Being single during a pandemic sucks, but here’s what it’s taught me
06.08.2020

Being single during a pandemic sucks, but here’s what it’s taught me

'Broad City', image by Jon Pack/Comedy Central
Words by Cait Emma Burke via Fashion Journal

All by myself.

Whichever way you look at it, being single during a pandemic isn’t exactly great. Heck, being single during 2020 isn’t great. The world’s going to hell in a handbasket, and it’s going to take all of my willpower not to ask someone on the first date what they think about late-stage capitalism, Black Lives Matter and global warming.

All that us single people really want right now is some physical touch, someone to share the cooking duties and watch shitty television with. But instead, we’re out here relentlessly providing all these things for ourselves, in the midst of a global crisis.

At the start of this year, or P.C. as I like to call it (pre-corona), I foolishly believed 2020 was going to be my year, romantically speaking. 2020 was new, futuristic-sounding and full of possibility, and I wanted to take a different approach to dating.

I’d had enough of dating apps, and like every worn-out, Tinder-weary 26-year-old is wont to do, I decided to take a self-imposed retirement from them. I knew – like many people know about themselves – that I was my own worst enemy when it came to virtual dating.

Instead of spending another year swiping perfectly lovely people into oblivion for wearing the wrong pair of shoes, I decided that for the duration of the year, I was going to conduct a social experiment. Instead of using dating apps, once a month, I would give my number out to someone I found attractive.

At a bar, a restaurant, a store, on the street, the post office – it didn’t matter, as long as the deed was done for real. The logic behind this was that over the years, I’d met and dated numerous people who were just great in real life, only to see them on a dating app years later and be met with the sinking realisation that I would have swiped right past them.

So here I was, forcing myself to do something I found utterly terrifying, all in the hope that it would stop me being such a judgemental, self-sabotaging piece of work.

I was three months into my little experiment when COVID-19 hit. Everyone who knew about my experiment (which was a lot of people – like a poor man’s Carrie Bradshaw, I wouldn’t shut up about it) asked me what I was going to do.

At first, I was adamant that post-lockdown, the number-handing-out exercise would continue. So what, I’d skip one month? I’d just hand out two the next month to make up for it. But I wasn’t aware then of the emotional turmoil, agonising hours of self-introspection and, eventually, the journey of (I can’t believe I’m saying this) self-discovery that months trapped indoors would lead me on.

Now, with one lockdown under my belt and the second lockdown in progress, I’ve had more time than ever before to navel-gaze about all things love, romance and dating, and also to literally gaze at my navel – aren’t belly buttons crazy? – so without further ado, here’s what I’ve learnt.

I learnt how to be alone. Really, really alone

Look, I won’t lie, like many people, lockdown round one was hellish for me. I’ve struggled with anxiety for most of my life, and spending so much time away from friends and family did something catastrophic to the wiring of my brain. Despite having amazing housemates (who are also my good friends), I became convinced that I was utterly alone.

I know I wasn’t alone in feeling like this (haha, get it), because COVID-19 has created an onslaught of mental health issues in Australia as people have struggled to adapt to social distancing guidelines, strict lockdowns and loss of employment.

But it was hard thinking about friends who were in relationships without feeling a twang of jealousy – I seriously doubted that they were feeling the same pangs of loneliness and primal yearning for human touch that us single people were.

Several tearful breakdowns on Zoom later, after the first few torturous weeks of lockdown had passed, I was struck with the realisation that I’d spent more time alone then I had maybe… ever? Being the extroverted Libra that I am, since I was a teenager I’ve packed my week full of activities, freelance work, parties, dinners and drinks, and it was rare for me to sit alone in my room and really contemplate what it was I wanted.

I was always going on a new date, obsessing over a crush, actively seeing someone or entangled in some god awful situationship. I never had room in my head to take a step back and really review my habits when it came to dating. But being alone, I’ve realised that I need to actively carve out more alone time in my regular life and spend less time dating.

I actually enjoy my own company, more than I ever have. Also, this is the first time since I was 12 or 13 that a romantic interest hasn’t been taking up a whole lotta space in my mind, and I gotta say, it feels great. 10/10, would recommend.

I’ve analysed my toxic dating habits and reassessed my ‘type’

It’s easy to blame the other person when things go wrong romantically (and yes, sometimes those assholes do deserve the blame), but eventually, you’ve got to look in your own backyard, so to speak. Why do I keep dating the same type of commitment-phobic person?

Could it be that I’m the actual commitment-phobe here, and by dating people who are so utterly unavailable, or just fundamentally incompatible with me, I am purposely sabotaging myself? Am I terrified of long-term relationships? Why do I care so much about what shoes someone wears? What even is a ‘type’ anyway, and why do I refuse to date outside of it?

This is just a small sample of the thoughts that I’ve sat with over the last few months. These are thoughts that, were life blasting forward at its regular pace, I fear I wouldn’t have taken the time to unpack.

In short, I’ve realised that my type is, like all types, sort of bullshit when it comes down to it. Having things in common is great and being attracted to someone is essential (obviously), but being so selective about the people I date is just narrow-minded, there are no two ways about it.

Just because a man has one earring, a skateboard and a devilish glint in his eye does not mean he’s of sound morale (something that many of us keep learning the hard way, as Tiny Hat Skate Life can attest to). So yes, I am a commitment-phobe, but, like lots of women, a lot of that comes down to self-confidence issues.

Once you’ve been burned a few too many times, your sense of self takes a bit of a beating, and as a result, you make questionable choices when it comes to dating. Which brings me nicely to my next lesson.

I’m finding a sense of self that’s not so reliant on external forces

Until they were taken away from me, I didn’t realise how much I relied on external sources for validation. Compliments from friends, being asked on dates, having meaningless flirtations with someone at a bar – all these things made me feel desirable and loved, and without knowing it, my sense of self had become all too reliant on what other people thought of me.

In the dating realm, caring too much about what the other person thinks can make you feel neurotic, elated, excited, anxious and rejected, sometimes all within the course of a week. It’s not sustainable to build your worth on the way the person you’re dating perceives you, but it’s a trap that can be hard to get out of once you’re in it.

Recognising that it’s an issue is, like most things in life, the first step. I realised that I spent so much time wondering what was going in the heads of the people I was dating, that I didn’t have that firm of a grip on what was going on in my own.

Recently, I read Untamed by Glennon Doyle, and there was a section that really brought home to me how terrible it is to spend your life searching for worth and validation from external sources. In the book, Glennon uses the example of a person getting lost in the forest. The most effective strategy you can use when lost, the strategy most likely to result in you being found, is to find a touch tree.

A touch tree is a memorable, strong, dependable tree that becomes the lost person’s home base. The lost person can go out into the woods as long as they return to their touch tree. Glennon traces her own ‘lostness’ back to attempting to make something outside of herself her touch tree – a job, a set of beliefs, approval, an identity, a romantic relationship.

Somewhere along the way, I lost my touch tree, but spending this time alone – truly alone – has allowed me to return to myself. My touch tree was there all along. It turns out, like every parched-looking house plant I’ve ever owned, I just wasn’t watering it enough.

I’m not defined by my relationship status and being single is nothing to be ashamed of

No, I’m not going to tell you that I found self-love and now being single is a walk in the park. It still sucks at times, particularly when we’re all feeling so desperate for human connection. Loving, and sometimes even liking yourself is a choice that you have to keep making again and again, every day for the rest of your bloody life. Kinda exhausting, huh?

But I’ve spent too long trying to distract myself, too long convincing myself that I need a relationship to be happy. Being single isn’t anything to be ashamed of, it’s just another fact about me, in the same way that my eye colour and height are facts about me. I don’t assign a value or meaning to either of them, so why have I spent so long assigning meaning to my relationship status?

The lessons I’ve learnt and the things I’ve come to understand about myself over the last few months don’t mean that being single is easy, and self-love and personal growth don’t suddenly make your desire for romance evaporate.

But there is romance to be found in so many facets of our lives, and choosing to sit with myself and start learning what it is I really need and want sure feels a lot like love.

This article originally appeared in Fashion Journal.