In 2016, I fell in love with someone who loved me back for the first time in a long time. But the most important thing I learnt this year was not about the value of love. I think I understood that already. The real lesson I learnt from falling in love was that my life when I was single was great and that I underestimated and devalued it. I learnt this lesson because my life now is different in a good way, but it is not necessarily better.
It’s been five years since I last called a man “my boyfriend”. In the interim, there were mild flirtations, manic crushes, meaningless flings, an intense epistolary courtship, a long period of celibacy. There were moments when I looked at men and thought, “Is it you?” and “I wish it was you” and “It's definitely not you” and “Why am I not the one for you?” When I thought about my life through the lens of romance – most often while celebrating friends’ milestones, events that seemed beyond my reach as a single woman – I felt pretty bad.
“Why am I alone?” I’d wonder, picking at a plate of delicate lunch foods at someone’s baby shower. “Why am I so far behind my peers in terms of my personal life? Is there something wrong with me? Is is wrong that I wish there were hearty lunch foods being served at this baby shower?”
If you are a heterosexual woman and single and in your mid-thirties, it is hard to ignore the cultural tropes that suggest that your life is defined by the absence of a partner, in part because so many other people are celebrating the presence of one. In my five single years, I attended at least 10 weddings and, though I was wholehearted in my congratulations for my friends and relatives, I felt sad that no one would ever throw a party for me or give speeches about something dumb I did as a teenager unless I managed to acquire a life partner. At events with family or friends I didn’t see very often, I noticed that people who would once ask me whether I was seeing anyone, when I was in my mid-to-late twenties, stopped asking. In a way, it was thoughtful, but in another, it made me feel like everyone around me had accepted my greatest fear: I was unlovable.
I’ve made lots of new friends, too, and I know that it’s unlikely that I would have connected with so many interesting and funny and clever people so deeply during this time if I’d had a partner
And yet. When I wasn’t eating delicate lunch foods or talking to the sole single man at a wedding or trying to date an idiot, I wasn’t thinking about whether I was lovable. Most of the time, I was having a great time. Being single for most of my adult life so far granted me freedom to have adventures and make decisions, pursue things that I’m sure I wouldn’t have if I’d been in a committed relationship. Often, that was because many of the decisions were impulsive and risky. Some lead to big failures and some to moderate successes. Most lead to good stories. In the last five years, I’ve worked for five different companies and lived in four different flats in three different countries. I’ve gone on two week-long solo holidays (which, to be fair, I hated) and I adopted one dog. I could have done all of these things if I had been in a relationship, but it would have been trickier – to have to take another person’s needs and opinions into account. And, though there were moments of miserable solitude among packing tape and boxes, in the nights that I spent sleeping on the hard cold floor of an unfurnished apartment I’m so glad that I did it.
In the last five years, I’ve also spent a lot of time with friends. I’ve travelled to spend time with old friends (and hosted them in my home). I’ve made lots of new friends, too, and I know that it’s unlikely that I would have connected with so many interesting and funny and clever people so deeply during this time if I’d had a partner. The truth is that, aside from the baby showers and the weddings, most of the time I knew that I was lovable because of all of the other people who were in my life. A friend isn’t the same as a romantic partner, but we do our friendships a disservice when we regard them as of secondary importance.
This week, it got cold in New York and I hauled my most serious winter coat out of the closet. I always like to see what I’ve left in the pockets the last time I wore it – debris like a small time capsule. The left-hand pocket contained two crumpled dollar bills and the right-hand pocket had a receipt from the supermarket around the corner, for a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. “Ah,” I thought, “that was a freezing cold night in February when I ate most of a tub of Speculoos flavour ice cream while wearing sweatpants and watching an episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians.” And then I thought, “Well, that was fun.” I love my boyfriend and I’m happy with the shape my life has taken since he’s entered it. But I was happy with the shape of my single life, too.