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What I Know About Being Single Now That I'm In My 30s

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JILL DIDONATO
Taji Ameen

I had my first love affair when I was in the fifth grade.

I think my 11-year-old paramour may have been the first guy to tell me, "I love you." On Valentine's Day, he gave me a red rose and a hot pink pencil with a heart-shaped eraser. He introduced me to Stephen King and took me to the best pizza joint on the block. When we weren't fighting dramatically, involving our entire social circle in our "domestic" squabbles, we'd play Truth Or Dare, listen to Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock tell us how "It Takes Two" or Young MC break down how to "Bust A Move," as if we had any clue. Ironically, I think we had more of a clue than either of us knew. I can only speak for myself a good 20-odd years later, but I had iterations of that very fraught affair -- a fifth grade romance -- throughout my 20s and even into my 30s. I suppose it's not such an unusual thing to relive, repeat or reenact the same dysfunctional relationship over and over again with the characters that fill your life. And, trust me, you will, unless you consciously do something differently. But platitudes like: "You're single because you are too picky/spend too much time on your career/enjoy living an extended adolescence" are not helpful ways of understanding what it means or feels like to be single. As a single gal, you don't have a partner to champion and validate your needs. You have to do that for yourself. When you position your single status as such, isn't it suddenly much more empowering?

Back in the fifth grade, I was quite a precocious little lady, (as was my middle school crush), but as advanced as we might have been, surely, we were doing nothing more than re-imagining some pre-packaged version of romance. That may have been fine for my preteen self, but I'm a woman now, and the stakes are higher. But how many of us can truly say we are living love lives of our own design? The first step in doing so is re-conceptualizing what it means to be single. Forget what your family, friends, HBO, Facebook, your favorite starlet or your OKCupid profile has to say about your single status.

What does being single mean to you? Do you enjoy the perks of being a single gal? Does being single shame or embarrass you? Are you single by default or is being single a conscious choice? You don't have to have all the answers, but I challenge you to really sit with those questions and amend them as you evolve. People love to project their fantasies (or greatest fears) onto the single gal. Still, after all this time, she's unconventional; she's both exciting and intimidating. Or maybe she irrationally reminds you of someone who you don't want to end up like. Whatever the case, don't you dare let those fantasies (or greatest fears) box you into a corner, because in reality, they have little to do with the woman you actually are.

Lovers will come and go, but you must live with yourself forever. Get comfortable with that fact and own it because single or not single, you will never own anyone else. Ever. And would you want to? Here's the thing: Being single isn't all that different from being in a relationship. It's taken me a long time to figure that out. And only when faced with the prospect of NOT being single do I truly understand that. Who I am is not going to magically change because I have a lover or a boyfriend or a husband. Of course I will adapt, adjust and acclimate to the shifts of being with another. But the woman I am, who I've come to love in that way that you must love yourself to fully be with someone else, well, "she wants to dance to a different groove; now you know what to do, just bust a move," (yes, I still know all of the words, though thankfully, I've retired my crop tops). Change is always, always possible; you're not doomed to relationship purgatory. If you want something to change -- or shift, because most likely it's the fine mental tuning we make that really engenders change -- you're going to have to work at it. Start by throwing out all the preconceived notions of the single gal. And don't intellectualize your feelings, but rather know them in an emotional sense. I might not have everything figured out, but I'm getting there by rewriting the script. So here are some things I've learned from my tenure of living single.

1. Open Your Heart is not only a kick-ass Madonna song, it's one of the most important mantras a single gal can have. Do you go about your day, head to the ground, swinging tight fists as you ruminate on all the guys who have done you wrong? If so, why torture yourself like that? Is that how you want to engage with the world? "Put yourself out there" is another insulting single person platitude, but if you tweak it, this platitude makes sense. You have to put yourself out there in a way that feels organic to you. I've also learned that part of being a good lover and partner is the ability to listen, and I mean really listen (as opposed to offering advice, even when prompted) and you can only do that with an open heart. We can be so self-obsessed that listening is a simple way to tap into our empathy while letting go of past romantic missteps. When you find a worthwhile partner who wants to listen to you in return, you will be building intimacy in a meaningful way.

2. Dating Is So Retro, Which Therefore Makes It Cool. Like many women my age, I grew up in hookup culture. Indeed, I had quite the dating life in fifth grade, but in high school, college and even in my 20s, I mostly hooked up with guys or went from zero to full-blown relationship without dating. Dating can be awkward and confusing: "Wait, you don't know who Snowden is?" "You think Lana Del Rey sounds like Celine Dion?" "You want me to do WHAT in the cab?" Dating can and will make your stomach flip. But it's supposed to be fun, and if it's not, you're dating the wrong people (though there will always be duds). When the duds become overwhelming, take a break. Reboot. Reconnect with former friends; take that martial arts class you've always been curious about; approach someone at a bar; borrow a friend's dog and go to the park; smile at strangers. Trust me, there will be plenty more jerks who itemize your dinner bill or sweethearts who bring you flowers (yes, men still do this) when you decide you want to date again. The older I get, the more I realize there's no reason to rush or force a situation. In fact, rushing into something that's not right will end up wasting more time rather than being selective.

3. Don't Panic About Your Ticking Clock. There is a lot of confusing and contradictory data on what the "best" age is to reproduce -- if indeed, becoming a biological mother is something that you want with a partner. In fact, new research points to both a "biologically best" and a "sociologically best" age for a woman to conceive. How does this impact one of the most personal decisions I can make? It reassures me that I have options, like IUI or freezing my eggs if I want to biologically conceive (and I'm not saying these options are easy; in fact they are both very involved and difficult -- but they are out there and available). Talk to your doctor (I've consulted two) and both have assured me that fertility is a very individualized issue, so hours spent on WebMD or listening to your friends talk about what worked for them has nothing to do with your ovaries.

Panicking over what may never be is a dreadful way to spend the time you so preciously cherish. I'm not saying that, as women, the fertility window is something to ignore, but so many women I know internalize the pressure to become mothers so much so that it makes each man who comes into their lives feel like a sperm donor. Be aware of time, but don't let it control who you mate with and when. And, even though I believe in my right to choose what I do with my body, ultimately, I want to have a child with someone who is an equal partner in the entire process. If you're so stuck on your timeline, you might lose sight of that, which is an incredibly powerful way for two people to bond. And just a little reminder, a baby/child/adolescent is not an accessory. Having a family isn't all about you, though it might feel like that when you want it so badly and it seems out of reach.

4. Resist the GIAGS (Grass Is Always Greener Syndrome). We live in a culture of comparison. That doesn't make it right or healthy or even fun to live in. Coveting lives is not only a masochistic exercise; it's a futile one. You will never know what happens behind closed doors or how miserable or blissful a couple really is. It's also completely nonsensical to think that your friends' relationship status has anything to do with yours. But yet so many women obsess over the lives of others as if those lives somehow are relevant to our own stories. The truth is, they are not. Coveting is a one-way ticket to a hell of your own creation. And, quite frankly, you never know who is coveting your life, or, at least, her perception of it.

5. Get In Touch With Your Needs. We all pick and choose people in our lives because they fill certain needs. If, as a single gal, you have no idea of what your needs are, you might want to reconsider your relationship with yourself. Don't let the barrage of bad dates send you the message that your needs are irrelevant or that no one out there can fill them. But do be realistic about what makes the type of partner that meshes with you. For a long time I was not realistic about what I needed from a partner. I would discount good guys for ridiculous reasons and stick with bad boys for even more ridiculous ones. I told myself I didn't want to settle. But that was a convenient way of being emotionally unavailable. When someone is emotionally available to you, suddenly settling down doesn't feel pejorative; at least that's what happened to me. And as you mature and become more self-reliant, your needs become more boiled down and basic. Maybe your ideal partner is someone who takes you seriously; who is emotionally generous; who is complementary to you in different ways; who makes you feel safe. Know your needs, realize their importance and get rid of the hang-ups you have about what it means to "settle" down.

6. Identify Flaws In a Potential Partner STAT. Newsflash! Your partner is not going to be a perfect person. In fact, he or she is going to have flaws. Tons of them. The trick is to identify those as early on as possible and figure out if you can live with them. I think we spend too much time looking at the good qualities in people in the early stages of a relationship rather than trying to suss out the ones we don't like. But it all comes back to re-imagining what it means to be single. If we spend our time terrified at the idea of being single, we're more likely to idealize potential partners rather than to see them for who they really are.

7. Project the Person You Want to Be. I'm not saying become that agent who falls for her own cover story. But each time you meet a new person, you have a chance to reinvent yourself in a minor way; after all, one of the greatest things about being single is having all those "first" discoveries about a new person. Remember, that person is having those same discoveries about you. The real you can and will change, so why not start now? You have a better chance of attracting people who are in line with what you want by projecting those qualities outward. Who you are is not set in stone. But your relationships will become rigid if you don't tweak things about yourself that haven't worked so well for you in the past. Sometimes, as amazing as we are, it is us, not them, who pose a problem by getting in our own way.

8. Take a Chance; You Make the Rules. I've done some crazy things in the name of love -- things my friends would never do. But my friends aren't living my life. And sometimes, the more chances I take, the more satisfied I feel. I suppose this is not really a new insight, but it's one women can be reminded of. We are still given scripts on how to proceed if we want to be lucky in love: "Let him chase you." "Appear unavailable." "Never sleep with him on the first date." Why play games, especially when you're not making the rules? The thing is, you can make the rules. Just like there's no one right way to be in a couple, there's no one right way to be single. The more chances you take, the more you will get to know yourself and what you're looking for. And everyone deserves to feel like he or she has hit the jackpot -- whatever that means for you.

Jill Di Donato is a writer based in New York City. She is the author of the novel Beautiful Garbage, and is working on a collection of essays, 52 Weeks of Sex: Diary of A Single Gal.

To read more in this series...

What I Know About Being Single Now That I'm In My 20s

What I Know About Being Single Now That I'm In My 40s

What I Know About Being Single Now That I'm In My 50s