After being unattached for eleven years, Sue had just started dating someone who had a lot of relationship experience, and she was embarrassed by her thin relationship resume. “How do I let go my feelings of inadequacy?” she asked author Sasha Cagen and I in a recent webcast.
Sue had a classic case of single shame, something Cagen and I understood well. I was single for most of my twenties and thirties, and always hedged when asked the dreaded question, “How long has it been since your last relationship?” Cagen, the author of Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics, recalls the time she told a man that her longest relationship had been nine months.
“It took me about half an hour to get it out. It was this crazy painful thing,” Cagen said.
If you’ve been single for longer than you care to admit, it’s natural to wonder why or even ask, “What’s wrong with me?” This question is particularly common in our can-do culture, which leaves little room for luck, chance or circumstance. If your life isn’t working out quite the way you’d like—be it with work, finances or romance—then the most common assumption is that the problem can be reduced to one factor: you.
That’s where the shame part comes in. You see that so many other people manage to have long-term relationships—if not for forever, then at least for awhile. What do they know that you don’t? Are you missing the essential quality that makes a person able to get past the fifth date?
When I was reporting my book, It’s Not You, I spoke with many people who had married after spending years, or even decades, on their own. My friend Marcella had a nine-year dry spell before she met her husband George at age 38. They’ve now been married for four years and have a daughter.
Has it been a struggle? Did Marcella’s lack of relationship experience put her out of her depth? No. Like many other former long-term singles I interviewed, Marcella has been pleasantly surprised by how adept she is at navigating the ins and outs of marriage. “Who would have thought I’d ever feel like this after seeing myself as the bottom of the barrel for so long?” she said.
Even when Marcella was a single person struggling with low self-esteem, she still had all the qualities she needed to maintain a healthy, adult relationship: maturity, kindness, and intelligence. For her and many other former singletons, that’s really all it takes.
Sure, we can learn from relationships. There is value in the struggle to connect two souls even when it’s difficult, even when it ultimately doesn’t work. But that is not the only path to relationship wisdom.
We all have our strengths and vulnerabilities. We all possess intelligence and we all have glaring gaps of ignorance. Nobody has the market cornered on insight into the human condition. To a certain extent, we’re all stumbling in the dark.
For her part, Cagen realized that she was her own harshest judge. When she told her friend about her scant relationship experience, he shrugged. “He was completely nonplussed and looked at me like ‘why are you worried?’” she said.
Instead of asking yourself, “What’s wrong with me?”… try instead asking, “What’s right with me?” Instead of wondering why you haven’t struggled through a string of doomed relationships, why not be glad that you have the wisdom and strength to wait for the right one?