Saying that I was single for 17 years sounds melodramatic, but that’s the truth. From the end of my relationship with a boyfriend from university in 1999, and aside from a three-month dalliance and a couple of years chasing (and never catching) someone I thought might be Mr. Right, I wasn’t in a relationship ― a formal “we’ve said this is a relationship” relationship ― until September 2016, when I met my current partner.
That means I was single for nearly all of my 20s and 30s. During my 20s, I didn’t mind being single very much at all. I lived with a constant trust and belief that I would meet someone and spent my time working on my career in women’s magazines and having fun. Life in media then was a lot of partying and freebies, and my friends and I careened from one launch party to the next, sharing flats and even fitting in running the London Marathon into our busy, happy lives.
But then my friends, one by one, started to pair off, and something began to take root inside me. A feeling that I was being left behind. As 30 approached and I was facing another summer wedding with no plus-one, I began to think that perhaps I wouldn’t ever meet someone.
I had no shortage of friends or people who loved me ― friends to holiday with, to ski with, to have dinners with. But the partying and Sundays spent debriefing over more wine began to wane as babies and mortgages arrived.
A friend at the time said, “I’d rather be on the shelf than in the wrong cupboard,” but deep down, I craved any cupboard at all.
Being single, for me at least, carried a stigma. I felt like a failure. I would entertain friends with my tales of dating woe, but when the dinner party laughter ended, I would weep with desperation at an empty, lonely future I saw ahead of me.
“Being single ate away at me, festering deep inside, until it formed a huge tumor in my belly, coated with anger and a resentment that I had 'failed' at this most important of life goals.”
In retrospect, I can honestly say I’m glad I was single in my 30s. I learned a lot ― from heartbreak to how to travel alone. I spent three months in South America and bought my own apartment, making it my bachelorette pad.
But as far as I was concerned at the time, I was missing out on where I should be in life. Sure, I had a good job, great friends and my own flat ― but why wasn’t I sharing the mortgage?
I craved companionship and commitment. Vulnerable and hopeful, I would often spend time with men that I now know ― and deep down, knew then ― were not right for me. One, who I dated on and off for the best part of two years, would call or meet with me sporadically, making me feel like a princess before disappearing.
I dated all the time ― sometimes two or three dates a week. I swiped through dating apps, went on blind dates, tried speed dating, you name it. Every date I went on was a test for the man — could he be the one to “save” me?
I would go on dates with men I knew I probably wouldn’t click with ― rock climbers who didn’t like TV, when I’m more of a part-time runner and soap opera fan ― because I thought I should just keep going, because then at some point perhaps love would take me by surprise.
Being single ate away at me, festering deep inside, until it formed a huge tumor in my belly, coated with anger and a resentment that I had “failed” at this most important of life goals.
And all around me, anyone who was starting out in a relationship or somehow building on theirs fed this beast made up of my self-loathing and jealousy. Even on screen, I would see characters meet “The One” and feel a strange sense of envy and anger.
When a friend of mine met a man after her split, I delivered an angry, argumentative rant about how she’d jumped the “single queue.” I feel so ashamed now of acting that way. But the bitterness was all-consuming. I found it hard to be sympathetic when friends had issues with husbands or boyfriends ― surely they were just so lucky to have them? I even took myself off Facebook for a good year because I couldn’t bring myself to “like” any posts about engagements or babies. Not that I wanted babies — but I wanted a person to share my life with.
In April 2015 when I was 37, I made a decision to seek therapy to try and deal with these emotions.
I’d been to a one-day workshop on “dating better,” and the therapist leading the course really stood out to me as someone who knew what she was talking about. I approached her to see if she would consider me as a client and, after an initial consultation, she agreed to work with me.
“The therapist said something to me that none of my friends would ever say: That it was possible I might never meet someone, that settling down might never be my “path.””
I expected therapy to be a quick fix. I thought I would spend four to six sessions talking about how I felt and then I’d just snap into feeling more positive and focusing on something else in my life.
Of course, anyone who has been to therapy knows differently. All I could say in those first sessions was, “I’m angry,” often through tears. The negativity was so strong that I’m not surprised, looking back, that men were put off when they met me.
During one particular session, the therapist said something to me that none of my friends would ever say: That it was possible I might never meet someone, that settling down might never be my “path.” It was a huge turning point.
I went home that night and bawled through the anxiety the idea had produced. And then came the peace. Once I accepted I might be single forever, I began to live for myself more. Part of that was deciding to have my kitchen redone, and the job was halfway finished when I met my now-boyfriend.
I remember going on the date feeling light of spirit. I had a project on the go, and a date was a fun distraction. Finally, dating wasn’t my be-all and end-all. And of course, that meant, as it often does, that we clicked.
On our third date, he said to me, “I want us to be together.” The words held such power: After so many experiences of gaslighting and swiping mindlessly on dating apps, here was a man who wanted me and was prepared to say so. Who didn’t want to mess around or play games — who wanted to meet friends and make plans.
I wanted us to be together, too, and I knew I was ready because I’d worked through things in therapy. We said our first “I love you” after three months and I can still remember the goosebumps that I got. It was worth the wait. Now, that shiny new kitchen I created belongs to someone else, as I sold the flat and we moved in together.
And now that I’m settled with my partner, I can honestly say that I don’t regret those years of loneliness and uncertainty. I’m glad I had to “suffer” through my “not in love” years. It was painful, but it made me work out more about who I was and what I was doing in life. If we’d met sooner, I’d have looked to him to help me feel better about who I was, and I’m not sure we’d have lasted the distance with my anger and self-judgment playing third wheel.
I watch dating shows such as “First Dates” and smile knowingly at the 20-somethings who lament being single for “so long.” I know you can’t change people’s feelings, but I’d love to fly the flag for patience and knowing that happily ever after can happen, even if you have to wait awhile.