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Ask Polly: I’m Pretending I’m Happy Single, But I’m Not!

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Dear Polly,

I am in the midst of a major personal reckoning. Having dated relatively unsuccessfully (and increasingly desperately) for the last 15 years, I recently woke up to the disorienting realization that my life is passing me by. Like many women, I really believed that if I diligently put on mascara and put myself out there and opened my heart, that elusive Mr. Right would come along. Why wouldn’t he? I am as smart, attractive, and self-aware as the next gal. People get married and live happily ever after every day — I just assumed my time would come.

But 4,000 first dates and countless directionless relationships later, I am still in the same holding pattern, waiting for my “real life” to begin. I am still lonely, defiantly eating dinner alone at the bar (for the third night this week) but secretly terrified that pasta-for-one will be on the menu for the rest of my life. I still look longingly at real-estate ads, feeling that 35-year-old itch to settle down but recognizing that I’m too afraid to go forward alone. I still grumble bitterly when I have to move out of the way of some happy couple on the sidewalk, or when I just feel too exhausted from a long workday to carry the groceries to my fifth-floor walk-up apartment all by myself.

I have done enough therapy and read enough advice columns to understand that I need to be truly at peace with my single life before I can find happiness with someone else, and I have worked patiently toward this goal. And, truth be told, I am ferociously independent in many ways: I’ve built a solid career in an industry that’s notoriously difficult to break into. I exercise. I clean my apartment. I water my fucking plants. I try to “re-frame my spinsterhood” by doing things like getting manicures anytime I want or flying to Thailand on a whim.

I really do try to love my life, and sometimes I manage to succeed. But Polly, it’s such a constant struggle to actually enjoy being alone. I used to have many friends to share things with, but they’ve slowly all gotten married and had children who are now, understandably, the focus of their lives. These married friends live in different, seemingly self-satisfied worlds of suburbs and breast pumps and husbands who help them carry groceries. They hang out with other couples, with whom they presumably have more in common, and I rarely hear from them these days. (When I do, I admit that I am too prideful to tell them anything is wrong or that I need their help.)

So that’s the razor’s edge on which I find myself walking every day: I have to look happy, take my lumps with grace, and somehow stumble my way into Happy Spinsterhood. Even — and maybe especially — when I feel like pulling my hair out and screaming that it’s not fair. I can’t help but feel terribly resentful that, on top of the terrible injustice of being the odd one out, the person who never gets to experience love, I also have the added burden of having to fake graceful acceptance.

Polly, I don’t know how to move forward. I feel like I am already doing everything I can possibly do. I so badly want a partner to share things with, to lean on, to raise children with and help me take on all the wonderful and hard and lovely things about the world. But more than anything, if that’s not in the cards for me, I just want to be able to embrace singlehood and stop feeling so much deep, unspeakable grief. How do people ever get over the pain of a life spent alone?

Unhappy Spinster

Dear Unhappy Spinster,

Faking graceful acceptance is good for some specific occasions: your mother’s wedding to a man you can’t stand. Your friend’s kid’s interminable birthday party, endured while PMS-ing, and therefore an experience akin to being flayed alive. But you can’t fake graceful acceptance all the time. You can’t expect to have resting Graceful Acceptance Face everywhere you go. Trust me when I tell you this: Faking Graceful Acceptance forever will crush your soul and block the path to your dreams. It’s bad for your state of mind. It’s bad for your hair and nails. It renders food tasteless. It renders a great pair of pants ill-fitting and a beautiful day oppressive and unbearable.

Stop faking happiness. Be a malevolent spinster tornado instead, one that’s spilling over with rage and frustration. Write angry poems with names like Your Third Wheel Is Flat and Witches’ Brew and Biological Clockwork Orange. Read books about people who are single and really fucking pissed off about it. Somehow most people who write books about celebrating the lives of single women seem to secure long-term partners before their books even hit the shelves. Which is nice for them! But I want to read a book that’s not about celebrating solitude or even embracing graceful acceptance, a book that’s not written from some afterglow of coupledom. I want to read a book about being single that’s pissy and indignant and funny and despairing. Bridget Jones, but industrious and pushy and unresolved.

Because life is always unresolved. Even those smug couples have a million and one unresolved, unaddressed troubles and challenges. You have to be where you are and be who you are. Right now, you’re someone who’s angry and depressed and panicking. Your day-to-day life is experienced through the haze of what you don’t have: You see groceries that someone else should be carrying up the stairs. You see an apartment that someone else should live in with you. You see not enough space on the sidewalk. I would argue that this filter is a result of your feigned nonchalance. By pretending that you don’t care about not having a partner, you are constantly imagining yourself in conjunction with the ghost of a partner. Your identity is being formed around a false emotional state and a partner-shaped void.

As long as you live that way, you’ll be roiling inside. You’ll feel robbed of the big suburban house and two children and cat and dog and two-car garage that are your birthright. And when the cops show up to take down the details of the theft, you’ll be smiling and telling them that you aren’t missing a thing, while inside you’re screaming at the top of your lungs.

It’s time to live in the real world instead. You are the one who takes the goddamn groceries up the stairs. You are the one who cooks dinner and cleans up afterward. What is this eating at the bar thing? Is that a way to meet someone or a way to avoid home? It feels like it could be a way of celebrating living a carefree, “Fuck it, I’ll do what I like” kind of life, but in your current emotional state, it’s another way of living with a ghost. “I shouldn’t be here alone,” you say to yourself while eating at the bar. “I shouldn’t have to carry these all by myself,” you say as you carry groceries. “I should have some friends around,” you say on weekends, imagining your blissful friends (who are actually crawling through a sea of shitty diapers and bitching at their partners about the trash and crying while they pump milk).

Own your reality. Be openly pissed, but stop waiting for your fairy godmother to arrive and deliver you from hell. Never delay big-time life decisions because you haven’t met a man yet. Commit to what you want. Put down roots. If you can afford a down payment and your current living situation feels compromised and sad to you, then start shopping for real estate. When I was 33 years old, I bought a house and fixed it up. I knew that I didn’t want to be living in an apartment when I hit 40. I wanted a yard and a dog. I had a ton of free time and I wanted to spend it painting my walls and planting stuff in the yard and walking my dog. I wanted to feel like the master of my destiny. I did have a boyfriend when I bought the house, but he was broke and didn’t seem prepared to purchase real estate, and I wanted to make sure we were solid before we bought anything together. So I bought it myself, and when the relationship went south and it became clear he’d never really be passionate about me, I kicked him out.

Breaking up with a dude who has to move out of your house? I strongly recommend it. That will get you into the powerful malevolent spinster tornado mood right there. He didn’t even miss me at all! And I was a little panicked. I could smell the future, and it smelled like Stouffer’s single-serving-size lasagna. But I woke up and made my tea and played loud music and painted and walked my dog and cried and wrote songs on my guitar and bought plants for the garden and threw big parties and man oh man, that was a good time in my life. I was wide awake and living out in the open. The question wasn’t “Who will kill this spider?” or “Shouldn’t someone be hauling this potting soil to the backyard for me?” The question was “How will I ever fit a man into this house, which is now 100 percent mine and mine alone?” The question wasn’t “How long will it take to find someone?” It was “How long do I get to savor this glorious life of aloneness until some dude stomps in and spoils it all?”

It wasn’t like I didn’t have my moments of doubt and anxiety and loneliness. But there was something about the ownership of dog and house and soil and everything around me that felt so goddamn right, so solid and great. I know that sounds like American capitalist entitlement incarnate, but what can I fucking say? I’ve always worked full time. I didn’t hire anyone to help me fix the house up. My boyfriend, while he was there, did very little. He was the opposite of handy. I did everything myself. That’s what I loved about it.

You don’t have to buy a house, Unhappy Spinster. But you have to own your life. If you can’t own the life you have right now, ask yourself what needs to change to make you feel like more of a conquistador. You need to transform everything around you so it makes you feel more capable. This bar-eating habit does not feel capable to me. It feels like an indulgent drink-and-eat-and-still-feel-shitty kind of a habit. You need to start behaving as if you are the hostess and the guest: Make elaborate meals for yourself. Buy yourself some fucking flowers and a bottle of desert wine. You need to work harder and treat yourself more, too. That’s what the married people with kids do have that you don’t: They’re forced to do hard things, they’re busy all the time, and they feel like they deserve a break. When they take a break, they feel good. A night out feels like a thrill. Little things like sitting down with a glass of wine feel more satisfying because they’re so rare. The constant companionship is not necessarily what brings happiness. The constant work definitely does. You need to build something. You need to start a new exercise program and take a cooking class and save money for a down payment, and it all needs to build up to you, alone, living in glorious aggressive obnoxious outspoken splendor.

These steps are not designed to bring you to some “happy single life.” They are designed to make you understand that you are the boss, you are the one who determines what comes next, and yes, it’s all up to you. That’s what’s so fucking great about it. Because whatever you do right now to secure a feeling of pride and strength in yourself is something you did on your own, with no help. The satisfaction of that is a lot greater than it would be if you built it with someone else. Partners are good for a lot of things, but that feeling of building something on your own is irreplaceable. And if you ever get serious with someone, you’ll still turn to your independent work and personal projects as respite from the two-headed monster of togetherness.

Go on dates if you want. I guarantee you that the second you stop pretending that everything is fucking hunky-dory and start building the life you want instead of waiting around for someone to save you, you’re going to start attracting people everywhere you go. Once you scrape this imaginary grocery-carrier and couples-dinner-planner out of your picture, and resolve to own your anger and sadness and longing and happiness openly, and commit to living in a way that isn’t just resigned or polite but is aggressively free and real and sometimes uncomfortably pissy or effusive, you’re going to have a new spring in your motherfucking step. You are going to breathe in each day and you’re going to say, “This day belongs to me and me alone!”

You’ll probably end up domestically enslaved eventually. I’m not saying “KEEP THE FAITH,YOUR MAN WILL COME!” and I’m also not saying “GIVE UP ON LOVE FOREVER!” The fact is that if you do what I’m telling you to do — plunge forward and embrace your life and open your heart and learn a new way to live and be real, never fake — you are very likely to stumble on a husband and have a few kids. And then you’ll look back on this time and you’ll say, “Man, I had it good, back when my whole life was my own creation.” And you’ll have to crawl out of a messy haze of diapers and bickering to get that capable, strong feeling back again.

That’s what your married friends aren’t telling you. After the kids are a little bigger, they’ll come back to you. They’ll need you more than ever. Some will be divorced. Some will tell you they lost themselves. They will have to rebuild. Be patient with them, because their lives aren’t perfect.

No life is resolved. Everyone has to face themselves. Do it early, if you have a choice. Do it as much as you can. Face yourself, and learn to be true to where you are. Be honest. Stop waiting for salvation. Save yourself. I know you’re tired and lonely. I feel you. Forgive yourself for feeling discouraged.

We all feel discouraged, often, because life is up to each of us. We are all alone. Our happiness and joy and longing and sadness are in our lonely hands. We have to allow some room for darkness. We have to admit that we are not in control of our destinies, even as late-capitalist American culture seduces us into believing otherwise. We have to accept the world as it is and also fight for a better one. We have to set our sights very low (This chair is comfortable. The rain sounds nice on the roof). But we also have to aim very high (This book I’m writing is going to be brilliant, damn it, even though it feels like a big piece of shit right now).

Even when things are good, it’s easy to define our lives by what we’re missing. Some imaginary future version of you is happier and more complete, living her best life. But that person isn’t real. And as you get older, you not only have to accept that you’ll never arrive anywhere sparkling and perfect, but you have to resist the temptation to believe that your best days might be behind you. You have to resist those widely held, defeated narratives about aging: Your kids will move away. Your partner will get old, too, and will mostly spend his days grumbling about his back pain. No one will be there to save you.

There is only this moment and what you make of it. No best life arrives. You will always be half-hearted, lopsided, annoyed. Be a lopsided conquistador anyway, indignant and industrious, generous and pushy and bold. Show yourself to the world — your real, lonely, exasperated, generous self. Build a life from the rubble of your dreams. Spend the afternoon listening to the rain, untangling your fears, satisfied but a little melancholy, melancholy but oddly satisfied, knowing that it’s all up to you.

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: I’m Pretending I’m Happy Single, But I’m Not!