Washington - "For a long time, I prayed to find someone to share my life with - a romantic partner, ideally a spouse," Beth O'Donnell, a single woman in Philadelphia, told me. She yearned for someone who would be there with her for the big things and the small ones, the person who would be tuned into the ongoing story of her life, just as she would be for theirs.
Liz, a single woman in Akron, Ohio, has had those kinds of romantic relationships in her life. When they end, she said, "having someone to tell everything is something I miss acutely."
If you are single, who will be that person - your partner and the witness to your life? Thirteen years ago on Grey's Anatomy, when Cristina Yang told her beloved friend Meredith Grey, "You are my person," we heard an affirmative answer to that question. It stuck.
For decades, I have been asking single people to tell me about the people who matter to them. Now I just ask - who is your person? - and they know exactly what I mean. In a recent discussion, their answers have included:
"My best friend since primary school. I've known her since I was 4. She's my soul mate."
"My adult daughter."
"A 51-year-old man. It feels like we've known each other forever." (This was from a 60-year-old woman describing a friend.)
"A married woman who lives far away. I visit every summer and we email five or six times a day."
For every single person who responds to my question by naming their person, there is another who describes "the ones" instead of "the one." Sylvia, a 56-year-old lifelong single woman, said, "I have overlapping 'my people' rather than one person. They get me and I get them. We debrief difficult experiences, we laugh and we problem-solve, and congratulate and celebrate."
Author Vicki Larson has 12 friends she calls "The Lovelies." Her relationships with most of them have lasted longer than either of her two marriages. "We have laughed, cried, comforted, confessed, complained, discussed, celebrated, hiked, vacationed, cooked, and kicked back one too many glasses of wine together," Larson wrote. She doesn't know how she would have gotten through her divorces without them.
O'Donnell is no longer praying for a spouse. "Today," she says, "I love my life." She, too, has her convoy of friends: "There's the friend I go to sporting events with, there's the friend I go to comedy clubs with, there's the friend I go out to the local bar with, there's one neighbor I'm close with, there's a college roommate I spend every Thursday night with, there's the three friends I drink champagne with every Christmas but only ever see them on Christmas."
The insecurity generator that is popular culture has a question for Beth and Vicki and Sylvia: Are they missing out on something by spreading their love rather than pouring it all into one person? When Jerry Maguire said, "You complete me," he was locking eyes with that one special person. Lyrics such as "You're my everything" (which have appeared in dozens of albums and songs) idealize "the one," not "the ones."
In another set of studies, participants nominated the people who were especially helpful to them in several emotion-laden situations - for example, cheering them up when they were sad; calming them down when they were anxious or angry; or feeling happy for them when they had good news. Again, having just one person who completes you was a ticket to vulnerability. People who named a variety of emotion specialists were more satisfied with their lives.
Then there are the people whose first reaction to highly emotional news is to sit with it, alone.
When my father was 64, he had an undiagnosed abdominal aneurysm that burst. He had a wife, four grown children and two grandchildren, but he was dead before any of us could get to his side. I was hundreds of miles away. Before my mother called to tell me the news, she asked a friend who lived nearby to be there for me in case I wanted company.
Eventually, I would want to tell that story to as many people as I could find to listen to it. But at first, I did not want to see anyone. I just wanted to be alone.
I'm not dismissing Jerry Maguire relationships out of hand. I believe that for some people, a romantic partner will be the person with whom they share nearly everything, the only person with whom they want to share everything - and they will find that deeply satisfying.