Single Minded: Being Single And Being Alone

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Black Fashion Girl

Bella dreaded not having a partner in her thirties. But the reality has been full of surprises

In my twenties, I spent a lot of time thinking about being single. My mother is beautiful, well-travelled and clever, and has had fascinating jobs in journalism, the arts and education. She didn’t meet my father until she was 37, leaving her plenty of time to date interesting but rackety men whom she held off committing to, instead creating her own community in a mansion block in London where most of her girlfriends also lived. They went to feminist meetings and pursued careers, and seemed to have all the time in the world.

As she got older, Mum decided that she might not meet the right man, but wasn’t much troubled by it. Then, when my father turned up, they had a six-month courtship and were married. I grew up knowing that she’d held off on marriage and a family – not because she didn’t want them, but because her life was filled with relationships that gave her so much more than one person could provide.

My mother would not be rushed into anything by the ticking of a biological clock. But unlike her, in my twenties I felt keenly aware of a need to find a partner. “Don’t wait!” whispered my fertility. “This is your prime!” shouted my unlined skin. Despite my mother’s evidence to the contrary, I found it unlikely that a man would want me aged 37. Indeed, the idea of tackling my own future as she had seemed like a huge risk.

And so I began the search. I dated without a break. I had disastrous love affairs with men who were not available to me and extended chances and forgiveness to people who neither asked for nor deserved them. None of them was to be the companion that I felt I needed. Then, at 28, I met someone who scooped me up and rushed me towards a future. Within three months we were living together and celebrating our engagement. I was stunned that I’d cracked it – without ever considering what “it” was. I gave little care as to whether this was the relationship I wanted, or if I was merely seeking any relationship.

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The wedding came and went. As did the marriage. In less than a year we were done – I had spectacularly tanked a marriage before I’d even hit 30. I had ignored the problems in our relationship, clung on with my fingertips, and still it was all for nothing. I felt I’d failed at the one thing I had aimed for. The fear that I’d be left on some proverbial dusty shelf had merely been put on hold. In the weeks after my husband walked out, I wondered many times how I could muster the strength to start anew.

And yet, it somehow offered up a reset button. Freed from any obligation to find a mate (there’s an unspoken rule that you get a year off dating after a disastrous marriage), I sought the advice of a therapist. For the first time in many years, I no longer needed anybody to stand next to me offering reassurance. I realised that, while my mother had spent her youth working on becoming a person who could offer up the onion-like layers that Carol Ann Duffy describes in her magnificent poem “Valentine”, I’d spent mine trying not to miss the marriage moment.

There have been millions of words written about the wonders and pitfalls of single life, but these testimonials often ignore an important distinction – the stark difference between being single and being alone. When Stevie Nicks was asked about being on her own, she gave one of the best answers I’ve ever heard. “People say, ‘But you’re alone.’ But I don’t feel alone. I feel very un-alone. I feel very sparkly and excited about everything.”

Without the societal pressure that previous generations were under to couple up, us single people no longer have to worry about having children out of wedlock or having sex without a ring on our finger. We are increasingly given the space to make true friends and to choose a path without having to compromise with a partner. That could feel daunting, but for me, the joy of choosing my own routine feels like a luxury to be savoured. I can stay up writing late into the night. I can book a holiday where I only lie by the pool. I can run all morning, if I choose. And I do.

More people remain single now than at any point in history, and there are nearly 2 million in the 30-to-34 age bracket. Some of this can be attributed to population growth and a lessening of the stigma surrounding divorce, but why else has this number steadily risen?