“There’s something wrong with me,” my client says.
“Everyone else is hooking up, settling down, or having children. I’m being left on the fence, passed by. I don’t know why.
Perhaps I’m too ugly, or too boring, or too closed off. I’ve always felt left out. I must have been born this way—and will probably die this way, too.”
So not true! But I know this is how many of us feel.
Here are the seven real reasons why we’re single when we don’t want to be:
1. We have adopted some untrue and unhelpful self-beliefs.
Is it actually possible that there is something so fundamentally wrong with us that it marks us and sets us apart from all other human beings as if we were some kind of pariah?
You were not marked as a pariah at birth.
When my clients believe this, I ask them what the specific, concrete evidence is that backs up this idea that they are so uniquely unworthy compared to all the other thousands who are currently dating.
If we think we are ugly, we might ask, “In whose eyes?” In comparison to celebrities who are made up and airbrushed to the hilt? Or are we comparing ourselves to a particular societal norm? If so, which societal norm would that be? The Western world, Asian societies, African societies? And what is the societal norm in any of these? For example, in the United Kingdom, would we say that black models, mixed-race, blonde, or red-headed models feature most in magazines?
I don’t think that anyone would agree on what constitutes beauty, or even whether the “norm” is the most beautiful. Just think of how varied models look now compared to even 10 years ago.
And if that doesn’t help challenge our beliefs, we can do a reality check with our peer group. We can join a personal development group and realise how many of us feel the same.
Perhaps we can risk telling a close friend that we doubt how we look and think it is the reason why we can’t find a date or a fulfilling relationship. I’m pretty sure they would also confess to some insecurities about their looks, and I’m also pretty sure they would reassure us on our looks. If our critical voice continues to doubt what they say, we can reality check with more and more friends until there is firm evidence that, even if we are not textbook-looking, we are attractive.
Lastly, we can look at the evidence of what others are attracted to. Let’s think of our friends in happy relationships. Do we hold them to the high aesthetic standards that we hold ourselves? I’m pretty sure I speak for all of us by saying we don’t.
I’m also struck by how the way we can speak to and judge ourselves is so diametrically different from the compassion and understanding we have for our friends. They are allowed to have the blemishes, curves, and ungroomed nails that we do not allow ourselves, and yet we find them attractive as people. Why do we find them attractive? Because we see them as a whole, as a 3-D, living person complete with personality, attractive qualities, and the “Je ne sais quoi” that makes them the unique person they are.
Yet when we look at ourselves, we cannot get this perspective. We look at a 2-D selfie taken after a draining day at the office and imagine we look like this all the time. Or, we see our side profile in the harshly neon-lit fitting room mirror of John Lewis, our buttocks over-emphasised in a mirror that isn’t properly fitted. Our heart drops and we feel depressed.
But this is not a true representation of us. We are a moving, 3-D picture. And just as Gestalt psychologists stated, “The whole is greater than the parts.”
But I’m unworthy, people just “see” that in me, especially if they get to know me…
If we believe this, then we can ask ourselves, what is it specifically and concretely that we have done that supports the belief that we are unworthy? Whenever I ask clients, they respond with vague reasons such as, “I don’t know exactly,” or “Just because.”
The reason for the vagueness is that these questions really nail their critical voice and reveal it as a fraud, just like a suitor who has been called out on a lie and they know their time is up. The only problem is, unlike the suitor who runs for the hills, our inner bully stubbornly holds on and refuses to let go.
We need to dig deep, really take a pickax to that motherf*cker. We can start by thinking of individuals we do consider to be unworthy. Would that be child molesters, murderers, granny bashers? And how do we compare to them? Surely, we would quickly agree that if 10 is unworthy and 1 is not at all (and they are a 10), then we are a good 4, 3, or lower.
Not unworthy, then.
2. We believe the fantasy about everyone else’s perfect lives and relationships.
The fact is that there is no such thing as a perfect relationship. Even good relationships are rare. People meet, stay together, and break up all the time. Just because your friends seem loved up now does not mean that the relationship has long-term staying power or that it is fulfilling once the initial fantasy, chemical-driven part is over.
In my experience of counselling many couples, the initial attraction and the reason for staying together is that our neuroses fit. Which can be fine, but generally where we are neurotic there is a younger, childish part present. So perhaps this part of us stays with our partner who is at times domineering or sarcastic or stonewalls us because in other ways they make us feel “safe.” We put up with the bad because we don’t know any different, maybe we experienced the same with our parents as children.
The problem is, safe doesn’t equal interesting or stimulating. Perhaps our relationship is given the badge of social approval because it is steady and long-term—but is it healthy and happy? Hmm…
I don’t mean to come across as a party pooper, or the voice of doom and gloom about relationships. Of course, it is possible to have a fulfilling long-term relationship. I’m just saying don’t let your critical voice fool you into believing that everyone else is enjoying a fairy-tale romance, complete with popcorn and coke, whilst you’ve been left on the side.
3. We’re not open to a relationship.
I remember my own therapist pulling me up on this a while back. As I thought about my work schedule, it dawned on me that he was right. If I work anti-social hours that end at 9 p.m. at night on the weekdays, and if I fill my Saturdays with yoga and meeting friends, what amount of spare time do I actually have to give a relationship?
Whilst a once-a-week date might be fine in the early stages, a partner might not feel satisfied with getting just the dregs of me on Sunday when Monday blues are already setting in.
How much energy do we have for someone else? By that, I mean the energy to listen to them patiently when they are telling us about the struggles of their day. The energy to be fully present for them, to show up for them, to love them, and to show them that love through actually being available for them.
Can we honestly say we have this, or do we find ourselves drifting off and wishing they would just leave us alone to watch Netflix? After all, weren’t these the qualities we wished for in another? When we look at ourselves honestly, can we say for sure we are truly available to meet someone else?
4. We give up on dating and relationships at the first hurdle.
I’ve done that very thing before. A few bad dates and I throw in the towel and say, “That’s it. It’s not for me,” only to sheepishly re-install my dating apps a month later.
Let me ask you, would you give up so quickly when trying for a major professional, educational, or savings goal, for example? Probably not.
How is it that we can be a lot more resilient about those goals, which may take years to attain, but not when it comes to our relationship goal? How is that when we take a knock professionally or at college, we ask for feedback and performance reviews and try to learn from our mistakes, even if our ego is a little crushed?
But when a date or a relationship goes wrong, we don’t dare ask for feedback. If our date tells us they don’t want to continue seeing us, our inner critic attacks us like a wrinkly-headed vulture about to gobble up a tasty, dead lion. “It’s because you’re too fat, too ugly, too unlovable, because they spotted that there is something truly wrong with you.”
How is that we rarely challenge this vulture by finding out why they don’t want to see us anymore? More than likely, it is because of them rather than us. A recent client of mine, after taking the risk of asking, found out it was because their date was looking for hook-ups and polyamory whilst they were looking for monogamy.
How do we know our date didn’t get scared off by our fabulousness, or realised they were still in love with their ex? Absolutely nothing to do with us.
And even if it is because they decide we aren’t their type, so what? Not everyone likes bananas or apples. If someone prefers bananas over apples, does that make apples unworthy? “Of course not,” I say, as I crunch into my pink lady.
How about we view dating as a journey, as an interesting experiment we have set ourselves? Perhaps it will take three years to meet the right partner. And we learn from each date and person along the way, we hone our insight, streamline and finesse our requirements—so that when we do meet the right person, we can be proud of the knowledge and prowess we have acquired.
5. We don’t go out and meet people.
This might seem obvious, but if we keep on doing the same things we always do and don’t meet new people, then perhaps it is time to do something new. I mean, prince or princess charming isn’t going to appear at our grubby bedroom windowsill at night, wave their wand, and fall instantly in love with us. If our routine consists of going to work, going home, hanging out with friends who are in relationships, married, or with children, and at the weekend going to the gym where no one talks to each other, the odds are we won’t meet anyone new.
Our inner critic can then use this as evidence that we are “unlovable” and that we don’t belong. A judge would throw this evidence out in court.
Just as getting a job can mean sending off piles of CVs and doing several interviews, finding a good relationship means putting ourselves out there. Whether that be through online dating and actually going on dates or finding a fun activity to try that we’ve always been interested in. Maybe try acting classes, improv classes, rock-climbing, or joining a hiking group. Ideally, it’s something we will enjoy anyway, so finding a date is just a bonus.
6. We don’t choose the right people to date.
Rather than focusing on why you are not good enough, have you thought about why past partners haven’t been good enough? Looking back on past relationships I’ve had, I realise that I was making some overly big compromises without really realising it.
The partner who keeps changing their mind about whether they want to be in the relationship, is that really good enough for us? The partner who can never admit to doing anything wrong, is that really good enough for us? The partner who is a nasty drunk, is that really good enough for us? The partner who freezes and shuts down when we cry, is that really good enough for us?
What are the qualities we are looking for? And by qualities, I do not necessarily mean how affluent they are or what their Instagram looks like.
Perhaps we want someone with a certain degree of emotional literacy who can say how they feel, rather than acting it out in a childish way when they are upset. Someone who is able to healthily manage the heightened emotions, such as anxiety and anger, that we all experience from time to time. Perhaps we want someone who is able to communicate in a non-blaming, non-defensive way.
Once we know the qualities we value, we are able to reject others instead of constantly rejecting ourselves through self-blame or settling. Sometimes people will say, “I felt bad saying no to a date with him,” or “She wasn’t really what I was looking for, but I thought I’d give them a try and then I got hooked.” These are all examples of going against our better judgement.
We might be worried about hurting the other person. Does that mean that their needs come before ours? No. We all get rejected in various guises, frequently. Whether it be for the job, the promotion, by not winning the lottery. It’s part of life. If someone chooses to get “hurt” by being turned down, then that is up to them.
Or we may say “yes” to individuals even if alarm bells start ringing, for fear we won’t find anyone else. This is a fallacy, as there are billions of other individuals out there on the planet. In fact, the longer we stay in something that doesn’t feel right, we waste time with the wrong person when we could be on the path to finding the right person.
What keeps us from acting according to our better judgement and instincts is a false belief we adopted about not being good enough.
7. Our reasons for wanting a partner are flawed.
What is behind our desire for a partner? Is it a wish for distraction from a sh*tty life? Is it a wish to be cared for the way our mum or dad didn’t sufficiently care for us? Is it to obtain status or validation? Is it to get security and/or money? Is it to feel more excited and alive?
None of these are good enough reasons to seek a partner.
If life is sh*tty, build a new one. If we want status and validation, gain it by doing something meaningful, from growing prize tomatoes to winning the Nobel Prize. We can find ways to increase our own income if money is important. If we feel numb and depressed, we can find out how we are suppressing ourselves and our emotions in therapy so that we can feel more alive. Or we can take the risk of shaking things up in our life, perhaps retraining, relocating, moving out of our comfort zone with a hobby, or working less.
If our yearning for a partner is a desire to be cared for, to feel safe, or to feel validated, then we need to do some work on reparenting ourselves.
The truth is, even with the “perfect” partner, they will get it wrong sometimes. They will not always be able to read exactly what we need and give it to us when we need it. They will at times be absent or emotionally unavailable or caught up in their own stress. If we place unspoken expectations on our partner to provide what was missing in our parenting, we will often feel disappointed, hurt, and missed. We are then more likely to act out in childlike ways, raging or crying or stonewalling or being passive-aggressive, which pushes our partner away—and then we feel even more hurt.
How do we reparent ourselves? There are the obvious things we read about, such as swapping negative self-talk for compassionate self-talk, being kind to ourselves, setting appropriate boundaries, or practicing good self-care.
Sometimes we need a bit more help with this.
We need to explore in more detail exactly how our childhood wounds developed and exactly what we need to do in order to mend them. Sometimes we also need to process the wounds so that the hurt is no longer so intense and doesn’t get triggered in unhelpful ways.
Psychotherapy that focuses on developmental trauma, such as EMDR or an attachment-focused therapy can really help with this. Only we can heal ourselves, although good therapists and good partners can help with the process.
Once we have taken responsibility for our wounded parts, that is when we are more likely to meet the partner of our dreams.