I didn’t learn about “cuffing season” until after I had survived the biggest uncuffing of my life so far: divorce after eight years of marriage. For four years now, the last week of November marks the anniversary of the decree—an annual whirlwind of grief and relief—as well as Thanksgiving, otherwise known as opening night of what may be the hardest stretch of the year if you’re single.
A former partner (now a close friend) was the first one to explain cuffing season to me. You might be content to rove with your friends or enjoy a series of happy hookups over the summer, but a different impulse kicks in when the season turns. It’s that time of year when the sheets on your empty bed are cold at the end of the day, when you fantasize about company in the kitchen while you make elaborate soups, and wish you were filling a pair of coffee mugs instead of just one. Get out your sweaters and cue a nervous frenzy of swiping right as the early dusk falls.
I remember walking into my first post-divorce Friendsgiving. I left my shoes in the mountainous pile by the front door. My socks had Christmas-y dogs on them. The air was warm and the clean, slippery linoleum was chilly. I was holding a pan of chocolate-chip cookies and I stood next to a kitchen island loaded with turkey, sweet potatoes, charcuterie, brussels sprouts, bruschetta, samosas, and more. I looked around the room and realized that I was one of the only people there without a partner, and a sudden rush of loneliness winded me like a punch.
It was the beginning of an apparent anti-cuffing tradition for me—twice now, since my divorce, the turning fall season has ridden in on the agonizing epiphany that I needed to exit a relationship. And there I am, staring down a weeks-long marathon of family gatherings, festive industry events, and clients’ holiday parties that I’ll probably be heading to alone.
One of my closest friends is a single woman in her mid-50s. We have to meet up often—if even a week elapses between visits, the necessary download on our romantic adventures (from parsing cryptic texts to describing sublime dates and sympathizing over nefarious cancellations) can take an entire evening. Over a beer last week, she voiced what I’ve also been feeling: no matter how busy and vibrant life is, the holidays are hard without the anchor of a close partner.
I’m used to it now when I, a divorced woman in my mid-30s, walk into a holiday party. Almost everyone else there seems to be moving in a tacit orbit with a partner. When it’s time for an introduction, the two happy planets swing close. They get drinks for each other and their coats are draped cozily nearby, one on top of the other, ready for a single quick fetch, a loving little favor before they say goodbye to you together.
Sure, there are benefits to flying solo. You connect to many more people than you might otherwise, even if it’s just a single conversation. You don’t have to consider anyone else’s schedule when you RSVP, and when you’re ready to go, you can leave—no final circuit with a more talkative spouse, growing hot under the jacket you hopefully donned (“I’m ready when you are, honey”). And I can relate to Michelle Nugent’s recent essay on the joys of living alone.
A single feminist
But the fact remains that single people are stuck in an especially tricky spot over the holidays. If you subscribe to a traditionalist, amatonormative worldview, believing that a one-on-one romantic partnership bests all others and that everyone wants a relationship like this, at least you can honestly marinate in the pain you might feel when you’re single—like a perfectly brined turkey at a party no one came to. But what if, like me, you’re a proudly independent feminist on a daily diet of modern aphorisms like…well, I’m not going to use the exact phrase popular in feminist Instagram circles, but it means “sex with cisgender men is easy to get, and it’s not worth much.”
A raft of more affirmative advice applies for people of any gender or sexual orientation. Take yourself on dates. Invest in toys for solo sex. Nurture your friendships. Dump relationship hierarchies. Stop seeing an exclusive, extended romantic partnership as a norm that supersedes all other lifestyles. Dating apps are nothing but a big old dumpster fire, anyway. If you’re asexual, that’s cool too.
That all makes perfect sense to me, especially since my own marriage became a source of enduring trauma and regret. And yet, especially as I think about the looming onslaught of holiday parties, unattached to anyone who’ll hold my hand and fetch my jacket, I feel acutely lonely.
Holding on and letting go
As Thanksgiving and all the December gatherings beyond it barrel onto my calendar, I have to find a way to hold that loneliness when it seems like every other woman at the party has a fresh diamond and a hipster post-doc husband. I have to honor two different truths without criticizing myself about either one. There’s nothing wrong with being solo, at the holidays or any other time. There’s also nothing wrong with letting myself feel the loneliness when it does roll in, instead of scolding myself with self-reliant bromides.
Hold the cuffs. Bring on the eggnog.