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Episode Transcript: How To Be Single

LAURA STASSI:  00:04
This is “Dating While Gray: The Grown-up’s Guide to Love, Sex, and Relationships.” I'm Laura Stassi.

Maybe you're between romances, and that gap between the last one and the one yet to come is starting to feel too wide. Before deciding anyone is better than no one, let's talk about how to be single.

I grew up listening to some songs on the radio that were basically cautionary tales about being single. Like Gilbert O'Sullivan's “Alone Again naturally.” You know the one where the man is planning out his day after getting left at the altar. [Singing] In a little while from now, if I'm not feeling any less sour, I promise myself to treat myself and visit a nearby tower.

And jump! Poor guy can't turn to a 65-year-old mother for comfort, because she's lost from a broken heart. Then there's that song Three Dog Night made famous. It repeats over and over and over again: One is the loneliest. One is the loneliest number. One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do.

Or how about Hall – or was it Oates -- despairing about his true love? “She's gone, she's gone. Oh, why, what went wrong?” Still, he's going to, quote, pay the devil to replace her. Because no way he's staying single.

Now I understand why I was so scared to get divorced! The songs were written a long time ago, of course, but I wonder. Is it popular opinion that being uncoupled is to be avoided at all costs?

STEVE: 01:48
By the way, I happen to love that phrase, “the uncoupled single male.” Uncoupled, it's -- it sounds like I should be attached to a train headed west.

LAURA:  02:00
That's Steve. He's 63. And he's a broadcaster, actor and voiceover artist. Steve has been married and divorced twice. And since that last split about a dozen years ago, he's been on his own.

STEVE: 02:13
Wherever I go, people are asking the usual. What, where's your wife today? Or where's your partner today? Or are you seeing anyone? It's almost as if we were 40 years younger and our parents were asking, when are you going to get married? When are you going to hook up? You know, what, what's your love life? Like, that kind of thing. And it has cycled back to that at this age. And I think probably for the foreseeable future, because an uncoupled male over 60 is a rare breed.

You know, right up until October 29, 2019, when my mother passed away after some horrendous treatment in a nursing home. I became her caretaker for the last three years of her life and moved her into my place. I could very easily have gone out with folks during that time. But I really just shut down and focused on making sure that Mom's quality of life was as high as it could be. And I think for those of us of a certain age, we have to make sure that given the opportunity, we take care of the people who raised us. And that may interfere with your relationships at a certain point, at a certain age, depending on the on the age difference and if you have siblings or not. But being an only child, that's my responsibility.

LAURA:  03:47
Are you comfortable with where you are as uncoupled man in his 60s?

STEVE: 03:57
I think that I could really use a partner as my age, and I'm not really active in doing something about it. But when the situation arises, with close friends we’ll go to concerts, go to movies, we’ll go have a nice meal, all the things that people who date do -- you know, day trips, whatever it happens to be. And I believe that at a certain point, you really do need support. You need that companionship, I think there are very easily found statistics about the loneliness of seniors passing without anyone in their life. And you don't have children -- I don't have any children. And it's particularly true during the pandemic age, many are fearful to go outside the house or to go out and be social.

I think it's very important to reach out to friends who may be single, uncoupled or maybe living alone for whatever reason, and just have a conversation with them, just to just make sure that they know they are really not alone. They may live alone, but they have a lot of friends who care about them. And that, I know, for sure in my case,

LAURA:  05:31
I was gonna say, you're speaking as a, you know, “we” people need to do this for “them,” but you are a “them.”

STEVE: 05:37
Yeah, I am a “them.” I’m recommending that people do that for me as well. Some of the greatest conversations I have started from a simple text. Hey, how are you? What's up? What are you doing? There's a lot to be said about warming of the heart and raising the spirits when you're either on the receiving or giving end of that.

LAURA:  06:05
Have you ever reached a point or a period that you can recall where you just felt overall negative emotions about being uncoupled, like desperate or depressed?

STEVE: 06:18
Depression. Absolutely. I know it hit immediately after the second wife was out of my life completely. And it happened in November of 2019, after Mom passed, because suddenly the house was empty. And for the next seven or eight months, I still had a beautiful little rescue beagle who helped me keep it together, quite frankly. But when he was gone in June of the following year, that house was really empty.

LAURA:  06:52
So let me ask you this. Are you actively looking? And what are you looking for in a romantic partner?

STEVE: 06:57
Breathing.

LAURA: Oh!

STEVE: Sit up and speak.

LAURA Wait a minute…

STEVE: No, that’s a beagle. Sit up and speak …

LAURA: Oh, boy.

STEVE: That sounded so desperate, didn't it? Breathing -- wow. I, you know, I do have some standards. They could have a little bit of a wheeze.

I think what I'm looking for, I believe what I'm looking for, is someone who is a friend first, and then becomes a companion, a trusted companion. I think it goes to -- as we do a little self-analysis here -- I think it goes to a matter of trust, that I really need to know someone because of previous experiences, particularly with the second wife, where I would much rather know someone as a friend and have that turn into a real relationship, then to be tossed into almost a setup relationship, if you can call it that, through one of those sites. And quite frankly, and I know there are people who need those sites or prefer those sites, and there are plenty of them.

LAURA:  08:21
You're looking for a deeper connection. Not necessarily -- and when I say, not that you can't find a deeper connection with someone you meet online, but you want the relationship to sort of build organically.

STEVE: Yes.

LAURA: As opposed to, here's some potential partners, pick one, get to know them and see if there's any sparks.

STEVE: 08:42
You might as well put mug shots up on a dartboard if you're gonna do it that way.

(Laughter)

LAURA:  08:51
Steve also told me that the night before we talked, he was supposed to have a date. But she bailed at the last minute, said something unavoidable had come up. Later, when Steve was scrolling through social media, he discovered that “something unavoidable” was another date. She not only canceled on him, she posted about who she did go out with. So tacky. Steve is striving to stay upbeat. But I think his aloneness may be starting to weigh on him a bit.

Then there are some of us who are older and single and not thinking about dating at all.

SHERYL J. ANDERSON: 09:28
A friend of mine was like, “You need to go someplace exotic and have a fling.” Like no, Stella's not gonna get her groove back, thank you.

LAURA:  09:39
That's television writer and producer Sheryl J. Anderson. We’ll hear her story after the break.

SILVER SINGLES BREAK
Sheryl J. Anderson is executive producer, showrunner, and head writer for the hit Netflix series “Sweet Magnolias.” And, true fact, she went to my high school. Sheryl's quarter century marriage ended about six years ago. And since then, she hasn't dated at all. Instead, she's finding fulfillment through her career, her grown kids, her friends, and her faith.

SHERYL: 11:00
In terms of my career as a whole, I think the most important thing about my faith has been that it has sustained me, because it's a very challenging field. There are plenty of dry spells. We only talk about the mountaintops; we never talk about the valleys. And certainly, my faith was instrumental in how I handled my divorce. It was more a personal thing between me and God. Have I done everything that I can possibly do? Can I walk away in good conscience? And the moment of clarity for me was that it was not about my breaking a vow. It was the fact that he had already broken his.

LAURA:  11:54
I'm wondering, because for a lot of people who go through gray divorces -- women, especially -- it's like you're starting all over again. Because your kids are launched, some of us may not have been working. Did it feel like starting over for you? Or did it feel like a continuation but just as a different, you know, a piece of it was taken away?

SHERYL: 12:14
So some friends of mine created “Loki,” the Marvel show.

LAURA: Oh, yeah.

SHERYL: The concept in Loki is about timelines branching. And so I feel like my timeline branched in an unexpected direction. So there was a tremendous amount of anger. And I went, I went through this phase where I kept telling the kids, I just want a T-shirt that says, “Get divorced, get therapy, change churches,” because that's what I did. And the changing churches thing was actually about the church, we had been going to getting too conservative for our liking. But it all kind of happened at the same time. So it became my answer for everything.

Really, you're not happy? Get divorced, get therapy, change churches. But it was not fun to go through, certainly. But I do have a great therapist. I have fabulous kids who are with me now, who were with me in Atlanta for the show. The three of us have come through it well, and whole. So I don't feel like I started over. I feel like my road took an unexpected turn. But I feel like I'm still on the path to where I'm meant to be.

LAURA:  13:58
Yeah, no, I haven't -- gonna have to watch that because I love that image. Because some people say, oh, you know, it's just a new chapter. And I'm like, I felt like I threw away the whole book away. But I like the branching out imagery better. I think that that's very suitable.

SHERYL: 14:14
Well, and I think part of what I realized in therapy was that I had been working to hold something together that was more broken than I wanted to admit.

When Dan Paulson, who is the executive producer of “Sweet Magnolias,” came to me and said, “I'm interested in talking to you about the possibility of adapting these books as a TV series.” I looked at the books, and I went back to Dan and I said, “Well, this is about a Southern woman whose marriage just blew up and her trying to find her way forward with her best friends and her kids -- pretty much where I am right this minute. So let's talk.”

So that was actually, the, the big silver lining was that soon after we split, I had this cathartic opportunity to say the things I would have liked to have said, because I'm never as clever in the moment as I am, if I've got three or four drafts to get it just right. And even in Season 2, there was a moment that we filmed toward the end. I won't give anything away, but it was really one of those scenes where I thought, to have been able to have this scene in real life! But in the moment, I don't think I could have -- I think I wrote it from the perspective of having gotten past it. And like I said, good therapy, a great new church. But mostly, my kids have just been amazing. And we can talk very frankly, and supportively

LAURA:  16:20
Are you ever worried that you might be relying on them in an unhealthy way?

SHERYL: 16:25
My daughter will tell you that she went through a phase of saying, “Hi, I'm the emotional support daughter.” But I don't think I'm relying on them in an unhealthy way. It was, the actual circumstances were hard on all three of us. So we're, we were working it out together.

LAURA:  16:47
Do you have thoughts about whether you would like to find another long-term partner, if you'd like to date? Have you started dating, can we talk about that?

SHERYL: 16:58
I am not dating. I have had several friends take me out and say, all right, you need to be dating. Okay, thank you, but and I appreciate it.

What amuses me is that they've all been men.

LAURA: Oh!

SHERYL: None of my female friends have been like, come on, you need to start dating again. And I haven't quite figured out what that is. And we'll see what happens.

LAURA:  17:32
Sheryl's hoping to hear good news soon about a Season 3 of “Sweet Magnolias.” She's also developing a new TV project, a one-hour drama for NBC. She's got a lot going on in her career. But as you heard her say, she hasn't closed the door completely on dating.

But this person has.

BELLA DE PAULO: 17:52
I'm Bella de Paulo. I'm 68, and I have been single my whole life by absolute choice. I absolutely love being single. You know how they try to scare single people and say you're gonna die alone? Well, I hope so!

LAURA:  18:11
Bella lives alone, has no kids, no pets, no romantic partner. She's a social scientist, and she's conducted research, written papers and books, and given TED talks on singleness.

BELLA: 18:25
Single is my best life. It's my most authentic, meaningful and fulfilling life. To me, being part of a couple would be a smaller life, it would be a lesser life. Now I know that's not the standard way of thinking about things. But for people like me, it's single life that offers a whole wide world of opportunities.

There are all sorts of ways in which single people are stereotyped, stigmatized, marginalized, discriminated against and ignored. And I call that single-ism. I look around and see all these people who were wanting to get married or coupled, and some of them seem desperate about it. And that made me think that marriage was kind of like getting bitten by a bug. And I just had never gotten bitten yet, but if I waited long enough, I would get bitten. And at some point -- and I don't remember exactly when -- I realized no, self, this is who you are. You aren't ever going to want to put a romantic partner at the center of your life.

And once I realized that -- and it wasn't like a one-time revelation where I said, aha! It seemed to happen over time. But once I fully realized it, it was wonderful. In fact, a few years ago, the Pew Research Center did this analysis. And they predicted that by the time today's young adults reach the age of 50, 25 percent of them -- 1 out of 4 -- will have been single the whole time. I mean, can you imagine a cohort of 50-year-olds in which 1 out of 4 has never been married?

LAURA:  20:33
I'm wondering if Pew, if they mean single like, solo.

BELLA: 20:38
In that study, they were looking at married or not married. But in more recent studies, they've been looking at people who are not married, not cohabiting, and do not have a serious romantic partner. And those numbers are also going up, up, up.

LAURA:  20:56
So let's tackle some of the myths…

BELLA: Okay.

LAURA: …especially for older people.

BELLA: Yeah, sure.

LAURA: You know, especially during the pandemic, we heard so many -- you know, the social, the emotional, the physical benefits of being romantically partnered.

BELLA: 21:13
Oh, my gosh, that drove me crazy. And I went back to my single-at-heart people, asked them how they were doing, and they were doing great. I mean, they had the same -- some of the same challenges everyone did. But people who love being single love their solitude, they are great at being alone. And they are, especially the ones who live alone, they are really good at staying in touch with other people. And also people who are single often have already nurtured the kinds of hobbies and interests and passions that they don't need another person for. They might be artistic or they might -- like I do, like, I go out and walk almost every day in these spectacularly beautiful beaches or trails in Southern California. So I think a lot of that missed out on a lot of what -- oh, the wonder of coupling during COVID. It was true, some couples were very happy to be together, and they got closer and all that, but some of them were ready to tear each other's … yeah, I mean …

LAURA:  22:34
It sounds like anecdotally, you've spoken with people and being solo is, you know, they were happy, you know, as happy as anybody else could be during the pandemic. But have you …

BELLA: 22:45
The single at heart, the people who love being single.

LAURA:  22:48
But have you come across any studies or done research to counteract -- like, I remember reading something that it was along the lines of, people who are coupled do better after, you know, heart surgery.

BELLA: 23:05
Oh, those studies drive me crazy. Okay, so those are cheater studies.

LAURA: Cheater studies.

BELLA: They are cheater studies, the people who do them are cheating. Let me give you an example. So they'll say -- let's just take overall health. They'll say, oh, people who are married are healthier than people who are single, wow. What they are doing is taking out of the marriage group. Anyone who got married, hated it and got divorced, those people aren't doing better. And people who stay single typically do just as well as the people who are currently married.

Now what you really need to do – see, what people are trying to say when they say, oh, married people do better after heart surgery or married people are healthier. What they're really trying to say to single people is yeah, you are -- you aren't healthy because you're single. And if you got married, you would be healthier. So you can't make that statement with those cheater studies. What you need to do is follow the same people over the course of their lives, and see how they change when they go from being single to moving in with someone or getting married. And guess what? They do not get healthier.

And in fact, and one of the biggest, most sophisticated studies, which I wrote about for the New York Times, they actually get less healthy after they were married than they were when they were single. Same thing for happiness. Now for happiness, there's a there's a little glitch in it. Because when people first marry, they do feel a little bit happier. But then they go back to being as happy or unhappy as they were when they were single. And that little bit of initial, that little honeymoon effect, where you have a big wedding and a party and you go to a honeymoon, it's also exciting. That only happens for people who get married and stay married.

The people who get married and are headed for divorce -- and we know this because these studies go on for decades, they follow the same people for years and years and years. So the ones who went on to get divorced, they were already getting a little bit less happy, instead of happier, as the day of their wedding approached.

LAURA:  25:39
Why do you think there is a deeply invested worldview that we all need to couple up?

BELLA: 25:44
Yeah, well, look at what it offers. It's amazing! So this mythology, this ideology says, find that one person, commit to that one person, and all of your wishes will come true. Your whole life will come together, you'll live happily ever after, you'll be healthier, you'll live longer, you will be a morally superior person to those single people. And you don't have any more decisions to make. Everything's done. You know what to do. Like, all right, you married this person. Now you have your co-financial partner, your vacation plan, or your best friend, your sex partner, your -- you know, it's the person you're gonna have kids with, if you have kids. It’s like, okay, you've made this one decision. Everything is set. I mean, that's, that's compelling.

It sounds, you know, a lot of people would be invested in that. Even single people look at that and say, hmm, that sounds pretty good. Never mind that it's all bogus. Let me tell you about a great study. This was a study of people between the ages of 57 and 85. And these researchers, they thought they knew what they were gonna find. They had this hierarchy of people. They thought married people are on the top; they’re the ones who are going to be the least lonely, the least stressed, the least depressed. After that would be people who are cohabiting. And then underneath them would be single people who are dating. And then the worst, they were sure, the loneliest, the most stressed, the most depressed people would be the single people who are not even dating, you know, people like me.

And guess what they found? For the women, there were no differences at all. Those married people who are supposed to be better than me, were no less stressed, they were no less lonely. They were no less depressed. For the men -- there were some differences for the men but not the ones the researchers thought. So the married men never did better than the single -- than the co-habiting men. And the men who are dating didn't always do better than the men who were single and not dating. So the researchers thought, oh, it's a romantic partner. If you date, it's good. If you're cohabiting, it's better. if you’re -- marriage is the best. Instead, what they found was, what really mattered was if you had people in your life -- friends, family members -- that you could talk to if you needed to, that would be there to help you if you needed to, that's what determined whether people felt lonely or stressed or depressed. For men and women, if you have friends, if you have relatives who are there for you, who will help you, who are -- will confide in you or you can confide in them. That's what matters. Not if you have a person your life you're supposedly having sex with.

LAURA:  28:59
Speaking of sex, I did ask Bella if physical intimacy was important to her. She didn't answer, and that's her prerogative. She did say my question assumed that married people were having sex, but I wasn't trying to make that comparison. If there's one thing I've learned since doing this podcast, it's to never assume anything.

What I meant was that for some of us who are uncoupled, sexual intimacy might be a missing element in an otherwise happy and fulfilling life. And for me, if I'm being honest, it also would be really nice to have an automatic plus one for special occasions. Still, I'm comfortable being on my own. And I'm lucky to have a job I love and a strong support system: kids, siblings, friends. I wouldn't want to trade being solo for any partnership that wasn't equally satisfying on every level.

Good thing I've learned to be patient because I do want the best of both.

END CREDITS

Dating While Gray is produced in partnership with WUNC-North Carolina Public Radio. Our producer is Morgan Givens. Charlie Shelton-Ormond is our editor, Lindsay Foster Thomas is WUNC’s director of content, and Jenni Lawson is our audio engineer. Katy Barron edits our e-newsletter. I'm Laura Stassi. If you have a question or a comment, email datingwhilegray@wunc.org. And now you can also leave me a voicemail. Go to datingwhilegray.com and at the top right, click on “Talk to Us.” I'd love to hear from you, and thanks for listening.