Why do we do this?
I work in the single space. Sometimes it feels like I approach what I do by asking, “What totally normal and okay thing are we going to be ashamed of today?!” And then I try my damnedest to explain how a shame-y thing wasn’t worth being ashamed of from the start. I’ll tell you, I never run out of fodder, so yay job security, I guess. Single shame is everywhere, it’s been fed to us since our consciousness came online and we started reading fairy tales as kids. We learned that the life path was grow up, get married, have babies. There were no happy cartoon stories about singlehood (or divorce). As we grew, we found single shame in the void of validation and celebration for singles, while we simultaneously showered endless (expensive!) celebrations upon everyone we knew who partnered up. But there’s one shame morsel that I’ve recently noticed is particularly hard for singles to shake: the length of time for which we’ve been single.
There’s time, and then there’s “too much” time. It’s a very situation-specific calculation. You know when you’ve done something for too long. You’ve stayed at a party too long and it’s no longer buzzing. You’ve stayed in a hot tub too long and you’re overheating. You’ve slept on your left side too long and it’s time to roll over to the right. But what is there to indicate to us that we’ve been single for too long? What is “too long?”
Best I can tell, any length of time approaching or beyond six months is viable “I’ve been single too long” territory. Anything that sounds or feels like you’ve gone beyond the “single freedom fun times wild parties easy sex” phase and into the, “okay wait but like why doesn’t anybody want to keep you?” space. Whelp, I’ve been single 12 years, so let’s get into the goddamned weeds.
How “long” have you been single? Does asking yourself that question make your tummy tense up or a lump form in your throat? Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why? Why are we embarrassed by how long we’ve been single? Why do we hope no one asks us this out loud? Have we ever asked ourselves what’s actually the matter with years spent without a relationship, in a row? Or have we just been going along through singlehood, stacking shame bricks atop our self worth with each passing single year? Why do we even do that?
As humans, we reward people for doing things for a long time. We consider long periods of time to be accomplishments worth celebrating. Anniversaries, years with a company, etc. Outside of celebrating years of recovery from addiction or illness, I think we celebrate people doing things for long periods of time because we assume they didn’t want to. We assume they made a choice to continue doing a thing and that choice was a hard one. If it was easy, if we thought they were simply lucky, why would we throw them parties? Like, “oh my god you were so fortunate to have been able to do this thing for so long, let’s give you presents because you’ve already been so blessed.” What? No, we congratulate people for achieving difficult accomplishments, and doing something for a long time is difficult. We assume that a huge part of achieving a time-based milestone was suffering. And I think that’s fucked up.
We never reward single people for being single for a long time, do we? We don’t congratulate them for doing something difficult for a really long time, instead we shame them for not working their way out of the single swamp yet. That my friends, in light of the way we treat other time-based difficult things, is a bitch. I’ve been living on my own and managing everything from bills to loneliness without the help of another person for 12 years but by all means, let’s throw a party for the two people who haven’t had to go on a first date in a decade. They sure deserve it.
What have the marrieds accomplished, exactly? What does the fact that we celebrate their anniversaries say? Why do we consider years that they’ve stayed together an accomplishment? It’s almost like being married is really, really hard and if you manage to do it for five or ten or twenty years without splitting up or killing each other, you get presents. But if it’s hard enough such that we throw parties for people who do it for a long time, why are we so desperate to get ourselves out of singlehood and into married life, which sounds like so much work? I’m just asking…
Back to our singlehood—it’s not a clock. It is a length of time, but it is not keeping time, because that time has no relevance, or reward. Your time is just your time, and it’s collective volume doesn’t matter half as much as what you chose to do with it. Think of it this way, if you’re keeping time by your singleness, would it really restart the clock just because someone called you their “girlfriend” to a group of friends one time but you broke up three weeks later? Would that count for you? Would you feel better just “being able to say” your clock started over from zero because you were tangentially connected to some one-word texter for awhile? Or would you feel better meeting your partner, a real one, after any amount of time? My guess is, when we meet our partners, when it comes to the length of time we were single before them, we really won’t give a shit. I would argue that if you got into anything other than the right relationship for who you are and what you want, you actually weren’t single long enough.
We don’t like lengthy periods of singlehood because they suggest to us, and therefore in our heads they’re also suggesting to potential partners and certainly everyone we know, that there’s something wrong with us. Otherwise why would we be sitting on the shelf for so long, unloved?
Darling, we’re not dolls. We don’t actually collect dust. We are ever-growing and evolving human beings who, while we’re single, are actually doing a lot of things in addition to being single. Unless of course you’ve just been sitting on your couch doing nothing but swiping all these years, in which case please get up and brush your hair.
The problem with tracking time as a single person is that we always track it in the negative. We always see time added to our singleness as a depreciation, rather than as an appreciation. And that’s going to come down to how you yourself view your own time as a single person. You get to decide how you think about time spent single. It’s none of the outside world’s business, or their concern. In fact I think you’ll find that anyone judging you for how long you’re being single has actually had no impact on your singlehood whatsoever. Unless someone who is judging you for being single “too long” is hiding your partner in their back pocket (and for fuck’s sake, pull him out, Susan), their judgment is irrelevant and useless, having no tangible impact on your life whatsoever. If you feel bad when someone judges you, ask yourself why they don’t feel bad for making you feel bad. In the end, they just might be an asshole, while all you are is single. If you haven’t heard, I don’t actually see that as a bad thing.
If you find it hard to sever yourself mentally and energetically from negativity around your length of time between relationships, I get it, it’s what we’ve been fed to care about for our entire lives. But—maybe start by reframing what that time was for. Let’s say you’ve been single for eight years:
- I’ve spent eight years living life independently, showing myself what I’m capable of.
- I’ve spent eight years not in a relationship that wasn’t right for me.
- I’ve spent eight years becoming wiser and more emotionally mature, because that’s kind of what naturally happens as you get older. (By the way, “getting older” doesn’t depreciate your value either, but I can only fight one fight at a time and today I chose this.)
- I’ve spent eight years learning from those in relationships around me. Now, I have a better sense of what I want and don’t want in a relationship, so I’m less likely to get into a relationship that isn’t right for me.
- I’ve spent eight years finding out who I actually am, and who I want to be, without having to share my time, headspace, or emotional energy with another. This shit is luxurious.
I could go on forever. Ask yourself not what you haven’t had during this time, but instead what you have had, and what you’ve been able to do. What has this time actually shown you? What have you learned? My guess is, quite a bit. I certainly have.
- I’ve learned that I need someone who clearly demonstrates that my comfort and safety matter to them, a lot. My needs, wants, and preferences need to be factored into my partner’s behavior and decisions. I’ve never had that before, which is not shocking, since I didn’t know I needed it, and therefore didn’t know to leave situations where it wasn’t present. Now I do.
- I don’t want kids. I didn’t know that for sure until I’d been single for about eight years. I owe my singlehood so much gratitude for this. It scares me to think what would have happened if I’d never been single long enough to find this out.
- I can see through bullshit in the single space pretty easily, and not allow it to permeate into and lower my self worth. I can teach others how to do the same, too.
- I’ve learned to say no to what’s not enough for me. I’ve learned I don’t have to settle for crumbs, just because they’re there. I’ve taught myself that just because someone comes along, that doesn’t mean they’re the last person who ever will. I’ve learned I can not settle, that the world will continue to spin, and I will still love the life I live within it.
You can feel any way you want to about how long you’ve been single. What you can’t do is let it impact how worthy you are of love. Years single does not equal lesser value. There is no correlation between the two. If anything, I see just the opposite. I see years of growth and maturation and clarity. Where society sees a depreciation, I see a gift, and I invite you to do the same.
Your self worth and your singleness aren’t married. They exist as two independent facts about you. Both are valid, and valuable. When you let the length of time you’ve been single impact your self worth, it becomes more likely that you’ll settle for something not because it’s right, but just because it’s there. You deserve more than “there,” whether you’ve been single for a year or ten of them. Begin to see all of the ways you appreciate during your time alone, instead of all the ways the world tries to tell us we’re losing value with each passing single day. Because it’s that line of thinking that’s been around too long. Where we once saw shame, let us now see a completely customized, valid, lovely life. It’s time.
Shani Silver is a humor essayist and podcaster based in Brooklyn who writes on Medium, a lot.