There are an increasing number of resources for singles–resources that do more than help you get hitched. The best books for singles take a thoughtful, researched-backed approach to understanding the complexities of single living. One of those books, The Lonely Hunter: How Our Search For Love Is Broken, was written by Aimée Lutkin. In this episode, Peter McGraw speaks to Aimée about relationship, loneliness, and how our search for love (or lust) is broken.
Listen to Episode #120 here
The Lonely Hunter
There are an increasing number of resources for singles, resources that do more than help get you hitched. The books that I have found useful take a thoughtful researched-back approach to understanding the complexities of single living. Occasionally, I profile an author doing that. In this episode, I speak to Aimée Lutkin. She is a writer based in New York City and her work has appeared in Elle, Glamour, Jezebel, and Marie Claire.
She is the author of the book, The Lonely Hunter: How Our Search for Love is Broken. She speaks thoughtfully and eloquently, especially about the myths of loneliness. She also turned the tables on me and asked me some tough questions about my relationship goals. Also, the bonus material is back. Aimée tells a story about a dinner party experience that might be familiar to you. It is posted in the SOLO community, which you can join at PeterMcGraw.org/Solo. I hope you enjoy the episode. Let’s get started.
Thank you so much for having me.
I want to be completely transparent. I want you to be my friend.
That is so nice when people say that.
I have a habit of forcing my friendship on people, not in a creepy way so let’s hope I can succeed maybe by the end of this.
That is brave. Haven’t you felt the organic situations that happen when you are young that make you meet people you like and who you can connect with as a friend? Also, the free time to be a friend gets less popular, so you have to put yourself out there to make new friends.
I do it all the time. I see potential in you. For the audience, I know Aimée from her book, The Lonely Hunter: How Our Search for Love is Broken, but we are also Twitter pals. I get to see a glimpse of how she is living her life via her Twitter feed.
I mostly tweet when I am feeling either sad, lonely, or obsessing over a TV show, so my Twitter feed probably presents an awkward version of me. On Instagram, I am much more optimistic.
There is a Mark Twain saying that the secret source of humor is not joy. It is sorrow. There is no laughter in heaven, so you are probably much funnier on Twitter than you are on Instagram.
That is probably true, and I also agree. People who have experienced depression throughout their life do not have a better sense of humor about things because they know how quickly a good feeling can go. You have to enjoy it when it pops up.
Let’s hope we have lots of good feelings here. Let’s jump right in if it is okay. What inspired you to write this book and explore this concept of dating, coupling, and, frankly, loneliness? What is the inciting incident?
I was on a show. My friend, Glo Tavarez, did this show about how she hates books. She asked me to come on as an author. She interviewed me about my book. She asked, “Why did you write this?” I was like, “The honest answer is I was blogging and someone offered to publish a book so this is my chance to make a change in my career because I have blogged for years and I am tired of it to a degree.”
I love when I get to write something in-depth and special to me, but a lot of it is like any job. You are like a cog in a machine, so I was like, “I will write this book. I am going to be an author.” The reason on this subject is that when I first started blogging, I had the opportunity to write a lot about loneliness in my own experience with loneliness.
At that time, I had not dated anyone in six years. I had sex once in that interim, so I had this perspective of what it is like to be growing older and not doing all the things you are told you are supposed to do as you grow into an adult relationship or romantic relationship. There was such a response to these essays. A woman reached out to me.
Susan Golomb, my agent, was like, “I saw your essay and I think there is an idea here.” If Susan had not reached out to me, I might have kept writing about the subject. I do not know if I would have thought to write an entire book about it, but once we started working on the proposal together, I was like, “There are so many things that tie into the idea of loneliness, solitude, and singleness.” It shows the intersectionality of the topic, so it was fascinating.
You called this The Lonely Hunter, which is a clever name, but it is not an automatic I-get-it type of name. What is the origin of it?
It is based on the poem. When I first read it, it was like somebody talking about making a decision, whether or not they want to join the world or if they want to retreat. I did not understand the actual meaning of the poem because I am not that good at reading poems, but when I looked into it more, they are talking about their lover who has passed away. They are deep in the heart of summer. Life is good to me still. My heart is a lonely hunter and it waits on a lonely hill. They are like, “Should I participate in summer or should I un-alive myself?” It is a very dark poem.
When I read it, I related to this tension of feeling like, “Do I accept what is in front of me with joy and move into it, or do I stay trapped in these sorrows and darkness in the past?” A lot of people are in that tension. It is hard when you are a single person to accept your life because there are so many things discouraging you from doing so and pushing you to do a different thing to live a different type of life. That was part of it, and then also, we are constantly pressured to go on this eternal hunt that never ends until you have your happily ever after.
It is freaking exhausting. It invalidates anything else you managed to do on this journey. I felt myself. I was constantly searching for this culmination to all my efforts as a single person to find love and romance. That was the complicated notion. Now that you pointed it out, it is a bad title for a blurb. I should have come up with something snappier.
It is not a critique. I am intrigued by it, frankly. The idea of it does not feel like a choice for most people resonates with me. A lot of the people that I talk to have to either be wired a little differently or have something happen, like some shock in their life, to make them question the default of this journey, this search, or this connection and how exhausting it can be and how it can crowd out a lot of other wonderful elements of life.
Can I ask you where you are at in your relationship journey? Are you in a relationship? Do you look for one? Do you want to remain solo indefinitely?
I have a private community and they are like, “It seems like you date a lot.” The answer is I do. I am not in search of any one thing, but I do like dating. I enjoy sex. I like romance. I am settling back into my life in Colorado and living down in Denver. I am taking a completely new approach to dating, which is 100% honest and authentic. Also, very clearly, I am not interested in riding the relationship escalator. I communicate that early and often in my profile and conversations.
It has been exquisite because I am meeting women who are unconventional thinkers, sex-positive, and great communicators. They are not sizing me up for marriage potential, so we are able to co-create a relationship, whether it be casual or more of a dating style. To be honest, at this point, I feel like I could do this indefinitely.
I understand the no marriage part, but would you cultivate a relationship where you would be like, “This is my primary partner. We live together?”
I do not want to ever live with someone. To me, that is a no-go. I do not want to say never, but I do not foresee wanting to live with someone. That also gets communicated very early. To be honest, I am finding more and more people, especially my divorce friends, who say, “I never want to live with someone again even though I want someone to be a primary partner or a monogamous partner, but not a merger in my life in that sense.” I have been trying to work with a flatter hierarchy when it comes to my dating life.
What do you mean by that?
There is this escalator. People who tune in to this often will understand this language. The people who followed you to the show might be scratching their heads, but this idea of the relationship escalator being the primary high-status relationship that we hear about in love songs, fairytales, movies, romcoms, etc., has these elements. It has consistent romantic and sexual monogamy. It is merging both your living arrangements, finances, and lifestyle, and then the last element is a hierarchy. It becomes the most important adult-adult relationship in your life.
I find myself increasingly resistant to many of those elements, but I am not sure that I want my dating partner to be any more special than my close friends or my sister. They are people who have been with me for years and who I feel great affection for and deep love for, so I find this idea of who is more important off-putting.
I understand that. My confusion is more on when you say you want non-hierarchical relationships. Do you also mean within your romantic relationships where the person you have a casual one stand with every six months would have the same meaning to you as somebody you have been dating consistently for three months?
I wonder because I do think people approach romantic relationships that way where they are like, “I do not want any hierarchy. I am not going to have a primary partner. I am not going to mess with anybody,” but we also connect to people very differently. Not everybody you date is going to feel the same to you as the next person you date. I am curious about how you think about that.
I have to say this. I am so new to it. I have not worked all of this out. When you put it like that, the answer is probably not. The person who I am spending a lot of time with and developing a deep connection with is clearly going to be more important. Put me in Sophie’s Choice scenario and it happens that way. I find myself questioning more and more.
To me, my friends are more important than strangers. There is no doubt about that. If you are someone that is having a no strings attached, healthy, and consensual sexual relationship, that is by nature limiting in terms of what it is you are going to share and what you are going to know in terms of the bond. That certainly is going to feel a little bit more temporary. In that way, the nature of hierarchy is natural.
When I was thinking about this, it is more about, “Here comes a new lover,” or a new person you have a romantic connection with, and suddenly, they displace lots of people in your life. I am reluctant to do that. I have never been bad about that because I have always been incredibly loyal to my friends, and friendships always come a lot easier to me than romance. I have never been the one who drops everyone because of a new love affair, but I am sensitive to how quickly this person can rise in prominence and crowd out others.
I understand that. A lot of people do not acknowledge how important their relationships are. In my opinion, even monogamous people are practicing emotional non-monogamy, but they won’t admit it when they describe their husband, wife, or partner as being their best friend, their soulmate, or their partner in crime.
I am like, “You are assigning all of these different roles to one person, but we all know that somewhere in this wedding ceremony, there is a person who is your real best friend, who has been the person who threw all the parties for you, and who has been listening to you go through the stress of planning this event.” We all have people in our lives who we go to when we know our partner if we are in a relationship can’t be for us. It could be family or friends. I do not think that they have to be on a range of importance either, but they have different functions, and that is normal and healthy.
It is a tall order to expect that one person to be all those things. The person in the audience who is smiling and happy for you is probably the person you are also going to call if your partner cheats on you or if you decide to get divorced. That person will still be there. They should not be diminished because you have found someone new.
Part of the reason it happens is that there is a stigma almost to your romantic partner not fulfilling all your emotional needs. You can never admit that your love or feelings fluctuate and that sometimes they can’t fulfill you because it calls into question. People are very judgmental about other people’s relationships. It is normal.
We have all done it, but in monogamous relationships, there is a lot of judgment on anybody voicing doubt or hesitation. It would be much better if we got rid of that shame and we were able to say, “I love my partner, but all these other people are necessary for us to have a functional relationship as well. We cannot exist alone as a little unit.”
I always talk about how solos need a team, both personal and professional, that supports them either in their singleness but also should they move into a couple or some other relational format. By nature, that acknowledges that that person can’t be your everything. It could happen, but it is such a tall order. There is a lot of this lip service. They make it appear to be the case, as you are pointing out rightfully. There is a consigliere area in the background, perhaps.
I like that idea of us needing a team. Single people need it and couples need it as well. This focus on couplehood is causing people to butt their heads over stuff that they both want. It can be quite isolating and lonely to be in a couple. They are not allowed to talk about that. It can be isolated in different ways to be single as well, and some of them are not allowed to talk about it either. There needs to be more communication across the aisle.
Personally, I feel I am incredibly hedged in the way that my married friends are not. You can remove any one person from my life and it does not all crumble in the same way that you remove that one person. Everything goes. With that said, sometimes, because you do not have that primary person, you can feel isolated.
Also, how many things do you get excluded from because you do not have a primary person? There is a validation to having somebody you can show up to parties with. I do not know about you. We are different ages, but I have gotten to the age where a lot of my friends are now married with kids. I have noticed that if I want to see them and they have kids, I have to go to them. They are not going to come out with me. I see couples making plans to go out to dinner together or rent a cabin upstate and I am not invited as a single person, but they would hang out with me in other circumstances. I do not think they do not like me, but it is more like, “This is for couples.”
Let’s talk about your years of not dating and not having sex that led to this disclosure or this vulnerable moment where you said, “This may never happen for me.”
I write about this too, and I have thought about it a lot because I do think that there are a lot of narratives about single people who decide, “I am never doing this.” For me, it was not a firm decision. It was almost like one little step out of what was expected that sent me exponentially off the map. It began because I had a very close friend whom I have known since I was in high school who passed away very suddenly. I got very depressed after that. The depression lasted for a while. When I finally started to come out of it, quite a bit of time passed. It maybe take a year. I changed my relationship with my body and with other people.
Before that, I had been a very sexual person. I do not think I am unattractive, but it is not that I am so hot too. It was more of this confidence that I would be like, “I like that person,” and before the end of the night, I would be making out with them on the dance floor. I had a lot of competence in myself, but when I came out of this depressive episode, I did not anymore.
Time started to accumulate and I was doing other things. I was also starting to think of myself in a very neutered way. I was not interested, but also, the more time passes, the more freakish I felt because I was being told how weird it is. I do not think we talk about how often people are single or not having sex for long periods of time in adulthood. It is quite common even in people who have had normal sexual relationships before and go on to have them again. Those dry spells are quite common in people.
I felt like a big weirdo, but after that conversation, I wrote the essay about never being able to say, “I am going to be alone forever.” I got this huge response. There were all these people writing to me and saying, “I have had the same thing happen to me. I have not been with anyone in this amount of years.” They all felt differently about it. Some of them were upset and some of them were happy. All of them felt like they were the only ones, and that made me realize how many people are going through this.
It also was a catalyst for change. I also got messages from people like, “You need to lose weight. You need to change your attitude. You are nasty.” I was at this turning point where I was like, “Everyone is telling me if I do this and this, I will be rewarded and I will find a relationship. I need to fix myself,” so I made myself start going out on dates. I went on two dates a week every week for a whole summer because it had been so long that I had not been dating anybody.
Was this in the New York City area?
Yes, I was in Brooklyn. I was doing this boot camp of figuring out dating again. It was very interesting. It revealed a lot to me about how relationships are now. I do not have one conclusion. What do you specifically want to know?
Give the audience a tease. You were going on two dates a week in the New York City area. For people who have not spent much time in New York, it is filled with beautiful, interesting, cultured, and ambitious people, and it is also filled with a bunch of weirdos, so I am sure you were getting the full treatment.
I do not think people are that weird. I have been to a lot of different cities and used dating apps in them. I have noticed certain patterns. I date both men and women. I date anyone on the gender spectrum, but on the dating apps, there are a lot of heterosexual men, so I ended up going on dates with them. In New York, there are many beautiful women and then there are men who are wealthy. The competition is steep if you are a woman to meet somebody who is available and attractive because they have so much demand being thrown at them. Also, the levels of attractiveness are so high.
It is weird because I would go to visit a different city and there would be a completely different response online that I would get from people. I went to Austin and I was being bombarded by all these hot dudes. It was strange where I felt this competitiveness, but I do not think that is super relevant to being single overall. Wherever you are living, you are at the mercy of the dynamic of people in your own sexual orientation, etc.
I agree. New York is such a fascinating case study. I have heard this from multiple people. You were meeting all these people and you were putting yourself out there in the way that you are being told to do it.
Not to spoil everything, but I did meet someone and fell in love. I am still single, so you can imagine how that went. I had not been with anyone in a long time. I have not felt that feeling of being in love in a long time. Maybe I was not in the right place to handle it in a way or I had to go through it and have it be a weird experience to learn something from it. My point in the end is that you can do all the right stuff.
You can even meet somebody you feel connected to and have a wonderful time with them and it still may not be the right fit. It is exhausting to constantly keep trying to make this thing happen you have been told will happen if you go through all the right steps. I went through the steps and I was like, “I do not know if I can do that again.”
I have continued to date since the end of this book, but it was a lot about trying and the cycle of trying, and also about what we learned through trying. I am talking about how tiring it was, but I should also talk about how much it made me think about myself, the pattern of my life, and what I was doing with my life. It made me try a bunch of things I had never tried before. I traveled. I changed jobs. I moved to LA for a few years. I lived differently because I was forcing myself to do something I thought was impossible. Maybe that thing did not happen, but a lot of other things did.
That is wonderful. I use the word exquisite, and part of the reason is that I have largely let go of outcomes. It feels much about process and feeling, and because I do not have this overarching goal, it does remove a lot of the pressure and increases the enjoyment because I can be so fully present. My only decision is if I want to see someone again, did I have a good time last time and do I want to see them again regardless of their imperfections. I date a lot of imperfect people as an imperfect person myself because I do not have to find the perfect person.
There is this tension for me with that kind of language. I agree with you that letting go of the outcome is important. I do not even disagree with anything you are saying, but there is this thing that happens that a lot of people do not want to settle down or do not want to go up the escalator as you express it. They have a get-out-of-jail-free card. I feel like I have seen a lot of people get sucked into this. It happens a lot to women with men where they are like, “He is not my boyfriend officially, but I cook for him and he sleeps over at my house.” It is almost like they will do all the boyfriend stuff, but then if you are sick or something happens, they are like, “See you next time.”
There is work to a relationship even if you are not going up the escalator. If you want to develop a deeper intimacy with somebody and you want to be able to be there for them as a friend as well as a lover, there are going to be times that are not fun and challenging. There are going to be times when maybe you do not want to see them again right away or they need you in a way that is not immediately gratifying to you.
Since we live in a very individualistic society, a lot of people practice non-monogamy in a way that is about using others as a buffet and satisfying all of their needs rather than thinking, “I am going to develop a deep relationship and an intimate relationship with multiple people because love is expansive.” Does that make sense?
Yes, it does make sense. I do believe love is expensive. I have a lot of love to give and I give it primarily to my friends and the people close to me. I am not in search of a partner for that reason per se, although I am happy to develop that. When I talk about imperfection, the reason that I bring that up is that when you are eager to ride the escalator, a date often feels like an interview, so then you are like, “This person likes this. They want to do this. This is how they want to vacation. They are not a good match,” because you are assessing them from what we need to merge in your life.
If someone has low integrity, I am not going to go out with them ever again because that is the foundational element, but if their lifestyles or beliefs do not exactly match up, then, in a sense, I do not find that threatening anymore. Once I do start to develop a connection with someone, what I have been doing is trying to practice relationship anarchy.
It is not a very good term, but I will say to the person, “I would like us to have a conversation about what are our expectations of this relationship. What is it that we want? What are the kinds of rules of engagement rather than us assuming or defaulting to them?” To me, I believe that is a very deep act of intimacy.
It builds a very strong foundation with that person because you are both opting in and setting clear expectations. It is weird and challenging because I am so new to it. Sometimes, I have to do a lot of educating about these ideas, but I do find that it works. The last thing I will push back on this is if someone wants to eat from a buffet and they are not doing harm.
I do think they are doing harm, but what I am thinking of is harm that is created through this behavior.
I think it is harmful if you are not honest about what your intentions are and what the rules are, and if you make someone think that you want romance but you only want sex. That is low integrity, but if you say to someone, “What if we just have a sexual relationship?” It is harmful if someone uses that to try to keep someone close, but if there is consent and no harm, then you can do whatever you want, and if that is eating from a buffet all the time, that is okay.
I do not think it harms you to eat from the buffet. The conversation that you described of identifying what the expectations are is important, and probably everybody should do it. Even if their intention is not to like date multiple people at once or even if you are in a monogamous relationship, having that conversation regularly is probably healthy because expectations change over time.
The ideal scenario for an escalator rider is that the two people have a conversation and they both agree that this is what they are going to do. You can be a relationship anarchist and ride the escalator. If you do that, that is wonderful, versus just accepting or defaulting to it. This is a mild disagreement.
It is important to have different perspectives on it. Also, what I am trying to express with the buffet is not a good analogy, but what I am trying to talk about is a lot of people hear about the idea of ethical non-monogamy and they think,” I can have somebody who is my partner who takes care of me and I can have as much sex as I want with other people.
I can have little spontaneous romantic trips with other people.” In an ideal situation, every other person they are doing that with would be thrilled and have that conversation you outlined with them and agree to it openly, but I do not think a lot of people are as educated in the conversation, in setting boundaries, and expressing what they want as they are familiar with the idea of hooking up. A lot of people say that they are ethically non-monogamous, but they are not ethical.
That’s fair. There is a tremendous amount of honesty and vulnerability that goes into having any unconventional relationship, so I get that. I also am sensitive that very few people do this. You live in New York, where it is a bit more of a thing. I live in Denver, where it is becoming more prominent. For the average person, the idea of being polyamorous or ethically non-monogamous seems so foreign. They are struggling with what we started out seems to be a dichotomous world where you are alone or you are partnered up, and the tension that exists in finding it, keeping it, and wanting it.
It is easy when you live in a more liberal circle or a city like New York or Denver to get the impression that a lot of people are living this type of lifestyle. I do think more couples than we realize are Dan Savage’s phrase of non-monogamish. That is very common, but usually, it is like cheating. I do think some people discuss it and maybe they are not in the “lifestyle.” They have some arrangement that is understood, but they are not open about it.
Here in New York, everyone is open about it. Everyone talks about it. It is a giant shift that is happening. I am not a prude, and I believe polyamory and non-monogamy can work, but I think the shift is happening rapidly in some places without a lot of conversation about the repercussions to people, necessarily, or what is appropriate or fair. It is interesting because I write about this in the book too. I dated a lot of people who were non-monogamous, and this is not even to the point of consent like, “We do not understand what consent is. We did not have the talk.” It is more that there is no larger cultural understanding of what this means.
If you are in a monogamous relationship and your partner cheats on you, everyone knows how to respond to that. They are like, “That is messed up. That is wrong. They are wrong for you.” I was dating a woman who was in a relationship. We were not just hooking up. We were dating. One day, she was like, “We are having some issues. We need to talk it out,” so we decided to take a pause from dating. The man she is dating has a say in her relationship with me and I do not have a say in their relationship, but I did not know that. I did not necessarily agree to that ahead of time. It may not have even occurred to her to talk to me about it.
If I told anybody like, “This girl that I am dating who is in a relationship does not want to date me anymore,” they would be like, “What do you expect?” There is not any larger understanding of why that is messed up. That is what is missing. How do we talk about what is fair on a larger scale or what is right between people? We have a much longer history of understanding what we consider to be fair or not in a monogamous relationship. You could argue about whether or not those rules are okay, but we understand them more as a group.
I agree because they have been shoved down our throats all the time. There are two problems on both sides. One is the escalator rider. This is not just about monogamy. It is about all the rules. It is assumed when you start dating someone that if it goes well, you are going to head this way. There is not enough conversation about whether we both want all those things.
I was guilty of that as a younger man when I would have a girlfriend. It would be a happy, healthy relationship, and then at some point, we have this talk where she is like, “I want to move in.” I would be like, “I do not want to break up, but I do not want to move in.” It was not okay that I said no to that, and that inevitably led to the end of the relationship because that was seen as wrong and bad.
Now we are stalled in that sense. It took me a while to figure out that that is not what I would want and that I would need to communicate that early rather than discover it later. I do think you are right. When you start stripping away the rules of engagement, the conventions demand a lot of honesty, disclosure, and agreement in order to head off the problem that you had, which I am sorry that you had to deal with that.
It is okay. It made me think about the topic in a more nuanced way. I am like, “What are expectations? What are we owed by other people?” Hearing you tell that story about your girlfriend, I am sure she reacted in the way you are describing. She was treating you like that was wrong. It was stalled, but also for her, she wanted to be with someone who wanted to move in. I do not think either one of you is wrong. You just want something different from what is happening. She reacted in a way that made you feel wrong or that there was something wrong with what you were doing.
I would not blame her for that. I would blame myself. Think about this. There are two people dating. They are in a happy, healthy, and good relationship. One wants to move in and one does not. She never felt guilty for wanting to move in, but I felt guilty for not.
What I would say is once things started to get serious, both of you had the responsibility to say, “I see myself wanting to live with somebody eventually,” or, “I do not want to ever live with anybody.”
That is the point. The fact that I did not want to move in was wrong because it does not play into the escalator, like, “This is the way it is supposed to be, and if you do not want one of those things, there is something wrong with you.” Neither of us ever said, “I do not want to live with someone,” or, “I want to live with someone,” but it is assumed, at some point, that is going to happen because that is what happens with the overwhelming majority of long-term relationships. They eventually get there.
This is an interesting question. How much are we supposed to disclose to people we are dating about what we want our relationships to look like right away? Saying, “I am poly,” is something you need to disclose right away. What if you are going on multiple dates with somebody and you never were like, “I do not want to have a sexual relationship. I just want to go on these romantic dates,” how soon do you have to tell them that? It is interesting. How much are we supposed to say right away, especially when you barely know somebody? It is presumptuous to a degree.
I can only give my opinion. I think more disclosure is better than less. It should be honest and authentic, like, “I never want children.”
You have to tell people that.
That comes out very early. That is only fair to do. By the way, that is presumptuous to tell someone you do not want to have children, but it is not a threatening thing.
It is better safe than sorry.
You could also say, “I do not think I will ever live with someone.” Also, I will never say never, but I would be like, “Do not think you are different.” If you are dead set on, “I want to live with my partner,” you should probably go spend time with someone else in that sense.
The tension for me in this conversation, which has nothing to do with you or your choices because I do not know you well enough, is that we live in a culture where we are trying as hard as we can to act as though we have no obligation to other people. That comes out a lot in romantic relationships. It is tragic because it is harmful across the board. It is not just in romantic relationships or sexual relationships. It is very easy for people to let it seep into their interpersonal relationships, not societally.
It may or may not be the case that people do not want obligations, but I will say that that could not be further from the truth for me, so because I do not want to have children or I do not want to live with a partner, I have so many deep connections where I am a support system for people. I have an ex who I have talked about on the show who I am still deeply involved with.
It was a problem that I did not want to ride the escalators as part of the reason that we struggled as a couple, but I have a deep affection for her. She is very important to my life and vice versa. There is nothing disposable about that. I am saying that if you look at my life from the outside, it is very easy for me to seem like a Peter Pan or a bachelor, but I have a lot of obligations to people. They just do not happen to be focused on a primary romantic partner per se.
I feel like COVID is an obvious example of how quickly people pushed aside any obligation to maintain a public health standard. I see that attitude in other types of relationships and other parts of our culture. I am wondering if you ever see it in this more open experience of sex. Overall, it is good that people are experimenting outside of monogamy and finding new ways and paths. Relationship anarchy and communication are good, but because we live in a culture where people are so individualistic and we see this demonstration of a lack of obligation and communal responsibility inevitably, it seeps into our sexual relationships and our romantic relationships.
There is a lot of selfishness out there. You, Peter, or I, Aimée, can work very hard on ourselves and try not to participate in it, but it is out there. There needs to be a conversation about it and maybe even what best practices there are for preventing it. Your idea of that conversation is a great one. More communication and more disclosure are better, and also honestly talking about general expectations, what is wrong, what is okay, etc.
That is fair, and my apologies if I came off as defensive.
It is such a personal subject. I am sorry if I seem hypercritical, but for me, I always try to see these things from every side, the good and the bad, because you are asked to take a side. That is true in singleness, too, where you have to either say, “I am single and I am happy about it,” or, “I am single and I am miserable about it.” You can never be like, “I have both feelings. I contain multitudes.”
I am not sure that this selfishness is limited to the individual. It happens at the couple level all the time. Married people are incredibly selfish. The act of having a family and creating children is a selfish act. You are creating mini-mes. I think that people do generally act in their own best interest. Also, as you pointed out, single people are often much more communal in how they live. I am not sure we will come to a solution.
It is a conversation. We should be able to talk about both the good and the bad. We talk about the good and the bad of monogamy because there are nice things about it. We should go and talk about the good and the bad of polyamory, too, because it is becoming the new order. That is the direction we are all moving in. Having an open critique of it as it develops is necessary to keep it healthy and functional for people.
I agree. If we can find a way to create best practices, it makes all of this a lot better for everyone involved. Let’s talk about loneliness and The Lonely Hunter. This is an idea you have tussled a lot with.
Do you want me to talk about it or did you have a specific question?
I want you to talk about it.
A lot of The Lonely Hunter is about dating and romance. I feel very torn about that but a big part of the reason is when I started getting all those emails from people. The ones who were unhappy about being lonely were usually describing being isolated. They were not necessarily describing not being in a relationship, but they would bring in the relationship thing immediately. There is a tendency to conflate the two things of being lonely and being single. They do not mean the same thing, but they are constantly tied together.
I am also guilty of sometimes using them interchangeably. It is so firmly rooted in our heads that they are the same idea, and they are not. Over time, I began to suspect that part of the reason is that single people are told that the reason they are single is that there is something wrong with them, so if they could find a relationship, they would be cured of their loneliness and be able to enter society, and that is true to a degree.
It is a lubricant.
It makes things easier in a lot of ways.
You get invited to dinner parties or weekend getaways at the cabin.
What they are describing in a lot of the studies about loneliness is they will be like, “Part of the population is lonely.” They are talking about elderly people who are segregated from society after a certain age. That is common in the US for them to remove from communities. It could be they are talking about people who are living in poverty. Those people are not lonely.
They are under the constant stress and peril of poverty. They could also be talking about formerly incarcerated people who can’t find stable housing because of housing discrimination. What they are describing is the effects of systemic issues and not being single. If it is just being single, it is like, “Get out there and meet somebody,” versus we have to change society. You can see how these are two different orders. I do think it is a larger conspiracy to make us think the problem is us versus the problem is the way society is structured.
I am so happy you brought this up. Frankly, it is lazy science and lazy journalism when people talk about a loneliness epidemic. What I am saying is loneliness is unevenly distributed.
Also, epidemic, how pathologizing is that? They are like, “You are lonely. You are sick. You are contagious. Get away.”
It bothers me. The way you have described it continues to contribute to the stigma of single people. They are like, “You are single. You must be lonely. There is something wrong with you that causes your singleness or loneliness,” which makes you even a worse person. Now you get desperate and you can’t find the thing that is going to cure you of this problem, and yet the people who are truly, and my heart goes out to them, struggling with this are not the run-of-the-mill audience of this show. Although they may have bouts of loneliness, these are people who are so tremendously isolated and have no means by which to solve this problem. It is deeply debilitating for them.
There is a truth to the idea that being lonely can have an effect on your body physically. People experience chronic loneliness, which is how we would think about having an anxiety disorder or depression. It is something in your brain that needs to be intercepted and dealt with. Extreme isolation is different from the feeling of loneliness. Loneliness is a sensation.
It is built into us like thirst. It is a directive that is saying, “You need to be in a crowd again,” because it used to be very dangerous to be on your own. You need the community of other people to keep you safe in the wilderness or in life. It is normal to feel lonely sometimes. What they are describing is usually extreme isolation brought on by some sort of social issue or chronic loneliness, which is more of a disorder.
There was one popular study by Holt-Lunstad. They kept referring to this moment in the study where she compares it to obesity. We also live in a culture that is so fatphobic. I feel like it was deliberate that everyone kept being like, “Being lonely is unhealthy if you are fat.” Everyone would ignore the fact that there is so much science about weight gain and metabolism that refutes that being overweight is the most dangerous thing for you, healthwise. It was very interesting how they tied these ideas together to make people even more isolated.
It fits the narrative. If the pressures are to couple and to build a family, then this helps with the propaganda, which is, “This is what you are supposed to be doing. You better avoid this terrible thing.” It is a convenient piece of evidence. One of the things that I came across as part of this show is there is an opposite notion of loneliness called Aloneliness. Good luck finding a journalist who wants to talk about the problem of aloneliness during a pandemic.
What is it?
Aloneliness is the opposite. It is the stress that you feel when you do not have enough solitude, when you are so connected, or people are on top of you. For example, you are a poor family in a one-bedroom apartment. You are locked in and your kids are taking online classes. You can’t leave the house because you are under lockdown. That is a damaging situation too. That is bad for people.
I have not thought about that, but I agree. I spent a lot of time alone, so I am not experiencing that.
You get many of the benefits of solitude, but people who are alonely get none of the benefits of solitude and this is bad for them. Good luck finding someone who talks about the aloneliness epidemic caused by COVID. Thank you for saying all of that. That is incredibly important because our negative emotions are valuable. When you get angry about something, you feel guilty about something, you are sad about something, or in this case, you feel lonely, it is a little bit of a signal out there that something is amiss. There might be a problem to be solved.
The difference is, for example, the guilt that I felt when I did not want to move in with my partner should not have been guilt. It should have been sadness because I did not do anything wrong by not wanting to move in. You feel lonely, so the idea is that you need to have a romantic partner. That can be the solution but what the loneliness suggests is you are lacking an important connection that you need. Some of it is the natural part of being human and social, and some of it is connected to expectations. Loneliness is highly mediated by people’s expectations.
I feel bad about myself mostly because of the way people perceive me versus what my actual life is like. I feel like I am being seen by other people as an aberration in society to an extent, as a sad case, or another one of these 30-something women that no one ever wanted to marry. That is a horrible narrative to be hearing in your head. It does not necessarily relate to my experience in a real way. When I am in that space, I feel what you are saying that it is between guilt and sadness. I feel shame instead of acceptance or compassion for myself for understanding how I got here.
There is a lot of shame that people who are not riding the escalator feel, and some of it comes from how comfortable the world is to comment, judge, and make assumptions about why you are in that place.
We have not talked about statistics, but statistically, a lot more people are single than ever before. That is the thing. We need to talk about it. It is not rare. It is very common. Even people who get married often end up divorced. People only say that when they are anti-marriage, but we do not necessarily talk about how many divorced people there are who are living single for years after they had that successful happily-ever-after moment.
Most people’s adult lives now have been single. It is the norm.
We need to make it okay to get divorced in the sense that we think a successful relationship is like, “It has 50 years. It is your whole life. It is death until you part.” There are a lot of reasons why people stayed together for so long that no longer exist anymore. A relationship that lasts ten years, you have some kids, and then ends is a successful relationship. That is fine. A relationship can be a night, a decade, or 50 years. There is no value judgment on that because it served the purpose it was supposed to serve for you.
You are speaking my language. It is so wonderful to hear this coming from you. More people need to hear it. By the way, I rub my singleness in people’s faces. The moment I get a little bit of a feel for that negative judgment, I am like, “I am done feeling shameful and apologetic.”
I have something that is maybe going to shock you. I do not necessarily want to be single. I would love to experience a romantic relationship as an adult that lasts for a long time because I have not had that in many years. I was 26 when I had my last long-term relationship. I am 38 now. I want to know what it is like to be this person who I have worked so hard on cultivating and growing and share that person with someone in a much deeper way than I have been able to in all those years. I do want to have that experience.
I do not think that is shocking. I am happy to hear that, but what I won’t do is I will not accept that being single is less than.
I do not think it is either. I think there are many experiences that we have in this life.
To me, I am also not going to make the case that it is better. To me, it is about congruency.
I do not think it is better. I am a person who is eager for experience. I love doing things. I love having relationships with people. I love getting to know them deeply. I am very interested in how people think and their experiences in life, so being able to have that particular intimacy is very interesting to me. It would be a growth experience as well. It is not that I want to use anybody for my personal growth that maybe we inevitably do, but that would change my perspective on the world to some degree. I am excited about that prospect. If it never happens, that is okay, but I still want it. There is also this demand as this voice talking about loneliness or singleness to insist that it is okay and I love it. I feel like I could go either way. It could be something else that is different and great too.
That is wonderful. If you want it, I hope you find it. That is something that people get wrong about this project for me. They say, “What happens if you meet someone? Does it invalidate all that you have done?” I am like, “Not at all.” To me, they are different paths, so it is a matter of people getting what they truly want to have.
Also, the phrase “meet someone” does not mean that someone is someone you are going to be with until you die. Maybe you will meet someone and have a wonderful but brief relationship and then you are back to being solo.
You can be solo in a relationship.
That is interesting.
That is the difference between being single and solo. Solo is more about feeling whole and having autonomy, and you can have that within a relationship. Single is about relationship status, but solo is about perspective. Let’s talk about this book. How did the process change you and how has putting these ideas out in the world affected you?
The first draft of the book was due at the end of March 2020. If you can imagine what it is like to be trying to finish writing this book during those weeks in March of 2020, I was losing it. A lot of people have said to me, “This is timely.” A lot of people are also writing about loneliness, so it is timely. It is a subject that people are thinking and talking about, but the way I experienced loneliness before the pandemic is very different because that loneliness encompasses things like dating, going to bars, dancing, or making out with a stranger.
I have lived to do those things again, and I hope to continue to do them, but for a while there, I was like, “This loneliness is so profoundly different. This is the loneliness that does not contain possibility.” It made me appreciate the other form of loneliness because loneliness with the possibility of change is delicious. It is exciting. Writing the book made me think more deeply about a lot of things and process a lot of things. I came to terms with the ways that I had not matured because I had not been dating for so long when it came to romantic and sexual relationships. I like taking such a long break, so I was almost childlike in a way when I started again.
While writing about it, I saw the immaturity in myself and my behavior. In a way, I am still on that path of growing up. The weirdest thing to happen to me was the book was also released in the UK. Times UK, who, up until now, still has not paid me, and I am about to put their ass on blast on Twitter, published an essay of mine that went viral and I was trending on Twitter. They had sent a photographer to take pictures of me. Jokingly during the photoshoot, I picked up a phone and pretended that I was talking on the phone. That was the photo they used.
I do not know if you are familiar with Times UK’s publication. I suspected they would post something goofy or incendiary, but it is a little cheeky. It is very UK sensibility. I have seen other posts of theirs go viral and it is always something horrible where they make a woman look ridiculous. I knew what I was setting myself up for, but I was still pretty shocked to see this photo of me in bed, on the phone, and they are like, “Rise of the super solos. I am single and I like it. What about it?” It was nothing that was in the article I wrote.
It was crazy to get this huge response from people who saw the photo and did not read the post itself. They were angry at single women for whatever reason and were like, “She is a liar. She is not okay with it.” There was a lot of anger directed at me. It was not upsetting because it was almost like they were hitting a piñata or an effigy of me. I was like, “That is not me. That is an idea about me,” but it is also very strange to be projected on so intensely. I saw all these people responding to the idea because people have a lot of opinions about these things. They have their own experiences.
It is a moral issue for people.
There are people who are angry, but there are also people who are like, “I am single. I am 65. I have two dogs and I am okay with it.” There were on both sides, but it was letting people feel seen and feel like they were being given an opportunity to talk about this, and that was important to them. I got a lot of emails as well. There were a lot of offers of marriage. I got one email from this woman that I have been thinking about a lot. She is 73, but she is married. She said that she left her dad’s household at eighteen for her husband’s household.
She wrote to me and she was like, “There has never been a day when I have not had to think about somebody else or have not been doing housework, yard work, or taking care of someone who was sick. I never make any of my decisions for myself. My oldest daughter is single and she is living a great life. I want to tell you that life goes really fast. Enjoy it while you can,” which is I did the opposite thing of what she was describing and I wish I had not or had an opportunity to live on my own and figure out who I am outside of a caretaker.
She did not have a choice. It would have been such an uphill battle for her.
My mom is the same age, which is weird and she is such an unconventional person, but I can see how easy it is to go along with the flow, especially in that era.
That is what you do, and especially if you were a woman, oftentimes, that is what you had to do. This reminds me. There are some data that older women who never married are among the happiest people demographically. There is a New York Times article about older single women who are not interested in marrying or remarrying but typically remarrying, whether they have lost a husband or divorced. As I can recall, the article was a pretty balanced treatment of the experience. The reasons why these women do not want to do it. One of them was like, “I do not want to have to take care of a man again.”
The demographic they would be interviewing now as older people, would have been the ones who were stuck doing so much work for men. I hate getting into this gender binary thing because it is so generalizing and not fair to so many other people, especially queer people who are living differently but the reality is it is still the norm for men to not be taught how to manage a household or how to do daily stuff taken care of. This is not even talking about cleaning and childbearing, but managing their finances or planning a birthday party.
It is obscene.
It is the labor of making a family work, which is beyond chores. They are used to sitting there and having everyone do all the work around them. They do not even see or realize it, and women do see it. They are communicating about it a lot more and talking about it amongst each other. A lot of them are freaking over it. A lot of them are like, “It would be easy to take care of this child we made by myself because I would not be taking care of you like another child.”
I say this all the time. Be careful if she starts seeing you as a third child. She does not need to keep you. The comments in this New York Times article by these New York Times readers, at least potentially some of them, were so upsetting. There was the anger, the insults, and the cries of selfishness for these women. These are not women who forewent. Some of them raised families and did all these things and are deciding that they do not do it again. It was awful. It makes me happy that the people like you are writing books like this, giving these alternative perspectives and giving people permission to feel okay about their choices in life.
That is what I want. I want people to be able to make decisions based on what feels morally correct to them with a bent towards community and thinking about obligation more as a communal effort of what we owe each other rather than like, “What do I have to do to put on a good show? What do I have to do to look like I fit in?” It is more like, “What do I think is right? How do I want to participate in making the world a more righteous or socially fair place?” To me, that is important.
Something I was thinking about those comments is it is unexamined misogyny, but I think men have a lot of fear. I watch TikTok a lot. There was a hospice care worker. She was responding to somebody talking about how women better get married or are going to die alone. She was like, “Women do not die alone. Men die alone, and if they do not die alone, it is because they have an older daughter who they had a good relationship with when she was young and she is making sure they do not die alone.”
Women are always surrounded by people who love them, like friends, family, etc. There are going to be exceptions, like the generalization thing. She is saying that men are afraid that they are not going to have a wife to take care of them and they are going to die alone because it is very common. They detach themselves. They do not learn how to have friends and connections outside of their marriage.
I have talked about this. It is upsetting and it is not getting addressed because men are so unpopular at the moment. There are not many resources directed to teaching these guys about the importance of social connection beyond the wife and their ability to parent themselves. I do see it as threatening and a real problem.
I can imagine it becoming the next talking head point of the GOP. They are resistant to any discussion of growth and these attacks on critical race theory. A lot of critical race theory is talking about the ways in which White supremacy affects all of us. When we talk about misogyny, it hurts men too.
I say the patriarchy oppresses men also. This is related to the notion of loneliness and the fact that this is a moral issue that is very threatening to the order when people start to forego the escalator. Aimée, this was great. I am not sure that I have succeeded in my goal of making you a friend, but hopefully, I am one step closer.
It was great talking to you. I thought it was a really fun conversation. I hope the audience enjoyed it.
If we had fun, they probably had fun.
- Aimée Lutkin
- The Lonely Hunter: How Our Search for Love is Broken
About Aimée Lutkin
Aimée Lutkin is a writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in ELLE, Glamour, Jezebel, and Marie Claire. She is the author of The Lonely Hunter: How Our Search For Love Is Broken.