(Love, Your Way)
The Phrase I Hear Most Often As A 40-Something Single Woman
No, I don’t want to sit at the bar.
Colleen Miniuk, an outdoor photographer, writer, and instructor, left a high-powered corporate job to pursue her art. Soon after, her marriage of nearly two decades ended. Ahead, Miniuk, 46, waxes poetic to Kate Morgan about the joys of being single in her 40s; a tall order in a world that, in many ways, is built for couples.
I was born in 1975. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but that was only a year after women were first permitted to get a credit card or take out a loan without their husband or father’s permission. I grew up as women’s liberation was happening; more women than ever were entering the workforce, and there was this whole transformation happening. My mom in particular was constantly telling me, “You must be independent.” She wanted to make sure I always had my own money, my own job, my own life.
I bought into the idea that hard work would lead to happiness, and so I started checking boxes. I got a full ride to Stanford University for volleyball: check. Straight A’s: check. Married my best friend from college: check. Got a job at Intel: check. Bought a Mercedes: check. Made six figures: check.
By 30, I had checked all the boxes. And then I sat there and was like, Where’s the happiness? It definitely wasn’t fulfilling. In fact, I was miserable, and I was making everyone around me miserable. It got to the point where I was so unhappy, I became physically ill. Herniated discs meant I couldn’t stand up. A hiatal hernia meant I couldn’t lay down. No matter what I did, I was just in violent pain, and it was all the physical manifestation of my stress and unhappiness. Something needed to change in a big way.
I ended up leaving Intel in 2007, which, among many of my friends and family, was not a popular decision. I told them I was going to focus on outdoor photography, and it was like, “Why would you leave a six-figure job to go roll in dirt?” But I’d started to think: Who says adulthood has to be a slog through the mud, carrying all this baggage we’ve accumulated? It just felt like I was in the pursuit of happiness.
I thought it would all bring me closer to my husband, a mountain man from Montana I’d been married to for 18 years. But instead, we drifted apart. He couldn’t understand the transformation I was experiencing, or why I’d want to completely change my life. It wasn’t my choice, but we separated in 2015. I hid the separation for a year, even from my own family, because I was so ashamed of it. It felt like if I told them, I’d be admitting that I failed in this big way. I was raised with these societal expectations that told me divorce wasn’t an option. It wasn’t on the list of boxes you’re supposed to check. I just kept thinking, Oh my God, how will I be perceived by people? I didn’t reach out to my community. I thought I could handle it on my own, thought he’d come back. I was so afraid of even talking about it, because that would mean it was actually happening.
To heal, I decided to do what I always do, which is to achieve something to make myself feel better. After 40 years of overachievement, I had two failures in a row. First there was my marriage, and then a failed attempt to paddle across the length of Lake Powell on a paddleboard. After that, I really started thinking about why I was doing all of this, and started questioning every belief I ever had. Why did I care what other people thought? Why did I feel like I needed to prove myself, or prove that I was somehow worthy — of love, happiness, success? The story of my singlehood is an interesting story because at first it was not a deliberate choice — but it’s what I’ve embraced and come to truly love.
I don’t believe in victimhood. I believe in embracing pain and using it to move forward. That doesn’t mean life on my own has been easy. Really, it’s hard, it’s painful, it’s messy. It’s brutal. But at the same time, it has so much meaning and is at times so hauntingly beautiful.
I’ve been able to build my business and my career in a really incredible way. I’m the award-winning author of multiple guidebooks, and have led photography workshops around the country. I’ve been published by National Geographic, Arizona Highways, AAA VIA, On Landscape, National Parks Traveler, Extraordinary Vision, The Smoky Mountain Journal of Photography, and been named Artist-in-Residence with Acadia National Park multiple times.
Most of my immediate friends think I have the best life ever, and I do, but there’s no getting around it: singles are judged harshly. I’m not sure a lot of people understand that singlehood is not for the timid or weak.
The world is designed for couples. You can see it in everything from two-for-one bargains to paying single supplements for traveling by yourself. It’s expensive to be alone.
On top of that, our whole society has been influenced by Disney movies where there’s always a Prince Charming. We’re taught that to be happy we have to be coupled. I’m constantly being asked, “Do you have a boyfriend? Are you dating? Which dating sites are you on?” People just assume I’m looking. We live in this world where we have all this choice, and there’s somehow still only this one right answer.
People feel bad for me; they feel sad for me. I’ll say I’m not interested in dating, or say something sarcastic like, “If only a man walked into my life and ended my oppressive liberty!”
I don’t think it would happen as often if I were younger, but people see a woman in her 40s without a partner and they assume something is missing in my life, and that I should be looking for it. It’s funny to me that in the land of the free, we have such a narrow definition of what success looks like.
Even when I explain that I’m very happy just the way I am, people are always saying some version of, “Oh, you’ll find someone someday!” I find that really unfortunate, because it implies I don’t have somebody now. I do have somebody, and that somebody is me.
I’ve realized I need a lot of downtime — a lot of time alone. That’s when I get my best ideas. Photography, for me, is a solo sport. I need to connect with the landscape, and not be influenced by external distractions. It doesn’t mean I don’t like being with other people, but I do my best work on my own.
People do try to introduce me to other singles, and I tell them I’m in a stage where, if you’re going to set me up, all I’m looking for is a play buddy. I’m not looking for romance, but I’m interested in new people to adventure with. Being outdoors alone isn’t always the safest thing, and there are times I don’t feel super safe venturing into the deep wilderness by myself, or trips I can’t do alone because there are limitations. I’m not looking for a relationship. But a hiking partner? Sure.
I’ve gained a lot of confidence in my singleness, and it’s not something I want to change anytime soon. I’ve stopped walking into restaurants and saying, “Oh, just me.” Instead, I just ask for a table for one. Sure, I still get asked if I want to just sit at the bar, but I always say no. It’s me, and I’m important, and I want a damn table.
You have to possess enough confidence to be OK with the choices you’ve made, and that hasn’t always been an easy thing for me, but I’ve decided to follow my own definition of success as opposed to what society tells me it should look like. Society’s definition almost got me, and I like mine a lot better. In the absence of “their” definition of success, of happiness, of what it means to be fulfilled, you have to create your own.
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