Cities without landmarks
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
Katie Heaney has written the most compelling dating memoir of the last few years, and it’s all about not dating. Specifically, “Never Have I Ever” chronicles Heaney’s 25 years without a romantic relationship (OK, a few of those were infancy, but Heaney does spend some time on her grade-school datelessness). The book resists pretty much all of the stock narratives about singlehood that romantic comedies, women’s magazines and the like have led us to expect. Heaney certainly has crushes, and wants to fall in love one day, but her book isn’t about her search for a special someone. Nor is it about rejecting romance as totally unimportant. Rather, it’s the story of a young woman navigating a space lots of people find themselves in but fewer talk about — one where dating is something to think about, but certainly not the only thing, and certainly not something worth overhauling one’s life or self for. Heaney, who’s also an editor at BuzzFeed (where she and I worked together briefly), talked to me on the phone about online dating, feminism and what people in relationships can learn from her book.
How do you feel it’s different for you, as a woman, to write about being single than it would be for a man to do so? How does gender affect that experience?
I don’t want to jump the gun on this, but there have been a couple of reviews that referred to me in kind of “desperate” terms. One review said something about, “this book is about Heaney’s search for a man — any man.” And I feel pretty strongly that anyone who read my book — or, I guess, anyone else that read my book — would think that that was literally the opposite of what I was trying to say the entire time. Admittedly, I’m not like, “this is just a book about how I’ve been single forever, have no problem with it, continue to be single forever.” But it also seems to jump right into “well, all she cares about is boys.” And it is immediately made to be more boy-crazy than I think it would be if a guy wrote it, where it would be like, “Here’s this bachelor lifestyle.”
One of my friends who wrote a book about women and dating was struggling with this when she was trying to come up with a title for her book. She was like, there’s no female equivalent of the word “bachelor.” Like, there’s “bachelorette,” but it doesn’t carry the same weight or meaning. There’s no cool word for the single woman who’s prioritizing other things in her life at that moment. Like, it’s always assumed that it’s a forefront concern.
You talk a lot in your book about your friendships with other women. Has being single allowed you to develop those friendships more?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, it’s not to say that people who are frequently in relationships aren’t able to develop strong friendships, but I think it’s simply a question of time and responsibility and how many people you have to spread your efforts among, and I just have had fewer because I haven’t had a boyfriend that I need to be spending my quality time with on the weekend. So I have been able to give that to my friends and be exceptionally available to them whenever they needed me, so I think that it has certainly helped me. I wouldn’t say it’s the only way. But I do think it’s so important that there be some substantial periods of being single, because otherwise it’s hard to miss out on that as a valuable time to make friendships with other women if it’s completely focused on dating.
Has being single affected your politics, your feminism, your view of the world?
I think so. I don’t know that it’s being radicalized or anything like that. But when you’re in a pretty heavily woman-centric world, even if it’s of your own creating like it has been for me, I think that you just pay more attention to problems and issues that immediately affect the people surrounding you. So, if you are paying attention to other women’s lives and what’s going on with them, feminism is bound to come up. I think that befriending tons of different women and being a feminist activist in college, all of these are things that could have happened with a boyfriend or without, but I think when you spend more time with women, you have more time to think about these things and realize it’s an everyday issue for all of us.
Are there ways that the world could be set up to be more friendly to single people? More accepting?
Sure. The fact that there are so many legal and financial benefits afforded to married people is obviously a major one. It’s hard because there’s reasons why our government and society values the nuclear household and it’s not like I think that those are totally without merit, but it does send a cultural message that goes along with it that’s hard to ignore. And I think that people are staying single for much longer — sometimes permanently, certainly more than used to be the case — and there isn’t as much of an existing safety net for people like that, at least economically speaking. Socially, it just seems to me that more representations of people who go through extended periods of being single in popular culture would even be helpful. Even on TV — shows about young women who are perpetually single like “The Mindy Project,” which I like a lot. She’s single, but she’s got a new guy she’s going out with immediately after the previous one ends, which is great and awesome and there are reasons why that’s great for that show. But it’s rare, especially for women characters, for there to be someone who’s just single for a real length of time.
Your book details some negative experiences with online dating. Have you tried it again? How do you feel about it now?
The time frame of the book ends two years ago, so some things have changed. I did go back on OkCupid — even though I hated it so much, and I still hate it so much — like a year ago and dated someone for a month. And it was fine. It didn’t really go anywhere. So it wasn’t like I had major complaints with the individual or even with most of the people on the site. I just find that being on that site is so draining and depressing to me and I feel like it makes me so much more cynical than I am when I just stay off of it. I feel like I have a much more negative view on it than a lot of people. It just feels dehumanizing to me in a really uncomfortable way, and it’s exhausting.
Do you think the existence of online dating creates more pressure for single people? Are people constantly telling you to do it?
It depends. I have friends who take both sides. Certainly, in New York I think it’s more popular. Everyone I know is on something or other, and in Minneapolis that wasn’t necessarily the case. And some of my friends here are like, “You need to be on there to diversify your chances for meeting someone,” or whatever. And I get that, but I also feel that it’s hard to be on that just as some sort of good-luck charm thing. It just feels disingenuous to me. Like, what good does being on there do if you really hate it, don’t really want to meet anyone from it, and feel like it makes you feel less optimistic about going out and meeting people in real life?
Something you also talk about in your book is the message that you should keep giving a person chances, second and third dates, even if there’s no spark between you. I think that’s a message women get a lot.
There’s just a weird disconnect between me and everybody who I would consult for advice on dating. It seems like this is something that especially women tell each other where if there was nothing wrong — if there were no red flags or no deal breakers, whatever those might be — then you should give someone a second chance. And one of my friends is like, “I think you should say yes to anyone who asks you on a date.” I think both of those things are insane.
I don’t understand why someone would be told to spend time with someone voluntarily that they’re not definitely interested in. That, to me, kind of smacks of placing marriage as the ultimate goal. Not only that but a goal that we should be in a huge rush to meet. You know, there’s something to be said for being open-minded and flexible — and certainly there are people who have standards that are unrealistic and unlikely to be met — but I think there has to be a balance between recognizing that and being too hasty to put yourself out there to the point that you’re just wasting time with people you are not attracted to or interested in. That feels like punishing yourself for being single. And I don’t think that single people deserve to be [laughs] punished by having to go on all these dates with people they don’t really want to go on dates with, because I think most people know whether you are going to be interested in someone or not. I don’t think there is a limitation to someone’s understanding of what they want from someone else just because they haven’t had as many boyfriends or girlfriends or whatever.
Did the experience of writing the book change your feelings about being single at all?
I think it restored some agency to my understanding of these experiences. Going back, I’m pretty exhaustive in the book about when did I think this person liked me and why and where did it go wrong and I kind of came through it thinking, I wasn’t crazy for hoping that something might happen with this person. I had reasons. That’s one of the frustrating things about being single or just the human condition, really. A lot of times people do like each other and it’s just not enough and that sucks, but it’s not like this devastating, unsurpassable flaw. It’s just kind of how it works sometimes, and so I think that writing through it made me feel like I had agency in this too. There were things I could have done differently but I just didn’t want to and that’s fine.
How do you feel about being single these days?
You know, it’s something that ebbs and flows. Like, there’s times where I feel totally fine with it, times when I really dwell on some of this stuff and I’m like, “Clearly there is something wrong with me.” I think that that’s just sort of unavoidable. I think that I’m an optimist and a confident person, but I would have to be a robot to never take some of that stuff personally because ultimately I do want to find somebody. So obviously it’s not always going to be rosy or whatever. But, you know, I just moved to New York a few months ago and there are so many other exciting changes going on that it’s not the top priority at this time. But I hope that it works out some day.
What advice do you have for other people who are single?
I would say — and it’s so hard to come up with anything that isn’t just totally a cliché — I think that being yourself is really the most important thing. Not only that, but accepting that yourself might be someone who doesn’t like dating the way it’s done now, or the way that your friends do it. Or it might mean that you have these prolonged crushes on people you don’t know all that well and it takes you a really long time to do anything about it and you want to talk to your friends obsessively about it and kind of just psych yourself up. I think that’s fine.
It’s important to challenge ourselves and if you know that something is keeping you from what you want then obviously you have to do something about it. But it’s OK to be someone who is a basket case about this stuff and not feel like you’re exceptional or unusual or weird for struggling with dating because there are going to be a lot of people in this same boat. It’s just that they’re not getting screen time. It is tough and tricky and sometimes really terrible but kind of fun, too, and we’ll all figure it out in our own ways.
And what advice do you have for people in relationships?
Be good to your friends. I think that especially when you’re younger — I can’t speak for what happens when people get married and have children and everything, but especially for when you’re young in high school and college, the people you meet then … many of them will be with you for the rest of your life. It’s so important to make time for your friends even if you are dating someone, because it’s work. You have to schedule time. You have to make sure you respond to calls and emails and texts. It’s never easy to maintain friendships with people. I think there is a weird idea that if it’s meant to be with a friend that you shouldn’t have to work at it. But I don’t think that’s almost ever the case. Certainly not past high school. I just think that there is not enough value placed on learning how to be a good friend in our culture. That’s true for everyone: single people and people in relationships.
Anna North is Salon's culture editor. Follow her on Twitter at @annanorthtweets.More Anna North.
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