unhealthy patterns around dating that he wants to squash before getting into another intimate partnership. “I approached every relationship in the past as if they were the one that I was going to marry and be with for the rest of my life, whether the signs were there or not,” he said. In fact, before he met his ex-wife, he said he had just gone through a bad breakup and admits he stayed in the relationship for so long because of comfortability and familiarity. “I'm taking time being single to realize that I need to broaden the type of person I'm looking [for], because I recognize that I grew up looking to date people that were like me,” he said — i.e., other white people. “And so broadening my scope is an important aspect of being single right now,” he said, “really resetting everything about the dating scene and really recognizing for myself what is it I need and how can I find someone who is willing to provide space for me to get what I need, not necessarily give it to me, but provide space. And so if I can do that and find that person that should get me to the place where I can, then, also provide that space to them, and have it be an actual, mutually beneficial relationship instead of a crutch.”
Like Atkins, a woman named Willow, 28, who has been single for seven and a half years — a fact she said that garners both confusion and awkward silences — once thought of herself as a hopeless romantic, but not anymore. Her depression and anxiety were exacerbated after the breakup, but there was another issue: She had come to believe that a romantic relationship should make her feel whole. “I was like, I'm in a relationship. I should be happy. So this should fix me. This should make me feel better. And that's of course not at all what happened because that's not how life works,” she said.
It took Willow a couple of years to get over that breakup, and in the intervening years, she simply hasn’t had much of a desire to actively pursue a committed, intimate relationship. Life has opened up for her in ways that it likely wouldn’t have — or would have been more difficult to navigate — had she been with someone. “Before the pandemic and everything, I moved to a new place, I got a new job, and a lot of things in my life changed for the better,” she said. “I don't know if I would have had the strength to do all of those things had I been trying to appease both myself and someone else.” ●