We humans are social creatures. We thrive on connection, interaction, and unions with each other. As babies, we are immediately and intimately connected to our mothers, and then our fathers or other nurturing adults. As children, we seek out our first playmates as early as two years old. Social acceptance in our peer group is key to our self-esteem when we are school age, and throughout childhood. When the hormones begin to kick in as preteens and teenagers, the pursuit of romantic relationships becomes a central focus.
In our late teens and early twenties, in the modern Western culture, it is natural to begin to think about finding a life partner. Some young adults have found “the one,” (or at least the person they think is “the one”) by the time they graduate from high school. Many more have done so by the time they graduate from college or reach their mid-twenties.
Then again, many have not! In fact, more and more people are focusing less and less on long-term relationships in early adulthood and more on friendships and career. The average age of marriage in our culture continues to get older, and many people are waiting until their late 20s or 30s to settle down. In fact, in the past 20 years, both men and women have shown a considerable increase in average age at marriage. Men are now, on average, 26.8 when they marry, which is two years older than the mean age of marriage for men in 1980. Women are 25.1, which is three years older on average now, than the mean marriage age in 1980.
However, many are settling into commitment without marriage, and there is still often a sense of urgency about finding a mate, a life partner, and perhaps starting a family, particularly among young women. There is the “biological clock” to consider for those who do want children, which can begin to tick noticeably sometime in the mid-twenties. Even for men, there may be social pressure, perhaps at a slightly older age, to “grow up,” “be responsible,” and find a life mate.
As a single, young adult, the time will come for you when many of your friends are in committed relationships, living together, or getting married. What if you are still single? What if the relationship you had in high school or college did not end in commitment as you had originally hoped? What if you are 24, 28, or even 30 years old and you are not in a relationship, or in an unsatisfying one that seems to be leading nowhere? Does the old adage, “Always the bridesmaid, never the bride” seem like your motto? Are you one of the few true bachelors left at the bachelor parties? Do you feel like you need to be in a relationship to be considered normal or to feel good about yourself? Do you stay in a relationship just to avoid being single and alone? Alternatively, do you avoid relationships because you are fearful of commitment and find it hard to trust people?
Perhaps you are one of those people who are almost always in a relationship (one right after another), because you are afraid to do things without a partner, or feel you may be left home alone on a Friday night if you do not have a partner. You may settle for unsatisfying relationships just to have a relationship and avoid feeling isolated.
On the other hand, you may be someone who is fearful of relationships and dating, so you avoid situations where people might be looking to attract someone. You stay at home, or shy away from people who may be interested in you because you do not easily trust others, and you fear intimacy. Maybe you are the type that is everyone’s friend, but others do not see you as relationship material. You are always giving but not looking to get your own needs met. Therefore, others do not take you seriously as someone who is looking for a deeper connection. Maybe you are the type who is constantly expecting the next date, or next new person you meet, to be your soul mate. You try to go immediately into a deep connection, whether the other person is right for you or not. You move in too fast and too intensely and often scare others away.
Whatever your situation, it is crucial to look at what being single means to you and what a healthy relationship would look like. There is nothing inherently wrong with being single, and there is nothing inherently good about being in a relationship. It is possible to have a fulfilling and happy life as a single person, and it is obvious that many couples are not happy, as evidenced by the high divorce rate and number of domestic disputes. However, given our social nature, it is common to desire a relationship and to share your life with someone. Finding the right person for this type of union cannot be scheduled or planned.
The key to establishing a healthy and happy relationship is to love oneself as a single and autonomous human being first; then seek out relationship, only to add to richness to one’s life, not to complete oneself as a person. Allow time to fully know yourself, so that you do not become absorbed in a relationship, like a chameleon who simply adjusts to whatever or whoever is around him/her. Become comfortable with yourself and your aloneness. Ultimately, each of us is alone. No other person can fully know and understand us or take away our existential loneliness. Sure, being in a relationship can keep loneliness at bay, but eventually, we all come to the realization that no one else can feel our pain, think our thoughts, or carry all of our burdens.
To get comfortable with oneself means to be at peace with being alone. It means not always needing someone to understand us, nor always needing another’s company to make us feel safe or at peace. It means not counting on one person, or even several, to take away difficult or negative feelings, such as sadness, anger, or grief. To enter into a relationship in a state of independence will allow the relationship to add meaning and depth to your life. On the contrary, if you enter a relationship needing someone to hold you up, take away your loneliness, assuage the hard feelings, or make you feel complete, the relationship is sure to eventually bend and break under the pressure. Then you will not only have an ailing self-esteem and loneliness to deal with, you will have added heartache of a breakup to your troubles and likely intensified the first two!
If you are struggling with being single, it may help to begin to look at the reasons for your angst. Ask yourself:
Do you fear loneliness?
Perhaps you feel insecure about yourself or have an underdeveloped sense of self. In other words, you may not know yourself well enough to know who you are in a relationship, and what you want from a relationship. You may also assume that since you are sometimes alone, there is something wrong with you. So you desperately try to avoid being alone, so as not to have to face this ultimate fear that you are somehow inadequate or unworthy of others’ company.
Do you fear intimacy?
For some people, getting too close to someone else is just as scary as, or even scarier than, having no one to get close to at all. If this is the case for you, you may need to look at the model for relationships you had in your family as a child. Was there abuse, distance, intense conflict? Have you, yourself, been abused, leaving scars that rear their ugly heads when someone tries to get close to you?
Are you lacking in self-awareness?
Do you feel that you are not sure what makes you happy until you stumble upon it? Do you spend most of your time with others trying to make sure they are happy so that they will stick around? Are you always so kind to others that you do not take the time to realize that you also have needs? Others likely see you as a nice person and a good friend, but they do not see you as someone they can deeply connect with, because you are not present as a whole and separate being, but rather as an extension of the other. Perhaps as a child, you lived with a demanding parent, either narcissistic or possibly addicted to a substance. You learned how to meet their needs, at the expense of your own.
Do you have little faith in life’s process?
Do you worry that life is going to pass you by? Your friends will have happy relationships and children, and you will remain the old maid. Does it feel like you need to make something happen soon so that you don’t miss out? Remember that life unfolds at its own pace, and rushing it will not bring you happiness. You can open yourself up to the possibility of a relationship and even seek out people to date, but you cannot make the relationship of your life happen on your time schedule. Some people get married just because they want to be married, and often these marriages end in divorce. Trust that life holds good things for you if you go about being yourself and enjoying life, whether you are single or not.
Being single and satisfied or getting out of an unhealthy relationship can take courage. If you need to sort through the issues that keep you from feeling good about yourself as a single person, seek the help of a qualified therapist, rather than another bad relationship.
© Copyright 2011 by By Colleen Burke-Sivers, MA, therapist in Portland, Oregon. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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