Sex & Relationships

Why Being Single Can Be Great for You -- And Your Future Relationships

In American culture, it's generally assumed that everybody wants to be married. But being single can be healthy and help you form better future relationships.

In American culture, it's generally assumed that everybody wants to be married, or to be in a long-term relationship. It's assumed that everybody should be hitched up, and that everybody would be better off that way. Oh, sure, if you've just broken up with someone, it's considered prudent to take a break between relationships. But it's generally thought that this break is just that -- a break. A temporary pause in the normal, correct state of affairs: the state of being in love. It's assumed that, once a decent interval has passed, of course you'll want to get back in the love game.

I was single for twelve years before my wife Ingrid and I fell in love. Very happily single. I am a huge fan of taking time to consider not just when to be coupled again and with whom, but whether to be coupled again. I am a huge fan of learning to be okay about being single: learning, not just to be okay with it, but to be actively happy about it. I am a huge fan of seeing our choices about romantic relationships include the choice, "None of the above." I'm not alone in this. According to

Dr. Marty Klein,

Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and Certified Sex Therapist (and author of

five books

on sexuality, as well as the

Sexual Intelligence

blog), the consensus in the therapeutic community is that taking time to be alone after a breakup is, if not essential, certainly very beneficial to making future relationships work.

 

But how does that work? How can I be an advocate, both for happy marriage,andfor happy bachelor/ bachelorette-hood? There are two basic things going on here. They're going to seem paradoxical, but they're really not. Paradox resolution is forthcoming, I promise. Thing One: Being single for so long was, in and of itself, awesome. Thing Two: Being single for so long has made my marriage stronger. Let's get to Thing One first. Being single for twelve years was one of the best experiences of my life. It taught me self-reliance. It taught me self-confidence. It taught me an immense amount about who I was. It taught me how to keep myself company. It taught me how to keep myself sane. And for most of those years, it was just plain fun. I did what I wanted to, when I wanted to do it. I went to the movies when I wanted. I hung out with my friends when I wanted. I went out to nightclubs or sex clubs or nerdy folk dances when I wanted. I let the dishes rot in the sink when I felt like it. (And I felt like it a lot.)

I fucked dozens of different women: casual personal-ad hookups, ongoing fuckbuddies who became genuine friends, women at sex clubs whose names I never knew. I never would have known how valuable and fun being single was if I hadn't thought to try it. As Dr. Charlie Glickman, AASECT Certified Sexuality Educator and Ph.D. in Adult Sexuality Education, said when I asked him about this, "I've always said that the only way to know for sure if something works for you is to try it on. Whether that's a shirt or a relationship, we can often make educated guesses but until we take it off the hanger and put it on, we don't really know for sure. I've spoken with a lot of people who thought that a particular sexual activity or relationship structure wouldn't work for them until they tried it." And obviously, we can't try out a relationship option -- including the "None" option -- unless we know it's both available and valid. You can't try on a shirt if you don't know it's on the rack... and you're a lot less likely to try on a shirt if your friends are all telling you it's ugly.

An important point to make here: For most of those twelve solo years, I wasn't just happily single. I was consciously and deliberately single. I wasn't single for twelve years out of bad luck or bad vibes or bad dating skills. I was single because I chose to be single. By the time I fell in love with Ingrid, I was beginning to be open to serious relationships...but for most of those twelve years, I actively resisted them. I made it clear to anyone I was dating, right at the outset, that dating me was not going to end with us walking down the aisle.

So why the hell did I get married? That brings us to Thing Two, and the apparent paradox. Yes, being single for so long was a completely valuable and fun experience for its own sake.

And at the same time: My marriage is stronger because of the years I spent on my own. Being single for twelve years laid the emotional foundation for my side of this marriage. A significant part of it, anyway. Some of that is because, when I was single, I did a whole lot of soul-searching. About love, and a bucketload of other stuff. Having room to just be myself for a few years gave me the chance to figure out some bad emotional habits... and to unlearn them. I learned how to sort out what I wanted and felt from what other people told me I should want and feel. I learned how to balance assertiveness and clarity with generosity and kindness -- or, as I put it to a friend recently, how to find the window between being a demanding, high-maintenance asshole and being a doormat. I learned why I kept being attracted to emotionally broken drug addicts... and I learned how not to be.

I learned how to find the sexiness and the intensity and the compelling sense of fascination and intrigue -- in sane, balanced, stable people. And without all that, I doubt that my relationship with Ingrid would have lasted six months -- much less thirteen years. But there's something else here: something more crucial, something that's right at the heart of this apparent paradox I keep talking about. Knowing that I can be happily single makes it easier to be happily married. My marriage is stronger because I see it as a real choice. I don't feel trapped into it, and it's not a default slot I fell into. It's a choice between genuinely competing options, with real plusses and minuses to each of them. I'm not with Ingrid because I'm afraid of being alone. I'm with Ingrid because I want to be with Ingrid. So when I'm feeling cranky about something that's less than perfect in our marriage -- a compromise we made about money that I'm not totally happy with, an evening when we're both tired and cranky and are snapping at each other, a party I promised to go to that I just don't feel like coping with -- the upsets aren't compounded by feeling trapped into them.

Remembering that this is my choice reminds why I made it -- and why I continue to make it. When I'm feeling happy about our marriage -- which is most of the time, by a significant margin -- that happiness is enhanced by the freedom with which we chose it. Our happiness isn't a slot we got slotted into and were lucky enough to fit. We chose it. We've worked our asses off for it. So it feels like ours. It belongs to us. But as passionate as I feel about this question of choice -- of making our own conscious decisions about our own damn relationships, and not letting ourselves get slotted into them by default -- I have to admit that things aren't always that simple. More choices don't always make us happier.Some research suggests that having too many choices can make us as unhappy as not having any. It can overwhelm us, paralyze us, make us anxious about whether our choices are right, make us blame ourselves when things don't work out, create a perpetual loop of second-guessing, raise our expectations to an impossible level. (Think about shopping for olive oil. If there's only one kind on the grocery store shelf, we don't much like that, especially if it's a kind we don't like... but if there are a hundred varieties, that can be just as frustrating.)

This is a point Dr. Klein was emphatic about. When I interviewed him about this question -- about default decisions in general, and about the specific default decision of being coupled over being single --- he pointed out that not everybody is as enamored of choice as I am. Personally, he also has a strong philosophical attachment to making his own free choices about his own life... but from a practical, clinical perspective, he recognizes that many people are happier, and better able to get on with their lives, when they let some of their decisions, big or small, be made by social consensus. And while Dr. Glickman is another fan of tailoring our relationships to fit instead of just buying them off the rack, he also acknowledges the challenges to this approach. "The more you move away from the default option," he says, "the harder it is to find role models, which can feel really unstable as well as making it more difficult because you might not think of a possible solution to the challenges you face." So I guess that's what I'm trying to do here. I'm not trying to make a new rule that everyone has to follow. I'm trying to be a role model for an option some people might not have considered. As much as the demanding, high-maintenance asshole in me would love to tell everyone to live their lives exactly like I do, I can't seriously argue that absolutely everybody should be single, and should try to be happy being single, for X amount of time before they get coupled again. I don't want to replace the old set of Thou Shalts with a new one. I'm just trying to say: Being single is an option.  It's a valid option: temporarily, or indefinitely. It's one that some people are genuinely happy with. I was, for close to twelve years. If you tend to feel trapped in relationships -- or if you get panicky and freaked-out when you're not in one -- it's an option you might consider. It's an option that might make you happy, simply because it's fun and valuable for its own sake. And it's an option that might do a world of good for any future relationships.

I'm not trying to say, "Thou Shalt."

I'm just trying to say, "Thou Might."

Read more of Greta Christina at her blog.