Ask Polly: What If I Never Find Love?

Photo: Don Johnston/Corbis

Dear Polly,

For the moment, I am fine. I keep busy, I have good friends, and my work is very fulfilling. Not being in a relationship at this exact moment is not a problem. The problem is the long-term, I guess. The problem is living in uncertainty. The problem is what if I never find love? Not just right now, but ever.

I know the stock responses to this — I’m young (mid-20s), life is a long thing, no one knows what the future may hold, just be patient, keep on believing, appreciate the love you have. And that’s all well and good, and I do deeply value the friends-and-family brand of love. But throughout my life, in weaker moments, the thought has plagued me that love — the romantic, life-partner brand — is not for me. I see friends marry, and think, “You are so lucky; not everyone gets this.” Because not everyone does, right? That’s just not how probability works. There have to be a few people, or maybe even more than a few, who are left out.

Part of the problem may be that I just can’t envision it. I can easily foresee a future filled with career successes, and I know how to work toward them, and I believe I can make them happen. But I can’t foresee myself married, or in a lifelong loving relationship. I know I shouldn’t need that to feel like my life is fulfilling, but I want it all the same. And you can’t hard-work your way into falling in love.

It is hard to find the right person. I get that there’s trial and error. I went on a date the other day, and it was fun and we had a good time, and he was cute. But later, I found myself struggling to remember it, like he was a rock that fell into the still pond of my life without making a ripple.

When I was younger, there was a time when I thought I was incapable of loving someone else like that. I know now that’s not true. It’s not that I think there’s necessarily no one out there for me — there are people in my life I think I would have been good with, had timing or distance been different. It’s not that I think I’m unlovable — my self-esteem is maybe too high, at times. And it’s not that I mind being single (as long as I know it’s not forever). I like traveling alone and eating takeout in bed and working on creative projects. I do the right things, I put myself out there, I go on online dates.

It’s just … what if? Love is not something you’re guaranteed or owed just for existing. How do I live with the real possibility that I may never find it? I want ripples.

Fine for Now

Dear FFN,

I spent almost two decades asking this question. I could never see any relationship as temporary. Every time I fell in love, I wanted to believe that it would work out. In retrospect, this looks absurd to me. I wanted a commitment from the unemployed stoner who stayed up all night watching the Tour de France. I wanted to marry the older hippie with anger issues who wore Hammer Pants out of the house. I wanted to stay forever linked to the depressed, neurotic loner who could be sent into a downward spiral just by ordering an undercooked egg.

But I hated Not Knowing. I could not calmly occupy an uncertain space. I wanted to work very hard and then cross the finish line. Not surprisingly, this was also my attitude toward career success. I wanted to accomplish a few Great Things, be proclaimed a TRUE GENIUS, and then rest, at long last. The point of all of the hard work was not the enjoyment of the work itself. The point was landing somewhere comfortable and never having to work so hard again.

Similarly, the point of all of the hard work I put into romantic relationships was not getting to know the person in question, allowing that person’s TRUE self to unfold and learning to accept and appreciate that self (but also being rational about incompatibilities that might spell doom for the relationship). I was much more focused on figuring it all out quickly, signing on the dotted line, making it official, shaking on it, clinking glasses, saying YOU ARE IT, FOREVER, so that I’d never have to be single or go through the taxing and soul-sucking process of finding love again. I wanted security and companionship forever and ever, amen.

As a writer, one of the most important things you have to learn is that the process of writing is pretty much ALL there is. Many writers talk about writing the way other people talk about exercise. We say we don’t like writing but we love HAVING WRITTEN something. But there’s a crisis point in every writer’s life when we ask, “How can I possibly do this difficult fucking thing every day? Why didn’t I become a brain surgeon or a train conductor or an entrepreneur instead? Why couldn’t I have chosen something USEFUL or NECESSARY? Instead, I signed up for a lifetime of solving brain puzzles every fucking day. WELL I’M TIRED OF THINKING! I WANT TO POUR CONCRETE OR FLIP BURGERS OR PLANT THINGS!”

As a writer, you get the most discouraged when you’re overly focused on the finish line. If you view writing as just something taxing to push out of your way each day, your writing often starts to suck or you can’t write at all. And then your piece is published or your book comes out, and nobody gives a shit. I know you think I’m just being negative and melodramatic when I write that, but every writer who read that sentence — even the very successful ones — is nodding in agreement. Books rarely make a splash that’s commensurate with the work that went into them. Even that rare author who’s had a book that DID make a splash has two or three books under her belt that didn’t do shit.

You have to love the process, because that’s all there is. You have to wake up and make your tea and sit down to a blank page and start writing, without knowing whether it’ll be a day when words flow freely or a day when words won’t cooperate. You have to savor the uncertainty of half-finished, barely formed thoughts and mind puzzles. In order to mature into a good writer, you have to commit to this uncertain way of life, and you have to savor it. If you don’t savor it, the finish line — getting a book published, having your work read by an audience — will feel disappointing and inadequate. It might even feel that way regardless.

Embracing uncertainty is a way of living in the moment. Instead of longing for safety and security, instead of looking at your current life as “temporary,” instead of imagining some finish line you’ll cross and then you’ll be loved, sometimes it actually helps to imagine that you will NEVER find love. Can you picture yourself alone in 20 years, and when you do that, what elements of the picture look bad? How could you adjust the picture to make it look less bleak? When I was 32 and wondered if I might miss my chance at that imaginary, restful state of “happily ever after,” I decided that owning a house and adopting a dog would help me to feel less like I was waiting around for love. And I was right about that: Working on the house or the yard gave me a feeling of satisfaction, and helped me to feel that I would have a good life even if nothing else worked out. I understood for the first time how a person could be all alone for a lifetime and still be perfectly happy.

So shifting your focus away from whether you’ll “win” the love lottery down the road is important. I understand why it has such a hold on you, and I empathize with that. Hell, my daughter is 8 and she ALREADY has all-consuming crushes. I wish I could keep her from wasting two decades of her life daydreaming about happily ever after the way I did. I wish I could save her from always seeing RIGHT NOW as inadequate, simply because the future is uncertain.

Living in the moment and accepting uncertainty is a pretty central challenge for most people, though, whether their idea of security takes the form of true love, or financial solvency, or the next big career achievement. If you only know how to live for the future, you never feel satisfied when the future actually arrives. Or you can’t tell that you’ve achieved anything. Or you don’t feel “in love” enough. Or you can’t value the brand-new things you bought with your money, because you don’t know how to think about anything that’s here and now. You only know how to think about tomorrow.

Being fixated on big uncertainties sometimes points to a more general inability to live in the moment. Being present is a skill. You have to practice it, and it doesn’t come easily for most of us. Meditation, yoga, reading, gardening, all of the above — don’t write these things off as the totally cliché activities of middle-aged women until you actually try them, and you slow down and work very hard to appreciate just breathing, just being alive.

You are a thinker, FFN. You’re a worrier. You believe that you can simply WORK HARDER and somehow that will solve the problem at hand and bring you peace. Peace rarely comes from fixating on the future, though. Peace might come from talking about this fear with patient, smart friends or with a therapist. But peace will not come from running in circles within your mind, trying to FIGURE OUT HOW TO FEEL ABOUT THIS. “How to Feel” is not a puzzle or a safe that needs to be cracked. Feelings just ARE.

And there are not “good” and “bad” feelings. Allowing yourself to feel so-called “bad” feelings is a way of accepting yourself and giving yourself room to breathe. If you push away your sadness or anger too much, you can end up pushing away happiness and satisfaction along with them.

Last night, after listening to me vent about a problem with a friend, my husband said, “I feel bad that you’re dedicating so much unnecessary energy to this stupid situation.” I understood that he was on my side, but I had to make it clear that as long as a lot of strong emotions were coming up for me, it didn’t matter if he or I thought the situation was stupid or that spending energy on it was unnecessary. Our emotions let us know where we are and what we need. “I don’t like wasting my time on this, either,” I said. “But there’s something in the mix here that matters to me a lot, or I wouldn’t be feeling so emotional about it. I have to allow space for this, and maybe I’ll learn something from it.” I think he may have fallen asleep by that point in the conversation, but it felt good to say it anyway.

Feeling haunted by a big question is okay. You can’t just shove it away sometimes. But it’s also true that sometimes, you can lean into that haunted feeling and just let it be. You can acknowledge “I feel worried about whether or not I’ll ever find love.” You can even take out a piece of paper and write in big letters: WILL I EVER FIND LOVE? WILL I BE ONE OF THE LUCKY ONES? HOW DO I KNOW? HOW CAN I TELL?

Then you can go about your life. You can keep living with these big, unnerving questions on your wall. You can work hard to look at those words and feel them and recognize how IMPORTANT it is to you, that you find someone to share your life with. You can pursue a life that feels right alone AND ALSO fully accept your desire to be truly in love, to feel ripples, to experience a lifelong love. You can be pragmatic and you can be a dreamer at the same time. These things are not in conflict with each other. You can work very hard AND you can give up completely. You can fight and you can surrender. There’s a feeling of transcendence that comes from embracing a question mark instead of trying to solve a problem. There is a feeling of release that comes from looking straight at the worst-case scenario and saying, “I could survive that. I am strong enough.”

The greatest minds and hearts are conflicted and inconsistent. Nail everything down — “THIS IS ME, THIS IS MY APPROACH, THIS WILL SERVE ME HENCEFORTH, WITHOUT FAIL” — and you shut yourself off from the wildness and beauty this world has to offer you. You can never cross a finish line. When you accept that, the here and now grows more vivid and exciting.

That doesn’t mean you’ll never have dark days. Dark days will teach you a lot. When something small vexes you, it’s a sign of what your soul is longing for.

So embrace the question mark. Draw a giant question mark on your wall, and fill it in with photos and little scribbled notes and drawings and pictures you cut out of magazines. You are living in the question mark.

Some people do get left out of love, as you mentioned. I feel sad for those people who want love very badly and never find it. But I don’t think that’s you, FFN. You’re already working hard to follow an open-hearted, patient path. You’re already trying to honor your feelings instead of letting your thoughts lead you in circles. Stay open and keep trying new things, and love will come. Don’t worry about ripples. You can’t remember that date either because you were thinking too hard when it was happening or you’ve been thinking too hard ever since. You don’t have to decide anything after one date. You can forget every detail, then remember later that you liked that guy, or that you didn’t. You can hang out again and follow your feelings wherever they lead. The future doesn’t hinge on each little ripple or lack thereof. Don’t let yourself draw any conclusions. Stay in the blurry unknown for a little longer. You’ll look back and feel proud of how strong you were. You’ll look back and see that you were more than just fine. You were glorious.

This won’t last that long. You will miss these days when they’re gone. Enjoy this time for as long as you possibly can.


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Ask Polly: What If I Never Find Love?