I have spent a grand total of four years and nine months of my 28 years on earth in a relationship. Measly, right? And that’s not even one long one – that’s split between three. I have probably spent more minutes of my life holding up the queue in the cornershop, while I deliberate between a Toffee Crisp and a Double Decker, than I have being in a committed, monogamous partnership.
But being mostly single for the past decade has been a relationship in itself. It has evolved and grown; the dating landscape has changed, as has the muscle fibre of my heart.
When I was single at 21, it was all about winning. Boys were the enemy, sex was the weapon, I wanted to be Boudica. I needed as much attention as I could get from them, at any cost, and I always, always needed to have the last word. I would sooner hammer his door down, shouting, in the middle of the night, for one last hate-shag than be dumped over the phone. Men weren’t to be trusted for anything – you get in, you grab your orgasm like it’s Supermarket Sweep, you get out. If you wanted intimacy, well, that’s what friends and the Van Morrison back catalogue were for.
When I was single at 25, I still had zero trust and little respect for men but, this time round, I needed something out of them: a relationship. I was at a career crossroads, I lived in a flat that was crumbling down and all my friends kept moving out to live with their boyfriends, leaving me like the last Sugababe standing. I felt lost; waters were getting choppier and I was running out of energy and about to go under. A man would obviously be the best lifeboat.
This conclusion coincided with the birth of dating apps. So, I got scientific on my search – I worked out the best volume of swiping, the best time for matches, how many messages should be exchanged before a mutual migration to WhatsApp, how many dates before sex, how many days should pass until you text. A relationship was the desired result and I desperately tried to work out the correct formula.
I’m now single at 28 and I still haven’t worked out the answers to the above. But I do know one fundamental rule for falling in love: you have to be in a calm and caring relationship with yourself before you meet the right partner. The man who wants to fix the baby bird with the broken wing he found in the back garden will never be able to do it – there isn’t enough love or attention in his whole body to mend you. And the broken-wing fixers of this world usually only preoccupy themselves with human DIY so they don’t have to do much-needed maintenance on their equally dodgy creaks and cracks.
And I also now know that a lot of it is down to luck. When one of my friends recently came out of a 10-year relationship, I took her out for a cocktail to give her a lesson in modern courtship.
“Now listen here,” I said, practically flicking an imaginary feather boa over my shoulder, The Grand Dame of Singledom. “Things have changed since you were last out there. No one meets in real life. And that’s fine – none of us like it that much, but we’ve all just accepted it now.”
Reader: she met a man in a bar that night. They’ve been dating for five months now.
People say that the longer you’re single, the more cynical you become. But I have found the opposite to be true. I am more dazzled and moved and emboldened by acts of love than ever before
“They met in a bar,” I said to our perennially single friend.
“IN A WHAT?” she screeched. “HOW DARE SHE!”
It would be a lie to say I didn’t feel a pang of jealousy. In my first years of being single, the world felt like a great glittering orb overrun with potential chance encounters and buckets of soulmates for each of us. Now, I’m aware how rare those connections are – how difficult it is to meet someone you get on with, who has a lovely smile, who is wonderful to your friends and family. Who would choose Desert Island Discs on a Sunday morning over Channel 4‘s Sunday Brunch. Being in love is, sadly, not a human right. I miss having the blissfully ignorant notion that it was.
But, then, there is the upside of the boundaries. Oh God, you should see my boundaries now – big, sexy iron gates, they are. They never used to be. I used to have absolutely no appropriate levels of protection against my heart being broken or my mind going AWOL when it came to dating. I’d run headfirst into the hurricane of a new crush and get swallowed whole. I’d obsess. I’d lose sleep. I’d practically sit with a bucket of popcorn, watching a man on WhatsApp going online, offline, online, offline at 1.33 AM, thinking, "Who is he talking to who isn’t me?"
But, now, when I feel myself being sucked into a hurricane of something that I know won’t end well, I detach. I delete his number; I erase him from my life. No man is worth losing my mind over and, if I think he is, that’s not love – that’s low self-worth. In which case, I don’t need his attention, I need a friend. Or a parent. Or a long bloody walk and a few early nights.
And, in terms of how I treat people now, I try to take note of the luggage label that comes with their heart. Most decent single people do this as they get older – learn how to handle the fragile ones with care. "This one’s been through the ringer a bit," I’ll think. Or, "This one longs for something I can’t give it – I better be a good person and gently let it back in the wild."
And, finally, mercifully, I take care of mine. I don't hammer down any man’s door to prove I've won. I now know sex is supposed to be a collaborative experience, something you do together, rather than for detached gratification. And I resist the thought that men are the enemy. I try to remember that no matter how much mistreatment has been thrown my way, it is my responsibility to make sure I don’t swallow it like chlorinated pool water and spit it back out.
People say that the longer you’re single, the more cynical you become. But I have found the opposite to be true. I am more dazzled and moved and emboldened by acts of love than ever before – by the couple in their eighties, holding hands on the bus; by a pregnant friend’s husband returning to their flat with three jars of gherkins for her cravings; by a scene in a musical in which Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s fingers touch briefly for the first time while they sit in a cinema. I cried at a two-second close-up of two fingers touching. Tears. Can you fucking believe it?
Being single at 28 is so much easier than being single at 21. Sometimes, on rare afternoons, I imagine how much easier falling in love might be, too.