I flew back to Canada from London one summer, just after my thirty-first birthday. I was feeling a little bit low; I had recently been dumped by somebody I cared about, and it was the rotten cherry on top of a lousy month.
“I like you too much,” this particular guy had told me one sunny evening over pints, clasping my hands in his. He wanted to travel, to leave London for a while, and how could I not understand, given my own background? To him, at that time in his life, a relationship would be an anchor, and boats with anchors never left the port.
It had been a short union but a good one, and I was annoyed that yet another relationship had unravelled. It was getting harder and harder to justify all these failed romantic encounters in London – hadn’t I always thought that it was the steady pace of travelling in my twenties that kept me from finding that elusive one? I had convinced myself that it was my wanderlust that had stopped me from meeting the right man, the right partner. But now that I had been settled in London for nearly two years, that excuse was wearing thin.
“What if I’m single forever?” I asked my mum.”What if I never find someone?” We were sitting on her Toronto balcony with bowls of pesto pasta and glasses of cold white wine. The June sky was still bright and clear, even late into the evening. I could see the CN Tower rising up in the city skyline. It looked so incredibly removed, as if it were worlds away.
“Don’t be silly, of course you will,” she said to me, resting her bowl in her lap. We sat in silence for a little bit, listening to the sounds of people playing soccer in the park below, the heavy thwack of a ball followed by shouts and cheers. “But…” she went on, “just hear me out. What if you don’t meet someone? What if I were to tell you right now that you’d never find just one person to spend the rest of your life with? What would you do? How would you live your life?”
I’m now about to turn 33. I still live in London – I’m coming up to four years here – and yes, I’m still single. In fact, I haven’t had a relationship that lasted over six months in about six years. That’s not to say there hasn’t been romance in my life; I’ve had my fair share of travel romances, and I’ve dated a few guys while I’ve been based in the UK (let’s not argue over the definition of “few”, shall we?).
There was Cormac, an Irishman, who was drunk before I even arrived on our date and left me on my own at a bar deep in Whitechapel. There was Harry, a German, who worked for a huge financial firm and bragged about his house in Chelsea, and then divided the bill by who ate more of which course. There was the book publisher Mikey from Leeds who couldn’t stop nervously scratching his head, and, after only one drink, tried to kiss me without warning. There was Josh, a wealthy, older man, who, when I disagreed with something he said, told me in all seriousness that women usually pandered to him.
But there was also Chris, a Welsh journalist with a charmingly crooked smile, who immediately swept me off my feet with discussions of his time in Palestine and his love of Neil Young. And Brian from Brighton, a stockbroker with broad shoulders and an infectious laugh. There was Nick from Glasgow, an accountant who played in a rock and roll band, who’d text me with links to songs every morning. And there was Scott, a tall, quiet romantic, who’d keep me up all night playing records and drinking whisky.
And yet, none of them lasted, sometimes by his decision, sometimes by mine. Nobody ever truly clicked into place.
I’ve been writing a lot about relationships lately, mainly because I see how many people out there relate to being single in this society that still places so much emphasis on getting married, even in 2017. I apparently have a lot to say about it, too. I discussed dating at length in the series I wrote in January, titled My Month Without Alcohol… and Men. In the fourth and final instalment of that series, I talked about how, when I was younger, the thing I wanted more than anything else was a boyfriend. Oh man, was I “boy crazy” (please note, I’m using the past tense here to pretend that I’ve changed… my sister and mum may have different viewpoints). I have wasted so many hours of my life pining over some disinterested bloke who can’t even bother to text back. I, too, fell into the trap of believing that marriage was the end goal. I mean, it’s everywhere: all the Disney movies I grew up with ended in a wedding. All of my heroines growing up got married, too: Laura Ingalls, Anne of Green Gables, Jo March. I mean, I’m pretty sure Zack Morris and Kelly Kapowski’s wedding was the highlight of my pre-teen life.
When I was growing up, and even through my twenties, I always believed I could have it all, a nod to my privileged upbringing: the good job, the nice house, the world travels, the loving family. But even though I was independent and headstrong, I believed love was the ultimate reward, that it usurped everything else. When I’d dream of my future life, I pictured travelling and adventure, but I also pictured a partner to share it with. I grew up in the kind of suburban neighbourhood where divorce was still rare, where families drove to the cottage on weekends and sent out Christmas cards plastered with smiling photos. When my parents decided to divorce when I was 19, I was old enough to understand why, but still young enough to have it shatter some of my perceptions of love.
Yet, whenever I dated somebody new, part of me thought that perhaps this man would be the one to change things, to rein in my wild wanderlust, to make me want to stay somewhere for longer than a year or two. To make me want to settle permanently. Part of me thought that I would be OK with that, if only he was the “right man”… completely oblivious to the fact that, if he was the “right man”, he would never ask me to shelve my dreams and ambitions, nor would he want to rein me in or have me change who I truly am. I ignored the fact that I often didn’t feel like myself when I was in these relationships; in fact, I often felt like the worst version of myself when I was in them, needy and insecure. I ignored the fact that I felt most like myself when I was solo, when I was travelling, when I was engrossed in something I really loved, like writing. I ignored the fact that I absolutely love spending time on my own, and that I crave and need a lot of it.
In ignoring all that was truly happening and all that I was truly feeling, I was my own worst enemy.
Sitting on that balcony with my mum, I hadn’t expected her to say that to me.
“What if I’m single forever?” I asked myself. “What if I never find my ultimate ‘soulmate’, that person I’ll grow old with? What if I never fall in love again?” These are pretty tough questions to ask yourself.
But then I started asking myself different questions, too, about my life so far. I started looking back at everything I’d done as a single woman.
I travelled through Europe on my own. I lived and taught in Japan on my own. I travelled through Southeast Asia and India on my own, Central and South America and Africa, too. I moved to London with almost no contacts or perception of the city, and yet here I was, with supportive and inspirational friends, with a flat that felt like home. I had finished a master’s degree. I started and maintained a successful career that I loved. And to top it off, I was still travelling frequently, leaving London at least once a month. I was living the kind of life I couldn’t have even imagined when I was younger. I was living a life that was so much better than I had ever imagined, even though there wasn’t a man in sight.
What would have happened if I had stayed with any of the men I’d been with in the past? Would I be married, would I have a mortgage, would I be a mother? Would I be happy? Did I even believe in soulmates, or did I believe that each of us has many different people that may come in and out of our lives? Hadn’t I even met a few of them already?
Two months ago, in Please Stop Telling Me I Just Need to Meet the Right Guy, I wrote,
“In the last 15 years of adulthood, I’ve been single for about ten of them (some of those years by choice, some not). Recently, however, when I started to think about my future – where I’m going to live, how my career is going to evolve, what I truly want out of life – I had finally, finally, acknowledged that, if I don’t get married or have children, I’m going to be OK. It felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my chest.”
I’m so sick of the “old maid” trope, the idea that if a woman is single past a certain age she should be labelled a spinster, or that she’ll become a “crazy cat lady”. First of all, I’m a dog person (heh), and second of all, it’s just so outdated and sexist and condescending. Do you know how old Bridget Jones is supposed to be in the first movie, you know, the one where all of her friends and family endlessly talk about her single status, where she’s the butt of every joke, and where she constantly obsesses over finding a man? 32. 32 years old. The same age as me. Like… what the fuck?
I’m part of the first generation of women who are able and are allowed to be independent; my mother was expected to marry, as was my grandmother, and as were all the women in my family before her. There is still definitely pressure on women to partner up – as Kate Bolick writes, “Whom to marry, and when will it happen – these two questions define every woman’s existence” – but it’s slowly but surely getting better. Generations of women have paved the way for me to be able to have this freedom. And while I have no single friends anymore – every single one of my close friends or family members is in a serious relationship – I have finally reached the point where I am so happy with being single. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy for all of my friends, too, but to finally acknowledge that I love my single lifestyle and the freedom it affords me has been such a wonderful thing to happen in my life. I spend so much time alone, and I also live alone, but I love it. What works for one person doesn’t always work for another; we all have our own paths in life.
In fact, as I recently wrote on this blog, my ideal life right now consists of remaining single, of travelling often, and of having the odd travel romance here and there. I have this vision of meeting someone when I’m older, perhaps much older; I have too many exciting plans over the next few years to stay rooted in one place for too long. As this is possibly my last full year in London, I would consider it a very cruel trick on the universe’s part for me to get into a relationship right now.
Maybe I still would have still travelled to 90 countries, most of them solo, if I had been in a relationship. Maybe I still would have written a book (though it would definitely have a different ending… spoiler alert and all that). Maybe I still would have moved around the world, or worked so hard on this business, or gotten a master’s degree. I’m positive there are tons of incredible partners out there who could have supported me throughout all of this; I see these kinds of relationships all around me, and I don’t want to imply that people in relationships can’t fulfil their dreams, too. But some of my past boyfriends haven’t been very supportive of my dreams, and imagine if I had stayed with one of them? Maybe I don’t want the risk of a proverbial anchor, either, not when I’m so happy with how everything else is going.
If someone great comes along, that’s fantastic, and I would welcome it wholeheartedly. In fact, I’m sure I’ll have a few encounters even in the next year (my friends are all betting on my time in Zanzibar in July). But I also know that, if I remained single forever, I’d be OK.
But maybe you’re reading this and thinking, “That’s all well and good for you, but what about me? I DO want to be in a relationship.”
I get that. It’s taken me a long time to reach this stage, and I’ve also been fortunate enough to be able to follow my ambitions (though another added bonus of being single is that you get to decide how to spend all of your money). There’s a mantra I’ve seen going around for a little while now, one that asks people this: “If you knew you were going to meet the person of your dreams in a year, how would you spend that next year?”
And while that’s a perfectly legitimate question, it still presents the reward or end goal as having a partner. I’ve seen people’s responses to that question; they say things like ‘travel’, ‘learn a new language’, ‘take cooking classes’, and ‘try to hook up with as many people from around the world as possible’ (that last one might have been mine, sorry). But here’s the thing: why would meeting a partner prevent any of those things (OK, scratch the last one, unless you’re in an open relationship)? And what happens when the year is up, and maybe you haven’t met anyone? I understand that it’s supposed to be a freeing statement, as in, “stop putting so much pressure on yourself to date or find someone and just go out and do what you really want to do.”
But I’m going to take it one (giant) step further. I’m going to ask you the same question my mum asked me.
What if I were to tell you right now that you’d never find just one person to spend the rest of your life with? What would you do? How would you live your life?
That might be a scary thought, definitely. Trust me, I get sad sometimes, and I get lonely sometimes, too. I feel awful and heartbroken when relationships end, and every time it happens, I’m convinced I’ll never find anyone again (and yet I always do). But finding a loving and happy relationship is one of the only things that is almost completely out of our control. So much of it is down to chance, or down to timing. We can control many other aspects of our lives, but meeting someone – ONE person on a planet of seven billion and counting – who makes you happy enough to want to spend the rest of your life with that person? We can’t always control that, and it’s harmful to put intense pressure on yourself to try to control it. Trust me, I’ve been there.
I’m not saying to give up dating all together; I’d still happily go on a date if the situation arose, and I still try dating sites from time to time. What I’m saying is this: there is so much to life. There is so much joy and fulfilment from so many aspects of life, not just romantic love. If we don’t have a partner, it doesn’t mean we can’t be happy, or follow our dreams, or have great friends, or even have children. Sure, some aspects of life could be easier, and you could argue that some aspects of life could be better, but I’m a firm believer of making the most of the situation that I’ve been given. There’s no point in me sitting around, bemoaning that I’m single, and waiting for a partner so that my life can really begin, or some other bullshit like that. I’m going to get out there and create the life I want to live. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you don’t need a partner to complete you. That implies you were never whole to begin with. A partner would be a wonderful bonus to an already happy life, but coupling up is not going to be my ultimate goal.
And the beautiful thing? When you’re out there, enjoying your life, doing what you love to do, that’s when you start to meet lots of other likeminded people. Romantic partners, maybe, but new friends and interesting people, definitely. Remember what I said about feeling most like myself when I’m travelling solo? There has to be some sort of direct correlation to the fact that I’ve met many of my best friends while travelling on my own. I’ve also had some damn good travel flings, so there’s that.
Do I believe that I’ll be single forever, or even that YOU’LL be single forever? No, I don’t. What’s so exciting about life is that we never, ever know who we’re going to meet that might change everything. But I think it’s pretty empowering to live life knowing that, if we did stay single, we’d be just fine. We’d be MORE than fine. We’d create interesting futures for ourselves. We’d live thoughtful, purposeful lives, ones that are still full of love, even if it’s simply love for ourselves and what we’re passionate about.
I remember what I said to my mum that June evening a few summers ago, when she asked me what I’d do if I stayed single.
“I’d keep travelling,” I answered. “I’d continue to grow my own business, and focus on my writing. Maybe I’d even live in a little house somewhere, get a dog. I’d probably still meet different people to share portions of my life with, from time to time, people from around the world. I’d… I’d be OK, I think. I think I’d be really happy.”
Maybe I’ll never have it all, just like I dreamed of as a kid, but maybe there’s no such thing. Or maybe, we have to redefine exactly what ‘all’ means. Not every story ends with a chapter on finding true love, not every adventure ends with a man under a Tuscan sun. But that’s the thing – I’ve been given the words to this book I call my life. It’s up to me to rearrange them, to edit them into something meaningful, to write my own happy ending. It might look different to the other books around me, but I never did mind being different.
“I think you’d be happy, too,” my mum answered. The late evening hour was just starting to turn the sky a hazy swirl of pastels. Lake Ontario began to glow a warm gold that showed through the gaps between silver skyscrapers. As we finished our wine we went back to our favourite pastime: talking about the places we’d love to visit.
“Papua New Guinea.”
And when I returned to London a few days later, I sat down at my desk, opened up my laptop, and started to look up cheap flights for another solo adventure, my unpacked suitcase still in the hallway.
My absolute favourite books on modern dating (affiliate links):
So… what do you think? If you’re single, how would you answer that question? Do you ever feel pressure to be in a relationship?