‘Are you, like, afraid of being single or something?’ a close friend asked me five years ago, right as I was falling in love (again!) in the wake of a messy breakup. The evidence she presented was damning: I hadn’t been single for a day since she’d known me, and she’d known me my entire life. I shrugged it off, but the comment lodged itself into the depths of my mind, occasionally reaching the surface whenever my insecurity over never having been single felt pricked.
While romantic love is the pinnacle of modern-day self-actualisation, the contrary sentiment is also at large; being single for an elongated but conveniently undisclosed period is seen to be crucial to personal growth. This myth of the “single enlightenment” affects me directly. Because if true, then the hours of therapy, journal reflections, and the personal development points I have accumulated all count for nothing.
Is it true, then? Are romantic relationships the antithesis of personal growth? Will I, when I turn 40 one fine day, realise all my issues boil down to this singular fact? Do I need to break up with my partner to ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ my way through ‘finding myself?’
But because that jump seems a little premature, I figured I’d dial back and ask myself what personal growth means. While I can give pointers heavily borrowed from a pop-psychology listicle, a significant marker for me has been becoming comfortable with who I am; flaws and all. The road to this comfort is via spending time with myself rather than whiling it away in someone’s company. It follows that being single, by my logic, must be the only way to grow, right? How else do you maximise your time alone?
That’s not been my experience. Instead, being in love repeatedly has made it easier for me to be truly alone with my scary, sometimes overwhelming thoughts — probably because of how jarring it can be to spend time alone when you’re single in today’s economy.
“I’m 26, and I feel like I have done nothing,” one of my most talented friends tells me. “I’ve failed at life,” they add because they haven’t found any luck in romance yet. Owing to the familial pressure of settling down or the gall of romantic comedies with their happily-ever-afters, being single can feel like a failure, alone time, a burden. When you don’t have someone to do mindless chores with, the idea of spending even more time in just your own company for a speck of self-discovery sounds less appealing than all those chores combined.
Growing up surrounded by romantic love somehow unintentionally made alone time feel less lonely and more productive. I’ve learned that carving out time alone is not a factor of having that time, but rather a willingness to use it to sit with yourself without distractions and without your earphones blaring some podcasts in your ears. I filled my hours with tapping into my interests without feeling like I was taking away time from my quest of finding ‘The One.’ Because I always had the option to live life alongside someone else, I wasn’t afraid of experiencing life by myself too.
Over time, I learned what things I liked doing better in my own company. Some of my favourite activities today are those that only require the participation of one — reading, listening to indie music till my ears bleed, petting dogs, and tasting funky wines. And while I’m perfectly fine doing these by myself, it’s a different genre of fun when my partner joins in. Neither is superior to the other.
I can’t help but wonder then: is it impossible to tap into what people miss most about being single while in a relationship? And isn’t a healthy relationship one that provides us with the space to be as authentically in tune with ourselves as possible? And could the learnings associated with being single have more to do with the single mindset rather than the actual tag? Spending time alone, immersed in either my thoughts or the niche activities I enjoy, is my rebellion to the norm that you can’t have it all and a continuous owning of my sense of individuality. All of this helps me grow into a version of myself I’ll, hopefully, like when I’m 40.
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As we speak, you may have diagnosed me with a pathological fear of being alone. And maybe, for younger me, that is partly true. But what’s also true is that being in love has made me appreciate being alone more than really being alone might have. It has also revealed that I'll be okay if I find myself on the other side one day. But while I’m here, laying on the couch on a Saturday afternoon, so consumed by a book that I don’t look up to check my phone, is me reaching for that single enlightenment — all while being blissfully in love.
Delhi-based Nona Uppal writes on love and relationships. She is on Instagram @nonauppal