I am a 29-year-old woman about to begin a doctoral degree in a field that truly moves and inspires me. I am lucky to have a close inner circle of genuine friends and a larger social circle full of interesting and varied people. My family is warm, loving, enjoyably eccentric and supportive. I am healthy, smart, driven, and am told I'm attractive and entertaining. I am extremely satisfied with and grateful for the direction my life has moved in over the past few years. So please understand that when I refer to being alone, I realize that I am surrounded by a whole lot of valuable platonic love.
That said, here is my issue. In my late teens and early 20s, I had two meaningful romantic relationships. Both of them ended tragically; the first man died suddenly in an accident and the other had resurfacing memories of childhood sexual abuse, then descended into a downward spiral of alcohol and denial, and away from me. Both relationships and their aftermaths led to a lot of learning and a redirection of my life for which I am exceedingly grateful. However, close to five years later, as I approach 30, I'm realizing that I have been alone for quite a stretch now, have had no real prospects, and I'm starting to get a little worried. Were those two relationships in my early adulthood useful, but aberrant, romantic occurrences in a life that will mostly be lived alone?
A few months ago, the tragicomedy of how perpetual and expected my aloneness has become hit me right between the eyes while attending a family wedding. See, our place cards had been rubber-stamped with either a cartoon cow or fish to indicate what we were having for dinner, and guests were grouped on their place cards as couples, rather than as individuals. On my left, my father and his longtime girlfriend shared a place card stamped with a cow and a fish. To my right, my brother and his longtime girlfriend had two pink cows, stamped side by side. On and on around the table, little cows and fish, holding hands, dancing, gazing at each other, contemplating their futures. And the image on my own card -- a lone cow in the middle of a vast white space -- stared out at me in this lost way that inspired laughter in the moment and tears later on that night. It was then that I realized that at most family events over the course of my life, the only people who have been reliably alone have been my 55-year-old Aunt Zoey and me. She has been a Lone Cow for as long as I can remember, and it's important to note that her aloneness has not been by choice.
A few of my male friends (all in relationships) have offered their take on my situation. They say that they found me to be very attractive but simultaneously intimidating when we first met. They think I often attract men who have ego issues and are interested in "conquering me" to see if they can get the confident girl who has her shit together as a way of proving something to themselves. That theory doesn't seem to hold water when I consider the vastly different types and personalities of the men I've briefly dated, but at the very least, it's a kind way of saying, "It's them, not you."
So now my dating life consists of long stretches of nothingness interspersed with a parade of men who start out by being wowed by me, then pursue me ardently, then, as they get to know me more, lose interest and march right off the face of the earth. This is especially painful because I don't feel I'm pulling any punches or putting out a false front. It's as if the lack of skeletons in my closet and all the time I've spent figuring out who I really am has become a liability.
I guess I'm just asking if there's reason to be hopeful about a substantial future love life, or if really, the hard, but more truthful answer is that I just need to make peace with the possibility that I might stay alone. That I might just be one of those people for whom the romantic relationship thing doesn't pan out, to the confusion and consternation of all those who love me. That in the end, it might just be me, Aunt Zoey, and a few too many cats. Please, if I'm doing something wrong here, lay it on me.
The Lone Cow
Dear Lone Cow,
My prediction is that you are going to end up very, very happy, in a deep, complex and loving relationship that lasts a long time, but it is going to happen slowly, and if you succumb to impatience, the waiting may test you to the limits of despair. You are young; it may be hard for you to imagine how much life lies ahead, but believe me, there is a lot to come. So you have to concentrate on the process, and make sure that you are having a good time now. And you have to guard your heart.
A lifelong wish that we know may or may not be granted can be a haunting, threatening presence, always there to undermine our faith in the future, always threatening to verify our deepest suspicions of our own unworthiness. Or it can be something on which you build a happy life that does not depend on its being granted, but only on the continuing search for it. That, I think, is the key: to make sure that the search is its own reward, and that during the search you are protected from its ups and downs.
Take fishing, for instance. If it were just about catching one fish, there would be no fishermen. It wouldn't be worth it. But fishing, even though it is uncertain in its particulars, can be depended upon to be a fairly pleasant activity even if no fish are caught; it also can be depended upon to yield at least a few fish from time to time. Likewise, dating can be a pleasant activity even if, for a while, one candidate after another proves not to be the lifelong mate you seek.
I would suggest two things: Don't go out with any men who don't make you happy. Now, with fishing, or playing tennis, or finding a mate, a lot has to do with how you handle not catching anything, or hitting the ball in the net, or being rejected. The key for the long term is to avoid destroying yourself in retribution for your own small failures. In the case of love, I know how destructive it can be to want something so badly, to get your hopes up, to give yourself body and soul to someone and then to be disappointed, or to lose them to illness or death, or even to be intentionally abused or mistreated. It can ruin your appetite for fun.
Fun, nevertheless, I believe to be the key. Protect your heart for the long haul; don't be greedy or impatient; don't let yourself be enchanted; make a fortress around your feelings.
Now how, when the essence of love is surrender, can one find love if one is living in a fortress? Because once you build this fortress, you can step outside it and have adventures; you can take risks because you know you have a sanctuary you can run to in a storm.
The other thing is that the process must be enjoyable; you must ensure that it is. If you're going out with men solely to find one mate, then every time you don't find that one mate you have failed. In that way you can destroy yourself, and continually wound your heart. But if you go out with men to have fun, and make that a condition, then whether you find a mate or not you have not wasted your time, you have not wounded yourself. So I would make sure that you only go out with men who amuse you, who are kind to you, who represent an improvement in your life, with whom you feel happy in the moment.
If you make your own momentary happiness a prerequisite, then I think when you do find yourself alone, it will make sense to be alone. Because you will be able to look around you and see that your solitude is preferable to the company of an unpleasant man. And I would also take steps to increase your enjoyment of solitude, so that a fear of loneliness does not drive you to choose a mate before you've found the right one.
Eventually, because of the odds involved (which I think increase dramatically in grad school, what with all the smart, like-minded men around), and because you are such a treasure, you will eventually find yourself in that deep, lasting and long-wished-for relationship.
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Want more advice from Cary? Read yesterday's column.