There is nothing new to say about dating.
The area has been parsed, picked apart, glorified and reviled in every women’s magazine, talk show, brunch gossip session and ladies room for time immemorial. Now that’s not to say I won’t write about it; I do have column inches to fill after all.
At the moment however, what feels new to me (i.e. a recent immigrant to the island of lost toys, also know as singlehood) is just more of the same for countless others who have been fighting the good fight for far longer. What is more interesting, at least to me, is exploring the experience of being alone. Often seen as something to be avoided at all costs, what is often overlooked about being alone is that it’s a different thing than being lonely. Yes, they are kissing cousins, but while loneliness is a feeling — one that can just as easily wash over you in a crowd of people, in bed with someone or even among your closest confidants — being alone is a choice, a state of being that has value in its own right.
When you’re in a long-term relationship, there is never really such a thing as being truly alone. While you may get “alone time” the specter of the person whose life is coupled with yours is there with you — inhabiting your psychic real estate. This has value too, specifically in the blending of two peoples’ needs. The trouble comes when their needs expand like a creeping vine, choking out the space we need to develop our own opinions, our personal taste and sense of self. Some people know naturally when to pull out the pruning shears, while for others, it takes becoming completely overgrown by someone and having to take drastic action with a weed-whacker to get free. As important as that horticulture lesson is in learning how to have a successful relationship, it is just as essential to be able to learn how to be comfortable when there’s no one else occupying that space.
Being truly alone can be deeply uncomfortable. We are an outward culture, constantly seeking validation, entertainment, approval (see Instagram, Facebook and Twitter for proof); in the face of that, being alone — with only your own opinion to consider — can be deeply unsettling. Without the touchstones of whether other people, be it friends, lovers or strangers, like something, it can be hard to pinpoint whether you truly like it yourself. When we are with others, our opinions are coloured by how we feel about them. I adored The Postal Service album Give Up. I still do, but part of that comes from how I felt when I listened to it while sharing headphones with the sweet, sardonic boy I loved at the time. Without the memory attached, would I still feel so fondly? Perhaps, but I will never know, and the point is therefore moot.
On the other hand, the things you discover by yourself and fall in love with, those things are immediately and always truly yours. There’s a joy in that ownership, and a freedom that can be almost scary in its completeness. When you find those things, it’s as if “mine, mine, mine” whispers and hisses in your mind like a skipping needle. If you don’t spend enough time alone to find these treasures and claim them, everything you have is at most shared, and at worst only on loan until the memory attached to it is tarnished.
Spending time alone builds not only our personal taste, but our ability to cope with the weird behavior of others around us. The stronger your sense of self, the less likely you are to believe that it is your fault when someone treats you poorly. If your self-image is based entirely on what you see reflected in how other people view you, all it takes is small acts of inconsideration or rejection to make you believe you’re not worth more — that you deserve to be treated as such. On the flip side, if you’ve spent enough time alone, really alone, you have assessed your strengths and weaknesses and will be able to tell whether someone has a legitimate reason to behave the way they do, or if their damages are their own.
You may be asking yourself what advice I’m trying to give outside of just “spend time by yourselves friends.” While that is the crux of it, the suggestion I make is to firstly prepare yourself with how crushingly awkward it can be to be alone for an extended period. The good news, if you’ve spent any time dating over the course of your adult life, you’re familiar with awkwardness, so you know how to get through it. Do what you’d do in the awkward moments of a date (other than leave obviously!): find common ground. Rather than retreating from the strange sensation, figure out what would make you happiest in that moment and do that. Eating delicious food or going to a movie or grabbing a drink should not be reserved for dates. Date yourself and you will likely find you are the best company possible.
The second prong of my two-step plan to embracing the beauty of being alone is another simple truth. You won’t find out what you really like unless you try new things. Don’t wait for someone else to introduce you to a great new band, writer or restaurant; do your research and try things that sound interesting to you, or that are off your beaten path. We all grow stagnant when we don’t expand our worlds. Comfort zones, like comfort food, have their place, but also have the potential to make us fat and lazy and apathetic. You may have experiences you don’t enjoy as you explore, but you’ll have learned something new about yourself in the process.
This isn’t all to say that being alone is preferred to the time we spend in relationships, or with our nearest and dearest. It’s simply become increasingly clear to me that every single one of us is a stone cold weirdo in our own way, and the very best people you meet are the ones who own their personal brand of randomness. The reason they do? They know themselves well. The oft-quoted Groucho Marx said “I don’t care to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” In my opinion the best clubs have only one member, and the only way to be part of one is to get to know oneself thoroughly.Published November 30, 2013