The Unbearable Lightness of Being Single (With apologies to Milan Kundera.)

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My best friend fell madly, head over heels in love when we were fifteen or sixteen. They were utterly besotted with each other and he worshipped the ground she walked on. The boy I went out with as a teenager did not make me feel that way. And anyway, he snogged a girl in the year above me at school on a camping trip. I don’t remember being hugely bothered by this transgression. I’m not sure we really got each other to be honest.

I think we were all waiting for that almighty falling in love, for it to be our turn. To meet someone who really got you. And it would be exciting too and make us feel grown-up, an antidote to our boring suburban teenage existences. I feel like I missed out on being young and carefree and in love. I was never carefree. Did I hope that falling in love would make me carefree? I expressed this to the aforementioned friend once. Let’s call her Priya. She said she felt embarrassed at not being more considerate towards other people at that time, of mistakenly confusing being self-centred for grown-up behaviour.

I met the Doctor when I was a trainee teacher. Young and in love, yes, but not carefree at all. I had never worked so hard or such long hours or been told so often that everything I was doing was inadequate. I was exhausted and went to endless unsuccessful job interviews and tried not to feel too downtrodden. My life was rather strange that year. I moved house three times in the space of nine months. I spent the week looking forward to the weekend when he’d pick me up on a Friday night. I was now flailing in some rather major areas of my life, rather than all of them. Is that what a relationship is for? Someone to support you while you flail through life? Someone to flail through life with?

I think back to leaving home and going to university. Who are you at that age, when you’re learning to navigate life? I was unimpressed by the cold unfriendly girls in my flat. I was good friends with one of my flatmates but spending all my time with her and her boyfriend wasn’t how I envisaged university. It took me a while to make some non-couple friends. I hated the feeling of needing people. Please be my friend and invite me to things. Ugh. I think life could have been quite different if I’d got on better with my flatmates. The cosy sisterhood can be hard to find but it’s worth its weight in gold. I got that right in my final year at university – it was a good year.

Happiness and unhappiness are both multi-faceted (like BeyoncĂ©’s hair dye in the early 00s). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs seems to offer a good summary of what humans need. If you were to draw up a picture of being happy, I doubt it would involve being a third wheel, feeling a bit disappointed, on a course with precious little academic support, miles from home in a house that shook. The house shook because it was on a main road and under a railway bridge. But it also shook because all of my housemates were having sex all the time. I think of the James song -‘The neighbours complain about the noises above’.

I seemed to be a third, fifth, seventh wheel, sitting on the sidelines, wherever I went. Forever waiting for it to be my turn. We tend to suggest that the solution to this is having a fun supportive social circle. I did but it was difficult when my friends were a bigger part of my life than I was in theirs as they were all in relationships. I remember the feeling that I was no-one’s priority; everyone had a boyfriend who came first.

I think I was also looking for an anchor and some stability. I didn’t really belong in Belfast although I did have some good friends from school. Friends at university talked about going home and having meals cooked and laundry done for them. Mum had moved out years ago. I was the cook in our house and had done my laundry since I was a teenager. I imagined my friends going home to sit around the table with parents and siblings, eating a home cooked meal. Dad would pull some frozen pizzas out of the freezer which we would eat on the sofa.

Women are often presented with a deficit model; they are told what’s wrong with them and how that is stopping them meeting someone. This is a fairly stupid thing to say to anyone going out with boys in their late teens and early twenties. Relationships at this stage in life, from what I recall, involve women pleading endlessly with men to be reasonable and exercise some level of forethought and empathy. I remember not hearing from The Berk for three days when he went on a camping trip somewhere remote with no mobile phone signal and didn’t think to tell me before he went. I was incredulous that no girlfriend had trained basic communication skills into him. This of course raises the point of why this is expected of a woman. As the comedian Katherine Ryan says in an imagined conversation with a man’s mother in one of her routines: ‘I may be done with your son but you are not’.

We tell people that their failure to find love is self-inflicted, they are too fussy when actually they are tolerating behaviour that they shouldn’t have to put up with, giving people the benefit of the doubt when they shouldn’t. People would tell me I was too fussy because any old bloke wouldn’t do. I was too fussy because I wanted to meet someone who I had things in common with, had a job, didn’t take drugs and was actually looking for a proper relationship.

I used to get really annoyed when people tried to give me advice. The only thing I ever learnt from their advice was that they weren’t listening at all. Priya seemed to be one of the few people who bothered to listen enough to understand and not to tell me I was somehow doing something wrong. She often found herself being asked for relationship advice, having been in a happy relationship for a number of years at quite a young age. She used to say that she didn’t know anything special or have some secret insight and she had just the same insecurities as everyone else. She said that she was in the right place at the right time, that they were lucky they grew together, having gotten together when they were very young and that they both knew that they wanted to make the relationship work.

People told me that I would meet someone if I stopped looking and/or magically turned into a zen, self-actualised person who had no need of a relationship. This made me feel like I’d failed twice: I didn’t seem to be having much success at meeting someone or turning myself into this fabulous, self-contained person who didn’t need no man. Morrissey (embarrassingly sentimental and mawkish his lyrics may be) pointed out, quite reasonably, that all humans need to be loved. I think he had a point.

There seemed to be a peculiarly vast gulf between what I was told I could expect and what life presented me with. It almost seemed a case of polar opposites. People would say nice things along the lines of ‘I’m surprised you’re not beating them off with a stick’ when the only attention I’d received in the last six weeks was a homeless man trying to chat me up. Christ. I used to make some rather crass, self-disparaging jokes, reminiscent of Jerry Hall’s comments on what she perceived men to want. ‘I cook and clean, big tits and blond hair. What more do you want?’ Someone bought me a ‘Bake Yourself The Perfect Man’ cake tin shaped like a muscular torso or ‘Back dir deinen Traummann’ as the packaging said in German. I think I might have started crying when I unwrapped it.

A friend semi-jokingly suggested I hand out slices of cake to single men at parties. I hated the idea that I was supposed to go to great lengths, put on some sort of performative effort to get someone to like me. Was it not enough just to be myself? People also seemed to feel entitled to critique my personality. Ouch. Apparently coming across as clever and having opinions was a problem. F*** off, I say. A friend, who I admittedly don’t know terribly well, recently ended a long term relationship. He seemed to be flooded with interest. I wanted to ask what that felt like to be in demand, rather than feeling invisible.
I remember I had a job in a shop one summer. The owner was chatting to a single woman who lived on her own and said that surely she must be lonely. What do we mean when we talk about feeling lonely? It is often used as a euphemism for wanting sex. Aren’t single people more likely to go out lots, have interests and busy active social lives? That said, I hate the idea that a partner is a substitute for all of those things. It seems unhealthy. I had lots of hobbies and a busy social life when I was single and I still do now. Are we talking about a specific kind of loneliness that you feel when you are single? A twisty feeling in your guts; the sort you feel when you go to a wedding and all the couples are asked to dance and balance an orange between their foreheads and you have no-one to dance with? Was I supposed to frame this as some sort of fabulous, modern existence which I should be enjoying?

People used to tell me to enjoy being single. What do we mean by being single? Do we mean always ‘seeing someone’? Or do we mean being really, properly single, where the only humans you touch are your friends when they hug you hello and goodbye. And the only person to stroke your hair and tell you how pretty you are is your mum when you get upset because your horrid ex gets in touch. Again.

When people told me to enjoy being single, I wanted them to tell me exactly what these things were that I had access to that people in relationships didn’t. I’m not sure I ever found them. I did look. Travel you say? My friends in relationships travelled just as much as I did and lived abroad too. Sleep around lots? I see that as the preserve of those who aren’t fussy and are probably quite drunk. It’s been fascinating to watch friends date after coming out of long term relationships, imagining that there would be loads of choice. They told me how hard it was to meet anyone nice, how many boring average people there are, how many nutters. Of course I’d been saying this for years… I used to compare dating to Primark – it all looks great from a distance, giving the illusion of plenty and choice. But up close, you’re sifting through endless piles of crap, desperately looking for something half decent so that you can leg it the hell out of there and hope that you never have to go back.
Is being single different if you are a man? You can live in peace without being nagged. By which I mean you can live in filth without another person having to ask you to carry out basic adult behaviours. You can drink beer and eat takeaway in your pants, play video games, leave the sink covered in hair and not bother using the toilet brush.

Back to this idea that single people go out lots and have busy social lives. What sort of social life? Bridget Jones seemed to be permanently drunkenly stumbling around London. Helen Fielding’s book is hilarious but in reality a woman who has no interests other than drinking and trying to lose weight is really depressing. Bryony Gordon documented the zone where having an active social life tips into dysfunctional behaviour trying to fill a void, having shagged, drank and snorted her way through her twenties. She talks about embracing a rather more stable existence with her partner, doing the shopping together on a Friday night and buying a flat. She is also very honest about the need to tackle her insecurities and take care of her mental health, partner or not.

I thought about my parents’ marriage, of their separate lives lived under the same roof. A line from Zadie Smith’s White Teeth reminded me of their relationship: ‘touches… existing only in the absences where both sets of fingers had previously been: the remote control, the biscuit tin lid, the light switches’. I thought about my religious upbringing, about our mothers’ bizarre attempts to broker sorts of arranged marriages for us. I thought about how the boy my mum said I would marry was married to someone else in Florida, a girl who looked a bit like me. I thought about how we were told we couldn’t be happy unless we got married. I thought about how a close friend told me she was surprised I didn’t turn into a massive slag with those sorts of messages.

I’m aware that I could say an enormous amount more about the above paragraph but this is not the time or place. Maybe it would be helpful to say that insecurity and the desire for approval is not by any means uniquely female. I remember the boys at university worrying that they were too nice. They didn’t seem to understand that when someone was rejected for being ‘too nice’, it was a way of saying that there was no spark, that the girl in question didn’t feel they had anything in common. The boys talked of negging, being a dick to get someone’s attention. I shook my head and thought how daft they were and frankly how twisted and misogynistic these ideas were. I observed their insecurities, their need to work out. It struck me as their effort to compensate, for not quite getting over being fat as a child or being bullied at school.

Life came with it’s twists and turns post-graduation. Long term relationships broke up because work led people to different corners of the globe. People realised they wanted different things. Some of my friends felt confused as their relationships became more serious, wondering if they were growing up too quickly and missing out as they moved in with partners or got engaged. Liz told me how torn she felt between her boyfriend and her flatmates, feeling she wasn’t spending enough time with either. When her boyfriend asked her to move in with him, she asked herself if she was missing out on single life. She thought about it, thought about her single flatmates and decided single life looked ‘shit’. In she moved.

When I met the Doctor, I thought about this idea that you aren’t supposed to need a man but everyone needs people to help them out. There are aspects of adult life that are hard to navigate unless you have money and/or a car; that are incompatible with the realities of being in your early twenties. The Doctor helped me move house three times and put down the deposit for our flat equal to a month’s rent, plus the rent for the month and the exorbitant fees estate agents charge for printing out a contract for you to sign. (Philip ‘Spreadsheet Phil’ Hammond thankfully abolished some of these ridiculous fees.) The things the Doctor helped me with, I suspect an awful lot of people turn to their parents for. I paid him back for my share of everything, month by month, when I got a job.

A lot of this blog entails me expressing regret at how clueless I felt in my early twenties and how I wished the path to getting to where I am had been a bit less confusing, a bit easier on my ego. But I have no illusions of missing out, that the grass is greener on the other side. I never wanted my life to be like Sex and The City. I wanted to get married and have a stand mixer. I appreciate what I have. Things feel as if they are as they should be. I really do prefer this side of the fence, thank you. Let’s take it a step further and add some colourful language. Thank f*** I don’t have to do any of that or put up with any of that b***s*** anymore.