As someone who spent the majority of her twenties as a single lady, I have learned a lot about dating.
A few years into my twenties, I concluded that, since I had spent the ages of 16–25 basically floating from one relationship to the next, I hadn’t given myself much room to reflect and grow into who I was outside of the confines of a relationship.
I said to a friend: “I really want to learn what it’s like to be completely single, to be okay being totally unattached, having no romantic interest/emotional crutch/boy who I sometimes kiss and talk about getting back together. “ I thought at that juncture in my mid-twenties, it was important for me to learn what it was like to feel okay with not knowing when the next time would be that I would feel a warm body curl around me in bed and okay with, when I was sad or lonely, not having a boy who I could text “I miss you” or even “what are you doing?”
I embarked on what would be the most emotionally independent time of my life to date. For the first time as an adolescent or adult woman, I truly was unattached. I grew in a ton of ways. I learned that, even though I’m a people person, I was okay being by myself. I learned what made me happy, how to be okay with uncertainty, how to own up to my faults and shortcomings, how to enjoy being a third wheel (and event a fifth and seventh wheel) and how to be kind and forgiving to myself.
But one of the secondary lessons I didn’t expect turned out to be actually, one of the most important.
I grew up in the 90s and early 2000s being told that gender equality was alive and thriving.
In third grade, after my mother came in for career day to talk about her job as a doctor and a boy in my class said, “your mom’s a nurse because girls can’t be doctors”, I quickly, without pause, told him otherwise. Of course that wasn’t true, I stated frankly without batting an eye. Women could do and be whatever and whoever they wanted.
Except, somehow, this didn’t translate into female/male roles in dating. The traditional paradigm of a woman’s self worth being in great part measured by the amount of male attention she gets is still so ever present in today’s dating world.
As a kid, I remember a few times in childhood and teenage years in which a good-natured great aunt or family friend would say a version of “what a cutie, you’ll have boys lined up around the block to date you when you’re older”. I remember feeling pleased with the praise but also in a weird way, anxious. I get their intention. You’re cute, you’re sweet, who wouldn’t want to date you? That way of thinking, however, assumes that there is pressure on you to effortlessly, achieve something out of your control and that your self-worth will be, in much part, needs to be validated by someone else. And where does that leave you if you fall short? If you don’t have boys lined up around the block vying for your attention, does that mean you failed to be cute enough? Sweet enough? A part of you is missing?
This paradigm was re-iterated to me when I started having crushes of my own and, upon expressing disappointment when some weren’t reciprocated, I would be met with the same message from my mom, my grandmother, my friends: “he’s crazy! He does like you, I’m sure he just….”.
One day, about a year before I met my now-boyfriend, a friend was asking about a guy I had mentioned to her once or twice, someone who I had expressed moderate interest in and who I had been out with a few times.
“How’s it going,” she had asked, “any updates?”
I told her, no, there were no updates. In fact, we actually weren’t seeing eachother anymore. I don’t think he was interested in me, I told her.
Like many good and protective friends, that catalyzed her into a monologue of “WHAT?! Well he probably is just sooo busy right now, or has personal stuff he’s going through or…or…or at the very least he’s mentally unhinged. I can’t imagine a guy not liking YOU!”
She was being a good friend. She was subscribing to the belief that is instilled in us from a young age: that if you are pretty and nice and funny and smart, any straight member of the opposite sex should and will like you.And if they don’t-then maybe that means you aren’t as pretty, nice, funny or smart as you thought you were.
The time that I had given myself to grow without being attached had provided the space to challenge this way of thinking. If I went out with a guy, and it turned out that he didn’t like me romantically, why couldn’t that be okay? If he said “her looks aren’t for me, her jokes aren’t my type”, or even just, “I don’t know, I’m just not into her like that”, that should be okay. That shouldn’t threaten who I am and how I think and feel about myself. Byexpecting ourselves to be attractive to everyone, we are setting ourselves up to ultimately feel inadequate.
If we start to loosen the link between other people’s approval and interest in us and our self- worth and more on qualities we can control — our ability to be an honest, trustworthy person, a good friend, a helper — we empower each other to strive toward positive ideals that are, quite frankly, not skin deep.
I hope that , one day in the future, when my daughter comes crying that she has a crush on a boy that doesn’t like her, I wont say “ I’m sure he does, how can he not?” I’m hoping I can say, “I’ve been there, and it’s okay to feel hurt.Not everyone will like you, but that doesn’t mean you should feel any less wonderful about yourself.
At the risk of sounding like a completely self-actualized, balanced and composed woman (which I am not), I want to make one thing clear: this does not mean, when I felt disappointed by what seemed like yet another potential situation not panning out, I was not disappointed, sad, mopey, doom and destruction (not another one!) but I moved away from: “what’s wrong with ME?” I transitioned to becoming a person who fairly subconsciously believed that what we thought about ourselves was conditional and based on an external validation to someone who is able to accept and even sometimes embrace that “he just wasn’t into me”.
During my long stint in singledom, I had friends, some really, really good friends who had the best of intentions, say to me, “I can’t figure out why you’re single. You’re so wonderful.” And I owe much of who I am to these friends. I developed and strengthened friendships in my early adulthood years that are invaluable to me, even and especially now that I have a long-term partner. I have a solid, loving foundation to which I certainly owe much of my ability to be self- confident without validation. So whenever someone would tell me this, however frustrating it was, I would thank them. I think, despite my many, many flaws, that I’m wonderful, too.