Nineteen long months ago, my ex-boyfriend was found unresponsive in his room, overdosed on opiates, a week before he turned twenty-six. A year before, we’d had a messy, incomplete breakup that neither had been sure was final; having it so brutally confirmed left me reeling. Complicating matters was an ill-timed relocation from the city we’d lived in to New York, a scant three months later. Concluding my own life there meant I had little time to process the end of his.
Chaotic though it was, I managed to sellotape my belongings into boxes, lug them up a seven story walk-up in Astoria, and stumble through New York’s towering skyscrapers, blinding lights and labyrinthine subway system. By one chance after another, I fell into an amazing team and began work on a scrappy, big-hearted startup in journalism (an industry almost as unforgiving as New York itself.)
The eight months following my ex’s death were an amazing, painful, thrilling and exhausting blur, where my career exploded as fantastically as my personal life had fallen apart. It was a welcome distraction from my ex’s passing, and a solid reminder that I had much more to live for than what had been lost.
At the same time, the question that haunts all single women my age began, once again, to doggedly pursue me.
So, met anyone special?
I could be at a fellowship in New York for half a year, an incubator in Berlin for two months or a conference in Copenhagen for three short working days, and the first question I could be guaranteed to get about each was, “What are the men like?”
I tried dating sporadically in the last year, and had a good time on a few. However, dates were money I didn’t particularly have, working for a startup, and emotional energy I wasn’t particularly ready to expend, still pulling out sutures from a healing heart.
I started fibbing whenever the topic came up. I told people I was busy on a date, when I was home in my pyjamas streaming movies. (One date, I learned, could stave off inquiries for another week.) In retrospect, honesty is the policy which saves you keeping track of multiple invented suitors; but I was weary of fielding the constant well-meaning but misguided, “Maybe it would do you good to see someone new…“
It took a while before my embarrassment at my reluctance to date turned to indignation. Society, as it turns out, is so obsessed with partnership that even tragic death gives us a five-month reprieve before we should be firing up Tinder. In the last year and a half, I’ve always been grateful for any show of support, but as time went on, I was surprised at the nature of it, and how fixated it was on one thing.
People were likely to say: “Which dating apps have you tried? There’s this new one I heard about.” “Did you go out with someone? That’s so great!” “Tell me everything about the last date you had.”
People were less likely to say: “I heard about that fellowship you got – congratulations!” “I saw the latest article you wrote, here’s what I thought.” “I heard you got a chance to visit your family, that must have been fun!“
People were likely to offer: “I can introduce you to my friend!“
People were less likely to offer: “I know you’re pulling a lot of late nights, can I buy you a coffee?”
People were likely to advise: “Don’t get too caught up in work you forget to make time to find someone.”
People were less likely to advise: “You got really lucky with your job. Run with it.” “You’re fortunate to get the opportunity to be traveling like this – it’s rare and you’re privileged. Enjoy it.” “Your family’s what got you here, and don’t let yourself forget it. Call your mom.”
Yet it’s difficult to be annoyed. Every offer to be introduced to a friend, all the enthusiasm to debrief dates: these aren’t shallow displays of affection or a lack of compassion, but acts of genuine concern. My friends and family were doing the best they knew how. This was they way they’d been taught to help a woman rebuild her life.
It remains an unpopular truth that a woman’s life can be full without a man in it. This makes the loss of a potential partner feel like the loss of the potential for happiness itself. For women in the modern world, a paralyzing fear of singledom compounds the pain following the demise of a romantic relationship (however that may happen), or the stresses of a career, both being sufficiently challenging alone.
To make it clear, I didn’t want anyone to pat me on the back for doing my job (I should be doing my job), or need anyone’s help to remember to call my mother (she reminds me well enough herself). And I’m immensely grateful for the friends that have been there for me, even when they’ve been hijacking my phone to Swipe Right on my behalf. They have been sturdy lifeboats in a perfect storm.
At the same time, I wish we lived in a culture that valued a woman who does her job well, or recognized her role as a sister or a daughter or a friend as much as a girlfriend or a wife. I wish our knee-jerk instinct in supporting the women we care about wasn’t to try to remedy them of their singledom.
Eighteen months, a few reluctant dates, innumerable countries later, I’m single. I’m also happy. I’m doing well. But if there was one thing I needed to hear before I reached the point where I didn’t need to convince myself of that, it would be this:
You’re only in your twenties. Happiness is still out there, and you don’t need to change your relationship status before you find it. Your ex-boyfriend may have passed away, but you didn’t. The best thing you can do now is to live life mightily enough for the both of you.