It’s Sunday morning and I’m at city bakery listening to “Piano Ballads” on Spotify. It’s unusually quiet here in contrast to the typical Manhattanite brunch-rush. There’s a trio of neon yoga gear-clad women sharing a confectioner’s sugar-dusted muffin in the corner, and one other MacBook-sheltered freelancer who’s been texting for the past nine minutes. I wonder if he knows about iMessage for his computer.
For a long time, I dreaded Sunday mornings as a single person. I would wake up, anxiously aware of my aloneness. I yearned for a partner to be the balm to my self-loathing induced wounds. I longed to share “lazy Sundays” with a counterpart. I’d fantasize about groggy morning-sex and snuggling and coffee or brunch–or coffee then brunch–strolling hand-in-hand, our hangovers mitigated by infatuation.
But today I bask in my Sunday morning with myself. After many years of running from my thoughts and feelings, I’ve come to deeply enjoy my own company. It’s not that I don’t still feel sad or anxious or lonely at times: in the pockets between creating and connecting and yoga, feelings bubble up to remind me of my debt or my mortality or a recent rejection. But these experiences are cooler and less crippling than they used to be. They’re easier to wade through or ride out, and I don’t fear or judge them as much anymore–reactions that for years motivated me to be in a relationship to bring down the inflammation my inner critic caused.
Most of the time, this equanimity is a strength and a gift. A skill I teach my clients in therapy, and a sanctuary every human deserves to cultivate in this lifetime. But truthfully, there are times when I question the peace I’ve made with my emotions, for it’s dissolved one area of need that catalyzes me to seek a romantic relationship. I’ve become so comfortable in my singledom–and being with myself–that I’m unmotivated to trudge through the risk and sacrifice and responsibility of relational commitment (that I prioritized during self-loathing times).
I’m by no means suggesting all women seek to couple to escape their inner critics or validate their self-worth. Let’s not forget the influence of the traditional social narrative! This summer, my elementary-school girlfriends and I went to Vegas to celebrate our thirtieth birthdays (how “basic,” I know). I was chatting up someone at a pool party for a few minutes, before he asked the reason for our trip. When I told him, his face transformed into one of disgust and he told me he would have never started talking to me had he known I was 30. That 30-year-old women are too old and too desperate–that their “baby clocks” are ticking and they’re trying to “lock any guy down.” He assured me that because I didn’t “look 30,” and we’d already established a rapport, he was still interested in me. Phew! What a relief I still had a chance with this catch of a man!
When I was 24, I wrote my masters thesis on women’s gendered experience of leaving a romantic relationship (birthed, unsurprisingly, from the negative repercussions to ending things with my second love). I intentionally excluded study participants who’d experienced infidelity or abuse–socially accepted “excuses” for choosing to be single. Among other things, I sought to expose the undeniable pressure women feel to be in relationships–that choosing singledom over “such a great guy” must mean we are deeply flawed.
My research involved in-depth qualitative interviews with women on their experience of “selfishly” choosing to nurture their relationship with themselves over the one with their loyal partner–and proved even those who aren’t driven to use a romantic relationship to quell their inner critic are still subject to the “pressure to partner.” The 141-page document resulted in counseling implications for these anxiety and guilt-ridden women–and the years of immersion into feminist narrative theory liberated me from (much of) the internalized pressures women feel to be in a relationship.
But here’s the kicker: I want to be in a relationship, and there are times I wish I didn’t have this critical awareness of social norms. There are moments when I feel “the pressure” – for example, the resistance I felt turning 30; the anxiety evoked by my Bumble profile when it no longer read “29;” the grief I feel when I think about my mom with two kids at my age; when I feel that pressure, there’s a part of me that wishes I’d react with the goal of settling down by “X” time. Maybe that would be more productive than “mindfully noticing my anxiety and shame, reminding myself of its socially constructed origin, and letting it pass through me”–which is my go-to coping for dealing with difficult feelings.
But I can’t un-know what I know. My desire to be in a relationship is no longer motivated by ”need,” and this is deeply frustrating as a love-filled 30-year-old woman who both cognitively and emotionally desires to be in a relationship. I’m your classic high-functioning procrastinator who depends on “need” for action. Without it, I fear I’m waiting for a unicorn to meet me at the altar. This extreme version of “never settling” is exacerbated by my ambivalence around having children. Liberated from (the majority of) societal pressures and self-loathing, I could at least rely on my “ticking baby clock” to prioritize finding the “father of my children.” But it seems my “clock” is broken.
I’m frustrated because I want to want to have two kids and 2,400 square-foot home. I want to want to get married. I figure caring about such things might create the sense of urgency I lack. And I do want a lazy-Sunday person. I do want someone I can take back to British Columbia for holidays and lie with on the dock during meteor showers, trying to make sense of infinity. I want to be in love again – to have that unparalleled, magical feeling I remember from my early 20s. And perhaps if I valued a traditional life I would commit to something.
Ironically, much of the “cool” time with myself is spent attempting to conceptualize the conflicted bind in which I’ve found myself. As a psychotherapist, I’m susceptible to the psychological version of “medical student syndrome,” attaching diagnostic labels to my independence in the hopes of a resultant “treatment plan.” Some are more pathologizing than others: Avoidant personality disorder. Emotional unavailability. Narcissistic personality disorder. Selfishness. Fear of commitment. Fear of the vulnerability for which I so frequently advocate. Low self-worth. Inflated self-worth. Perfectionism. Anxious-ambivalent attachment style stemming from inconsistent emotional support in my childhood. Abandonment issues. Daddy issues. Self-esteem issues. Or maybe I’ve read too much Buddhist literature and take “non-attachment” too literally. Or maybe I’m just too. Damn. Picky.
I ponder over my breakups of 2011 and 2012, fearful they wounded me beyond repair. The man I loved so recklessly who dumped me when I was in the midst of a depression; the man I relievingly fell for eighteen months later–helping me fully heal my residual heartbreak –who ultimately revealed to have had a long-distance girlfriend the entire time we dated. I wonder if these betrayals have left me “jaded” – a term I hesitate to used because it’s a descriptor for so many single +30-year-old women out there. I wonder if my parents’ multiple divorces blocked me from believing in true, sustaining love, or if the relational behavior I saw modeled has undermined attractions to emotionally attuned partners. I question whether my affinity for jocks devoid of empathy is protective, avoidant, or a futile attempt at seeking the fatherly approval I perceived to never experience as a child. I consider the thought that, had I’d grown up with family dinners every night, I’d be seeking to replicate that.
Deep down I know I’m none of the pathologies I toy with labelling myself. I’m reassured by the awareness that I yearn for romantic love as any other human does, and I recognize my “diagnoses” are reflections of society’s aversion to the (“poor, desperate, damaged”) single woman.
But I do question the relational functionality of my “liberating” perception. And there are moments where I, the self-compassion ambassador, resent my self-acceptance. Perhaps if I were more self-critical, I might have my Sunday morning confidante. Or I imagine how my life would be different if I hadn’t read An Invitation to Social Construction. Perhaps if I didn’t advocate for questioning social norms, I might actually respond to Tinder messages–instead of mindlessly swiping out of momentary loneliness or boredom or fear of being “left behind,” then feeling unmotivated to answer when my sense of wholeness returns. Or perhaps if I didn’t feel a sense of purpose from my work and my friendships, I’d seek meaning in “Mrs.” and ”Mom.” But today that’s not the case, which both empowers and scares me.
Because I want to be in a relationship.
I just wonder if wanting is enough.