On Your Own
The Perils of Dating When You’re an Orphan
Your partner complains about their parents when you would give anything to be around yours. Your partner’s mother tells you she’ll be your mother. Dating as an orphan is complex.
I remember the first time it happened. I was laying in bed with an older girl I had recently met, and we were talking about everything and nothing at all, and she asked me a question about my parents. “But you’re so young,” she said.
I bring a ticking time bomb to every first date. Tick… tick… tick… As we check off every trite interview question, we get one second closer to a detonation. Though I have not yet reached the age of 30, I am a man without parents, and a simple question about where they live or what they do becomes a maze you can no longer exit.
My father died from cancer at the end of the last year, and my mother succumbed to alcohol’s slow poisoning seven years before him. Having one deceased parent already brings with it myriad complications when you’re looking for a potential partner, but having two parents gone makes things exponentially more complex. You’re not just down one, you’re without any.
I’m reminded of an Oscar Wilde quote. “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness,” he wrote. No one knows what to say when you break the news, and you never know how to assure them you didn’t just get the news yourself.
I recently went on a date with a girl I met on a dating app. It was apparent very quickly that she was on the left side of the political spectrum and very sensitive to the feelings of others.
At some point during the date, she made some kind of joke about death. I can’t honestly remember what it was. A little while later she asked where my parents live, and I had to break the news. I watched her melt in front of me. “I’m such an asshole,” she said. “I made that stupid joke about death.” I hadn’t even noticed the joke. I tried to change the subject as quickly as possible, because I knew we were heading for disaster if I didn’t.
It is understandable that someone would feel remorse for broaching the topic when they learn your parents have passed, but what people don’t seem to comprehend is that their negative response creates one within you. No one wants their life situation to be a point of guilt for others.
The worse they feel for having brought it up, the worse you feel for inadvertently bringing down the mood. The best response—though they could never know this—is actually a more muted one. However, a complete lack of empathy raises a red flag. There is very little room for success.
Something changes in people when they learn your parents died relatively young. You have been touched by death. The specter of death hover overs you. You think your encounters with death changed you in ways only you could ever fathom, but they see it too. They see your missing pieces.
The difficulties that come with being an orphan in the dating world do not end on the first date. The first date is simply when they start.
Once you have gotten past the initial awkwardness that comes with informing them your parents have passed on, numerous other painful realities present themselves as you imagine a conceivable future with whoever you may ultimately end up with. My potential partner will never meet my parents. My parents will never tell me they approve of the partner I chose. They will not attend my wedding. They will not meet my children.
Somewhere down the line, you have to meet their parents. It is, after all, a rite of passage in every relationship. I have yet to encounter anyone dense enough not to warn their parents of my situation, but I can imagine it happens, and you always imagine it will. It’s not easy to ask someone if they essentially told their parents to walk on egg shells for you.
Invariably, I find mothers tend to look at me as a wounded animal when they learn my history. Perhaps because of our societal constructs, fathers tend to stay silent about the matter. I have had mothers of girlfriends tell me, as if divulging state secrets, that they can be my mother too. Ignoring the incestuous connotations this offer implies, I try to make them feel better by behaving like a willing adoptee.
You sometimes resent your partner when they take their parents for granted. They will complain to you about trivial things their parents did or said, and you are unable to empathize. You think about what you would give to be having an argument with your mother or father. This can cause you to be callous when they vent about these things.
During my last relationship, my girlfriend learned her mother needed to get a hysterectomy, because she had developed some kind of medical issue. At first she was worried. She texted me that the surgery was taking longer than it was supposed to. She was afraid of losing her mother. Her concern for her mother didn’t last once the surgery was complete.
The first day of her mother’s recovery, she was texting me that her mother was rude and demanding. She said she was just going to leave, even though her mother needed her help. I told her she was being a bad daughter. She clearly didn’t appreciate that, but she bit her tongue, because she knew we were in dangerous territory.
Later in the relationship, the person you’re dating tends to want to know more about your parents. What were they like? I wish I could have met them. They sound amazing. Sharing these stories does bring you closer. It feels like you’re telling them a secret. You get so used to avoiding the subject of your parents, except when around close friends, that you sometimes revel in the chance to talk about them. It is, however, a matter of timing. You develop a hard shell around the topic that is not always easy to crack.
It’s not fair that your partner has to deal with this obstacle course, and it’s not fair you have to deal with it, either. You learn to live with this injustice. You learn to be more forgiving of those who navigate the course sloppily, and you learn to have fewer feelings about it all. Your parents are dead. It’s never going to change. They’re gone for good, and all that matters is how you handle it and what you take from when they were around.