I know you just rolled your eyes at this headline.
I felt it: 'Here we go again.' I promise I'm not about to trot out tired clichés about lying star-shaped in bed, or having a whole wardrobe to yourself or not having to wash someone else's boxer shorts. Let's bypass all that poppycock. Nor am I about to lead you in a synchronised All The Single Ladies dance, which claims to celebrate singledom, yet also sells the clashy message that he shoulda put a ring on it. Nah.
The route to single joy, I’ve discovered, is directly through the single sorrow. I know this from five years of working through this – of trying to subdue my ever-growing single panic as 33, then 34 rolled on by.
I felt as if I was trapped inside a giant egg-timer, with sand being sucked from beneath my feet at an alarming rate. Despite not knowing whether I actually want children, I felt in peril of losing the choice. It didn’t help that my dad informed me, when I turned 33, that he’d turned the money allocated as my ‘wedding fund’ into an ‘egg-freezing fund’.
But what I learned was that you need to thoroughly get to know your single panic: dismantle it, take a good long look at it, question it, trace its origin, and then rewrite it. I’m no smug single who claims to be ‘fixed’. Yesterday, I went on a date with a handsome man who shouted at me for three hours and let me say about 10 words. Instead of thinking, ‘Oh well, onwards,’ about this dreadful date, I found myself downloading Hinge and desperately stabbing at it for an hour, looking for a heart-shaped fix.
In those moments, I cast myself as a Miss Havisham figure. I tell myself a story in which nobody wants me (despite much evidence to the contrary), I never like anyone (not true), and I need to just ‘settle’ (not in my character, at all), or I’m going to wind up wandering around a decaying mansion (er, one-bedroom flat) in a yellowing wedding dress.
But why? There’s no doubt an enormous driver of single sorrow is social conditioning. When I tell someone I’m single, they tend to frown slightly, ask me why, then try to diagnose my singleness as me being too picky, too career-driven or in need of a date with their single mate (who I don’t fancy).
They say comforting things like, ‘Oh well, you’ll meet someone soon,’ no matter how non-sad I appear. I usually leave the hairdresser’s feeling sad about being single, even though I went in happy.
Coupled-up friends are keen for me to join them in the land of twos, so they’ll invite a single acquaintance to dinner, throw us together, and then side-eye us from afar, as if watching zoo animals. I do feel as if a wedding is a closing of a friendship chapter, given that it often seems to mean that their husband is invited to everything we do.
My singleness is seen by society as an absence and an incompleteness that needs to be cured and filled ASAP. There’s an assumption that single women over a certain age could not possibly have chosen their terrible fate – God, no. But here’s the thing. I’m single because I just am. It’s certainly not my fault, or because I secretly have scales all over my body, or because I’m unmarriable. It’s a hopscotch of choices, chance and happenstance.
Mostly, it’s been my decision to step away from not-right relationships, despite my brain’s tendency to Velcro on to the times I’ve been dumped.
In my twenties, I was single for a grand total of six months (basically spent holding boyfriend auditions). I was fixated with a) looking good, b) locking down a husband and c) OK, maybe a career too.
My friends nicknamed me a ‘love monkey’ for swinging from man to man. It’s no great surprise that I was obsessed with husband-hunting and terrorised by a fear of the eligible suitors running out.
Little girls are conditioned to want to get married. I can only think of a handful of films, versus thousands, that don’t end in a couple-shaped happy-ever-after. The reason the marketing around Moana trumpeted so vociferously about her ‘not having a love interest!’ was because every other Disney princess had one.
When my thirties hit, my boyfriend addiction reached crazy-eyed levels and my standards plummeted, as the sensation that time was running out gripped me. I sought new boyfriends with the urgency that you seek a new job in the wake of a redundancy. As a result, I ended up in the most toxic relationship of my life, and felt paralysed within it, a person trapped in amber.
I emancipated myself from that only to race headlong into another relationship, and when that ended, I felt as if I’d been tipped into a black hole. It was becoming undeniable that I relied on men to ‘make me happy’; throwing my happiness up into the air and hoping some bloke would catch it. So, I decided to take a whole year off dating and to smash through my fear of being single, much like an arachnophobe holds a tarantula, to free myself from this need to be coupled to feel complete.
Of the past five years, I’ve spent three and a half single, not because I can’t locate a boyfriend, but because I’m now super-happy being single and totally unwilling to settle. The French have an amazing saying that means ‘It’s better to be alone than poorly accompanied’, which is now my motto.
I’m now nine-parts single joy to one-part single sorrow, because I’ve done a hell of a lot of work around it. I’ve realised I need to be conscious about my single contentment, otherwise it slips back into disenchantment – because you’d be amazed by the number of examples you see of ‘Couple good single bad’ being fed to us when you start to look for it. I was recently shopping for a new sofa and bed, for example, and found myself feeling lonely while bouncing around on beds solo. Why? Because, turns out, furniture shopping adverts feature couples 99% of the time.
To compensate, I’ve hit on dozens of tactics that have helped me locate single joy. I seek out the singles wherever I am, because I realised that I was always looking at happy couples and thinking ‘Why don’t I have that?’ while ignoring the serene-looking woman sunbathing and reading. Single role models are there if you look for them.
I’ve had therapy around where my single sorrow sprang from (social conditioning, being raised by a father who taught me that women ceased to be desirable after 40, a buried belief that if I relaxed too much into being single it would become a ‘forever’ state).
And I now have long breaks where I don’t date at all – which have lasted from four months to a year – whenever I feel the panic start to dig its claws in. But most of all, I’ve stopped feeling that empty space beside me, that plus-one-shaped hole. I now see a relationship as an optional add-on, an extra, rather than compulsory for my future happiness.
I’ve decided I’d much rather have dogs with the right person aged 55, than kids with the wrong person now. In fact, I don’t need anyone at all to make my dream menagerie happen.
It’s true that I can decorate my flat with beauties from Made and Vinterior, rather than the (let’s face it: criminally insane) interior choices of a male. It’s also true that I was able to go and live in Bruges for seven months, which wouldn’t have happened had I been tied to a Britain-based boyfriend.
And it’s true that I can let my body become like a mossy, ferny glade, rather than spending hours a week maintaining the illusion that I have no hair, other than on my head.
But all of these single bonuses orbit around the absence of a partner. A single life can be a happy life for all the same reasons that a coupled life can be a happy life.
Because of croissants, and art, and showers, and yoga, and dogs, and books, and everything that is still just as awesome no matter what your relationship status. I no longer arrange my life around an empty man-shaped space in my bed, because there isn’t one.
Catherine is the author of ‘The Unexpected Joy Of Being Single’ (£9.99, Aster), out now. She’ll be writing in Grazia about being single for the next four weeks
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