I’ve never had a serious relationship. By my count, I’ve never dated anybody for longer than two or three months. I’ve never called anybody my boyfriend, never introduced a partner to my family or friends and never said “I love you.” At 30 years old, I am the only person in my social circle who isn’t married or in a long-term relationship. And for the first time in my life, I am completely happy with that.
In my twenties, I developed a bit of a complex about my relationship status. The conversation would follow the same rough script each time. First, people would marvel at the fact that I was single, asking something along the lines of: “How are you not taken?” Which translates loosely to: “What’s secretly wrong with you that is undetectable to the naked eye?” I would shrug and say I didn’t know, because really, there is no satisfactory answer to that question. But that didn’t stop people from asking it, sometimes adding one word which would make it sting all the more: “How are you still single?”
It used to bother me. A lot. I’d think to myself: Well, what is wrong with me? I was attractive, clever, funny. It was just a case of waiting for the right person, I kept saying, both to myself and to those who kept asking. Of course, once you’ve said that, every person starts to look like the right person. Each time I met someone new, I would put pressure on myself to fall in love, to outlast the two-month mark this time, to finally make it into “serious relationship” territory.
In some instances, this sheer determination (which you can feel free to read as “desperation”) put guys off. In others, even my will to succeed wasn’t enough to overcome basic incompatibilities. This frustration was compounded by the fact that the world often feels as if it is designed for couples. Seriously, when was the last time you saw a special offer or competition for a meal for one?
But was I actually lonely, or was I just self-conscious? Did I really want to share my life with somebody, or did I simply not want to be an object of pity? When you’re single, the way you see your own love life is often colored by how you imagine other people perceive it. And it doesn’t help that movies and TV shows condition us to think about single people in specific terms, usually stereotypes: the lovelorn sad sack, the asshole bachelor, the crazy girl, the pathetic spinster.
With each passing year, my lack of baggage began to feel like baggage in and of itself. I used to lie and say that I’d once dated somebody for a year, believing a fabricated romantic history would be less of a red flag than the blank reality. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was far from alone in being alone.
This experience isn’t an uncommon one among LGBTQ people, who until very recently were unable to openly enact the same romantic norms as their peers, often missing the formative dating milestones of teenage life entirely and coming to them much later in life when they finally found their community. Growing up in isolation can result in a kind of prolonged adolescence, with queer people sometimes entering adulthood ill-equipped to articulate their desires and unpracticed in conducting what we might deem “serious” relationships.
Of course, chronic singlehood transcends sexuality or gender. The social, cultural and economic shifts that have all played a role in defining the millennial generation have also reshaped the dating landscape. Women’s autonomy and fertility might still be considered public domain by many, but in many cultures the societal pressure to marry young and have children is lessening. And thank god, because late capitalism makes the old path to matrimonial bliss a rocky one. Our grandparents might have gotten hitched, bought a home and started a family by their early twenties, but a great many of us 20- and 30-somethings are hustling our asses off just to make rent — and that can sometimes get in the way of romance.
Charlie, 30, finds the pace and cost of life in London prohibitive to dating. “Dating apps have made people feel so disposable, and this isn’t helped by how busy our lives our now, how much we work,” she says. “It’s hard enough to carve out time to see your closest friends, let alone date. Sometimes I feel like I can’t afford to date; the idea of going out, spending money I don’t really have on drinks with a guy is so stressful. I have to budget for that, and honestly, I’m probably going to get more joy from a new skirt on ASOS.”
Meanwhile Chris, 33, says that a “lack of permanence” in his career left him without the mental or emotional energy to put himself out there romantically: “My jobs have never felt stable, and in my last job, I survived seven rounds of layoffs before finally getting hit myself. I was more comfortable having the ability to pack up and move if needed; any dating I’ve done since school has just been coincidental, not from actively seeking it.”
With all of this attention on our careers, maybe it’s not so shocking that we’re still more likely to meet a new romantic partner in the workplace than we are on a dating app, according to research by ReportLinker. “If I look at my friends who are coupled up in long-term relationships, at least half of them met through work,” says Charlie. “It feels like if you don’t meet through your job or through mutual friends, it just isn’t happening.”
As a freelancer who works from home, my chances of an office romance are slim. But spending so much time alone has been infinitely useful, helping me become more comfortable in my own skin. Working to build a livelihood out of nothing has been a core, at times all-consuming, objective, and creating something that is entirely for my own fulfillment has given me the kind of self-worth that I had been unknowingly seeking from external sources. Now that my professional life is at a stage where I can allow myself the temporary indulgence of sitting back and taking stock, I see that it’s altered both the way I think about love and how I look at my history of short encounters.
A two-month dalliance can have its own emotional value. It shouldn’t be deemed a failure because it doesn’t lead to something more long-term — just like a short story shouldn’t be judged as a novel. I’ve learned to take the pressure off myself and enjoy the company of another person. Even if it’s just a brief fling, I still often end up learning something new about myself. Like a holiday romance, but at home. (Laycation?) And in between dating, I’ve traveled alone, pursued my own goals and invested time and energy in the meaningful relationships I am already fortunate to have with my friends and family.
“Good idea,” a friend recently said, after I told them about my new worldview. “You’ll meet somebody when you least expect it.” This twisting of my intentions didn’t surprise me — I’ve heard it before — but I had to clarify that my shift in perspective has nothing to do with rebranding my loneliness for the sake of finding love. In fact, I’m not doing much to find love at all right now, and that shouldn’t be considered transgressive. So much of the modern language surrounding romance frames the pursuit of marriage as a foregone conclusion — a given. It leaves no room for alternatives and tacitly paints single people as victims even when that’s not how we see ourselves. I’ve worked so hard to become happy with myself that now I want to just sit and enjoy that achievement. Alone.
I’ve found this extended single life to be incredibly freeing. It’s given me a chance to explore different possibilities and consider less “conventional” criteria for fulfillment. Marriage, monogamy and parenthood are fulfilling to a lot of people, but there are all kinds of ways to be happy.
I’ve never been in love, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have love in my life. I might not have made space in my life for a boyfriend, but I have been there for any friend or family member who needed me, and they have done the same in return. A romantic relationship may well be on the cards for me at some point in the future, but I’ve stopped searching for it on the horizon. I am enough.
Philip Ellis is a freelance writer and journalist from the U.K. You can follow him on Twitter @Philip_Ellis
Collage by Madeline Montoya.