When my husband died, I vowed to stay single in my after-life. Not because I was grieving, but because domestic partnership was something I had no interest in doing again. My marriage was traumatic in a way that I wasn’t fully cognizant of until it ended abruptly and my need to raise my four children in a household free of toxicity became my first priority.
My vow to stay a single mother would not mean limiting myself sexually and emotionally. I decided I would keep lovers — non-committal but satisfying short-term pairings. What I came to find was that this decision, which steered me away from the kind of relationships I was conditioned to accept as status quo, would lead to the least toxic and most beneficial relationships I have ever been in. They would be non-monogamous. Queer. Sex-positive. Often involving multiple partners — sometimes together. They would be shameless. Transparent. Communicative. Respectful and loving in a way I didn’t think was possible. They would be long-distance. Short-distance. Boundaried. Safe. Liberating and paradoxically stable. And always outside my home.
Within months of casual dating, though, I fell in love. He met my children; he came to our home. But because he lived in another state and was only in my hometown of Los Angeles part-time, it still felt safe, like I wasn’t overcommitted. In order to preserve my quest for casual, we continued to see other people, to explore non-monogamy. But when he moved to LA, something shifted. I realized I was not capable of a “normal” relationship. That the boundaries drawn at the beginning weren’t enough. Our relationship began to resemble something I didn’t want, and I ended it rather suddenly. As it turned out, relationship security for me would come from separating “church and state.” Since then, I have kept my intimate relationships apart from my children.
It is often expected of women, especially single mothers with children, to yearn for stability — “get off the apps” and “find your person.” But often, conventional relationships don’t benefit women. I have watched many heteronormative marriages dissolve in quarantine for this reason. Women are tapped out. We do not have the energy to support the emotional demands of husbands, especially when we are doing the bulk of the domestic labor, not to mention holding down jobs.
Beyond that, so many single women are traumatized by our past relationships. We know what we want, and certainly what we don’t want going forward, but seem to be unsure of how to ask for it, or even if it’s out there for us to find.
I know that, at this stage of my life, I desire intimacy. Support. I want to fuck. I do not want to recommit, remarry, cohabitate, or bring my partner(s) home to meet my family. I know I can have all these things, even if — as a woman, as a widow, as a mother — I’ve never been encouraged to seek them out.
There is nothing new to keeping lovers or having short-lived relationships with people who do not need to become more than what they are. And yet the binary expectations for mothers of young children, the assumption that stability for us means long-term partnership, monogamy, even cohabitation have made it nearly impossible for us to look beyond social expectations and build connections that actually benefit us. The patriarchy has conditioned us to feel incomplete without permanent partnership, coercing us into presumed stability, even when it proves unreliable, insecure. And when a woman refuses to conform to this expected ideology, she is often deemed broken or fickle, a commitment-phobe or a whore.
And while I was young when I married and had children, in the same way I became widowed relatively young, my search for something that works better for me isn’t just about me, and it isn’t only people in similar situations who are dying to get out there and explore. I have spent the last two years speaking at length to women of all ages — single and married, partnered and widowed — who are eager to experiment sexually. Many queer women are coming out of monogamous hetero relationships without having ever experienced queer sex. Many straight women are finding themselves at the very height of their sexual prime with limited experience. Many more are only now trying to untangle patriarchal norms from their conception of who they are, and who they’ve been conditioned to be.
As women reimagine who we can be, we are prioritizing our pleasure and learning to be unapologetic in our desire for non-traditional relationships that are just as valuable — if not more — than long-term monogamous partnerships. There is so much emphasis on time investment when it comes to relationships. We validate long-term partners and scoff at one-night stands. We assume that one great love story is more powerful than a dozen shorter ones, and that in order to find happiness we must partner up and stay together, for better or for worse — even when things get worse than we could have imagined. This happily every after narrative does more harm than almost any other I can think of. It whispers in the ears of miserable wives: Stick it out. It insists that leaving means failure and sacrifice is a sacrament.
But, forming emotional attachment with short-term partners is actually an incredibly expansive feeling. In fact, I’ve arguably grown more from the relatively short relationships I have been in since my husband died than I did in my 13 years of marriage, because now I can be honest with myself. I can live shamelessly within the boundaries of my own construction while destroying the societal boundaries I have always felt uneasy within.
Drawing boundaries can be tricky when you fall in love with someone. There becomes an almost knee-jerk desire to let the people we love into our hearts and homes. Love feels like that. Like in order to realize the full effects of its potency it has to bleed all over you. To coat the entirety of one’s everything. To become the glue that merges lives.
But that’s only because we have so little imagination when it comes to creating our own version of what works for us. Therein lies the beauty of short-term relationships, lovers, and one-night stands. We can give what we can to each other without feeling obligated to give any more than that. Having that freedom can be an extremely rehabilitating experience, especially after a failed long-term relationship. Creating safe relationship spaces on our own terms after spending years in dangerous ones is what growth is all about.
Reconciling with my desire to explore intimately, even lovingly, with short–term partners who are transparently on the same page has been revelatory. Beyond that, separating myself as a mother and lover feels not only necessary, but also natural to me. I can stay present on both sides of the Venn diagram, but what I learned from that first experience with a lover-turned-partner is that something changes in me when they overlap — I feel overwhelmed by the need from all parties at once, unable to stay present, torn between my mother/lover selves. And as the only parent to my children, staying present with them is non-negotiable. When I am home, I am theirs. And because I am their only living parent, it is even more important to me to stay available to them. To keep my door unlocked.
By keeping relationships on the periphery, some might argue that I am missing out on love. But in actuality, it’s the opposite: For the first time in my life, everything I am doing is for love — for the love of my family, yes, but more importantly, for the love of myself. At almost 40, I am finally able to recognize what it is I truly want and how much it differs from what has been expected of me. I am living a life where the only vows I’m willing to make are to myself and my children, who I am more than capable of raising alone, along with the support of the friends and family who have always been my real life partners.
Pursuing intimate relationships on the outskirts of my life, while not for everyone, is an option I look forward to having normalized, so that more and more people can seek out the kinds of partners — short- and long-term — who are as respectful of our boundaries as they are turned on by them. So that we can care less about appealing to societal norms and more about appealing to ourselves.
That, after all, is true love.
Welcome to The Single Files. Each installment of Refinery29's bi-monthly column will feature a personal essay that explores the unique joys and challenges of being single right now. Have your own idea you'd like to submit? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.