Mixed Feelings: Two Roads Diverged at a Picket Fence

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Dear Mixed Feelings,

I’m a thirty-year-old gay man who has never been in love or in a long-term relationship. I’ve had a series of short-term relationships that never stick. I don’t feel lonely, though. I enjoy being single. I study languages, travel, and write on the side. I’m at the gym in the early mornings and throw myself into my career. I spend evenings with friends, and enjoy catching movies or a Broadway play solo from time to time. In other words, I’m busy often, but not in the way where I can’t give something(s) up for someone.

A part of me wants a family: a good man, kids, and the white-picket fence. But I don’t know how to give up singleness. I don’t know if never having been committed to another person signifies that I may never enjoy a healthy, long-term relationship. I’ve only ever found myself committed to my hobbies, academics, and career. I don’t know how to convince myself to give a guy my time (or, rather, more time).  I don’t know how not to cut things off with a guy after three months because I don’t see things long-term with him.

At my age, at the rate I’m going, how likely is it that I will ever fall in love? How do I give up the incessant need to keep busy with my singleness and give one of those sweet guys a real chance? Is there something abnormal with me?

Sincerely,
Single By Choice

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Dear Single By Choice:

I’ve spent the past two years thinking about whether or not I should have kids. I don’t mean that I only sort of want kids. What I mean is that I see two futures and each of them is calling to me. One is essentially the life I have now: it’s comfortable, with time to write and a little extra money for travel. The other is harder to picture but it involves a lot less sleep and someone to reread all the Harry Potter books with. I know I can’t have both realities, but I don’t know what to do about that. I picked your letter because I think we’re asking different versions of the same question right now: What makes a good life?

The world we live in will have you believe that answer is obvious: a good life, the best, most meaningful kind of life, is the love, marriage, baby carriage version of life. Our entire culture is built on this narrative. It’s either marriage and family or long sad stare down an empty Doritos bag. But that can’t be true, right?

Philosopher Elizabeth Brake coined to term amatonormativity to describe “the assumption that a central, exclusive, amorous relationship” is not only normal but ideal. Amatonormativity is the love, marriage, baby carriage story of life and once you have a word for it, you start noticing it everywhere. Even the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, which is admittedly genuinely moving on first read, is fundamentally (and problematically) amatonormative:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

I’m sure we both know friendships or sibling relationships that also embody “the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family.” Certainly there are plenty of unmarried people who in no way feel “condemned to live in loneliness,” people who find real joy in single life. (It sounds like you’re one of them.) If marriage is going to be a fundamental part of our culture, then everyone, regardless of orientation or gender identity, should have the right to marry—but we don’t have to offer this right while also implying that not marrying is a sad lonely failure of a life.

My ex-boyfriend did a master’s degree in planning, which meant that he helped people make decisions for a living, and whenever I was struggling with a decision, he’d say to me, “Don’t confuse your alternatives with your objectives.” It may be the most enduring thing I got from that relationship because I come back to this piece of advice all the time. Amatonormativity is the elephant in every room, whispering: But have you considered a handsome husband and a nuclear family? It’s the main alternative. It’s so big and so imposing that it’s hard to even see your objectives.

For the record, it’s totally okay and even great to want to get married and have kids. But it’s also totally okay to want neither of these things. Being busy, single, and totally happy about it is definitely not abnormal.

You know that Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken”? Of course you do. It’s probably the most read poem in America. Actually, the Paris Review calls it “the most misread poem in America” and I think they’re right. Most folks read Frost’s poem as an encouragement to take the road “less traveled by”—follow your heart and buck convention!—but in fact, as David Orr points out, if you read closely you’ll notice “the two roads are interchangeable”: there is no less traveled path in Frost’s poem. The whole article is worth reading, but this is the part that stuck with me:

The speaker will be claiming “ages and ages hence” that his decision made “all the difference” only because this is the kind of claim we make when we want to comfort or blame ourselves by assuming that our current position is the product of our own choices (as opposed to what was chosen for us or allotted to us by chance). The poem isn’t a salute to can-do individualism; it’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives.

When I read this I feel a kind of existential relief, because you and I and Frost’s narrator are all the in same position and it’s a position of relative privilege. So much is “chosen for us or allotted to us by chance.” I only have to go back a generation or two to find women who could not choose whether or not to have children. You only have to look back a few years to find gay men who had no hope of the picket fence dream you describe. Choice is always a privilege, even when the choice is difficult. What I love about Brake’s critique of amatonormative culture is that it requires us to acknowledge all the paths in the woods: so many ways to make a life, many of them good.

So, if there is no best path, then what? What matters here? Well there’s some convincing evidence that what matters is intimacy: human connection, even, perhaps, obligation. You write, “I’ve only ever found myself committed to my hobbies, academics, and career.” Those are perfectly great things to be committed to, but the thing that seems to matter most from a making-a-happy-life perspective is commitment to humans. As Harvard researchers found in a study of over sixteen hundred people over eighty years, “close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives.”

Romantic relationships are one path to intimacy. If you do want to fall in love, I’d encourage you to try a little harder. Think about that “good man” who lives in the house with the white picket fence. How does he spend his days? What matters to him? Download an app or two. Have high standards. And then try going out with a few guys who fit that profile. If you meet someone really decent and kind and fun and you get restless after three months, give it a fourth. Just try it.

For other paths, queer culture is a great place to turn. As psychologist Bella DePaulo points out:

Over the decades, the LGBT community has been showing the rest of America how to think about family in big, broad, expansive ways. They have been demonstrating what it means to value many kinds of relationships, and not just romantic ones.

If you decide single life is not for you, that’s fine. Mentor someone, or join Big Brothers Big Sisters, or host a big dinner once a week and invite some people you really like.

Here we are standing the woods. Which path should we take? As Frost points out, if you’re lucky enough to have two inviting paths ahead, you’ll probably look back contentedly on whichever you choose. This is good news for us both. But of course the two-path choice is a false dilemma. Life is made up of a billion tiny decisions made in the face of powerful forces beyond our control. As the Harvard study demonstrates, there are many paths to a good life, but human connections are what matter:

…ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.

To have a good life, you don’t need kids or a husband or a picket fence. You just need to find people who matter and keep walking toward them.

Yours,
Mixed Feelings

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Mixed Feelings is an advice column that draws on science, economics, philosophy, and psychology to tackle relationship issues. If you have a question for Mandy, send it to [email protected] or submit it here.

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Rumpus original logo and art by Max Winter.


Originally from Appalachian Virginia, Mandy Len Catron now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Walrus, along with literary journals and anthologies. She writes about love and love stories at The Love Story Project, and she teaches English and creative writing at the University of British Columbia. Her essay collection How to Fall in Love with Anyone was published in 2017. More from this author →