I was single throughout most of my 20s, and for the most part, it was a blast. In my early 20s I was dedicated to my friendships and getting to know New York City (including its party scene, of course), and by my mid-20s, I was hyper-focused on my career and started dating a lot more. I had a few serious relationships that I was sad to see end, but I slipped back into singlehood easily. I was still working on myself, and I enjoyed being able to put all of my time and effort toward reading good books, writing for fun, and regularly taking yoga classes.
But as much as I enjoyed my solo time, I had a lingering, terrifying thought in the back of my head that was particularly prominent after bad dates: that being single wasn’t the current state of my life, but its permanent state. I was destined to a life of Sunday mornings by myself and going to weddings solo while the rest of the world coupled off, had kids, and went on with their lives.
That’s not how things worked out for me. I got together with my husband at the tail end of my 20s, and the rest is history. I now look back on my single years fondly, and with just one regret: I wish I’d enjoyed how great they were just a little more instead of worrying that I would be single forever.
While my 20-something dating experience was admittedly pretty typical, there are so many reasons why this fear or being single pops up. Maybe you’ve never been in a relationship and can’t see it happening for you. Maybe what you crave isn’t a life partner at all — you just want a little romance and a good time! — but societal pressure makes you feel like you should want something more. That’s stressful, too.
When it comes to romance and coupling up (or not), people have very different goals, even if cultural expectations make this hard to admit sometimes. That’s why I decided to talk to experts about why you should take being single off your list of worries — and what to do if you’re concerned about it anyway.
Know that most people have worried about being “single forever” at some point.
Andie, a 33-year-old woman living in New York, spent years feeling like she was the only single person left out of everyone she knew. “It was ridiculous, because it wasn’t true, but it was all I could focus on — that everyone else was already coupled off and I had missed the boat.”
While it’s true that marriage rates in the U.S. are on the decline, it’s unfair to think that isn’t by choice for a lot of people. A legally binding relationship contract isn’t the ultimate goal for everyone — in fact, more than half of unmarried adults say it’s not — even if society makes it seems like it should be, and those statistics don’t take into account the number of people who are in partnerships but unmarried. Still, if you’re worrying about being single, holistic psychotherapist Alison Stone, LCSW, recommends going easy on yourself.
“Everyone has had this fear at some point in their lives. It might ebb and flow in terms of how strong and loud it is, but any single young adult or adult experiences those same worries, so know that you are not alone,” she says.
Put your energy toward celebrating your independence.
If your ultimate goal is finding a partner, start by asking yourself why that is. Is it because you actually want a life partner, or is it because you’re buying into the “relationship escalator” mentality and are trying to meet the cultural milestones society has set out for you in a timely manner?
If your yearning for a partner is authentic, it may feel like the logical thing to do is to put all your energy into dating. Instead, work on shifting your focus toward living your life to the fullest without a significant other.
“If you have always wanted to scuba dive and have been waiting for the right person to go with, go now,” says therapist Cori Rosenthal, LMFT. “Meeting someone who shares your passions is such a gift, even if that person is a platonic friend. So make travel plans with friends or pick up a hobby.” She adds that this doesn’t necessarily mean you should stop pursuing a romantic relationship if you want one — it just means you shouldn’t delay living while searching for it.
Stone adds that the more you fill up your life with meaningful activities that bring you joy, the less likely it is that you’ll be consumed by your relationship status. “Make plans with friends both to go out and enjoy activities, but also stay in and have low-key nights together. Consider signing up for a class, weekly workshop, or group,” she says. “You might not be in a romantic relationship, but a shift in perspective — learning to celebrate your independence, enjoying time alone, strengthening other relationships in your life — will be hugely beneficial.”
Date, but take breaks.
Maybe you’re on the lookout for a life partner, or maybe you’re looking for a cuddle buddy to get you through cuffing season. Whatever the case, if you’re not loving being totally single at the moment, you do need to put effort into dating — but know that it doesn’t have to be an always-on sort of thing. “Taking a break could mean deleting dating apps for a few weeks, or simply changing your mindset and intentions when you go out,” says Stone. “The pressure we put on ourselves is often one of the hardest parts of the dating process.”
Plus, you never know what’s just around the corner: Michael, a 28-year-old man living in the Bay Area, said that he met his long-term girlfriend shortly after changing his mindset about dating. “It’s such a cliche to say you’ll ‘meet someone when you least expect it,’ but for me that was true,” he said. “As soon as I decided I was OK with being single and just wanted to spend time with my friends, I found a partner.”
There are no guarantees that this will happen, of course — and we know “it’ll happen when you stop looking” is just about the last thing single people want to hear. Still, Stone recommends ditching the all-or-nothing mindset to avoid burnout. “People will either go on multiple dates per week, or they’ll swear off dating altogether because they’re so disappointed and exhausted,” she says. “Finding a middle ground that works for you gives you the best chance of making the dating process tolerable.”
Hey, that sounds like a great place to start.