I’ve just made my annual pilgrimage back home to Australia to visit with family and friends. A few weeks before departing on this voyage, I find myself getting excited at the thought of long cuddles with nieces and nephews, sneaking into bed with mum for a morning cup of tea, lounging on the couch with one of my sisters, head on shoulder as we catch up. As someone who has chosen not to have her own family, this kind of platonic physical touch feels rare and precious. In fact, compared to the other four love languages it seems to me that in Western culture at least, physical touch is relegated largely to the realm of romantic and familial relationships.
Just a few months back, watching a group of young Guatemalans walk down the street, arms interlocked or slung casually around each other's shoulders, I remarked to a friend how nice it would be to have that closeness. But rather than exploring cultural differences around expressions of love and intimacy the conversation turned – as it so often seems to do when the subject of love comes up – to my status as a single woman.
As with many of my life choices, the decision not to enter into a romantic relationship is one that does not sit easily with most people. It inevitably elicits one of two responses. Either “you should try such-and-such app”, or some skilfully-worded version of “are you getting help?”. As if the only possible explanation for my status is deficiency or brokenness, because no woman in her right mind would choose this path for herself.
Are they right? I find myself wondering in my moments of doubt. Is my single status truly a failing of Silicon Valley’s innovation, or my psychologist's inspiration? I’m not so sure. It seems to me more a reflection of a society whose collective imagination, when it comes to love, has been narrowed down by a limited set of storylines (most of them out of a Disney movie).
I offer this rebuttal to my mum, during what has now become a monthly defense of my relationship status. But regardless of how philosophical my musings or robust my responses, her answer is always the same: I just don’t want you to be alone.
Alone. What a lonely word. I certainly don’t feel alone. Or lonely, for that matter. So what, then? Perhaps this is not so much a problem with love as it is with nomenclature. The word single does, afterall, suggest a certain isolation. But the reality – my reality at least – is far from it.
Because of my choice, I find room in my life for a wider range of connections with people in various types of relationships. As both a real and honorary Aunt, I will fly halfway around the world to show up for my nieces and nephews (and their parents). I build deep and committed relationships with the people I work with. I have soulful connections with kindred spirits that span generations, cultures, languages and lifetimes for which the word “friend” feels wholly inadequate.
There's a wholeheartedness to the way I can give myself to these relationships that feels rare in a culture that prioritizes romance at the expense of all other relationships. Far from feeling single, I feel nestled in a web of interconnection. Under this definition, love has become for me something that has expanded beyond my private life and into my civic life – a key component of the way that I engage with the world. It is, I believe, what the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy is referring to when he talks about love as a form of public good.
It’s such a contradiction to the ideas of love on which I was raised. I was taught to be cautious with love, to view it as a scarce commodity, to believe that some people were worthy of love and others not. Within those limitations, love always felt vulnerable. A finite resource to be metered out or jealously guarded, protected at all costs.
Yet as I continue to explore this more expansive definition of love I have learnt to see love not as a weakness, but a strength. And the more I practice, the stronger I get and the greater my ability to love, give generously, and serve others.
I squeeze the toddler sitting on my lap, for whom I willingly accept the honorary title of ‘Aunty Corrina’. Just a few minutes earlier, he’d told me I had no invisible buckets (the ones we each carry to fill with love) because he was giving my bucket to the bus driver, and that I couldn’t be happy. Now here he is, nestled on my lap, reeling off his favorite breakfast foods. Sweetness itself.
I think about the world that he’s growing up in. As much as I love the buckets, it’s a world that believe desperately needs a new love story.
I wish for him a story in which we are not evaluated by the limited binaries of singledom and coupledom, but on connection and interdependence. Where love is less about how you feel or who you marry, and more about what you do on a daily basis. One in which our ability to express love, to live love, and to stand in strength with love is the norm.
I bend my head down to his and take a deep breath, reflecting for a moment on what that world feels like. A world where the core values of compassion and kindness and generosity are given and received openly and with ease. He turns to look back at me, a puzzled look on his face. “What?” he asks me. “Oh, just thinking,” I smile back at him. “I do have a bucket buddy. It’s the size of an ocean, and it runneth over.”