You have to find yourself to find love, goes the mantra. You have to love yourself enough to attract love into your life. You have to be already be complete before someone else can complete you (wait, what?).
A lot of the advice hurled at single people suggests that there is more work to be done. You have to solve your issues. You have to learn to be happy, all of the time, on your own.
Single women are constantly blamed: You’re giving off the wrong energy. You’re too desperate. You’re not open enough. You’re intimidating. Men are attracted to non-threatening, smiley women with big, friendly teeth and a successful career that isn’t successful enough to be intimidating. You have to be self-sufficient but not to the extent that it renders you unfeminine. And don’t text him so soon after the date! And don’t sleep with him right away, for f*@ks sake! Or, wait, maybe do. You don’t want to be weird and uptight about sex.
A happy, committed relationship is dangled like the yummy, carb-y prize at the end of a grueling marathon of personal improvement.
My own journey to love was more like a lazy stroll down the block.
I am an online dating success story. “Just sign up and try it for a month!” my best friend urged.
I signed up. I jotted a quick profile, slapped up a lone, somewhat flattering photo and flung my single self out into the universe. Two weeks later, I went on a first date with a guy who sounded funny and smart in writing. He was even more than those things. I fell in love with him right away. We got engaged six months later. We’ve now been married for four years and I am still bowled over by his awesomeness. He lights up my days.
So of course, immediately after meeting him, I started preaching the gospel. “You have to sign up!” I told my single friends. “Just try it! You never know who you’ll meet!”
I talked quite a few of them into it. They went out hopefully on first dates. They reported back. Some duds. Some weirdos. And then some guys who seemed wonderful but suddenly disappeared after having sex. Nice guys who they didn’t “click” with. Gorgeous guys who seemed to be drifting, distracted. Cool, shaggy-haired photographer guys who texted “I might be free in an hr. wanna meet up?” and then canceled.
We analyzed and analyzed. I tried to be encouraging.
“Wait,” they started to say, “you met him after being on the site for how long?”
“Two weeks,” I said, but now it felt like bragging. So I began to say, “Maybe a couple months?” But soon even that sounded very quick, unrealistic.
A few of my friends found love online or elsewhere, but the majority of them are still dating. Or they’re not dating right now. They’re taking a break, because, enough already! But soon they’ll try again. Their stories are full of incredible, buoyant hope and, increasingly, creeping resignation and quiet despair.
More often now, they ask, “What is wrong with me?”
We try to figure it out sometimes.
“Well, yeah,” I’ve admitted, “you are really quick to say no.”
Or, “I guess you could take these lines out of your profile. And change the picture. Definitely put up more pictures. You need more than just one.”
I’ve given advice I’ve never even considered following.
Privately, I’ve sometimes wondered if they really are doing something wrong. Maybe this one can be too obliging and this one too demanding and this other one too…serious? Fun? Is there such a thing as being too fun? With other coupled women, I’ve discussed the phenomenon of our single friends. We have tried to solve the puzzle. What are they misunderstanding? After all, we found partners! Maybe we’re just awesome at love?
It’s popular, to blame single people’s personalities, appearances, mannerisms, and jobs for their singleness. And even if most of that checks out fine, we can always mine for something deeper. A quiet, existential failing. A subtle unevenness in intentionality, spiritual tendencies that haven’t yet been sanded down to pleasing symmetry. Small but persistent unresolved issues from infancy.
It’s comforting, after you find someone, to tell yourself that it happened because you’re really great, and your partner is really great, and your mutual greatness united you. The world feels less random and your life feels safer and more destined.
I felt this way a few years ago. And it was nice.
And then I watched many of my smart, kind, beautiful, smiley, clever, successful, talented, warm friends begin to turn a cruel, analyzing gaze on themselves, searching for the “problem” at the root of their singleness. Self-help books nodded eagerly along and accusing articles circulated and I began to think that something didn’t sound quite right.
Not to insult myself, but let me be real: when I met my husband I was twenty-three and cocky, insecure and earnest and full of pretentious grad school-isms. I had no idea what I was doing with my life. I was scared. I had frizzy hair and a pimple on my face. And I was wearing a shirt with slightly poofy short sleeves and a floppy lavender satin bow. I thought the shirt was fancy. I thought that looking “fancy” was a good fashion goal.
I don’t know exactly why so many people I know who want very much to find partners are still single. Here in NYC, it might be part of a larger trend. Many of the married women I meet have older husbands. It seems like men might be marrying later. Maybe online dating itself creates a problem even as it offers so many solutions. Dating can feel like sampling ice cream flavors. What’s next? The next one might be even tastier…Maybe women are choosier now than we have been in recent times. We’re more educated, and especially if we’re here in the big city, we tend to have interesting careers that we care about. We have other priorities and are looking for a partner who we find delightful, amazing, the best, because we don’t necessarily need partnership for the same basic financial and social reasons that people used to. I don’t know. Those are just some uneducated guesses.
But what I do know is that my own story, though it is personally very meaningful and takes on epic, fateful proportions in my mind and life, is really one of total chance.
For people in relationships to stop analyzing our single friends, we need to admit that what happened to us maybe had a lot to do with randomness and luck. Not that we aren’t great. But often, we’re not great in similar ways to our single compatriots. And they are often great in the same ways we are.
It’s not that no one is ever doing anything wrong, or that no one needs to work on their issues and try to be better and try to love themselves before loving someone else. Those things are important, too. But they obviously aren’t the trick to finding a loving, lasting relationship. People in good relationships come by them all sorts of ways, and at all sorts of phases and stages of life. Some of us find love when we’re at the top, succeeding and self-actualized and fabulously vivacious, others of us find love when we’re at our absolute worst. A lot of us find it somewhere in the middle. And then we grow with our partners and we hopefully continue to improve ourselves, the way we would hopefully do that if we were single.
One of the best things about being married, I’ve found, is having a safe space to become a better person without the reason for this effort defaulting at “so you can attract a great man!”
It’s frustrating how random some of the biggest things in life can be, but that, unfortunately, is the way life works. Still, I am willing to bet that my searching single friends will find wonderful partners to grow and learn with. They’ll get lucky, too. And then I wish for them the delicious satisfaction of snuggling in bed on a late Sunday morning, rehashing the details of their fateful meeting, wondering at the tremendous kindness and terrifying, miraculous specificity of the universe.
“What if…” they will sigh. “What if you hadn’t clicked on my profile?” “What if you hadn’t gone online that day?” But they will do it from inside the tall ramparts of self-congratulatory security. They will secretly believe, just a little, that they got this because they are really awesome. And they will maybe believe that they have been awesome all along.
They were awesome all along. They are awesome right now.
But I don’t want to analyze their single friends with them, later. It’s not helping anyone, and often, it’s just downright pointless.
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Unroast: Today I love the way I look with my hair up– I never thought I’d grow it this long again, but it just keeps growing and I’m enjoying the curls, although a buzz cut is never too far from my mind…
I wanted to write a Mother’s Day piece for this week, but something tragic happened and changed my schedule. I’m going to try for next week instead. In the meantime, I’ll be reading an essay on the radio for a Mother’s Day program that will broadcast on Saturday, May 10, at 7:30am on WFUV 90.7FM. I hope I won’t be up that early on that day, and in case you’re not either but want to listen, I’ll share some links soon where you can find it after it airs.
This piece appeared originally on Daily Life
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