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Singles and Couples Are More Divided Than Ever

Singles and Couples Are More Divided Than Ever
© Todor Tsvetkov/E+/Getty Images Group of friends talking and laughing
By Ginny Hogan, The Atlantic

In the proudest moment of my quarantine, I built my own bike. Am I confident enough in the structural integrity of this bike to actually ride it? No—I duct-tape most of my furniture to the wall so it doesn’t collapse. If I were quarantining with a boyfriend, would I have insisted that he step in to help around hour seven? Absolutely.

I’m living my peak singlehood. In the Before Times, I was always casually seeing and/or fighting with some lucky man. Now, for the first time in my life, I’m not only single; I’m incapable of changing that. Meanwhile, romantic cohabitators have ascended into the most heightened form of coupledom. “At this point, I don’t even remember how to shower alone, so it’s hard to imagine spending a night without my significant other,” says Caroline Doyle, a 25-year-old comedian in New York City.

There isn’t space anymore for the type of dating I used to like best: casual, in between. The only two options left are Alone and Together. In our heightened states, I’m noticing the tension between me and my coupled friends as I struggle to understand what it’s like to quarantine with a partner, and they struggle to understand what it’s like to quarantine without one. I worry that the chasm between the singles and the couples is growing too wide to cross.

Social media has aggravated the divide. “I see the phrase There's no one I'd rather be quarantined with a lot,” says Lizzie Logan, a 28-year-old writer in New York City. “If you're so damn happy together, get off the internet and go have sex.”

Isolating with a partner creates genuine challenges, despite the gushing you might encounter online. “Quarantining has amplified any issues we’ve had in our marriage,” says Jen Tokaji, a 44-year-old office manager in Los Angeles. “It has really made the division of household chores and child care even more divided.”

Complaints like Tokaji’s are clearly valid, but that doesn’t mean the singles aren’t bothered by them. “When [couples] complain about relatively benign things and use hyperbole (‘We might kill each other by the end of this!’), it's kind of condescending to single people who don't even have the option to potentially murder their spouse/partner,” says Brooke Knisley, a 29-year-old writer in Boston.

Some couples have also irritated the singles in their lives by using “relationship privilege” to flout quarantine best practices and travel within or between cities. “One of my roommates had her ex-fiancĂ© stopping by up until a couple of weeks ago, which seemed pretty risky,” Knisley says. Knisley was especially worried because she’s immunocompromised. “It's a bit irresponsible, doing the back-and-forth thing,” she said. While some roommates might be fine with this sort of arrangement, using a relationship as an excuse to ignore social-distancing guidelines can breed resentment.

Single people break the rules too (I’ll admit I have), but we must be a bit quieter about our imperfect social-distancing practices, because of the potential judgment. As with weddings, we aren’t gifted an automatic and socially sanctioned quarantine plus-one.

“In my experience, couples are way more comfortable broadcasting their willingness to except themselves from the common obligation,” says Cyrus Cappo, a 25-year-old resident of Boise, Idaho, in reference to couples who don’t live together. I’ve noticed the same thing—my single friends who have told me about seeing a non-roommate have framed it as a confession; some of our coupled counterparts agree. “My partner and I receive way less critical than some of my friends who are in the early stages of a relationship,” says Alex Cleary, a 23-year-old resident of St. Paul who does not live with her partner but sees him regularly.

I wouldn’t trade my quarantine experience to be with a partner. I’ve developed newfound independence, which is to say, I fixed one appliance one time—it was the microwave, and it turns out it was unplugged. Truthfully, I wanted a boyfriend more before quarantine than I have during it. Having someone to see a few times a week seems fun, but as Whoopi Goldberg once said, “I don’t want somebody in my house.” I can understand the benefits of a partner in quarantine—someone to share chores with, someone to have sex with. Actually, those are the only two that come to mind. Following a recent negative experience, I’m somewhat disillusioned about both relationships and men at the moment. And, I’ve always enjoyed alone time.

I’m grateful I want to be single right now, because I don’t really have another option. For those of us lucky enough to be safe at home, quarantine stopped us right in our tracks. In this game of freeze tag, I got stuck in a kitchenless sublet I intended to live in for only a few months, and I got stuck single. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has said that this pandemic is the great equalizer, but I disagree. The contrasts in our lives are made sharper because life isn’t changing—it’s easier to observe a static object.

Quarantine isn’t creating a new divide so much as it’s shining a light on an old one. Friendships between singles and couples have always hit snags and can lead both coupled and single people to have more friends who share their relationship status. “Most of my friends are in long-term relationships,” says Martina Halasova, a 24-year-old student in London who’s quarantining with her partner. “Instead of feeling alienated, it's more like I'm finally fitting in.”

Pity for single people is likewise nothing new, but in times of crisis, those who already considered relationships to be objectively better than singlehood might lean more deeply into that belief. That puts a further strain on friendships, on top of the stresses caused by separation and disagreements over social-distancing best practices. “I have one friend who keeps sending me memes about how men suck and it's so difficult being single,” says Knisley. “But she's been in a monogamous relationship for four years!”

My closest friends know I’m fine being single, but coupled acquaintances and family members have asked me if I’m “doing okay alone.” An acquaintance who complains incessantly about her partner recently reached out to see if I was “able to handle being alone right now.” The idea that I need the company or validation of a man so badly that I’d want a relationship like hers—one in which I’d be swallowing constant conflict—is genuinely offensive. I am also taken aback by coupled people I know when they say they feel sorry for singles for not having someone to talk to. I’ve been single most of my life and never once felt like I had no one to talk to.

“It is true that some single people are lonely and that the quarantine can deepen that pain,” says Bella DePaulo, a social scientist and the author of Singled Out. “But that is true most of single people who do not want to be single.” The couples expressing pity aren’t wrong: Quarantine has frozen single people who’d like a partner in an unhappy and possibly lonely status quo. The problem arises when coupled people assume that all single people are miserable, rather than determining which of their friends actually need their support.

Couples aren’t the only ones misunderstanding their friends’ feelings. Just as my friends in relationships have assumed I’m lonely when I’m not, I’ve been guilty of assuming they’re not lonely when they are. When I’ve been in a relationship, it has never negated my need for friends. Just as I feel trapped in quarantine, people in complicated, unhappy, or abusive relationships might feel trapped together. Like me, they probably crave the support of their friends, single or not.

Some of the friction we’re seeing now is due to an inability to imagine another reality. “I genuinely don't know how I would cope staying by myself all this time,” Halasova told me. I genuinely don’t know how I would cope with a partner. I don’t know what it would be like to share a bed every night with a boyfriend. (Where does the laptop go?) Perhaps the disconnect singles and couples are feeling from each other stems from misunderstanding each other’s challenges, rather than resenting each other’s choices.

I worry that the gulf between singles and couples will persist when quarantine ends. I worry that partners who had an easy time in quarantine won’t want to return to socializing with their friends. I worry that I’ll get too used to being alone and won’t want to reacclimate. I worry that there’ll be no good men left, or that there were no good men to begin with. I worry a lot.

I can set aside these worries, though, and remember that the hardships that singles and couples share—watching death tolls tick up, seeing the people we love falling sick, or worse—probably outnumber the hardships that divide us. If I had to guess, when this is all over we’ll be thrilled to hug and laugh and take a break from endless dishes and commiserate over the mind-bending experience we just had. Some things will return to the way they were in the Before Times—my friends in relationships will still try to set me up, not out of pity, but to be helpful. Some things will change—I will offer to fix their bikes, although no one will accept, which is probably for the best.

Most of my friends who reach out to me—single or not—do so with a kindness that acknowledges our collective trials. If the worst thing I can say about someone is that they show too much concern, is that really so bad? Hopefully, when this is all over, we will continue speaking to one another with this same compassion, regardless of whom, if anyone, we share our beds with.

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