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Relationships • Finding Love
The Importance of Being Single
One of the most important preconditions of a good relationship is a satisfactory perspective on being single. The more we are happy to be on our own, the more we will be able to exercise the correct degree of caution around finding a new companion. The bedrock of true love is happy singledom.
Yet our societies do very little to help us to be calm or at ease in our own company. Singledom is framed as an involuntary, depressing and always hopefully temporary state. The notion that someone might want or need to be on their own, perhaps for a long while, terrifies a world shaped by legions of silently miserable couples who need confirmation that they have not chosen the wrong path. To enforce the idea of what single people are missing, advertisers can never have enough of showing off tantalising images of happy couples walking hand in hand on beaches — and most entertainment venues, holiday destinations and social occasions feel compelled to patronise, overcharge and otherwise demean anyone who has had the impudence to venture out on their own.
Unfortunately, being miserable while single fatally undermines our judgement about who we might get together with. When someone is starving, they will eat anything (Dostoevsky wrote a harrowing short story about a famished child who eats a candle made of pig fat). We’re equally liable, in emotional desperation, to run into the nearest nightclub to secure a chump we’ll be appalled to find beside us at daybreak. Eventually, we’ll learn that being in an unsatisfactory relationship is clearly worse, that is, even more lonely, than being alone.
The central challenge of being alone is coping with the fear of what singlehood means: being alone is bearable in relation to how ‘normal’ (that highly nebulous yet highly influential concept) the condition feels to us at any given point. It can either be a break from an honourably busy life, or sure evidence that we are an unwanted, wretched, disgusting and emotionally diseased being.
This is tricky but ultimately very hopeful, for it suggests that if only we could work on what being alone means to us, we could theoretically endure long periods alone.
To build ourselves a new mental model of what being alone should truly mean, we might rehearse a few of the following arguments. Despite what an unfriendly voice inside our heads might tell us, we are the ones who can chose whether or not to be alone. Our solitude is willed rather than imposed. No one ever needs to be alone so long as they don’t mind who they are with. But we do mind: the wrong kind of company is a great deal lonelier for us than being by ourselves. It’s further from what matters to us, more grating in its insincerity and more of a reminder of disconnection and misunderstanding than is the conversation we can have in the quiet of our own minds. Being alone is not proof that we have been rejected by the world; it’s a sign that we’ve taken a good look at the available options and have — with wisdom — done some rejecting ourselves.
Another big thought is that we need to appreciate how long it will take to find someone, given how choosy we are (for very good reasons). We aren’t just looking for anyone. The right candidate will be no less easy to find than a great job or a beautiful house. It might take many months, probably years. Expectations matter. If we regard a decade as a plausible time frame, then six months will skip by.
There is no better guarantee of a successful relationship than knowing that we could — and can — manage perfectly well on our own. It means that we will only look for someone who can deeply contribute to our life, not someone who can do the laundry with us or keep us company on Sunday evenings. This gives us the strength to back out of unsatisfactory unions as quickly as we should. Being in a couple can’t and shouldn’t mean that we are utterly reliant on the other for our self-esteem, our daily self-management or for the meeting of our domestic needs. When we have under our belt a significant experience of thriving on our own, we will be able to cope with the inevitable points at which even a very nice partner can’t sustain us; we’ll be less demanding; more competent and more forensic in what we seek from a lover. It turns out that our willingness to stay on our own is what centrally predicts how likely we’ll be to find and bring to fruition a relationship with someone else. Being at ease with being single is the needed, secure platform from which to make a sane and wise choice about who to create a joint life with.