there are worse things than
but it often takes decades
to realize this
and most often
when you do
it’s too late
and there’s nothing worse
It took me 27 years to discover the value of being alone.
Now I finally get it. And I think everyone, yes everyone, should be single for at least one year of their adult lives.
Let me be clear: I believe love is the highest expression of humanity. And I am most certainly a romantic. I love cuddling, hugs in the morning, blueberry pancakes in bed, knowing that another person has my back (and I have his), laughing so hard that I fall off the bed, embarrassing nicknames, streaking through my living room to wild applause, sweet messages on sticky-notes, and being comfortable enough to perform my goofy, made-up songs for someone.
I am not suggesting these experiences alone are equal to the massive, ineffable concept of love. They are simply human expressions of love. And they are some of the reasons why it took me so long to appreciate the single life.
But love does not require a committed relationship, let alone a ring (c’mon Beyonce, I know you don’t buy that shoulda put a ring on it crap). Love doesn’t even require another person. Although a measuring device does not yet exist, I am pretty sure I experience more love as a single woman than I did as a girlfriend or fiancé. But why?
For one, I am more open. Open to experiences. Open to people—forming new friendships and reviving old ones that have faded. Going by myself to a quaint little bar in town leads me into the most fascinating conversations with the most fascinating people. (Most recently: an ex-lawyer from Jersey who used to defend mobsters.) Sure, you can do that while in a relationship, but how many do?
Also on the list of things I do now that I didn’t do when I was in a relationship: practice yoga, meditate, disappear on a long drive without telling a soul, spend entire days reading and writing, dream up the most fantastical scenarios for my future without feeling a single ounce of guilt about who else would be affected, cry senselessly and often without anyone asking what’s wrong, and converse weekly with adorable boys from Chicago I’ve spent only 9 amazing hours with (okay, there’s just one adorable boy from Chicago).
I’ve been single for the last two years or so. During the first 8 months, I didn’t date anyone. Unless you count that one time I spent two hours watching a guy down five gin and tonics on a Tuesday night while raving about how much he hates liberals.
It’s not easy being 100 percent single, as in not dating, after being with someone for years. The loneliness is piercing. I spent a lot of time trying to pick up the pieces of my shattered ego. I also spent time beating myself up, smashing what remained into tinier and tinier pieces, until one day I had absolutely no idea who I was.
And that moment, when I had lost any inkling of an identity and sat in a heap on my living room floor, turned out to be the most important moment of my life. It was the first time I realized that truth we all do our best to avoid: I am alone. I’d been alone a year prior, when I had a boyfriend, and I’ll be alone 20 years from now when I’m (hypothetically) married with three beautiful kids.
People change, people leave, and people die. That fact always exists. Moreover, other people live inside their bodies and their minds, and they will never live inside mine. We may try to merge with our loved ones—through hugs, words, laughter, sex—but we cannot. And so often when we try, we lose our own sense of self (or fail to develop it in the first place).
When I was finally whole enough to date again, I did so with new intentions. I stopped looking for a boyfriend, a soul mate, a lifelong partner. I began opening myself up to simply experiencing men. Appreciating each one for who he is at this moment in his life. Worrying less about where it’s going and more about how it feels now.
The notion that a loving relationship requires a label, or even an exclusive commitment, is just plain false. I dated a guy for 9 months, never once referred to him as my boyfriend or made a declaration not to see other people, and had more fun than I’ve had with any other man in my life. I loved him. I still love him. We remain (gasp!) close friends.
This is not to say everything was perfect, or that we never experienced jealousy, or that I didn’t struggle with having to explain our relationship to family and friends. And it’s not to say that a non-exclusive relationship is necessarily tenable long-term. It’s just that we proved love exists outside those boxes into which most people insist on cramming it.
My relationships are not shallow. Tears flow, my heart breaks, and disappointments are inevitable. I am still me: fiercely loyal, passionate, intense, and exceptionally picky. When I love you, you know it. And this love is not reserved for boyfriends only. It’s available to everyone I invite into my life.
I am learning how to love without giving myself away. Without needing to nail down the future (an impossible feat to begin with). Maybe you were lucky enough to learn these lessons in high school. Or maybe you learned them through your relationship or marriage. But for me, it took being utterly alone to appreciate what Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in one of his letters to Franz Kappus:
Nothing describes loving less aptly than calling it a merging, surrendering and uniting with another person (what could such a union of the unresolved, the unready and the as-yet-unorganized possibly resemble?); it is a sublime occasion for the individual to mature, to become something in himself, to become a world, to become a world unto himself for the sake of someone else; it is a great immodest demand placed upon him, something that singles him out and calls on him to go far. Only thus, as a task to work on themselves (“to listen and to hammer day and night”), should young people be allowed to use the love that has been accorded them.
Lauren Constance Everingham is a lover of boots, books and Bukowski. After years of frustration with the often-futile content of women’s magazines and blogs, she launched Cheekie: a lifestyle blog for smart women. She also has a day job and a few diplomas. Lauren lives in Asheville, NC with her pup and her yoga mat.