Growing up in small Midwestern towns in the 1960s and ’70s, I honestly can’t recall knowing adults who were single.
In my neighborhood, at my church and among my parents’ friends and my friends’ parents, all the adults wore gold bands and kept black-and-white wedding photos on their mantels. My own mom and dad mixed exclusively with other couples when dining out or gathering for bridge.
Like many divorced people, I hadn’t expected to be single in midlife and beyond. Based on my upbringing, I didn’t have a model for what a rich and engaged solo social life looked like.
I’d always heard that singles, especially single women, were pointedly left out of couple-centric activities, perhaps harking back to an era when it was assumed that a single woman was always in the hunt for a man and therefore couldn’t be trusted around anyone’s husband.
Fortunately, that notion was as out of fashion as leisure suits by the time I became single for the second time in my mid-50s. That’s when I learned that it was so much fun to date couples.
It’s a lot less kinky than it sounds.
I found that I didn’t have to be half of a couple in order to go out with a couple. I dated four or five couples, mostly longtime former workplace friends whose spouses I’d grown equally fond of over the years. They asked me out and I wasn’t afraid to invite myself to join them for dinners, ballgames, theater outings. I’d even been a third wheel on cabin weekends and traveled as part of a trio.
My married couple companions told me they enjoyed the diversion of another person along on their dates. It changed the topics they talked about. And my presence may have even freshened the dynamic between them.
With me along, they were pulled out of the conversational rut that long-married couples fall into (hey, I was married myself, so I know all about it), making them less likely to argue, nag or be petty with each other during a night out.
Don’t get me wrong: I like my own company and I spent plenty of time with friends, my book club and my adult children. So much so that I was frankly surprised by a recent spate of research that suggested that many older people suffer from loneliness, to the detriment of their physical and mental health.
I realized that maybe my practice of dating couples was one more way to immunize myself from the potential ill effects of being by myself.
But in mid-March, I started eliminating outings from my previously busy calendar, including some anticipated third-wheel dates. A road-trip-with-concert scratched. An evening at a brewery canceled. Loosely made dinner plans that never materialized.
The pandemic threw a monkey wrench into everyone’s social life, but for a single person quarantining alone, the lockdown initiated an era of enforced solitude that altered and flattened the rhythm of passing time. The identical days mounted and melted into endless weeks of completing work, eating weird food and keeping odd hours.
I’ve just begun to cautiously come out of my hard-core quarantine. I joined a couple on their pontoon boat for a socially distanced sunset cruise and wore my mask to an outdoor table at a cider house where I spent an aptly named happy hour with another couple I’ve been missing.
One of the toughest parts of the lockdown for me has been the lack of companionable events to look forward to. But I’ve discovered I’m not alone in that.
While I’ve spent too much time alone, my couple friends say they’ve spent too much time together. We have much to catch up on as we renew our friendships and discuss our reconfigured lives. We wonder if we’re at the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end of living this life that feels safe, but oh so sterile.
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.