Friday was Valentine’s Day – or as I like to call it, “the Holy Day of Lover’s Obligation” , which of course is an absolutely miserable time to be alone. Whether you’re trying to co-opt it with a cutesy “Gal-entine’s day” or “Pal-entine’s day”, an anti-V-day party or just sitting at home hating the world, V-Day is just one more way that the culture reminds you that you’re alone and that’s terrible.
Although you don’t need a holiday to remind you that you’re not in a relationship; all you have to do is turn on the TV or step outside. When you’re single, the universe seems to go out of its way to remind you of that fact – everywhere you look, it’s wall to wall happy couples and a constant barrage of messages that tells you that if you’re not in a relationship right now, then there’s something wrong with you. The longer you’ve been single, the greater the feelings of judgement and lack of worth. Women feel this the most – after all, we still live in a culture where women are taught that being in a relationship is their highest calling – but goddamn do men suffer from this insecurity as well; we’re just not allowed to mention it as much because guys aren’t supposed to want a relationship, they’re supposed to enjoy being free to fuck around all they want.
Of course, this is nice in theory, but it’s pretty damn meaningless when not only is that not what you want, but you’re having a hard enough time getting a date, never mind hot and cold running fuckbuddies.
Of course, well-meaning friends and family members just manage to make it worse when they tell you that they can’t imagine why someone as awesome as you is single.
Offering unsolicited advice or otherwise feeling free to comment on your singleton status is the extra lemon juice on the open gash that is your lack of a relationship. I’m as guilty as anyone of this; I’ve poked and prodded at single friends and ended up making them feel worse without meaning to. After all, when you’re already feeling insecure about being single, having someone tell you “hey, you’re not trying hard enough, do this instead” just twists the knife a little more.
A lot of the advice about “just enjoy being single” doesn’t help either. Long lists of cliches like “you’re free to make your own plans” and “you always get to watch the movie you want to see” is just trying to put a smiley-face sticker on a sense of shame and inferiority and pretending that this makes it all better. The problem isn’t that you don’t appreciate all this “me time” you have, the problem is the way it makes you feel. But – and someone call Sir Mix-A-Lot, ‘cuz this is a big but – you don’t have to let this define you. It’s time to take your self-worth back and realize it’s ok to be single. Really.
Being Single Isn’t A Reflection On Your Value As A Person
One of the hardest mindsets to overcome is to decouple your sense of worth from your relationship status – especially when you’ve never had a girlfriend or boyfriend at all. It’s an incredibly easy trap to fall into – after all, when you’ve never dated anyone, it’s easy to assume that this is proof that you’re somehow unworthy, that you’re just not as good as that asshole over there who’s knee-deep in ass and collects girlfriends the way other people collect pocket lint.
The problem is that this is a form of external validation; it’s tying your sense of worth to what somebody else thinks about you rather than how you feel. This comes in many insidious forms – often, either you’re basing your value on whether one person feels you’re mind-bogglingly amazing, (which is troubling at best and needy at worst) or the value-judgements of other people who have next to no idea about who you are as a person. Whether or not you’re in a relationship currently or have ever been in one at all has nothing – I repeat, nothing – to do with how awesome you are as a person. Whether or not you’re dating, married, fucking around with abandon or haven’t had a date since Thundarr the Barbarian was the hottest thing on Saturday morning doesn’t mean that you somehow have less to offer than somebody who plows through women like kleenex.
I realize logic and emotion don’t cancel each other out, but taking a moment to step back and examine the situation dispassionately can help you recognize whether you’re being irrational or not. What, exactly, does being or not being single mean for your value as a person? It means someone wants to date you. That’s it. We’ve all known people who’ve gotten into (or stayed in) relationships for shitty reasons; does this make their partner better somehow? Is the shitbag who abuses his girlfriend better than you just because he’s in a relationship? Is the gay guy who lives in an area where being out of the closet could very well mean being murdered a worse person because it’s hard for him to find a boyfriend?
There will be some wags who will be quick to proclaim that they’d rather be in a bad relationship than be single. You can tell those are the ones who haven’t actually been in a relationship before because…
The Fail State of A Relationship Isn’t “Single”
Here’s the thing a lot of people don’t understand: a failed relationship isn’t one that ended. It’s one that’s still going on even though one or both (or more) partners are fucking miserable.
Whenever I hear somebody comment about how they’ll take any relationship because they hate being alone that much I start to shudder because no matter how badly they may feel about being single, they’ve never felt the unique misery that comes from being in a toxic relationship. Believe me, until you’ve experienced it, you don’t understand that you can be with someone – not just in a relationship but in the room with them – and still feel even more alone than if you were the last man standing at U.S. 31 and MacReady just drank the last of the Scotch.
Having been there and done that from both sides, I can tell you that no matter how much you may hate being single, it is infinitely better than being stuck in a bad relationship. I’ve had plenty of times when a relationship’s ending didn’t feel like a failing so much as a release from jail. Believe me: it may not seem like it when you’re feeling like the Last American Virgin, but there are plenty of times when being single is a blessing, not a curse. Being single, even on those dark nights when it seems like everyone else is coupled up and happy and you’re feeling lower than a snake’s balls in a ditch, is infinitely preferable to being in a relationship that just drains the vitality out of you. A bad relationship leaves scars, ones that can fuck you up for years at a time before they heal fully. They mess with your head and your self-worth, making you believe that this is what you deserve or that you’ll never find anything better… and the main reason you stay is because you fear being single would somehow be worse.
I’ve met plenty of people who’ve leapt at a relationship – one they knew was going to be bad for them – because when it came right down to it, they thought that being single meant being a failure and being unworthy. Shit, back in my bad old days, that’s why I stayed. I thought it was better to be in a shitty relationship than it was to be single. It took me years to get out and even longer to undo the damage. As desperate as I was for validation (and sex, let’s be honest), the damage that came with it simply wasn’t worth it.
Being Alone Doesn’t Mean Being Miserable
Loneliness sucks. I totally get that. I’m an extrovert; I need to be around people otherwise I start getting twitchy and depressed. But I’m an extrovert who’s gotten very good at being alone. I didn’t used to be. I grew up with a twin brother1, so even when I was in my room reading or farting around on the primitive excuses we had for computer networks2 there were other people around. But once we hit high-school and weren’t forcibly joined at the hip… well suddenly he’s the popular guy on campus and I’m off in my own little world and rapidly running out of oxygen. I didn’t have many friends and spent far more time cooped up in my room, feeling sorry for myself than you’d believe. I was profoundly lonely and miserable. My few abortive attempts at dating were beyond comedically laughable. I mean, how do you end up with someone cheating on you before you’re even actually dating? College was in some ways worse. I had a tight group of friends… but if I wasn’t with them, the emptiness would return, somehow all the worse for knowing my friends were out there. I wanted us to be the sort of friends who did everything together because… well, frankly, being alone would drive me crazy.
It was only after I moved to a new city where I didn’t know anyone that I started learning how to separate “being alone” from “being lonely”… and a lot of that meant learning to appreciate my own company. Not necessarily in the sense of “yay, thank god all those annoying people are gone so I can read”, but in the sense of recognizing that it was ok to be alone. It didn’t mean I was broken. It didn’t mean I was deficient. Going out to lunch or dinner with only a book for company didn’t mean that there was something wrong with me, it meant that I was hungry and didn’t feel like cooking. I might have gotten some pitying looks from the waitstaff, but hey… they didn’t know me and I didn’t know them so hell with ‘em. Plus: I had a book. Books are awesome.
The problem isn’t “being alone”, it’s the baggage that we assign to it. The difference between loneliness and solitude is subjective; you can be lonely while surrounded by people or feel content with having some “me” time. That feeling of loneliness comes from the sense that we need other people around because we’re not sufficient in and of ourselves. Yeah, we’re pack animals and we’ve got an instinctual drive to live in social groups… but we’re also individuals and we have to be comfortable with being on our own.
A Relationship Isn’t A Magical Cure
One thing I see a lot in people who are miserable being single is the idea that a relationship is going to somehow make everything better. They don’t get much farther than “get a girlfriend” or “get a boyfriend” and somehow… they’re going to just be better people. They’ll be more confident, better looking, more driven, just… better, as though a relationship was somehow an upgrade to your life’s OS.
Except that never happens. Being in a relationship doesn’t change anything except maybe how you spend your free time. If you were insecure before you were dating somebody, you’re going to keep being insecure; hell, now that you have something to lose, it could get worse. Having a girlfriend may make you feel more confident… for a moment. Then something is going to happen to you and knock Dumbo’s magic feather out of your hand and unless you’ve also been working on your personal issues, you’re going to go right back to the mess you were beforehand.
If you’re hoping that finding a relationship is going to change things for you aside from giving you companionship – and many of you are, even if you can’t admit it to yourselves – then you’re going to disappoint yourself at best and make things even harder on yourself.
I hate using cliches and “inspirational” quotes that look great over artsy photos of the seashore, but there’s one by Ru Paul that’s absolutely appropriate: “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell can you love anyone else?” It’s cool to want to be around other people, but when you’re making yourself miserable because you don’t have one specific person with which to do everything, you’re going to make it that much harder on yourself. Expecting one person – or even a small group – to be responsible for your emotional well-being is an absurd level of pressure to put on others and it’s unfair to boot. Most folks have a hard enough time managing their own lives. Expecting them to be responsible for yours – even a portion of it – is unfair and it’s going to push them away.
You’re Allowed To Be Single and Happy
Look, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that there’s something wrong with wanting a relationship or that you’re a bad person because you’re lonely. As I said earlier: we’re social animals. But when you make being Forever Alone a part of your identity, you’re actively making your life harder for yourself. I realize that there’s a lot of social pressure to pair up, and feeling like you’re being left out of an amazing party that everyone else gets to go to. But you also have to be willing to acknowledge – even if nobody else will – that you still have value even if you’re not part of a couple. Being single and happy is perfectly valid. Not having a girlfriend or a boyfriend doesn’t mean that you’re somehow excluded from having an amazing life, or from being part of a community or having people who love and care for you. And let’s be real: finding someone who you’re going to want to spend almost all of your time with should be rare. If they’re going to be that important to you, they should be pretty goddamn special. So no, it’s not going to be easy, even under the best of circumstances.
But you can’t make your relationship status on Facebook the defining part of your existence. I know it’s hard. God knows I know how frustrating it can be, and how unfair it all can seem. And you’re right: it is unfair that some people have it easier than you do. Welcome to life, kid, it’s a contact sport and there’s no referee. But the fact that it’s unfair doesn’t mean that you get to give up and just whine about it until something happens. You have to take care of yourself – even if you’ve convinced yourself that you’re doomed to die alone. But you don’t know that and you can’t know that and you will never know until you die.
If whether you’re part of a couple is the only thing that gives your life meaning… well, I hate to be blunt, but you’re doing life wrong. The only constant you will have in your entire life is you… and you are ultimately the one in control of that. Your life is precisely as miserable or as wonderful as you choose to make it.
You aren’t broken because you’re alone. You’re not deficient because you haven’t had a girlfriend. You’re not missing a piece of yourself. You’re just single. And that’s ok.