How do I resolve this internal conflict?
December 9, 2015 8:10 AM   Subscribe

I am in my mid 30s and single (never been married). I have always enjoyed being single more than being in a relationship. I fact, the thought of married life fills me with dread and feels like a trap. But then I have times of feeling lonely and thinking that if I don't make an effort to meet a man and settle down soon, I will regret it one day.

I have never been in a relationship in my life where I didn't feel more need for space than I was getting. I always had to squash my periodic feelings of "uh get away from me". A lot of the time the relationship ending felt like a huge relief. In fact, through the courses of all my relationships, I had to fight the urge not to end it. I convinced myself that I was just commitment phobic or afraid of getting hurt so I resisted all my instincts and pushed on. I also wondered if the relationships felt as bad as they did because I wasn't with the right person.

I do get lonely while single and have moments where I wished I had someone. At the very same time, the married with kids life of my friends seems incredibly tedious to me. Just imagining myself in that sort of role near repulses me. I am much more drawn to life of having a good career, ability to travel whenever I want to or go out and smoke weed till 5am if I chose to.

Yet I can't help but worry that one day I will be single, lonely and 50, with major regrets of not having had a family. So I am trying to make a last ditch effort to meet someone through OLD, tinder etc but since my heart is not it, it feels like another full time job. Meeting someone naturally doesn't really work as I don't meet single people my age in my every day life.

I don't know what's the right to do for me. I am basically currently forcing myself to do something that I think my future self may want. Any words of wisdom? :/
posted by sabina_r to Human Relations (31 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
"Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then."
~Katharine Hepburn
There is a lot of space between utterly alone and married-with-kids.

Can you look a bit more closely at your prior relationships to isolate the circumstances where you felt constrained? It could be physical space, emotional intimacy, time alone/together, or some combo or even something else. But knowing that will help you figure out what you do want. And there's a good chance someone else wants that too.
posted by headnsouth at 8:18 AM on December 9, 2015 [8 favorites]

I am also in my mid-thirties, and this is me as well. I haven't solved this (here I am typing this, after all). But, my current suspicion is that I "just" need to find a significant other who feels similarly to me on this dimension. And then we can explore what a relationship looks like within that mutual context.

Of course, the relationship(?!), er, connection(?), would need to work along other dimensions and compatibilities and intimacies and chemistries and..., as per usual(?), etc., etc., etc.

Genuine connection through a mutuality of nuanced disconnection, or something.
posted by zeek321 at 8:20 AM on December 9, 2015 [6 favorites]

This isn't really an answer per se, but I'm a guy in my early 30s, and have had a very similar series of experiences. I've resigned myself to "if I meet someone who is down to accept me and my interests and hobbies without trying to change me into White Picket Fence Dad of the Year, maybe I'll date." Maybe that's selfish, but it's not like I'm trying to force myself on anyone -- I'm here, and if I find someone compatible, bully for us! I save very aggressively for retirement because I likely won't have the kids-to-help-provide-care options people with kids do, and will probably have to hire my own help, if I need any.

I suspect there's plenty of legit ways to be human. Most of them probably come with some flavor of road-not-taken regret, but, what can you do?

In keeping with witchen's response -- my high school best friend recently had a son with a woman he's been married to for 2 or 3 years, and dated since college. Their secret? He traveled ALL THE TIME in his 20s for work, so they both had a ton of space. I don't know details, but I know they decided together that he should spin down his travel and have kids -- no idea what that compromise was like, but it happened and he seems happy? I don't know.
posted by Alterscape at 8:23 AM on December 9, 2015 [4 favorites]

A good step would be to imagine your perfect relationship. What is that person like, what do you do together. Just imagine what would make you perfectly happy. Once you come to imagine the scenario that is right for you, then you know what that feels like, and you will know if someone you meet down the road makes you feel in that way. I hope that makes sense.
posted by catspajammies at 8:32 AM on December 9, 2015 [4 favorites]

If you do make it to 50, single and alone and wishing you had a family, you can go find a divorced or widowed partner that comes with a built-in family at that point. Or adopt with another single person. Or do surrogacy. Or find a young partner to bear children.
It's not a now or never thing, so do what makes you happy now and you can change your mind in the future and still probably get most of what you want then too.
posted by rmless at 8:33 AM on December 9, 2015 [6 favorites]

ok so 50 is not that old! i am nearing 50 and life is no more terrifying than it was 10 or 20 or 30 years ago. if you are happy now, i see no reason why you wouldn't also be happy at 50. (60 though? my god what will happen then? nooooo just kidding).

also, what everyone else is saying about relationships covering a huge spectrum. we don't have kids, and spend much of our waking lives doing different things in different places. i am not saying you should be like us, just trying to show that there are relationships with more "space" than others.
posted by andrewcooke at 8:39 AM on December 9, 2015 [8 favorites]

Wow, you sound like me! Whenever I start feeling this way, I stop and really make myself remember that feeling of needing space and how much it sucks to break up with someone nice.

When dating, I'm very upfront about my priorities early on: my career is important and takes a lot of my time, I'm very independent, need a lot of alone time, am not looking to shack up with anyone any time soon, really not thinking about kids.

I hear you on the fear of getting older without someone, but honestly when I start to parse it out, that fear comes from my parents, not me. Me, if I'm still single when I hit retirement--IF I ever hit retirement--I plan to start a retirement COOP/TIC called The Merry Spinsters because surely there are enough of us out there.
posted by smirkette at 8:43 AM on December 9, 2015 [4 favorites]

also, while i remember, and in support of the COOP/TIC above, my partner was out saturday evening at a meal with friends. out of 5 or 6 women there (all aged around 50) only one other was married. so in her age group, over half of her friends are now separated. there are a lot of single 50 year olds.
posted by andrewcooke at 8:50 AM on December 9, 2015

One thing I've decided lately is that I simply cannot make life decisions that make me unhappy in the moment in an attempt to placate an imaginary Future Me who might want something totally different than I do right now.

I mean, here I am, at age 34, trying to make my career and relationship happen while also figuring out my sexuality and fighting to make a life that is meaningful and rewarding, and it is really hard! I am doing my damn best! And it's totally possible that Future Me at age 50 will decide that all my priorities were fucked up and I should have been having babies who will care for me in my old age. But it's also possible that Future Me will be really glad that I fought to realize my ambitions and lived a more unconventional and interesting life. Similarly, it's possible that if I got married and had babies tomorrow, Future Me would be feel trapped and regretful at age 50 and feel as thought she'd let something really important slip through her fingers that she can't get back. I don't know! I have no way of knowing! Future Me is a mystery to me; she is not sending my postcards from 2030 telling me what to do now. So it would be crazy, I think, to make myself unhappy now in the hopes guessing what will make her happy later. I. Just. Don't. Know.

If, at age 50, I feel really lonely and I want marriage and kids and stability in my life, I hope that I fight really hard to go out and make that happen somehow, even if in a way that is slightly imperfect, instead of sitting around and blaming my past self for mistakes I made in my 30s - just as I'm trying really hard, now, to achieve the things I want, without complaining about how much easier this would all be if only 23-year-old Past Me had had a crystal ball and known exactly what would be important to her ten years later. She was trying hard, too, you know?

Commit to being kind to your past, present, and future selves. These aren't easy decisions. We're all just muddling through.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 8:51 AM on December 9, 2015 [47 favorites]

The relationships your friends have do not need to be the relationship you have. My oldest friend and her partner have a child and have never lived in the same house. Her partner comes for dinner every night and the child has a bedroom in both houses and is... wherever makes sense at that particular time.

Marriage is a legal contract not a social prescription.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:55 AM on December 9, 2015 [9 favorites]

52 here, and single and with several similarly single friends who all have different takes on this. I'm the outlier, because I do have two children, but I think at this stage in life what we agree is that it is good to be single. Those without children have close relations with nieces and nephews or godchildren. We can do what we like, spend our ressources (time and money) how we like, and like who we like.
If one has this temperament, where it seems more of a chore to live with a partner, then maybe traditional family life is just not comfortable. One friend tried moving into a co-housing set-up for a while, but regretted and moved back into her nice quiet apartment. We go on holiday together now and again.
We are all close with our families and have plenty of other close relationships.
posted by mumimor at 9:05 AM on December 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

My honey and I just celebrated 5 years together, and he expressed his happiness that we've managed to do it on our terms: no children, no marriage, no living together. Neither of us has ever been so happy in a relationship as we are now. We spend two or three nights a week together, the occasional beer after work on a weekday. Sometimes I refer to him as my weekend husband. Two years ago we decided we want to wear rings, so we've done that ever since.

Keep your mind and your options open. Not everyone wants to get on the relationship escalator. And sometimes you will find the things you want in a relationship aren't compatible with the current paradigm. As long as both of you can have your needs met, you CAN make this work! There's someone out there for you to be blissfully happy with. Good luck and <3!
posted by fiercecupcake at 9:17 AM on December 9, 2015 [10 favorites]

It is perfectly possible to have a serious committed relationship and not see each other every day, live together, have kids, get married, etc. The trouble is that many people will equate "not living in each other's pockets" as "not serious", so you will need to be quite upfront about this with whoever you meet and probably spent more time than you want explaining the situation to friends etc. Try looking for someone who hasn't got a lot of time to give, perhaps because of their job or hobby. Or someone who lives a long way away.
posted by intensitymultiply at 9:18 AM on December 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Another vote for some sort of longer-distance relationship or one with a workaholic etc. I'm 33, been dating the same guy since 2004. We lived together until 2009, which worked fine, but since then we've been long-distance (10-hour drive, different states) due to career reasons (long story). He works nonstop; I have low-level chronic health problems that make it hard for me to keep the same kinds of hours as him. We'll probably live together again someday, but I bought a house, he got an apartment that wouldn't allow our cats, and we both love our work and our space, and having our own time. We see each other when we can, and talk every day. It's weird compared to what 'most people' do, but it works great for us. Could work for you!
posted by dust.wind.dude at 9:38 AM on December 9, 2015

Yep, you can have your cake and eat it too! I see my cupcake once or twice a week and we don't even talk every day. Our finances and lives are largely separate, but we're there for each other when there's an emergency. We've created a long term, committed, and supportive relationship without meshing our lives. Bonus: this gives us more space and energy not just for ourselves, but for friends, family, and other lovers.
posted by congen at 10:03 AM on December 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

For someone who isn't well suited for marriage, the trade-off involved in not being married get BETTER with age, not worse.

It is no worse, and for most people easier, to be alone at 50 than 35. Being in a miserable marriage is incalculably worse at 50 than at 35. Much less hope that you can improve the relationship or find someone new and better. Children and grandchildren to share in the misery. Assets, debts, careers all a far bigger problem to deal with.
posted by MattD at 10:25 AM on December 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

When I found myself in a similar conflicted situation (although I couldn't bring myself to go on more than one date, go you) I tried therapy. My therapist pretty quickly helped me figure out why I was feeling so conflicted and what I really, truly wanted in a relationship. In my case it was that I wanted a primary relationship, but I was terrified of dating or being smothered. Therapy was great for working through what I wanted so that I could make it happen (and I love it - no kids, so much happiness doing what I want).
posted by ldthomps at 10:56 AM on December 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

At the very same time, the married with kids life of my friends seems incredibly tedious to me. Just imagining myself in that sort of role near repulses me. I am much more drawn to life of having a good career, ability to travel whenever I want to or go out and smoke weed till 5am if I chose to

I want to preface what I'm about to say by mentioning that being happy is a priority to me and finding things to be happy about, as well as actively reducing anxiety and fearful thoughts, is also something I do on a nearly hourly basis as a means of self care.

That being said, I want to say you're not exactly wrong but the bleak framing probably makes you feel worse than you need to and feel more internal tension over it than you need to.

Personally, I'm not convinced a lot of wives are very fulfilled by the marital relationship they're in. They're fulfilled by their kids and the love they feel, and nearly all women are socialized to give until it hurts, and are being stretched so thin from being expected to work full time while being a great mom and taking on the bulk of the second shift and being the director of the need a lot of energy for that especially if your partner turns out to be more selfish and unhelpful than he presented while you were dating him.

Of course, no one can accurately predict or tell you what will happen in your life or marriage. You have to make choices based on how risk averse you are. And for you to know that, you'd have to have a sense for how much happier you would be if you only had to take care of yourself (and honestly, that's a hard job! Married women do so much self sacrifice and giving and caring for others that they end up sacrificing their own health and wellness to a deleterious degree) versus forming a partnership with another person (whom you're investing in emotionally and financially) whose positive and negative future behavior you can only predict to a certain degree. (Because, seriously, no woman wants to be the wife in labor with her planned first baby while her beloved husband on his phone is surreptiously Tindering or watching porn or texting his secret boyfriend or some cop pretending to be an underaged girl to gather evidence (so they can bust your future husband the following week on this new edition of Dateline Predator that promised was forthcoming).
posted by discopolo at 11:02 AM on December 9, 2015 [8 favorites]

The thing is -- not to be a total downer -- but marrying at 36 so you are not alone when you are 50 is also not a great predictor of not being alone at 50. You could get divorced, your spouse could get hit by a truck. You can't really plan for the future when other humans are concerned. You just have to hope for the best. Get married and have a family because you REALLY WANT TO, not because you'd hedging your bets for a fictional future 20 years from now, you know?

I mean, don't get me wrong. I feel you. In many ways, I AM you. (Let me tell you, the best relationships I have had are with other workaholics; there really needs to be a dating app for workaholics. PLEASE COME AT ME, WORKAHOLICS. I also am a person who is just not interested in a relationship unless I am in mad crazy love with that person, and mad crazy love doesn't happen all that often, sadly. Looking for it totally feels like a job, and that really harshes the buzz.) But at a certain point, you have to just realize that you've ideally made the choices that are best for you to date, and hope that carries you into the future. People create their own families in all kinds of ways. I might get married, I might not. I might have kids, I probably won't have them biologically at this point )because it's getting too late, and that's sad, but also if I'd really REALLY wanted a biological child, I probably would have made it happen). But I also love my independence more and more the older I get. I love not having to get up at 6am with little kids, but I also really love my friends' kids, and my nieces and nephews. I get love from my friend group and my family and my siblings. There are many ways to not be alone in the world, which is very good news for everyone.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 12:18 PM on December 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Out of curiosity, do you look back on your 20-year-old self and berate her for decisions she's made that have led you to where you are? If not, do you imagine you'll change in that regard when you're 50 looking back on 30-year-old you? I know that I personally don't really look back on my past self with any great loathing for the decisions I've made. Some decisions didn't lead to good places, but others have, and nothing happens in a vacuum. I like where I am now, for the most part; if I'd made different decisions, I might not have all the good things I do have now.

The other thing to keep in mind is that you are not going to go to sleep at 30 and wake up at 50. Lots of things will happen in the intervening years. If you decide at 40 that you don't want to be single anymore and you want a family, you know, you can make that happen. If you decide that at 50, same thing. The way you go about it will be different, but you can always change your mind. Don't make yourself miserable now trying to predict where you'll be in 20 years. What if you try now to please 50-year-old you, get to 50 and you hate being married and you hate having kids? Doesn't that seem equally (if not more!) likely? And what if (god forbid) you die before you get to 50, and you've spent years trying to please some imagined future self instead of your present self?

I'm nothing like you personally (I love being in relationships, I love seeing my various partners daily and living with them and rarely feel like I'm seeing too much of them, it's the thing that feels most fulfilling in my life), but I totally respect that you prefer being alone. It's a difficult thing to accept, I think, because our culture is so focused on the relationship escalator being the Correct And Only Path, but you should listen to your gut.

Another thing to consider--it would be unfair to partner with someone who does want to see lots of you and live with you and have children with you. It's not what you want, and your heart wouldn't be in it. I would be very annoyed if someone tried to partner with me to please their future self but wasn't actually happy with the same level of contact and interest in children as I am. It would feel like they were with me under false pretenses.

If you do keep trying to date, follow the advice people above have given you and look for someone else who is a workaholic or lives far away or just wants to see you occasionally. Be honest about your ideal amount of contact (and how that continues to look into the future!) in your various online profiles, and let that sort people out for you.
posted by Illuminated Clocks at 12:32 PM on December 9, 2015 [4 favorites]

Hi, I'm a 44-year-old straight male who felt almost exactly the same as you when I was in my mid-30's. The difference now? I have no anxiety about it. I never wanted kids or felt strongly about marriage but I was worried I was sabotaging my future self. Now my future self lives in the present, looks at the parenting and marriages and divorces going on around me, and is happy I took no part in it.

Though my girlfriend does have kids, so my ratio of free time to time spent assisting in parental duties is not as good as I would prefer. But that's a compromise I'm willing to make for her.
posted by ejs at 3:42 PM on December 9, 2015

I'm like you only a bit older. I have felt overwhelmed in all my past relationships.

I did therapy and this is what it comes down to in my case: in intimate relationships I feel responsible for the wellbeing of my partner. I also tend not to assert my own needs. That's why relationships feel draining to me. The therapist and I worked on assertiveness and on setting proper boundaries with others.

I'm still ambivalent about whether or not I am capable of a live-in relationship. But at least, now, I have deeper insight into my ambivalence. And perhaps I have developed the skills so that the next time I meet someone I like, the relationship will feel more fulfilling.

Basically, therapy helped. If this is weighing on you, consider finding a good therapist.
posted by Milau at 4:40 PM on December 9, 2015

I'm single, late thirties. I figure if I get lonely later in life I can easily find a divorcée or widower. Statistically (apparently, I don't have any to cite) men are more likely to remarry. I have a friend in her 50s who is in a wonderful relationship with a guy she met a few years ago. She never wanted kids, he has kids but they are old enough that she's just a friend to them, no treading on toes by trying to parent them.

I also like the examples of people who maintain separate homes.
posted by kitten magic at 5:35 PM on December 9, 2015

But meant to say: do what makes you happy now. The future will take care of itself. This does not excuse one from sensible financial planning, but do not do something now just to make future you happy. Future you might not appreciate being locked in to something when life is full of awesome possibilities we don't know about yet.
posted by kitten magic at 5:41 PM on December 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

pretentious illiterate has it right: you can't shop for a future self that may or may not ever exist. If you've always not been interested in the white picket fence life, your odds are probably better than not that you won't suddenly decide you want it--and advertising yourself to white picket fence guys as wanting it right now when you don't is doing both of you a disservice. You don't want to trap yourself with a husband and kid when right now that makes you want to scream.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:46 PM on December 9, 2015

You have to be true to yourself and who you are. You can't force yourself to be someone you're not, to want something you don't. Even if you can handle that level of lying to yourself, it's not fair to the person you'd get in a relationship with, the kids you'd have together. It's one thing to live your own life in misery, but don't drag other people into it with you.

I have an ex who sounds a bit like you. She never made it more than about 2.5 - 3 years into a relationship. (Why I thought I would be different is another story.) We never lived together; we'd talk about doing committed things together and then she'd find a way to do something completely different. In the end, after I didn't take a lot of things that were hints about how much she didn't want to be in the relationship anymore, she broke up with me so that I could be happier. That she thought she was just meant to be single and shouldn't be in a relationship with anyone. A year later she was in another relationship, which is already over (it's been almost four years since she broke up with me).

My point in telling this story is not to get pity, I'm actually fine. But she was lying to herself all along about what she wanted, even when she thought she was being honest. You need to really do this work on yourself to figure out what it is you do and don't want. It doesn't have to be what everyone else has or seems to want - as others above have pointed out, there are lots of ways to do relationships that don't involve a high degree of enmeshment. But the main thing is to be as honest with yourself as you can be, and the you right now rather than a hypothetical you that you only imagine you will be in the future. That's a story, not reality. You may find therapy helpful for getting to the bottom of it, you may not. But I think you already do know what the right thing ISN'T for you, and that's what you're doing right now. So you have the permission of a stranger on the internet to stop, at least until you figure out what is.
posted by Athanassiel at 8:13 PM on December 9, 2015

I'm married, but never expected to be.

I don't know you or your specific situation well, but one piece of advice I believe is meaningful is that it's a bad idea to live according to hypothetical future regrets. There are real, present regrets you can avoid, and huge swaths of your future are far beyond your control.

Best to you!
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:03 PM on December 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think these same thoughts every day, so thanks for posting! My friend is meeting 3 men a week to hunt down The One. But to me, online dating feels incredibly contrived, unromantic, and high pressure. "Stage 1: we're strangers. Stage 2: we have decided to merge lives."

Don't get me wrong-- being in a good relationship is an incredibly cozy feeling. But rather than half-heartedly try to do something I feel deeply uncomfortable with, I've decided to engage life without fear (make art, try new experiences, stay out of the apt) and let my next partner show up on a leisurely timeline.

It helps that I'm deeply ambivalent about children.
posted by jessca84 at 12:21 AM on December 10, 2015

I'm in my early 40s. Otherwise a lot like you. I've realized I like being alone better than being in a relationship that isn't amazing. So I'll stay single until I meet someone superb. Not someone with whom it might work. Or someone with whom I'll see what happens. Maybe I'll always be single. That's ok.
posted by persona au gratin at 2:48 AM on December 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

thinking that if I don't make an effort to meet a man and settle down soon, I will regret it one day

Considering the amount of cultural pressure behind that very idea, it would be astounding if you didn't think it every now and then.

But just because you occasionally worry about a thing that you're endlessly reminded you should worry about doesn't mean it's actually worth dwelling on.

I'm 53, and I regret lots of decisions I made when I was younger. Does that mean my present existence is bad? Not at all! Life is great. Episodes of regret are just a natural consequence of having just the one life to live and only ever being able to understand it properly in hindsight. You'll have regrets regardless of which path you choose to take.

My best advice to you, speaking as a fifty-something to a thirty-something, is that regret is inevitable and completely acceptable. Don't let fear of future regrets divert you from staying true to who you are.
posted by flabdablet at 6:21 AM on December 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

You can totally build relationships that are meaningful and intimate and satisfying and don't require marriage, kids, white picket fences, or even living in the same place with your partner. Speaking from experience. You can have any relationship you can find someone to have it with. There are people who want every kind of relationship.

(Also speaking from experience as someone who's been married: it can be lovely as a sort of institution and security-feeling around a healthy relationship; but it's significantly more work to dismantle when and if the relationship becomes unhealthy. It's not a panacea, just a structure. It guarantees nothing about the relationship.)
posted by ead at 11:22 PM on December 10, 2015

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