As my 9-year-old son and I were enjoying a meal at a Lebanese cafe last month, I overheard a middle aged woman say to the server: "This is my first Memorial Day weekend alone. I'm separated, and the kids are with their dad." The way in which she wore her heart on her sleeve was touching, as if she thought others might think something was amiss because she was dining alone. It reminded me of my own vulnerability when my marriage broke down several years ago.
The server expressed her sympathy.
"All my friends are married," the newly single lady said. "I need to make new friends, other women who are separated or divorced."
The night before, I had watched a video of the Southern California gunman, Elliot Rodger, who had gone on a killing spree because he believed he had been denied by women the right to love and be loved. This young man was well groomed, with a baby face, full lips, despondent eyes (not to mention, wealthy enough to drive a BMW at the age of 22), but the video has an unreal quality, as if he were auditioning for a terrible play. His laughter in particular was striking: rehearsed, vicious and deeply sad. As I watched, the knowledge that this video wasn't bad playacting flitted through the back of my mind. He would wield retribution, just as he claimed, ending the lives of several people, some of whom he hadn't met before. At the end of an earlier video, in which he observed a young couple kissing, he spat out his conclusion: "Life is not fair."
Reports mention that he was mentally ill. The state of his mental health may very well have contributed to the heightened sense of isolation, jealousy and misogyny that pervaded his mind, and his actions had previously prompted his mother to notify a counselor. However his feelings of self-pity were not without real-world context.
What happened in California underscores the huge disconnect between society's beliefs regarding singlehood and reality. The Centers for Disease Control reports that virgins make up 13 percent of males ages 20 to 24 (and I would wager Rodger is not the only young man in that situation convinced his predicament is unusual and terrible). What's more, about half of American residents are single, half of marriages and domestic partnerships fail and up to 35 percent of American kids live in single-parent households.
Single living is also on the rise, according to "Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone" by Eric Klinenberg, a professor of sociology at New York University. He writes: "Although we often associate living alone with social isolation, for most adults the reverse is true." His research makes the case that singletons are often upbeat about the freedom their daily life allows and, instead of being isolated, have the wherewithal to be socially active.
But has popular culture and our collective thinking accepted these changing social undercurrents, forget celebrating them? It would be almost impossible for a man — much less a woman — who's single to be president. It wouldn't be too much of an exaggeration to say a large segment of the nation is still smarting from the breakdown of Jennifer Aniston's marriage to Brad Pitt and is rooting for her to settle down. And during a 2012 presidential debate, Gov. Mitt Romney suggested that single parenthood contributed to gun violence.
Back at the cafe, I began to wonder whether the friends of the just-separated lady had distanced themselves from her because she was no longer married, or if she had distanced herself from them because she could not bear the new disparity between them. Both scenarios may be unfortunate and unwarranted, but the good news is, she is already thinking of ways to rebound, such as making new friends. Most people have the wherewithal to manage and even enjoy their single lives. It's a terrible tragedy that Elliot Rodger wasn't able to — that he remained so very deeply obsessed with his slightly-empty glass that he was willing to take lives over it.
Ananya Bhattacharyya is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C. Her articles have appeared or are forthcoming in the New York Times, the Guardian, the Northeast Review, the Washingtonian and other publications. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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