Unpartnered during a pandemic: What we don’t say

Technically I have been a legal adult for almost 30 years now, and there is one truth that has stayed with me in all my years of said adulthood: Truth and vulnerability are not prized in adult American culture.

Sure, words like vulnerability get thrown around in certain self-help or New Age communities, but for the most part, adults aren’t comfortable speaking their own truths or admitting to vulnerability. Which is why we label the few who do as brave when, in fact, they are doing what most of us should be and very much could be doing. We all have that kind of ability to be brave, but we let that “peer pressure” voice of socialization make us doubt that for myriad reasons. We don’t choose this kind of “bravery” because it’s scary to us, even though it shouldn’t be. I mean, it’s not like taking on a group of Proud Boys in hand-to-hand combat or marching in protest when you know police will likely be showing up with pepper spray and tear gas and worse.

In the pre-COVID world, the wheels of capitalism kept many of us busy enough that it was easy to ignore the lack of truth and vulnerability in our daily lives, unless we were on our own personal journey to wellness. Even then, truth and vulnerability were typically confined to discussions with our therapists and maybe one or two good friends.

It was much easier to keep the conversations over drinks lighthearted, even when our hearts desired depth and openness.

Then COVID struck and suddenly all the coping mechanisms for avoiding our own truths were no longer available. No nail salon visits, tips to the gym, drinks with friends, dinners out—you get the picture.

Many of us were suddenly at home, day in and day out. Either with kids, partners, family members, roommates, just ourselves or various combinations. The world was turned upside-down in March and most of us were nowhere near ready to handle the reality of living through a pandemic in which the leadership was absent and the emphasis on a speedy return to normal was the dominant theme.

And when we did try to speak about the truths we were facing, only certain truths were allowed into the discussion: the toll on working mothers, the impact on kids and their education. and the loss of work for many. Along with the toll on our healthcare system and, again, the economy.

Any other truths were considered “frivolous” or not worthy of being a part of the larger conversation. Which is why the many millions of unpartnered adult voices have been largely absent as far as impact and the human toll.

However as an unpartnered adult with joint physical custody of a teenage daughter, I have struggled with the lack of conversation around the reality of living through the pandemic as a single adult. In fact, while I have long thought about penning a piece on navigating our current reality alone, it wasn’t until I read this piece a few days ago that I felt moved to really talk about it.

In this moment, we are all struggling; no one is untouched by this pandemic. Whether directly or indirectly, this is the hard stuff of life that you can’t imagine dealing with until it happens. Everyone’s mental well-being is also being impacted, even those who are consciously choosing to live their lives as if COVID were a hoax. There is no escaping this coronavirus, since even if you are self-medicating with legal weed, wine or extra ice cream, there is no place on Earth immune to the pandemic and virtually no place untouched (except maybe Antarctica and some of the deeper recesses of the Amazon rainforests?).

The thing is, while we are all impacted, we don’t all have the same tools to navigate in this storm, owing to the fact that resources and support are in short supply and for unpartnered adults, the support can be even less.

In the beginning we were all in this; we were actively connecting with our people—remember the weekly Zoom happy hours or tea times? But as the pandemic continued and we grew tired of Zoom for work, school and every aspect of life, those weekly social moments started to fall off especially as the world reopened (way too early in most parts of the world) in our COVID reality.

Which meant for the unpartnered, life changed. Technically, doing anything with people who aren’t in your household carries a risk, but what if there are no people in your household or, in my case, no adults? That means the long stretch of solo during COVID  has continued unabated.

Summer and early fall were a bit of a reprieve for many, including myself. While I couldn’t host friends or share a hug, at least we could sit outside, spread out and see each other. But it’s been a good seven weeks or so since my last social-distance visit and with winter officially here in Maine, I can’t imagine an outside social distancing gathering until late March at the earliest.

In many ways, I am one of the fortunate ones.  I am still employed, and while I have seen a drop in my speaking income, overall work keeps me busy enough during the week that my days fly by. My daughter is with me for two- or three-week stretches, switching off with her dad, and so on. When she is here, active-duty parenting, when paired with working from home, mitigates some of the discomfort of not having contact with adults unattached to my work. Though when she is with her dad, the evenings are long. Some days, I just stop for a meal break and keep working until bedtime, because as someone who is equal parts introvert-extrovert, too much solitary time is hard on me.

But the thing that I find myself missing the most is touch. My daughter’s hugs, while amazing and life-giving, are not the same as the adult touch that was once common. Comforting touch, sensual touch, touch of affection—I miss it all. Though what I increasingly find myself missing the most, and what is apparently the most taboo to acknowledge, is missing sex.

To be an unpartnerd adult who admits to missing sex almost 10 months into this pandemic is to hear partnered friends talk about how tired they are to even try to have sex. A dear friend  who is sheltering in place with a husband and kids told me how she envies my spaciousness, as she is “touched out” between the kids, working at home and then the husband. I  can jokingly admit that I may have actually thought about offering to take her husband off of her hands every other Saturday, but figured that would not go over well.

Seriously though, I have talked with enough unpartnered adults in recent weeks and most are having similar feelings to me—but all say that it feels frivolous. Especially those who are maintaining financially at this time, but I am pushing back on that.  We are all living through hell and doing it alone is hard. You can love your kids, assuming you are solo-parenting, or joint-parenting as I am, but your kids are not your partners. Our job is to take care of them and be their emotional supports; our kids aren’t (or shouldn’t be) our emotional supports. In fact, if you as an adult are sharing heavy emotional burdens with your underaged children, I will just say that I don’t think that’s cool.  An online acquaintance who is a single mom told me that when she expresses her feelings of how hard it is to be alone during this time, people always bring up her kids. No, kids are definitely not partners.

As an unpartnered adult, after almost 10 months of pandemic life, I am realizing how most of my social needs in my post-married life were met outside of my house. From the cocktails with friends to brunch to just sitting in the island cafe, shooting the shit with other island residents. All things that are not feasible at this time. Also, as I have learned, partnered friends with kids at home increasingly have neither the time nor space for connection beyond a text or a message. Where previously they could make space to go out and meet up, those options aren’t on the table at this time.

While we are all mourning what was, as far as our pre-COVID lives, we need to make space to hear all voices. While our culture functions and assumes we are all living lives where we are in houses with adult partners and kids, that has never been reality for many and COVID is making that clear. Increasingly, more adults are choosing to live alone, and we are doing them a disservice in this pandemic when we don’t acknowledge their reality in navigating this pandemic solo. Many of us were pretty content with our choices in the pre-COVID world, but our current world is not that reality, and despite what the media says, we can easily be another year or more away from a return to a world where meeting up with friends to break bread doesn’t feel like playing Russian Roulette.

It’s not a weakness to admit that in this pandemic, being alone all the time can be lonely and overwhelming—that there really is a thing such as touch deficiency and just a longing for someone to truly hear you in these times and maybe just give you a hug.

So I will admit it: I consider myself to be in pretty good emotional and mental shape (shout out to all the fabulous therapists who are holding us down)  but there are days when I would give anything to just cuddle on the couch with another adult and to banter back-and-forth over Netflix.

While I chose to leave a marriage of almost 20 years and settle into single life at middle age, I had no idea that I would be doing it in a pandemic that requires staying away from other humans. I had no idea that my world would essentially be reduced to my physical home, which would also serve as my work place. It’s a lot and yet our survival requires it—but survival is also acknowledging our emotional and mental needs.

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