On being the only single person in town

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Valentine’s Day is coming up and I’m single, as usual. Smug couples will be feeling sorry for me whilst unhappy couples will be jealous of me, and everyone else is just going to yawn, because, let’s face it: most singles and happy couples aren’t going to make a fuss about Valentine’s Day. The only ones who do appear to be the ones who feel their love needs to be validated in some excessive way, preferably on public display.

So let’s talk about being single. I’ve been single for over seven years, which I’m pretty sure makes me an expert on the subject. Or, since I’m inevitably going to be talking about relationships as well, let’s say semi-expert, because I’m certainly not an expert on being in a relationship, as I’ve only been in one and it wasn’t the best example: we never lived together, and over half of the duration of our relationship was spent apart, living in different countries.

During this time, I was so insecure, so anxious, so preoccupied with the idea of him not loving me enough that I never even considered the possibility that he might not actually be the most suitable partner for me. My lack of trust and self-confidence ensured I never felt completely safe in the relationship, which, of course, also meant it rarely ever got dull or boring. I was so worried and stressed out with my panicky thoughts that I didn’t find the peace of mind to ever rationally weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of being in this relationship. Instead, it took two and a half years of driving him insane until he finally did both me and himself the favour of breaking up with me via Skype a few days after my birthday (which, by this stage of the relationship, he had – of course – forgotten) and my sister’s wedding in Australia.

Sometimes I still wonder whether it was the best or worst timing for him to leave me. You see, without him breaking up with me at this time, I never would have decided to go spend a year in Australia (because I was never really interested in living in Australia). And that year turned out to be one of the best years of my life, though I did fall in love with someone who has proven difficult to fall out of love with, despite – or rather, due to – the fact that he has never decided to love me back. This guy is still one of my best friends and I feel equal amounts lucky and unlucky to have met him. Unlucky, because any guy I have met, and might meet in the future, since I’ve known him is inevitably going to be compared to him (and mostly unfavourably). Lucky, because knowing him has enriched my life in many ways. And because other guys haven’t really been able to hurt me anymore, since none of them were even half as cool as him. So thanks to this unrequited love, I’ve gained a sense of inner freedom and control that has enabled me to enjoy flings much more than I enjoyed being in a relationship, and I’m no longer striving to find something that will last forever. Not simply because I don’t really believe in ‘forever’ anymore, but more so because I have come to realize it’s not actually been stability and continuity that have made me feel sane during my life thus far. It’s always been a sense of adventure as provided by travel, meeting many different people, and the challenges I’ve set for myself which have most filled me with energy, hope, and contentment.

Of course, loneliness does strike from time to time. Since I’ve been living in Heidelberg (where I moved last summer), I can count the other singles I have met down on one hand. And I have met A LOT of people. Being single among a herd of people in stable relationships can make you feel really… well, weird. It makes me feel like a bloody alien sometimes. And this, I’m certain, is not purely due to my personal issues and insecurities, but even more so to the fact that – thanks to movies, ads, as well as nosy relatives who should get a life – women have internalized the belief that there must be something wrong with them if they aren’t in a steady relationship in their thirties.

From the youngest age, women are persuaded into thinking that our happiness depends on finding a romantic partner. We aren’t expected to grow into independent, self-sufficient women. We are expected to become wives and mothers, perhaps wives and mothers with careers, but the career is secondary. When/whether a guy finds a suitable romantic partner, is not important; relationships don’t define him in the public eye. But a woman’s ‘value’ is intrinsically linked to her relationship status. (Check out this great article, which a good friend recommended to me when it was published last year, and which, among many other insights, explains why women tend to benefit much more from singlehood than from relationships: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/feminism/2016/02/maybe-you-should-just-be-single)

Regardless of your gender, there’s the disturbing fact that being with someone for a long period of time changes you. The people you spend most of your time with will inevitably have an enormous impact on your behaviour and personality. So when you’re in a relationship, your partner tends to be the one who influences you the most. They can have a positive effect on you, be inspiring and character-building, but – and this is very often the case – they can also be a negative influence. For instance, the wrong relationship can turn you into a constantly angry and/or anxious mess, make you forget who you were, turn you into an insensitive bitch, distract you from your goals, etc etc… as it did in my relationship. So a relationship can – and often enough will – actually bring out the worst in you.

But before I go on to draw your attention to the benefits of singlehood, let’s sum up the great benefits of being in a relationship:

1. It’s nice to have someone to cuddle with, particularly in winter when you long for someone to warm up your bed before you get in there yourself.

2. It’s also extremely nice to wake up and be able to have sex. (That is, if the other person is in the same mood.)

3. It’s also nice to be loved in a romantic way. It makes you feel really awesome and special, without the need to really make an effort to be an awesome person, aside from treating your partner (and perhaps, their family) kindly enough.

4. As a woman, you can feel smug and safe: no (more) pitiful glances, patronizing comments, or ‘well-meaning’ advice from all your married friends and relatives. Because for some reason, it still appears sad for a woman to remain single beyond a certain age (the terms ‘spinster’ and ‘crazy cat lady’ come to mind), because we never see the possibility of singlehood ever being an active choice when we are speaking about a woman, whereas we are able to see this potential as soon as we are talking about a guy (a ‘bachelor’). It’s as if being in a relationship elevates a woman to an acceptable level, both in terms of her social standing and in her own perception of her inner worth.

5. Most importantly, I think a good relationship will provide you with a sense of safety and stability, which does a lot in the way of consoling us in our existential misery. Yes, there will always be misery, no matter how easy and comfortable our lives, because life is fundamentally tragic and we know we are going to die, and our loved ones are going to die. A steady partner (especially a younger one!) can alleviate our pain and offer – at least temporarily – the comforting illusion of immortality.

Well, those are the main benefits of conventional relationships that I can think of right now. Happy couples, let me know which ones I’ve forgotten! Now let’s get to the advantages of being single:

1. Freedom and space. You become more self-reliant and independent.

2. You tend to value friendships more, and spend more actual time with your closest friends. I think it’s also safe to assume that when we are single, we make more of an effort to meet and spend time with new people than we do when we are in a relationship. And shouldn’t our idea of a rich, well-lived life involve connecting with lots of different people, exchanging thoughts and ideas in order to broaden our horizons, discover new approaches and perspectives, learn to accept ambiguity and uncertainty, and gain a deeper and more balanced understanding of the world we live in? Let’s face it: no matter how clever your (potential) partner is, in some way you are always going to be limiting your potential to grow and accumulate wisdom if you decide to spend all or most of your time with them and rarely meet other people, just as you would if you decided to stay in one place all your life and never travelled anywhere.

3. As a single person, you learn to cope with phases of extreme (sexual as well as romantic) deprivation and frustration, and come to recognize the difference between feeling lonely and being alone. You learn to appreciate solitude.

4. Thanks to those phases of solitude and melancholy, you’re more likely to create poignant artwork.

5. You might grow more empathetic towards others, since you experience what it feels like to be the only single around and (at least if you’re a woman) being pitied and/or patronized repeatedly as a result. You also learn to question social norms and develop a better bullshit radar.

6. Finally, you get to know yourself and find out what you actually want and need, not what others expect you to crave or covet.

I, for one, have come to really appreciate the freedom and sanity that comes with singlehood. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying it’s best to stay single all your life, neither am I saying that singlehood is always easy or fantastic; but I also doubt it’s preferable to spend all of your adult life in a relationship. We need to stop seeing relationships (in the limiting sense in which we tend to define and live them) as the one and only ideal. And we need to stop seeing singlehood merely as a lesser alternative or compromise, and instead identify it as a valid lifestyle choice. It really need not be experienced as something alienating that we are forced into or that reflects our perceived worthlessness, as society encourages women to think. On the contrary, we can identify a life – or phases – of singlehood as a chance to experience life in a different way, namely one that will teach us just as many lessons as any relationship can, and that can additionally fill us with joy, comfort, and confidence, just as a great relationship would.

New Year’s Resolution

Society keeps telling women that wrinkles make us ugly – and apparently, beauty is still the only criterion used to assess our worth. Our looks count more than men’s. And men’s knowledge and freedom count more than ours. I wonder when this is finally going to change – at least, I guess, not as long as brainless misogynists are elected presidents.

I’ve decided that this year and every year from now on, I’m going to be proud of the lines that have been forming in my face, and stop being ashamed of them. My wrinkles show that I have suffered and grown, that I am passionate and like to laugh.

Next month I’m turning 34. I’ve decided that I’m going to stop worrying whether I have begun to ‘look my age’ (note how emotionally charged this expression of a harmless fact of life has become, and how insulting it sounds to us), because it’s a fine age to be. I’m going to quit wondering when men will stop finding me attractive since they are so used to seeing only smooth, flawless skin on women well into their forties (even fifties, if they are so lucky to be selected for a starring role) every time they watch a movie or an ad. I’m going to stop worrying because I don’t need a man to tell me I’m beautiful before I can see it and believe it myself.

I’m not going to give in to the pressure to be thin, because the joy of eating good food and the love I have for my imperfect, but fully-functioning body are larger than my craving for attention and approval.

I’m going to stop spending any more time on things that cause me to lose sight of what actually matters. Our culture makes it way too easy for women to focus on our looks and supposed flaws, but I’m sick of us becoming as superficial as society wants us to be.

I have many dreams and goals, but winning a beauty contest isn’t one of them. I want to be wise and funny and kind. I want to write lots more stories and take lots more photographs and perfect my French and improve my Spanish and live in more places and travel the world and meet lots more people and volunteer at animal sanctuaries and read lots more books and make some silly horror shorts with my friends and be there for my family and friends and become a better listener and have many meaningful conversations and be a role model for my nieces and draw and handletter wise quotes and try out new recipes and open a vegan food van and teach all my favourite students online, from abroad. Yes, there’s a chance I won’t be able to tick every single one of these pursuits off my list, but I do hope I get old enough to experience most of them, and I definitely won’t let sexist, ageist society dictate how I’m going to feel about myself or what types of worries I’m going to waste my time on.

I’m going to stop thinking about how others might perceive me, and stop telling myself I’m not good enough. Instead, I’m going to appreciate the fact that I’m a healthy, living creature, able to enjoy so many things that are enriching and fulfilling and don’t require a specific kind of appearance.

Aging isn’t evil. It’s complex, it’s bittersweet. And it can provide you with the best of human qualities, those not yet known to the young: wisdom, kindness, patience, and serenity.