Can You Be Single And Still “Be Alive?”

being alive

I have a playlist on my phone labeled “Story of My Life.” Included on this list are songs that I’ve always found to encapsulate various tipping points in my life. One of these songs is “Being Alive” from the Stephen Sondheim musical Company. The musical follows Bobby, a life- long bachelor in his mid-thirties, and his married friends. Bobby struggles with deciding what it is he wants for himself in terms of love and commitment. While at his surprise birthday party, and after the constant pressure from his friends to settle down, Bobby has an epiphany.  He sits at the piano and begins to explain to his friends, through song, why he’s so ambivalent about love. As he lists his excuses for why he continues to bounce from woman to woman, his friends chime in with their rebuttals.

You’ve got so many reasons for not being with someone, but Robert you haven’t got one good reason for being alone.

My father died unexpectedly when I was 43. As I walked off the grass at the cemetery I told myself that this was it. Now I was truly on my own. My Dad was one of the two male constants in my life. The other was a close friend from college. I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or bad thing that I was sated by such limited attention. The youngest of five daughters, I never knew what it meant to be a priority. Up until just a few years ago I’m not even sure I understood that need.  My sisters were all much older than me, and my mother got sick when I was 3. She died when I was 7. Much of my time as a child was spent reading or trying to invent new toys or playing with friends at their house. I was always sort of independent and emotionally self-sufficient.

I moved to Manhattan at 22 years old, not knowing a soul. At 23 I found my first apartment. I have lived alone since then. Want to know a secret? I like it. That’s as good a reason as any to be single. Sometimes I wonder if some people truly want a partnership or if they just want attention or someone by their side to validate their life and choices.

If you ask me, I think many of us long to be a part of the Couple Club, regardless of how vehemently we deny it. I’ve found myself looking at a Facebook status update announcing an engagement and, for a brief moment, wishing it was mine. It wasn’t the engagement I longed for. It was the moment in the spotlight that I momentarily craved. That’s not a good enough reason to settle down. Neither is the fear of being alone.

Don’t be afraid it won’t be perfect. The only thing to be afraid of is that it won’t be.

My father ended up marrying my step-mother when I was 10. At 86, my father elected to have a surgery that he hoped would help him make it to 90. He chose the surgery because my step-mother’s health had been greatly compromised due to scleroderma. His choice to go for this procedure was made so that he could be around to take care of his wife during what he believed to be her last few years. He never recovered from the surgery.

In a morbid twist of fate, my step-mother began having back pain about 6 weeks after my Dad passed away. A month later she was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. 5 weeks later she died.

If it weren’t so tragic it would be romantic. Here were two people so devoted to each other that they couldn’t live without the other. As children we read about fictional heroes who die defending the women they love. I grew up with my own real life Prince Charming. He had cared for his first wife, my mother, all through her cancer battle, carrying her from room to room so she could look out the window or watch us open Christmas presents. He refused to let anybody else take her into Boston for her chemotherapy sessions. He was by her side, always.

These were the examples of commitment that were set for me. I matured believing that this was what marriage was about: sacrifice, devotion, compromise. At 44, I’m not sure how much I’m willing to sacrifice. “That’s because you haven’t met the right person” many people say. Is that it? Or have I just become profoundly intolerant of anything and anyone who doesn’t live their life as I do?

If I can have what my father had not once but twice, I will jump right into that fire without hesitation. Anything less than that would be a failure and that isn’t an option for me when it comes to commitment.

Want something. Want something.

After my father died I was sifting through files and forms trying to organize my life. I came across a letter he had sent me a few years earlier. This particular excerpt hit me the hardest:

Now, to answer a question you ask me most of the time to which I always say it is up to you if you find someone. My real answer is that I hope so before my time is up. I would ask God for nothing more than to see you happily married.

I hate that my Dad worried that I would have no one to care for me. That’s what drove me so hard to find a partner. I lived so long fearing the idea of being alone that it led me down some really counter-productive paths. When my father died I wasn’t the mess I thought I would be. I was able to get my life together in ways I had struggled to achieve while he was alive. It was like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. The pressure was gone.

I do want something. I do. I think I’m just determined to define it on my own terms. I suppose fear is a great motivator for coupling up, but what if someone doesn’t fear being single?

Alone is alone, not alive.

I can remember someone once saying to me that I didn’t want to keep dating multiple people, likening it to a game of musical chairs.

“You don’t want to end up without a chair” he said, as if standing alone, chair-less, was a fate worse than death.

Yet another married friend scoffed when I told him that I was happy with the non-monogamous lifestyle I had crafted for myself.

“I think you still want a relationship” he said. I tried to explain that I do have relationships. What I don’t have (and what I don’t offer indiscriminately) is commitment.  While that is still a possibility for me, I have to truly want it, as my Dad would say.

It’s much better living it than looking at it.

I guess what I struggle with is the concept of how marriage and long-term commitment are the only options if someone wishes to live a full life. I certainly won’t deny the benefits of having a partner. Of course having someone to lean on and support you enhances and can improve the quality of your life. But it’s not impossible to cultivate a life that you love on your own and still reap some form of reward.

In Company, the story ends with Bobby realizing that maybe his friends were right all along. The audience is given their happy ending and everything is tied up nicely. To some, loose ends are like puzzles with one piece missing. There’s a sense that something is unfinished.

What if Company was re-written to take place today, in 2013, instead of the 1970’s when it was originally set? I wonder how the audience would have reacted if Bobby had told all his friends to butt out of his life and stop projecting all of their fears on to him. In my version Bobby turns around and flips off his friends and says, “Misery does love Company!” (Get it???) and then exits stage left. To me, that’s a happy ending. But that’s because I don’t need everything to make sense or look a certain way in order to consider it worthwhile.  The pieces I need to create the picture are all in place.

Christan is an NYC based writer and columnist. You can find more of her work at And That’s Why You’re Single.  Follow her on Twitter at @ATWYSingle

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    • jacaline

      This is fucking brilliant.

    • Lauren

      This was amazing.

      And not only did you make your point so clear that I kept saying “EXACTLY” rather loudly in my head, but you also used Sondheim to illustrate points which pretty much makes this perfect for me. And that you used Raul Esparza instead of Neil Patrick Harris also add points. Not that Neil was bad, but you went for great. I love it.

      Thank you.

      • ATWYSingle

        Raul Esparza knocked this version of this song out of the park. Every time I listen to him sing this I swoon. Thank you for the feedback. Really appreciate it.

      • Lauren

        Any time Raul Esparza sings anything I swoon.

    • Mathilde Hoeg Boisen

      There are so many articles out there reminding us why it’s great to be single, but always with an undertone of …needing the article in the first place. This was just a great reminder to love life (and people) regardless of commitment levels. And it was pure beauty.

      • ATWYSingle

        Thank you so much. I always see those articles about choosing our choice, etc and they always feel like they are justifying their choices. I think to some degree I am too, to be fair.

    • Tania

      I think if you saw your father have something that great, and know that it’s out there, it would be completely unfair to yourself not to be unwilling to settle for anything else. I love this piece. :)

      • ATWYSingle

        Thank you so much. My Dad set the bar pretty high, though. :)

    • mapglove

      Ok, this is one of the greatest things I’ve ever read. I was just talking about this kind of stuff with my therapist today and wondering if I was weird for not wanting to be alone but at the same time being happy being single & content to wait for someone i REALLY connect with and “gets” me to come along, and this totally helped me make sense of it. The only thing that really makes mr unhappy about being alone is I sometimes just want the spotlight & validation, which are probably the worst reasons to get involved with someone. only if i’m unhappy in other ways will the lack of a relationship make me truly miserable. if i’m happy on my own, the relationship just adds to it and it all of a sudden doesn’t become something one desperately “needs” anymore. super insightful, thank you!

    • loveliee

      This is beautifully written!

    • Kristine

      LOVE it. Thank you!

    • gracek

      Yes, this is exactly how I feel! I just can’t imagine ever finding anyone who would make me happier than being alone makes me. If I do meet that person, I’ll happily change my life to accomodate them, but I doubt that person exists. And the only reason I would ever want a full-up relationship (with commitment and moving in together, etc.) is because I don’t want my friends and family to worry about me.

    • eleanore s wells

      Can You Be Single And Still “Be Alive?” Funny. I ask the same thing about marriage. Different strokes…

      • ATWYSingle

        I suppose. I’ve read a lot of your work and it seems like your goal is to convince people that marriage is a joke. It’s not for you. That’s fine. But I think the way some people put marriage down often smacks of insecurity and an attempt to justify why they never got married.

    • Speed

      “I certainly won’t deny the benefits of having a partner. Of course having someone to lean on and support you enhances and can improve the quality of your life. But it’s not impossible to cultivate a life that you love on your own and still reap some form of reward.”— Moxie

      This demolishes the stereotypes that all long-term singles are chasing unicorns or
      sulking in some dank basement. There is a wide social space between marriage
      and solitude, and this kind of pioneering that Moxie is doing fits the modern
      American era very well.

      And anyway, if long-term monogamy is unavailable or infeasible at any given moment,
      the defaults are necessarily non-monogamy and other alternative (positive,
      socially enhancing) lifestyles. So I say go for it.

    • Erica

      I think this is well written, and I completely agree that no one should feel like they have to conform to what society seems to be pushing them toward if it’s not what they want. We all should be able to find a way of living our lives that works for us and fulfills our needs, whatever that might look like.
      I am not crazy about authors inserting subtle digs into articles like these, though. Another article recently about women feeling the need to be thin (written by an author who is not objecively “thin”) implies that thin girls and women are driven to “compete” with and win against other women, or that they’re driven to be thin because they feel insecure about their beauty or lack thereof. Sure, that might have been true for the author when she felt driven to be thin, but it’s certainly not true of all thin women. Some just make a conscious decision to be disciplined with their diet and exercise because they don’t want to be overweight. Nothing wrong with that, and it doesn’t say anything ugly about their motives or inner demons.
      The author of the above article writes, “I wonder if some people truly want a partnership or if they just want attention or someone by their side to validate their life and choices.
      If you ask me, I think many of us long to be a part of the Couple Club, regardless of how vehemently we deny it.” I don’t get the need to put others’ choices down, in an article that objects to others doing the same to her. I personally never felt the desire to have children, but I understand that others do have that desire, and it’s very real. I don’t assume that women who want kids “truly want to be a parent or if they just want attention or an accessory by their side to keep them from feeling bad about their lives.” Similarly, why assume that people who do want to be in relationships are just doing it to jump on a bandwagon?
      Taking shots at others like this brings a tone of sour grapes to the article and makes it less convincing that the author is secure in her choices.

      • ATWYSingle

        There wasn’t one broad generalization in this article, so I’m not sure where the disconnect is coming from. I don’t think anybody in today’s world can actually deny that some people get married (or have children) for reasons other than love. I wasn’t questioning anybody’s choices, I was speculating on the motivations behind some of those choices. Which, whether you agree or not, do exist.

    • Sheila

      Very good article. As far as you wish for a different Company ending, the original song was much more along the lines of “Guys, whatever. Single is fine.” They cut it & replaced to please the audience. I know this because Sondheim is my God. Here’s the song. I hope you enjoy it. :)

    • MermaidFornicator

      So stay single while you search for that special unicorn who
      exists only to make your life better & take care of you? Don’t settle for
      anything less than perfection? Good advice. *Rolls eyes* Or maybe what your dad
      meant by “truly want it” is that you would stop having such
      unrealistic expectations, stop being so intolerant and selfish and realize that
      you need to provide something in a relationship that involves commitment.

    • Ellen Williams

      Do everything that gets you noticed. Looks become very important initially. So, be careful about wearing the right kind of dresses, shoes and make-up that suits the occasion you are attending. You must keep in mind, that rich men are constantly in demand and women tend to get in and out of their lives. Therefore, remember to be a little unique. Create a positive impression and make him a little curious about yourself. Do not express yourself completely to the man. Simple.

      E Williams