This is the fourth part of a daily series, “Five Things About Love (that are hard to understand)” by Miles McClellan. This series originally ran on McClellan’s blog and he was kind enough to share it with you, dear reader. So here’s to love – the good, bad, and all the nitty gritty (sometimes pretty) stuff in between.
That dreaded moment has come. It’s time for a little tough love. A while ago, I had a conversation with a young woman nearly ten years my junior. During the course of our talk, I asked if I could pose a deeply personal question.
“Are you afraid to be single?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she replied, without hesitating. The question was rhetorical, which is to say I was all but convinced of her response ahead of time. In my experience, this is not an insecurity that is isolated to the young. If we let it, it can plague us for our entire lives.
I was fortunate. I lacked self-confidence when I was her age, and younger. Regardless of whether others around me considered me an attractive person, I could not conceive of myself as an attractive person in my own mind. There was no way I could have been in a successful relationship when I was a younger man. I wasn’t ready, and I’m glad of it now.
I’m glad because I spent all of my teenage years, and have spent most of my twenties, as a single man. I know how it feels to be alone, at times to feel pitifully lonely, and to have no-one with whom to interact in the most intimate sense for which we all long. I know how it feels to be single, and as a happy consequence, it does not distress me.
Yet, for many, the thought of the single life is not only distressing, but terrifying. A boyfriend or girlfriend is something some have to have at all times in order to have self-confidence. I do not intend to mock or belittle these people, nor their struggles. Their insecurity is a natural, even forgivable symptom of the road toward love. It comes from not having learned the simple lesson that love can wait, that love is worth waiting for.
This may be a more plainspoken entry for this series, but I do not wish to be unkind. If you share this fear with that dear, young friend of mine, then yes, it is a blemish on your heart… but it is certainly not one which anyone can or should blame you for having.
You can only be blamed for every day you refuse to face it.
When we fear isolation in some way, be it deep or shallow, physical or emotional, we will stay with someone who does not make us happy, even someone who mistreats or abuses us, for months, years, even decades. Conversely, when we’re not worried about being single, lonely, or alone, we’ll end a harmful relationship without a second thought because the consequences of doing the right thing no longer make us anxious.
That’s why I’m happy I wasn’t confident when I was younger. To me, what is even more terrifying than being single is that, if you’re uncomfortable with being alone in some sense, this anxiety of yours can consume even the healthiest and most meaningful of relationships in its viciousness. Mark my words, it can destroy the love of your life.
Now that ought to be frightening you. And now you know why I’m being so forceful.
When you commit your heart to a relationship simply because you’re trying to relieve yourself of the discomfort of being single… or, when you remain in a relationship where your heart is no longer committed out of a desire for the same relief…
Then in the moment you find yourself without your partner, let alone for an extended period of time, such as when you are in a long-distance relationship (as my parents’ relationship was in its inception), you have made your own fate inevitable. Your sense of stability and sustenance will crumble beneath you. It can never compare, it can never even come close, to that of someone who is self-assured, who is more comfortable with going without that presence for a while.
Don’t get mad at me yet. Of course there is nothing wrong with missing someone. There is nothing wrong with the romantic notion of not being able to live without someone, either… but we all need to ask ourselves a simple question…
Are we really missing someone, or are we missing just having someone?
For the sake of love itself, there is a difference, and the recognition of this difference is foundational to our ability to make each other truly happy in the grand, oh-too-complex scheme of life and love.
So, if all of this is making you nervous, then it is essential that you come to understand, and soon, that your fear of loneliness, absence, or solitude will always be working directly against whatever confidence you have in that those you love will come home to you, a confidence that would normally be stabilizing and sustaining you.
And, much as I hate to say it, you are the one creating the conflict.
No matter how good they are, or good for you, if you count on someone else to hold you accountable—if you literally depend upon someone else’s presence, in one way or another, for your own sense of self-worth—if you have this fear and think you will be able to handle it, to suddenly think differently, when you find “the one”… please listen.
You will not.
Love does not work that way, at least not for those who see it as a singular commitment. No matter the strength or the serendipity of that eventual relationship, the brittle foundation you’ve built to go beneath it will be in peril of collapse during any time you spend apart, during every business trip, every tour of duty, and no matter how much you love one another. If a sustaining relationship is to be had, you can’t rely on the other person to be the strong one. You need to begin building yourself up, and that means you may need to be alone for a while.
Don’t put it off. Don’t waste any more of your life, nor anyone else’s. Do it now.
For if you fail in this, if you do not confront your qualms and your insecurities, then particularly during every fight, every moment of anger and stress inflicted upon a strained relationship, you will be in tumultuous danger, and for no other reason than because you have spent so much of yourself convincing your heart that it needs a sense of intimacy, some measure of another person’s closeness, in order to be contented and happy.
While this sort of mentality may work for those of you who have chosen to have open relationships, and though it may work for a time for people who are either very tenacious or stubborn, it works for no-one who wishes to find true love of the committed variety.
If you really want the right person, then their presence in your life is a responsibility you need to be ready for. You’re never going to get ready if you’re with the wrong person.
That’s all the tough love I’ve got. I promise I’m done being so direct.
It is such a tragedy, but all of what I’ve just written is just how fear can embed within our hearts one of the greatest lies of all, whether we even realize we’re thinking it or not: That love can’t wait. This is precisely what we’re telling ourselves… and it’s simply not true.
Love can wait.
God, can it wait. It can wait years, even lifetimes. It knows no boundaries. It has no limits. Love is patient. Love is kind. I know it may be hard to conceive of feeling this way, but there is nothing wrong with being single, and everything right with being patient. There’s nothing wrong with being apart from someone you truly love. We are all stronger than we give ourselves credit for.
None of us has to fear being isolated as much as we do. After all, if these things were really so scary, no-one would ever be single, or separated, and be content for very long. The bottom line is that the more comfortable you are in your own skin, and especially all by your lonesome, the more comfortable you will be making a promise you can keep.
It is a great irony that we can better prepare for lasting love with a decade of solitude than we can with ten years of broken, back-to-back relationships… and it’s not because we’ll gain more experience in relationships or get to know more people intimately. We won’t.
It is because we’ll adjust to what it feels like to live without dependency.
We’ll get to know ourselves.
And the next time we feel love’s pull, we’ll fall into it for only the best of reasons.
Editor’s Note: artwork by Heather McWilliams photography.
Miles McClellan is the author behind the psychology, philosophy, and fiction blog How to Throw a Book. Already a graduate of the University of Georgia’s Grady College, he is a student of all things psychological and recently published his first book Vigil of the Ageless.