Dear Kitty, For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be in a relationship. In kindergarten, I chased Richard around the schoolyard, trying to kiss him. In high school I dated Jeremy until he broke up with me. The same thing happened with James. And so began the pattern of being left and holding on. I didn't date anyone else for the rest of high school, but everyday, when I walked to my mother's hair shop from high school, I would imagine a boy who was mine, walking next to me, holding my hand. That hand was so vivid, I could almost feel it. In College, I discovered girls, but I wasn't convinced yet that I could date a girl and still go to heaven. So I got help from a Christian counsellor and asked my sister to pray for me. But after a couple years of holding it in, I broke down and started going to queer bars every weekend to drink, dance and pick up girls. I continued my pattern. I couldn't remember all their names if I tried, but it seemed I was falling in love and being broken up with about once every three months for the next 15 years of my life, as I moved from city to city, chasing love. Time flies when you're always in love or pain. So what I've spent years in therapy trying to figure out is, what on earth is wrong with me? Is there some reason it's so difficult to love me long term? I'm haunted by the thought that maybe, after so many years of trying and failing to have a long term relationship, I'm simply unlovable. So I'm trying to embrace my singleness, to focus on other things, to learn some new things, change my career, spend time with my friends, (but my friends are almost all in relationships, nesting with their partners,) and even when I try to tell myself I'm okay on my own, I feel that longing for a hand to hold onto, just as much as I felt it when I was 15. How can I accept my situation and find contentment? Signed, Forever single
Dear Forever Single,
The first word that came to me when reading your letter was: “breathe.” Your pursuit of one person after another, the rapidity with which you describe falling in love, and the urgency in your search for answers have a breathless quality. You say that time flies when you’re always in love or pain. It also flies when you don’t give yourself time to pause. When you talk of being left and holding on, of trying and failing, I sense your suffering. There’s a particular energy, too – a feeling, perhaps, that you’re clinging tightly not only to this imaginary hand you hold, but to the story that you have about yourself. So I’d like to invite you to loosen that grip and take a break from this narrative, even if it’s just for a little while.
It’s useful to recognise when we are repeating the same patterns – in fact, we’re wired to do just that. Yet when we convert our experiences into a set of fixed beliefs about ourselves and the world, we can slip into fatalistic thinking. We may stop seeing people – ourselves and others – in a rounded way. Everyone becomes a character in a story whose outcome we already know. We may even, unconsciously, behave in ways that perpetuate the pattern or seek out people who will reinforce it, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. You don’t say anything about the people you’ve wanted over the years; the wanting itself seems to be the part that preoccupies you more than any specific person. I wonder if your ability to really see people, and be seen, could be hindered by the intensity of your wish for a relationship.
You also don’t say what it is that you imagine a relationship would give you. What does that “hand to hold onto” symbolize? Allow yourself to complete the sentence “If I were in a relationship…” in as many ways as come to mind and feel truthful. Maybe it’s “…I would never feel lonely”, “I’d be more self-confident”, or “I’d have stability”. This could help you to shift your focus from a relationship as a goal in and of itself, to an awareness of your unmet needs. The next step is to tend to those parts of yourself (your therapist should be able to help you with this). Recognise, also, how you already get the things you imagine a partner would bring – which friends make you feel the most supported, which activities make you feel the most joy, etc. – and actively appreciate and nurture those relationships and practices.
Learning that you’re “okay on your own” isn’t something you have to do because you aren’t in a relationship: I promise it’s not a burden or punishment for the long-term, or serially, single! It’s necessary groundwork because even the healthiest relationships don’t have the power to fix all our problems or guarantee us lifelong happiness, despite the popular mythology. It’s painful to be surrounded by people in relationships when that’s what you long for, perhaps especially so in 2020. Do remember that each couple, triad, etc. around you will have its own inner world of challenges and complexities, however flawless it appears – and that there will likely be some partnered people who look at you and feel envious that you’re single.
I truly believe that knowing love, in its broadest sense, is our birthright as human beings, but the idea that the “happy ever after” version of romantic love is “out there for all of us” is misleading, harmful, and subtly engenders a sense of entitlement to something that may not exist at all. When we don’t get the things we’ve been led to believe we have a right to, it feels deeply wrong: we may feel cheated by the world, or conclude that we must be, somehow, broken.
When you ask how you can “accept [your] situation,” I sense you’re asking “how can I accept that I’m unlovable?”. That’s not a question I can answer, because I disagree with your premise! I don’t believe that anyone is unlovable, including you. Yet I know that if it’s something you truly believe, it’s not in anyone else’s power – not mine, not a future partner – to convince you otherwise. How deep does that haunting thought go, Forever Single? It may be a throwaway line in response to years of disappointment, or it may speak to ideas that you have held about yourself for a long time, perhaps even before any of this started in kindergarten (you allude to a conservative Christian background, and you certainly wouldn’t be alone if, as a queer kid in such an environment, you’d internalised the message that you were unworthy of love). If the latter resonates with you, there may be some deep healing that needs to take place.
If the thought “maybe I’m unlovable” is a new or even flippant one, it’s nonetheless a heartbreaking thing to wonder about oneself. And yet, it’s appealing in its simplicity and finality. Applying this idea to all your break-ups flattens out your experience, erasing the nuance of each dynamic. Relationships end for all kinds of reasons, but I’ve never seen one end because one party was unlovable. Each person you’ve dated is an individual, with their own history, with whom you would have had a unique dynamic. If 30 people have broken up with you, they probably had 30 different reasons. That’s not to say that there are 30 different things “wrong with you” (I’ll get to that line of thinking in just a sec). It’s to say, and I mean this in the kindest possible way: it’s not all about you.
The question “what’s wrong with me?” is so common, and I’m yet to see it lead anyone down an enlightening path. Try asking, instead, “what are my expectations of a partner, and how do I communicate them?”, “how do I respond to difficult emotions, like sadness, anger and fear, in my relationships?”, and “what kind of people am I drawn to, and why?” Free from the desperation and determinism of “what’s wrong with me?” thinking, questions like these open up space for personal responsibility, inviting constructive reflection without implying some innate, irreparable flaw.
I also encourage you to pursue some “what’s awesome about me?” thinking! Make a list of 10 things you value about yourself (you can ask a friend to help), stick it to your bathroom mirror, and read it every day. The list of things that you’re now trying to focus on is admirable, and, again, a little breathless. Being by yourself is also being with yourself: see if you can build some time and space into your life to just explore and appreciate that. It’s great if you can learn to embrace your singleness, but I think it’s more important that you learn to embrace yourself.
I wish you the contentment you’re looking for,