The Coach: The Joys Of Being Single
The romantic comedy is the sugary treat of cinema: instant gratification with minimal nutritional value. With their cookie-cutter plotlines – the will-they-won’t-they roller-coaster of romantic near misses followed by the satisfying high of that inevitable wedding scene – these stories get us every time.
What romcoms never talk about is what happens next. With divorce rates hovering around 50 per cent in many Western countries, the chance of the protagonists – or any couple, for that matter – staying together for more than a few years is no more likely than the fact they fell in love in the first place. Perhaps, when it comes to our romantic lives, modest expectations wouldn’t be such a bad thing?
Throughout our lifetime, we’ll shift between being coupled up and single more often than we care to admit, because, well, we’re fickle and keeping relationships going is hard. With that in mind, you’d think that society would have a higher tolerance for those who decide to sit the whole thing out. And yet we still place huge value on relationships and equate singledom with romantic failure.
But what if being single is a perfectly valuable end in itself?
Andrew, my client of more than four years, first came to see me for help with his career. After he’d secured the promotion he’d hoped for at the real-estate firm where he sold fancy apartments, he began to fret that didn’t have a nice girlfriend because that’s what every guy should want to have, isn’t it?
“When did you last date someone seriously?” I asked.
“About six years ago,” he said, looking slightly awkward. “But it only lasted about three months. I guess it was my longest relationship – if you can even call it that.”
In our sessions, it became clear that Andrew, despite his singledom, was actually living a great life. He shared a flat with his closest buddy from university, who was also happily unattached; he did his favourite sport, motocross, pretty much every weekend; and he had a tight circle of friends who looked out for each other as if they were a family. Plus, Andrew had a great and loving family, plus a sister he could talk to about anything.
“It is sometimes difficult to persuade well-meaning helpers that solitude can be as therapeutic as emotional support”
There was nothing really missing from Andrew’s life other than a social expectation he should be tied to a significant other. He sometimes had casual hook-ups through dating apps, but nobody he met really stuck beyond a few dates and, truth be told, it didn’t seem to really matter to him all that much, either. His real passion was his sport and, deep down, Andrew worried if he did have a partner, she may try and get between him and his precious motocross bike.
Over the years, I’ve run workshops on how to hold onto romantic relationships over time. One of the tasks I ask students is to list the benefits of being single compared to those of being romantically involved. What often surprises everyone is how similar in length their lists always are. For every “companionship” listed on the love list there is “freedom” on the single list. In fact, freedom, autonomy and more free time usually come out on top as the greatest benefits to life lived alone.
Yet for psychologists, our ability to form and hold onto a romantic relationship is seen as the gold standard of a life well lived. There’s an implication that something may be lacking for those of us who, either through chance or design, choose to be single.
This view isn’t at all helpful, argues psychoanalyst Dr Anthony Storr in his seminal book on single life, Solitude. “Man was not born for love alone,” he writes. “In a culture in which interpersonal relationships are generally considered to provide the answer to every form of distress, it is sometimes difficult to persuade well-meaning helpers that solitude can be as therapeutic as emotional support.”
In other words, a single life which has purpose and passion may be just as sustaining and meaningful as for any couple profoundly in love.
To emphasise his point, Dr Storr quotes the lives of artists, thinkers and scientists from the past who found huge satisfaction in their work, creativity and self-expression without the distraction of a partner.
I suggested to Andrew that he read Dr Storr’s book to help him appreciate how rich his life is already. He loved it. “It seems all of us are in relationships all the time,” he said when he handed it back to me. “It’s just that right now my significant other has two wheels, an engine and is usually covered in mud!”
Illustration by Ms Stefania Infante