In 1990 I was a couple of years out of college, trying to support myself with multiple jobs, and navigating a relationship with a partner who could best be described as “non-committal”. I was also working in a domestic violence shelter and observing how often fear of being alone and the inability to earn a living wage were huge obstacles to people trying to leave abusive relationships. I made a pledge to myself that I was going to choose romantic partners because I wanted to be with them, not because I needed to be with them (for my happiness, my financial stability, or because I wasn’t comfortable living alone). A therapist suggested I read the book Singling, and it started me on a 30+ year journey to become a whole person, in and out of relationships.
“[Wholeness] is a condition of encouraging, affirming, and maintaining one’s integrity as a self. It is being willing –and learning how- to become increasingly self-aware, self-preserving, self-affirming, self-fulfilling, and autonomous (self-governing). It is taking responsibility for one’s own physical and emotional well-being.“
John Landgraf, Singling, out of print
Hopefully, during this season of couples, love, expectations, and disappointment, some of the ideas I have embraced will resonate with you whether you are choosing to be whole by yourself or in the context of a romantic relationship.
Conquer fear of being alone
After I left college, it was important to me to live alone for a while before living with someone else. It wasn’t just for the emotional mastery, it was also for practical reasons. I wanted to know how to do everything you needed to do to be a fully functioning adult. Later, when I was in serious romantic relationships, I enjoyed having someone to divide chores with, but there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do myself.
Living alone is one aspect of conquering the fear, the other is going out in public alone. This was the hardest part for me. I used to feel sorry for people eating alone at restaurants until I realized what a delightful experience it can be. Mostly, it takes repetition to become comfortable doing this. One of the most fun I have ever had was traveling alone in Italy last May.
Learn to make friends
The “exposure effect” is a theory behind making friends that is research-based way. (I know you are probably wondering why making friends needs to be research-based. It is because most adults really struggle with this and when you are taking risks to “put yourself out there” it helps to know that the strategy you are trying has worked for lots of other people.) People tend to like things that they’re familiar with so the more time people spend with you, the more they will acquire a “taste” for you. For example, people will have a greater fondness for others who work in their building than a total stranger. Repeated interactions, sharing confidences and a bit about your personal history, and asking people for small things (because people feel good when they are needed) are all ways to turn casual acquaintances into friends. What are some places you have exposure to the same people over and over, repeated and unplanned interactions, and a relaxed setting where people are open to engaging in conversation? I think about Meet Ups, classes in topics that interest you, or even going to the same coffee shop every day. Also, interacting with service people is a great way to practice talking to strangers so you can reduce your anxiety. They are there to be friendly.
Overcome cultural messages
Sigh… where to start? We are bombarded with messages about being in a couple. There are so many ways that media, advertising, and entertainment reinforce the idea that being partnered is better. Often our friends and families are where we receive the strongest messages. I remember being in my 20s and my grandmother telling me she was going to give me a clock my grandfather made as soon as I was married. I understand that she was from a different generation where adulthood really was tied to marriage, but I wasn’t sure that marriage was an institution that I wanted to participate in. I found it problematic for several social justice related reasons. Choosing to be single sounds odd and if it is a choice you make at any part of your adult life, you might be fighting an uphill battle. More than once during my many years of being single, I was asked “you are cute enough, why don’t you have a boyfriend?” Often, if you have periods in your life when you are single, people assume it is because you can’t find someone rather than that you are single by design.
February can be tough on the single among us. But I want you to hold your head high and find things that make you happy that don’t depend on a romantic relationship. Even if your eventual goal is to be in a romantic relationship, a whole person is much more attractive to other whole people!