I can remember the moment I realized my brain was addicted to the idea of relationships. I was 24, fresh off the heels of a horrible ghosting, and I had absolutely no desire to be in any sort of relationship (I mean, duh, who wants to “put themselves out there” after being vulnerable with another human only to find out they blocked your number?). Swiping through dating apps made my brain melt and the very idea of going on a date made me uneasy.
And yet, I couldn’t stop wondering, “What’s next? Who’s next?” I was utterly fixated.
And then it hit me: I was passively anticipating another relationship to come along. I didn’t even want a relationship and yet, here was this silent, ever-present expectation of “the next one” genuinely driving me wild. The dissonance and legitimate fight between my actual desires and this expectation was palpable and painful.
I’ve now been single for several months — not that long, I know, but it’s the longest I’ve been intentionally single in my adult life. I’ve found myself questioning almost everything the past year or two. My Judaism, my job, where I live, who I am… you know, all those really huge, takes-a-lifetime-to-answer questions. Maybe it’s that I’ve been a post-college “adult” for four years, I’ve lived far from home for three years, I’ve had two full-time jobs… It’s a common point to “question everything” because now I have a sense of the adult world and have just enough experience to know what I want — or at least, what I don’t want.
And I’ve come to realize on the “Don’t Want” list is the expectation of another relationship.
Let’s zoom out a little bit. I have always found the idea of expecting to eventually marry someone unreasonable. Since childhood, I have never understood how people can assume they’ll get married. It’s such a huge thing, so impossible to predict, that merely expecting it to “just happen” boggles my mind. I can understand that in a religious context, marriage is literally expected, but that’s never been part of my Judaism. And yet! I’ve found myself battling the expectation of a relationship.
More specifically, I’ve battled the idea that the next relationship will eventually be “the big one” — one that lasts for years, maybe ends in marriage, maybe ends in lifelong partnership, maybe just ends but is “big” nonetheless.
But then I asked myself: Why am I committed to this expectation? In the Western world, and specifically in Judaism, we’re inundated with the expectation of marriage from our first waking moments. We’re handed the narrative of growing up, falling in love, and getting married whether we want it or not. And when you throw religion in the mix, the expectations get even higher, with marriage being a holy commitment to both God and your partner, and by far the norm in the Jewish community. But when I strip away the marriage and relationship messaging that has surrounded me all my life, I find it hard to grasp onto the belief in marriage without knowing the person I’m theoretically doing this with.
I started to wonder why I wasn’t spending my energy on any other aspect of my life — friends, work, the life I want to lead — and free myself of this suffocating thought pattern, When the thought first struck me, I really only cared about further cultivating my friendships. As someone who almost exclusively reserves socializing for weekends, I wanted to fill my free time with friends rather than waiting around for a random date to crop up and take up my time. Choosing how to spend your time is a relatively easy choice to make.
The harder work was changing the thinking. I soon started questioning myself every time the thoughts reemerged. Why am I feeling pulled to swipe through apps right now? Am I bored? Do I actually want to spend time talking to a stranger and potentially going on a date? Spelling it out really helped bring clarity. Sometimes the answer was “yes” to the latter, but most of the time, my boredom partnered with my brain to urge me into swiping despite my genuine disinterest in doing so.
I’ve found that immediately stopping and questioning the thought really helped to break the pattern (great for changing any unproductive thought pattern, in fact). I got myself to question the impulse before acting on it, and eventually, my brain got the message. I felt the weight of the relationship expectation slowly dropping off.
And then, well, *gestures vaguely*. The pandemic has both heightened my awareness of my singledom in some ways — seeing couples quarantine together and you know, all that couple-y content we’re all seeing on Instagram — but also completely diminished it. I decided to shack up with my family in New York instead of being alone in my studio apartment for who knows how long, so not only is dating unsafe right now, but it’s also essentially impossible given that I am not in my home city (and I blush at the thought of a Zoom date with my parents on the other side of the door).
On the other hand, it’s made me consider how nice it would be to have a partner in times like these, a reliable buddy with whom to face it all. I vascillate on whether that concept is more fantasy or based in reality (probably a bit of both).
I did reactivate Hinge, mostly out of curiosity as to whether the pandemic has changed how people act on apps. There is a certain level of vulnerability that people are suddenly warming up to in the face of it all, actually owning if they’re having a tough day or sharing what they’re worried about, and I wondered if that applied to dating apps, too. Spoiler alert, I haven’t been responsive enough to find out — it’s really hard to feel invested when you have no idea when you’ll be able to meet — but I haven’t chucked my phone across the room in frustration yet, so? Perhaps a tiny half win.
To be clear, I’m not above or “over” relationships. Not at all. But the heavy weight of endlessly expecting them does not serve me. It only confuses me, causes a lot of anxiety and disappointment, and still ends with me being alone. The way I see it, I can be alone and frustrated by the burden of this expectation, or I can be alone and fulfilled, free of the expectation.
I expect that this is something I will be working on for most of my life, since it took all of my life up until 24 to even recognize this thought pattern. But the more effort I put into it, the freer I feel. I recognize and embrace the perks of the single life rather than mourning what I’m “missing.” And I can be open to new partners without the pressure of fitting them into a narrative I never really believed in anyway.
Header image by J_art/Getty Images.