Why the “How Long Has It Been?” Question is Irrelevant
Several years ago I spoke with a woman who had recently moved to a new town and had joined a fitness group in the community. The woman was single but everyone else in the group was married. Shortly after she introduced herself she mentioned that she had just ended a relationship.
In truth though, she hadn’t had a romantic partner for seven years. The woman said she didn’t like being dishonest, but at the same time the fib served the purpose she intended: She didn’t have to explain herself. “I didn’t want to have to deal with their questions or concerned looks if I told them it had been seven years. Saying I had just gotten out of something meant that we could move on,” she explained.
I understand the impulse. As I say in my book, It’s Not You, I had been unattached for eight years before my husband and I met, and when I would share this information sometimes people would give me a puzzled look. I got the sense that they wanted me to present an explanation for this—to say that I wasn’t interested in finding a partner or that I was too busy with my career.
But these things weren’t true. I wanted to be in a romantic relationship, and I put a lot of effort into finding a partner. It just … wasn’t happening.
I felt really embarrassed about this, and deeply uncomfortable whenever anyone asked how long it had been since my last relationship. I bought into the idea that there had to be some reason, some fatal flaw that kept me from finding a partner. After all, eight years of failing at something is a long time.
I’ve now been married to my husband Mark for nine years, and I see it differently. A completely arbitrary set of circumstances led to our meeting each other. There was nothing I could have done to make it happen; it just did. During the many years prior to meeting him, I wasn’t failing to meet the right person. I was just exercising the good judgment to not get involved with the wrong ones.
I’m sure I made plenty of mistakes along the way. I probably overlooked some terrific men because I wasn’t ready or just oblivious. The odds are also fairly high that I did dumb or inconsiderate things that put off other great guys. I’m sure I could have done better. But whatever mistakes I made weren’t fatal—they were just human.
If you’ve been searching for a partner for a long time, it’s natural to feel frustrated. It’s natural to want to examine yourself and your behavior and ask what you’re doing wrong. That can be useful—for example, if you find that your social circle has remained unchanged since college, it’s probably a good idea to shake things up.
Just don’t play the blame or shame game. Instead, take credit for what you’ve done right. If you haven’t been in a relationship in a long time, then that means that you haven’t been in a bad relationship for a long time. Not everyone can say that.
We all have flaws and limitations. But we also have strengths. When I was single I had an unfortunate tendency to focus on the former but I think we would all—no matter what our relationship status—do well to focus on the latter. When you find the right person they will see your limitations, but they will be far more interested in your strengths—your compassion, your terrific sense of humor. They will focus on those qualities, and you should too.
Sara Eckel is the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. You can get a free bonus chapter of her book at saraeckel.com. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook. Ask her questions here.