Why is being single suddenly the worst thing in the world?
February 9, 2010 7:07 AM   Subscribe

After years of being perfectly happy when I'm single, I'm suddenly frantically desperately lonely. How do I fix this?

Me: 28, male, straight, living in a big East Coast city. My friends are awesome - a close-knit 20something tribe of varying lifestyles and viewpoints. My own career is absolutely fantastic - I'm very much in demand in my field, and I find my work very rewarding both financially and emotionally. My hobbies are progressing nicely. In short, I'm incredibly happy with basically everything in my life.

I've also been single for nearly my entire post-college life. Not exclusively - of the seven years since I graduated college, I've been seeing someone for a total of about 18 months, most recently a six-month relationship that crashed and burned two years ago. I date when I meet someone I find interesting; otherwise, I just... don't. I've never felt like my life was missing anything, or that I needed "someone" to make it complete. When my aunts would ask me when I'm going to "settle down" I'd just calmly tell them that I'm quite happy, thank you, and change the topic.

Sometime around this past fall, though, something snapped in me. Suddenly I'm miserable being single. Suddenly I wake up and look at the side of the bed I'm not on and it's an empty expanse. I recently took a trip to to England visit my brother, who's doing a semester abroad, and took a few days to travel Europe on my own. Instead of being perfectly happy with that, as I was during previous solo trips, I found myself aching to share the trip with Someone. I find myself green-eyed with envy for my friends who're in serious relationships, after years of being happy for them but not feeling like I needed to follow in their footsteps.

I feel incredibly, heart-achingly lonely now, and I really have no idea why. Sure, more and more of my friends are paired off, but that's not really a new thing - a lot of them were engaged within the first couple of years after graduation. I don't have any desire to settle down, I don't want kids or a house, but I want to share my whole life with my totally-hypothetical girlfriend. Desperately. I should also note that sex is certainly a part of this, but it's a relationship-focus: I don't just want to have sex, I want to have sex with someone I really really care about. I envy my friends not for getting laid, but for having a sexual relationship they can evolve and build on.

The question portion is simply this: What the fuck do I do with this new emotional state? It's awful and I hate it, and I'd really love to be content with my life like I used to be. Inasmuch as "Find a girlfriend" is the answer, desperation certainly isn't going to help me. Is this abruptly developing need normal? Is there something wrong with me? Is this a standard experience that I've just finally hit, and I need to just deal with it until I happen to run into the right girl to be happy with?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
people don't just run into someone. You have to find them.

It is normal to feel a void. Two is better than one.

You should start dating, but maybe in the mean time, you can get a pet.
posted by anniecat at 7:11 AM on February 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

The question portion is simply this: What the fuck do I do with this new emotional state? It's awful and I hate it, and I'd really love to be content with my life like I used to be. Inasmuch as "Find a girlfriend" is the answer, desperation certainly isn't going to help me. Is this abruptly developing need normal? Is there something wrong with me? Is this a standard experience that I've just finally hit, and I need to just deal with it until I happen to run into the right girl to be happy with?

Calm down. Deep breaths. Put up an OKCupid profile, and go on a few dates. It's okay to be single. It's okay to want a relationship, too. But you don't have to just wait to "run into the right girl." You can be a little proactive, too.

I realize this is jarring because clearly you self-identify in part with your own bachelorhood. But it's really okay to want a healthy, happy relationship, too--and it doesn't make you desperate. A lot of people (most?) feel the same way.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:12 AM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think this is a normal consequence of growing up. You're high-flying days of being a lad about town with an awesome job and cool hobbies are, in their way, just pastimes. There is, I think, a fundamental human desire to pair off and have children, to run in a pack. It doesn't make you an outlier.

Some people break free of this feeling and are happy to be solo for their entire lives or long periods. This may just be a phase for you.

But I doubt it.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:19 AM on February 9, 2010

Ugh, you're=your.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:19 AM on February 9, 2010

"Sometime around this past fall, though, something snapped in me."

Did you pass the age where your parents, older siblings, or other important person in your life got married, started a family, bought a house, or committed some other important "act of adulthood"? Often you have an age in your head that is unconsciously the age when you think you should be "grown up" in a particular fashion -- married, having kids, settled down, whatever.

When I was 27 I felt suddenly panic-inducingly old and behind on my life and couldn't figure out why ... until I realized my mom had me when she was 27 and I unconsciously thought at 27 I should have my life all the way put together. (Which of course my mother didn't when she was 27 either, but the subconscious is not a place of logic!)

A good friend of ours became absolutely DESPERATE to get married when he hit 28, finally realizing that 28 was when his father, who was in very poor health his whole life, had his first heart attack. Our friend is in excellent health, but he remembered what his dad was like before and after the heart attack, and he has never wanted his kids to grow up with a father whose health is too poor to parent, which is perfectly rational -- but his subconscious said, "So have a family before you're 28, problem solved!" He was not even dating and was suddenly miserable with being single, when he'd always been happy before.

So do you have a subconscious timeline? Or was there another triggering event? (Most confirmed bachelor friend got married, you always thought you'd be wed before him?) If you can identify something like that, it will be a lot easier to explain to your subconscious why it's being ridiculous, which (for me, anyway) always helps with the irrational panic/sadness/etc.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:25 AM on February 9, 2010 [10 favorites]

The short answer: this is completely normal.

I've seen this happen with a friend who's about your age. She has loads of guy and girl friends, goes out every night for frisbee or pub crawls or grading sessions (she's a TA), lives in an apartment with two or three other girls where they host all sorts of parties, blah blah blah. She complains nearly every day about how she's the only single person she knows and various friends are getting married -- "Two on Memorial Day weekend ALONE!" -- but she doesn't have that longing that you've described. I've tried to casually set her up a couple times, and it's like she doesn't really notice the guy in a way that differs from her normal routine. She's not ready.

The same goes for the last guy I dated (as opposed to "lived with"). I think he was on pretty much the same trajectory, and when we got together he was really glad to finally have a girlfriend, not just some female fuckbuddy or a person you call when you want to go to the movies. But his house was still full of metal lathes on the kitchen table, a bedroom used as storage for laundry and hunting gear, a couch rescued from his old dorm, the works -- and any suggestion to make the place more comfortable was anathema. He's now dating someone else, so who knows if that still holds.

You get to the point where you want to be with someone else, and you let yourself be open to it. You show that you're willing to compromise in ways that don't compromise yourself: making room for your partner's things in your home, taking time to show that you're interested in the things other people can offer that you wouldn't otherwise be drawn to, sharing parts of yourself that are important to you, trying new things because it could bring you closer to someone.

It's all about priorities. Yours have just changed. Congratulations :)
posted by Madamina at 7:31 AM on February 9, 2010 [4 favorites]

First of all, I really, really identify with and empathize with your question. So if your question is whether you're "normal" -- well, either you're normal, or you and I are both abnormal.

Anyway, this struck me as a statement that was out of place but revealing in its attempt to be self-assured:

I've never felt like my life was missing anything, or that I needed "someone" to make it complete.

That's a bit unconvincing in light of your post as a whole. It seems that you're aware of this contradiction. But I have the sense that you feel that your current state is the objectively wrong one, and it was objectively better before when you felt fine being single.

It seems like you've subscribed to, and become deeply invested in, the conventional advice that's often giving to single people: "Focus on developing your hobbies and interests. Don't try to look for a girlfriend, just make friends with lots of people. Don't feel that you 'need' someone or that there's any void in your life without a girlfriend." There is a lot of well-intentioned truth in this kind of advice. But if you take it as a set of absolute rules or gospel, you run the risk of not being honest about yourself about your feelings.

"Developing hobbies, friendships, etc." -- of course, that's great. It's worth doing whether or not you want a girlfriend. (To be clear, I'm not quoting anyone in particular here, but I'm using quotes to indicate the standard advice.)

"Don't be looking for a relationship," "don't feel that you 'need' someone"? Well ... if that happens to describe how you feel, then that's fine. But I think it's unfortunate if the message being sent to people is that a single person must feel like that at all times or else there's something wrong with them.

Look, I'm also a 28-year-old, East-coast, single, straight male with a good career and hobbies and friends. As I said, I empathize with you. At times when I've been single (like now), I've had the feelings of "I don't need anyone else, I'm happy to do what I want, however I want to do it." But I've also had some of the more negative feelings you describe -- loneliness, a feeling of wanting and even needing someone, etc. You know what I think about it? None of these feelings are right or wrong; they're just how you feel. You can find lots of AskMetafilter threads telling single people they shouldn't "need" a significant other. Um, why? Face it: most people either have girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse or would like to. People do need each other. "Need" isn't necessarily bad. As you said, if "need" turns into acting weird or creepy or withdrawn or desperate, obviously that would be bad. But it's OK to want someone, and even to want to need someone. Someone you can have sex with? Sure, but not in order to have lots of sex. Not just someone you kiss and have sex with, but someone you have other good times with, and share your feelings and your life with.

Again, if these feelings aren't "normal," then I'm afraid you and I are abnormal. But I don't think this is abnormal. I think it's pretty common and human. It is fine to feel what you're feeling, at least for now. You don't want to stay in this rut forever, of course, and I don't know whether the answer for you will be more along the lines of staying single or getting into a long-term relationship or what. But to be clear: if you've decided that even after getting into a really good place in your life overall (hobbies, friends, career, etc.), you're still quite unhappy about not having a girlfriend, well ... try to get a girlfriend! Go on a dating site or whatever you feel comfortable with. I personally like dating sites; not everyone does. If you can get what you want through different means, then that's fine. But I don't think it's fine to simply not pursue what you want because of some supposed principle that these things should just "happen" effortlessly. If you've decided you want something, go for it. Meet some new women; go on some low-pressure dates (always being cool, laid-back, honest, and respectful, of course). The chances of any first date leading to something serious are low; therefore, going on many of them will increase the chances of something serious developing. Do this, if you want to.

Feel free to mefimail or email me if you'd like to talk further, and good luck.
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:45 AM on February 9, 2010 [17 favorites]

Without assigning cause or effect, this is a change in brain chemicals. Your mental cocktail is shifting, and that can be overwhelming. Love and lust and longing and relationships are all intertwined with the very physical ways our brains and bodies work, the link of chemistry and emotion. Maybe it's biologic and normal, like puberty and menopause, just a changing of operations to a "time to pair off" mentality. The "baby clock" that some women feel is partly hormonal in nature. Consider how you're feeling in other aspects of your life: if your brain chemicals are tweaked in other ways (depression, stress), maybe that's accidentally hitting your "time to nest" button. Despite the fact that you say that your life is going fantastically well and you're perfectly happy except for being miserably lonely, I bring this up - mostly because depression is a very recognized example of physical chemical signals having huge effects on your emotional state. I don't know what this would mean you should do, it's just a new way to look at the situation.
posted by aimedwander at 8:16 AM on February 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

Totally normal.

Great friends - check.
Successful career - check.
Fun city - check.
What's next? What is the next thing I can make awesome? Relationship.

When you're putting lots of energy toward your career or new friendships, you don't have a lot of spare energy for a relationship. Now that you've got lots of stuff in place, you feel the absence of a relationship more keenly.

What to do? Start looking for a relationship. You don't need to feel desperate, but you do need to start putting some effort toward meeting some women.
posted by 26.2 at 8:27 AM on February 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

I second putting up a profile on OKCupid, and going on some of those dates, but not primarily as a way to meet the person who's going to make you feel whole.

I suggest, rather, that you use it in the way I did when I was dealing with feelings similar to yours: as a catalyst to changing your dating behavior. When you've got that feeling of loneliness (the one where you feel like your bed's half empty and your sofa's too wide), if you're not making a point of putting yourself out there to meet people, you can get really wrapped up in thinking "I need this to happen NOW NOW NOW." But, if you use a dating website, every time that feeling becomes unbearable you can make a burst of effort, go on a few dates, and, as you meet various people who (as it's immediately obvious) aren't right for you, realize that you aren't as desperate as you felt a few hours before.

I find that the process of online dating has been excellent for me as a reminder of how I actually like to meet people, and that every time I make a burst of effort there, it helps inspire me to change my life so that I'll be meeting people and making more of an effort in real life to let my friends know that I'm looking, and to express my interest in people that, in my funk, I might just assume weren't into me.

And, of course, if you do like someone you go on a date with, you can do it again, which is a small step toward alleviating that need.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:15 AM on February 9, 2010 [5 favorites]

Dating, yeah, be open to that. But hold it gently. Don't hang your entire happiness on your relationship status or you'll be more likely to be miserable or to rush into something unhealthy.

Okay, good news is that you don't have to be married to have the kind of love in your life that truly satisfies. You have your life together, good job, good skills, good friends. You sound like a great person. So now find a way to submit all these great gifts in service to others. Volunteer, share yourself, find a way to build relationships with people you want absolutely nothing from in return. Step out of your comfort zone to help others build one for themselves.

This is, essentially, the heart of any good marriage. Love that focuses totally on the happiness of the other at the expense of one's self. Paradoxically, that's the way to your own happiness. Don't seek your own happiness.

A wife and kids are a good built-in way to make that kind of love a daily staple. But you can get started even with one person in your bed.
posted by cross_impact at 10:50 AM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Define some characteristics of someone you want to date, like "must be educated, must love dogs, nice if she likes camping, since I love it." You have a network of friends and family. Make it known that you are interested in dating, and give the general outline of requirements. There's a chance the right woman is one friend away. If not, use one or more of the many terrific dating sites. The choice of the person you marry has a huge effect on your life, and it's quite possible you're ready to make a big commitment. You're too young to seem desperate, and looking for what you want is the best way to get it, so go forth and seek.
posted by theora55 at 1:10 PM on February 9, 2010

Totally agree with 26.2 (and I like Eyebrows McGee's theory). Also, it sounds like you want intimacy - the feeling of knowing someone and being known by that someone (along with sexual intimacy). I bet you'll have it within 6 months.
posted by foxjacket at 4:33 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Speaking from my own experience, there isn't anything you can do to change this feeling, you can only drown it out with a constant slate of activities. If you are lucky, you will eventually find someone.
posted by Foam Pants at 7:04 PM on February 9, 2010

I'm going to quote two of Dan Savage's excellent aphorisms, though I'm not sure how helpful they'll be:

-- All relationships fail.. until one doesn't.
-- Lots of successful, happy, long-term relationships (including Mr Savage's marriage) began as seedy one-night-stands.

(I listened to his entire back-catalog of Savage Love Podcasts recently, the last time I was single. I like to think they helped me find my current happiness.)

Other than that, my sympathy. I've been there.

If you do date casually, no matter how much you like the girl, try try try to put your desire for close, long-term emotional intimacy out of your mind. If it develops naturally, yahtzee. If not, hopefully less disappointment. I'm not saying to lower your expectations at large (you will find someone), but lower your expectations of each individual proto-relationship. Does that make any sense?
posted by supercres at 8:37 PM on February 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

OkCupid is how I found my wife, so obviously I highly recommend it too. One strong advantage of online dating is you're putting first and foremost that you are meeting these people for romantic motives. If you just meet people in the wild, they could have all kinds of motives including platonic friendship. Even though my wife is also my best friend, I think it's important that when we first met, we were on a date.
posted by Deathalicious at 11:26 PM on February 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

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