How to find peace with being single
Flying solo, going stag, being footloose and fancy free — there are countless ways to describe those who are single by choice, after a partnership breakdown or when a spouse dies.
Some people leapfrog from relationship to relationship, settling for someone who maybe isn’t right for them, because of the fear of being alone. But being single can be empowering; it’s an opportunity to take a journey of self-discovery, to lead a rich, inspired and fulfilling life.
Whether you are single for now or choose to be single for life, you are not broken and you don’t need to be fixed. Yet popular culture paints a vastly different picture.
Being single should be as validated and respected by society as coupledom is, but it’s not always the case. Narrative therapist Nicole Hind says part of the problem is that we’re a family-centric society. “Children, families, partners and finding love can make us feel that there is all there is, and if we are single then we have missed the boat,” she says.
Across the globe, singledom has indeed copped a bad rap. Social scientist Bella DePaulo collated data from 1000 American undergraduates who were asked to note characteristics of married versus singles. Married people were far more likely to be seen as mature, happy, kind and honest. On the flip side, singles were described as immature, self-centred, unhappy and lonely. There’s no doubt that if others see singles as less than, it can negatively impact on how singles see themselves.
It’s not just the younger generation in the Western world who perceive being single as undesirable. In China, the term sheng nu which translates to “leftover women” is a term coined by the All-China Women’s Federation for unmarried women.
In parts of India, police are even getting involved. Is being single a crime? According to The Times of India, if you are a young man of marriageable age, being single is just not on. In 2019, Panoor police surveyed young unmarried men in 9000 households to try to find a solution for their singleness.
Single-shaming is also swayed by gender. Single men are called bachelors, and sometimes perceived as suave and carefree, while women are called spinsters — they’re desperate and plonked firmly on the shelf. It’s little wonder women are still banging their heads against a glass ceiling — and it’s not going to crack any time soon. Counsellor and psychotherapist Melissa Ferrari says at some level the perceptions are slowly changing, but there’s still a long way to go. “It persists and still contributes to the inequality that continues to exist between the sexes,” she says.
The unintentional faux pas
“Are you still single? Don’t worry, you’ll meet someone soon,” your friend says soothingly over a latte, while jabbing you in the ribs when a good-looking bloke walks past. Well-intentioned friends and relatives might ask the question or arrange a few blind dates to “help” your single status.
Ferrari says it’s often well-meaning, and that any barbs fired your way are probably unintentional. “People can be inconsiderate — they just don’t think. Some people are very OK with being single, but others aren’t,” she says. “For those who want to be partnered it can be likened to saying to someone having IVF treatment, ‘When are you having a baby?’”
Having a clever comeback or throwing out a challenge when someone asks about your status can also be empowering. Hind suggests, if someone says, “I can’t believe you are single,” smile, make eye contact and use a playful phrase, “I like going solo,” or challenge them: “Hey, do you want to question that for a moment — why do you think everyone has to be partnered?”
Don’t settle petal
For many singles, the relentless search is on to find your “person”. The saying “my other half” is often bandied about by those with partners. Terms like this imply that you are less than, if you’re going it alone. Movies like Jerry Maguire, when Tom Cruise gets the girl, telling her “You complete me,” do little for the singles cause.
In Bridget Jones’s Diary, while swigging from a champagne bottle and wallowing in her singledom, Bridget belts out a mournful “All by Myself” in the opening credits. Being single doesn’t mean you need to be sad.
Even so, Hind acknowledges many are indeed looking for someone else to complete us. “And sometimes we don’t know ourselves very well, so we don’t find someone suitable, or we’re in such a rush we jump in too quickly,” she notes.
While men seem to have been more fortunate with the bachelor label and all it implies, women seem to cope better when relationships end. Hind says many men repartner quite quickly because they don’t want to be alone. “Going through separation is unbearable and they think they have to fix it,” she says. So they need to be in a new relationship to do that. While women have their tribe — intimate friendships with other women — men often don’t.
Alone or lonely?
Those who are alone aren’t necessarily lonely. German researcher Anne Böger says that partnership status is a central predictor of loneliness, that yes, those who are single can feel lonelier than those who are partnered. But age is also a predictor of loneliness. Her research showed older people feel less lonely regardless of whether they are partnered or not.
Loneliness is a feeling of disconnect from others, and that can happen in partnerships and marriages too. Ferrari says loneliness in relationships can hurt even more. “For singles, there’s still that spirit of hopefulness — maybe I’ll meet someone one day?” she says. “Loneliness in a marriage can be soul-crushing.”
If both parties agree they still want to be in the partnership, Ferrari suggests an exercise called “eye gazing”, which is locking eyes with your partner for two minutes a day. “This creates curiosity and excitement; when we’ve been together a while, we stop paying attention because we think we know our partner,” she explains. Learning to co-regulate, by going to bed and waking at the same time (if you can’t go to bed at the same time, then tuck your partner in) and hello and goodbye hugs also help. “If couples are lonely, it’s usually because they don’t feel as though they are in sync,” she says.
You are single but don’t want to be?
While some are single by choice, others self-sabotage relationships, or don’t think they are good enough, and as a result they’re missing out on opportunities to make meaningful connections with others.
Ferrari says it’s a complex issue, and chatting to experts to dig deep can be helpful. “Exploring how you have been shaped psychologically through your childhood and through your caregivers helps you to understand your own vulnerabilities,” she says.
It also helps to look at how you’ve behaved in previous relationships. Ferrari says this helps you to understand who you really are in relationships. “What is your attachment style? Are you avoidant, anxious or secure in relationships?” This impacts on how you relate to a partner.
Get set to soar
Being your authentic self means celebrating who you are and doing what you can to create the life you want. You don’t need someone to rescue you from your own life — live your life your way.
There are so many benefits to flying solo, from lazy lie-ins on the weekend to being able to eat a whole tub of chocolate ice-cream by yourself. You can dance naked in your lounge room (don’t forget to draw the blinds), travel to Tibet or belly-gaze on a beach in Bali at a moment’s notice.
Being single means you can do what you want when you want. You can spend your time purposefully, nourish the friendships in your life or go after that big promotion at work without feeling you’re neglecting your partner.
Singledom gives you more time to focus not only on discovering who you are, but to lend a helping hand to others. It’s been shown that those who help others are more confident, resourceful and resilient; it also allows them to make meaningful connections with others.
Love me, love me not
You need to believe that you are worth loving — and we all are. Self-love isn’t thinking you are superior or better than others: it’s treating yourself with kindness and respect, it’s nurturing your spirit.
Ferrari notes, “Self-love isn’t just about bubble baths and indulging yourself, it really is about getting to know who you are.” If you aren’t happy in your own skin, if your self-confidence needs a boost, work on that. Look at being single as a precious gift. Take the time to discover who you really are. Begin a journey of self-discovery, try new things, flex your creative muscles. Get fit and active and boost those feel-good happy hormones. Believe in yourself and the power of the universe.
If you are struggling, know that you can’t all be happy all the time, whether you’re single or not. It’s OK to feel sad, hurt, worried or lonely. Hind says you need to embrace your emotions, to experience them. “But you also need to take care of yourself in them, and reach out to others if you feel vulnerable,” she says. “Remember all feelings are OK, but not all the stories they tell us are true.”
If you are feeling overwhelmed by emotions, Hind says it can help to physically hug yourself as if you are a child. “People are often surprised when they really lean into that practice, and do it regularly, your body will begin to calm down,” she says.
Try a date night with yourself
How often do we see singles eat toast for dinner, or an old fast-food takeaway that tried to grow legs and run as they reached for it at the back of the fridge?
Break out the fine china and prepare food you love. Take yourself off to see a movie solo, or buy some delicious chocolates and enjoy the lot, one tiny bite at a time. Don’t wait for someone to give you flowers — buy your own — that’s what Tara Schuster, author of Buy Yourself the F*cking Lilies, did. She began a journey of self-awareness. It’s the story of Tara’s path to re-parenting herself and becoming a “ninja of self-love”. You can too, through simple daily rituals — a morning stretch and meditation — and doing what you can to heal your emotional wounds.
Be brave. We are often scared to do things on our own, but the payoff can be a boost in confidence. It might feel risky for some, but when we do, we feel proud.
Friends shape who we are. They offer comfort, camaraderie and a shoulder to cry on when we need it most. Ferrari says positive people connections are very important when you are single. “Go where the love is if you haven’t got a romantic love in your life,” she says. “Be with people who love you, and you have fun with.”
And remember, it’s OK to be you, whether you want to be partnered or not. As Catherine Gray, author of The Unexpected Joy of Being Single, points out, the modern dating landscape is a minefield. We want “soul mate” marriages whereas our predecessors were willing to settle for “you’ll do” marriages, she writes. Sometimes in the past women virtually had to marry to survive — we don’t have to.
Now women and men are single because we can be. We can take our time to choose, and we don’t have to settle for less than we deserve.
If you are single, challenging societal stereotyping of what it means to be single will be an uphill battle. While you are perched on top of that mountain, gazing out at the endless possibilities that await you, know that you are enough.
Let it be your triumph of truth. You can be single and live a fulfilled, happy life your way