On Being Single When You Wish You Weren’t

A friend of mine lost her husband in an accident only a few years after they had been married. At the time we were twenty-five and I couldn’t fully wrap my mind around her loss. I had been through a few break-ups, had lost a close friend and two grandparents, but her loss seemed so much bigger. So much different.

She would shake when I hugged her. That’s what I remember.

In the last six months of my life, the weight of her aloneness has become more clear to me, even if I still don’t fully understand it.

The unexpectedness of it. The sudden change of direction. The going from being married to being single within a matter of moments. I’m learning that being single when you wish you weren’t is less about coming to grips with your singleness as it is about coming to grips with the fact that life doesn’t always turn out how we plan.

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I spoke with another friend the other day who is forty-something and single. She’s never been married. This is not the carefully mapped-out plan she made for herself. It is not what she expected. Quite the opposite, in fact. She, like so many of us, expected that she would meet “the one” for her at a party one day, or that they would catch each other’s glances at a coffee shop, or that he would accidentally deliver a pizza to her house instead of the neighbor’s.

These are the love stories we long for—with all their serendipity and mystery.

We do not long for love stories that end in divorce or in death or that, for reasons we are never fully able to understand, never get started in the first place.

And yet, here we are, many of us, living love stories we didn’t ask for and trying to make them beautiful and our own and living inside of them with all the gumption and passion and creativity and presence as we would have brought to the one we thought we’d have.

The challenge of finding love

I can remember back to being twenty-seven years old and feeling like I was getting so old. So old. Everyone was getting married, all of my friends. They were all “moving on” with their lives. What must be wrong with me that I hadn’t found my person? What must I be doing that I was somehow single when I wished I wasn’t? How could I fix this problem? How could I make the loneliness go away?

These are the thoughts that would go through my brain late at night.

You’re welcome.

Now that I look back (at almost 33), 27 years old doesn’t seem old anymore. I can see now how my singleness wasn’t a problem to be fixed, and how the loneliness I felt would have been so much more bearable if I wasn’t trying to pretend like I didn’t feel it. And finally, I am beginning to understand how meaningful and purposeful singleness can be, regardless of the fact that it sometimes comes when we don’t ask for it.

Looking for love, in it’s truest sense, isn’t about finding someone else. It’s about finding yourself again. —Robert Holden, Ph.D, Loveability

The stigma

But there’s a stigma around being single isn’t there?

On the one hand, there’s this quiet underlying feeling that marriage is the threshold into adulthood and that single people are somehow behind. I’m guessing very few people actually believe this to be true, but it is one of those pervasive thoughts that lingers with us, leftover from some old story. Like the foggy residue left on the mirror after a shower.

We expect to see it. But we can’t fully explain where it came from or exactly why it is there.

Then, on the very confusing other hand, we’re all supposed to be “totally content” with our single lives, living it up and just having the most amazing time. The number one piece of advice given to singles goes something like this: “when you stop looking for it, that’s when love will come.”

But is this really true? I’m not sure.

I know way too many stories which don’t fit that paradigm.

Meanwhile, none of this seems to allow for the possibility that a person could be deeply satisfied with the life they are building for themselves, and also desire to be sharing that life with a romantic partner. This does a better job of describing most of the singles I know. They are not desperate to be married—or at least not so desperate they are going to give up their lives and their ideas and their dreams to get there.

But they do wish and wonder if maybe it will happen for them someday. They pray they aren’t missing something.

They hope they didn’t take a wrong turn somewhere.

The “problem” of loneliness.

Then there’s the loneliness, which no one wants to talk about. Because if you love yourself and you “have a good community” and you don’t spend too much time on Facebook, you shouldn’t feel lonely at all. Or at least that’s how we talk about it—as if loneliness were some sort of disease we were trying to cure.

To be fair, I think there is some truth to those ideas.

By that I mean I think we can learn to love ourselves and stay connected to the people around us and that will help us turn down the volume of our loneliness. I do think social media—the exact platforms designed to keep us connected—so strangely and ironically make people feel more alone than we’ve ever felt before.

Too many of us feel isolated and alone in life. In our materially advanced and technologically sophisticated society, we’ve done little to advance a collective sense of love and relatedness. As a culture, we are well versed in growing ourselves in material value but terribly undernourished in recognizing the opportunities we have to give and receive love. These opportunities come our way constantly. Yet we often do not even acknowledge them, let alone allow ourselves to seize upon them.

—Katherine Woodward Thomas, Calling in the One

See—we do not need to be afraid of our loneliness, which is pointing to something.

The curse of being alone?

My grandpa—my dad’s dad—passed away more than ten years ago now, and I still remember the first conversation I had with my grandma after his death. I called the house and she picked up but didn’t say anything. All I could her was her gentle breathing on the other end of the line.

“Grandma?” I asked.

There was a long pause.

Finally, she spoke.

“He kissed me on our first date,” she said.

Then she stayed on the phone and kept weeping quietly and neither of us said anything. That was enough. It was enough for me to know how lonely she must feel. Sometimes, maybe, our loneliness just needs a quiet witness—just someone to acknowledge that it isn’t easy, and that it’s also so very out of our control, and to assure us that at the end of this day, the world will turn and we are going to wake up tomorrow to a new one.

See, singleness is not a curse that is cast down upon the unworthy. It is a natural, normal stage and phase of life. Aloneness will come to all of us, at some point or another, with or without our permission.

We might as well get good at navigating it.

Getting good at being alone

One of the great benefits to being single when you didn’t expect it is that it forces you to enjoy being with yourself. This might sound strange, but it’s a gift and a skill too many of us have avoided or ignored by numbing out with alcohol or Netflix or shopping or ice cream; or by conceding to relationships that are terrible for us but good distractions from the deep ache of loneliness.

The truth is a little loneliness is good for us.

It is only when we have surrendered to our aloneness that we are finally able to answer the question far too many of us have been avoiding.

Who am I without you?

Who am I on my own?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor known for his staunch resistance to the Nazi regime, went as far as to say, “Until we can be alone with our own thoughts, we are a danger to society.” A danger to society. Soak that in. I think what he means is that, until we can get comfortable with the beautiful and terrible parts of ourselves, until we come to grips with the fact that we are capable of great good and great evil…we are flying blind.

Or flying drunk might be a better metaphor.

Blind people know they can’t see. Drunk people have a terrible reputation for thinking: I’m fine. I’m totally fine.

Until we get good at being alone, we won’t actually be that good at being together.

Loneliness wakes us up to ourselves.

A beautiful unfolding.

I heard a quote from the poet David Whyte about aloneness a few weeks ago that stopped me dead in my tracks. If you get a chance, you should check out the On Being podcast, where he recites this line within the first five seconds. Hearing him speak his own words is powerful.

They go like this:

Sometimes it takes darkness or the sweet confinement of your aloneness to realize that anyone or anything that does not bring you alive is too small for you.

—David Whyte

Here’s what I think he’s saying: sometimes it takes the deep pain of loneliness to discover the beauty of yourself.

  • The gifts you have to bring to the world
  • The passions lying dormant inside of you
  • The things you’ve always wanted to do but have been too scared
  • The help you think you need from someone else that you can give to yourself
  • The incredible power you have to ask for help
  • The inner-strength that rises up like a wild animal to accomplish tasks you thought were too big for you
  • The direct connection you have to the divine
  • The friendship you have to offer yourself
  • The deep sense of care and compassion for yourself and others

What if, instead of asking the questions we tend to ask in our singleness, questions like what must be wrong with us or what we could have done differently to keep that last relationship from ending, or how we can find our next one… what if we just allowed the aloneness to shape us, to form us, to show us how beautiful and amazing we have been all along?

Breathe that in.

Sometimes aloneness is what it takes for you to experience your beautiful unfolding.

Learning to Pay Attention

One of the great gifts of being alone when you wish you weren’t is that there is nothing but time to pay attention. You suddenly begin to notice things you weren’t able to notice before.

You simply didn’t have the time, or the energy.

You were too distracted.

You begin to notice things like the voices in your own head, like the thoughts you think about yourself and other people, like the way the forsythia bush blooms outside your front window, and the not-so-subtle way the light shifts across the room from morning until dusk. Somehow you never noticed those things before, but now you do.

As Julia Cameron suggests, there is a great reward for paying attention.

“The reward for attention is always healing. It may begin as the healing of a particular pain—the lost lover, the sickly child, the shattered dream. But what is healed, finally, is the pain that underlies all pain: the pain that we are all, as Rilke puts it, “unutterably alone”. More than anything else, attention is an act of connection.” Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way

Attention is an act of connection. If that is true—and I think it is—then it means the salve for our aloneness is present in us and around us, at all times. It means that as we begin to pay attention, we begin to feel more connected to ourselves and others. Maybe this is why Instagram and Facebook and other platforms like them have a tendency to make us feel lonely.

They distract us from paying attention.

All we have to do is pay attention.

None of it is wasted.

The incredible thing that begins to happen as we pay attention is we realize nothing is wasted. Not one minute. Not the terrible relationship we stayed in for way too long, not the wonderful guy we dated but never married, not the years we spent in a marriage that ended. The invisible timeline we’ve been living by doesn’t exist.

It’s not a thing. Sure, our biological clocks are ticking and we only have so many years on this earth…

Sure.

But as such… shouldn’t we be enjoying them? Shouldn’t we be surrendering the things over which we have no control and paying attention to all the ways life is unfolding with us and for us? It’s so hard to live here. It’s so hard to trust. But if we can do it, we relieve the stress of thinking marriage is some sort of finish line, and find ourselves paying attention to a life that is full and deep and beautiful and rich.

Already. As it is.

No minute of your life is wasted. Not your single life. Not your dating life. Not your married life. Because the great gift and the great challenge of life is that, when you leave one season, you take yourself into the next.

All that you’ve battled. All that you’ve accomplished. All that you’ve become.

And you, my friend, are becoming truly remarkable.

Extra Resources

53 comments on “On Being Single When You Wish You Weren’t

  1. Alison, that is simply the most powerful thing I’ve read for a long time. I am happily married with 4 children and sometimes I feel desperately alone. As you say until you can be alone with yourself and be comfortable we will always feel there is something wrong with us which is not totally true. It is natural to want company and someone to be there to mother us and that is not always possible. But then to be accepting of ourselves, that sometimes we do feel empty and it is ok to feel that. Sending you a big hug.

    • Thank you so much, Lois. I had the thought as I was writing this that I hoped it wouldn’t be a post for just singles—but that even those who are married and lonely (so many people) would relate. Thank you for reading and for your comment. Appreciate you.

  2. You’ve said it all Allison. I can connect with you on so many levels and I can say that both loneliness and aloneness are the best things that have happened to me. In my early 30’s as well but even recently decided not to date anyone for several months as I want to focus on me and my relationship with God. Loneliness isn’t as bad as the way the world makes it look. I can only say that because some depths of me has healed from tremendous heart ripping pain. But I love myself, accept myself completely and can stand myself. Loneliness is about perspective. It’s all perspective baby! You rock Allison and am proud of the woman you are becoming through your process.

    • Tolu—yes, isn’t it amazing how pain can heal us? Healing is painful, but it is ours for the taking, available whenever we choose to accept it. Thank you for sharing.

  3. I love this Allison – so so true. I’ve learned so much from all my relationship experiences, and from being single too. Nothing is wasted, and singleness isn’t second best. Singleness can be liberating, and give you opportunities. It can be a such a blessing. Great post.

      • love this James

        Singleness can be liberating, and give you opportunities. It can be a such a blessing.

        I agree 101{9ac618bfda39dd0c8c9a0232963cb9a2adfe54a7367c2d4954ad9e847b2e5305}. I have so much opportunities now that my singleness had allowed me to see, explore, discover, work through and enjoy.

        • Thanks so much for this encouragement Tolu – so glad it was helpful. And thanks Allison for the kind words.

          Reading this again today and it feels more true than ever. Love your work Allison.

  4. Allison-

    Thank you so much for your thoughts. This was a great post and reminder for me to be okay with being alone. I’m actually trying to get back to that point as I’ve pretty much filled my entire schedule up to avoid it( or perhaps to appear like i am content with where i’m at). After all if i’m busy I’m content right? WRONG. Because this is literally my life:

    “One of the great benefits to being single when you didn’t expect it is that it forces you to enjoy being with yourself. This might sound strange, but it’s a gift and a skill too many of us have avoided or ignored by numbing out with alcohol or Netflix or shopping or ice cream; or by conceding to relationships that are terrible for us but good distractions from the deep ache of loneliness.”

    It hit me like a ton of bricks and is so relevant with my current life situation and desire to build something greater than the small small world I have created for myself.

    So thank you so much for the extra encouragement that you brought today! Spot on! Loved it!!!!

    • Allison—I laughed at your comment about being busy because busy is literally the EXPECTED answer when people ask, “so how have you been doing?” So funny.

      I’m so glad the post resonated so deeply.

      Thank you for reading!

      • ALLISN!!

        Thank you for your post truly amazing. I thought I was the only one struggling with my loneliness my plan was to get married on my wenty, but now I’m 23. Actually I love a girl in my life I can’t ask her to marry me because I think I’m not handsome I’m not rich I don’t have a car I’m not a talented person, but I do Love someone!!💕

  5. Allison, thanks for your transparency. Though my wife and I have have been married now for 16 years, more than half of that was spent trying to become parents. Long, arduous road, eventually leading us to adopt our son. While life’s not as bleak as it once was, rainbows and butterflies don’t perpetually surround us. And Mother’s Day still has a sense of sadness to it, as our hearts hurt for the woman who desire to be married, desire to be moms, or miss their own moms. Thankfully our church has become more aware of the sadness of that day and does less all-out celebrating.

    Thanks again for sharing your story.

    • YES—yet another way that life doesn’t always go as planned. And yet, here we are, trying to make the most of it, and for the most part succeeding far better than we give ourselves credit for. Thank you Joe. Appreciate you reading and your thoughtful response.

  6. Allison,

    David Whyte’s poem “Sweet Darkness” is beautiful and ends in a surprising way. Aloneness may be a “sweet confinement” and yet so difficult to live out day to day. Your process and writing is an encouragement to me and others. Please keep writing!

    • The whole poem is so beautiful! I also love Everything Is Waiting for You, which I shared last week. I’m fairly new to Whyte’s work, but not for long. I’m already working to memorize some of it. Thank you Alyssa. So glad this was an encouragement to you.

  7. Wow! Such amazing insight. I am married with five boys, but I have been thinking more and more about the issue of aloneness. I don’t believe that it is an issue that only single people face. I believe it is an issue we all face and that as you said, we need to get comfortable with being alone, in knowing both the good and bad things about ourselves and being okay with them. I believe that we all try to distract ourselves from that feeling of aloneness and disconnection and that if we just embraced it, we might find the peace we are looking for and no longer need the destructive distractions we use to avoid it. Thank you for sharing your beautiful thoughts Allison. You are such an inspiration!

    • Thank you Terry! I believe you’re right—this isn’t an issue only single people struggle with. I’m so glad it resonated with you in the season of life you’re in. Thank you for sharing.

  8. Dear Allison,

    This is so good. Thank you for putting into words and perspective EXACTLY how many of us feel.

    Keep writing!!!

  9. Allison,

    I have to tell you that this is what I needed to hear today. Its a reality check and an encouragement which were both simultaneously important and necessary.

    Thank you so much for doing what you do!

  10. I’m sitting here in my favorite chair, in my quiet little house that I love so much, all alone, and after reading this post through at least three times now, I honestly cannot express adequately how much I needed your words, exactly these words, today. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  11. Allison, thank you! THIS: “I’m learning that being single when you wish you weren’t is less about coming to grips with your singleness as it is about coming to grips with the fact that life doesn’t always turn out how we plan.”

  12. After twenty years of marriage, the bed felt so empty when my husband left. Then, after 5 years and two unhealthy rebounds, I started to appreciate the room and the freedom of sleeping alone. Being alone also deepened my sense of spirituality and the awareness that I was never completely alone. I had to learn to accept being single, with all it’s benefits and challenges, and possibly for the rest of my life, before I would be ready to be in a healthy partnership. I would have loved to read your wisdom 15 years ago, and they again 10 years ago, but it still helps to be reminded of who I am as an individual of value with or without a partner.

    • Yes! I love what you wrote about being alone deepening your awareness that you are never alone. I’ve had that same experience, too. Thank you JoAnne.

  13. This is probably one of the best, and most real, articles I have read about single life and loneliness! Thank you for writing this and helping us better navigate this stage of life.

  14. THIS: “Until we get good at being alone, we won’t actually be that good at being together.”

    So true. Because if I’m not okay with just me, I’ll attempt to make another person fill in the empty spaces of my heart, which makes me more splintered instead of more whole.

    Thanks for sharing all that you are learning in the midst of your struggle.

  15. Good Stuff Allison,

    I’m a single Dad with two adult daughters. Divorced after 21 years of what I believed to be a strong marriage. Recently relocated to a small town where I know no one. Definitely not what I had planned. But, I am beginning to live in the moment and learning to find joy in the small places of life. I like your point about paying attention. I spent much of my previous life looking forward or glancing backward. I missed way too much of the NOW. Living on the in betweens waiting for my prayers to be answered was not working either. My lonely heart was not healing. I haven’t given up on my prayers, but instead put away my agenda with God. I have began to embrace this season of singleness as a school kid embraces summer vacation. Eager for every new day. It still sucks to be without a partner and I do have prayers for a new marriage. But I am painfully realizing that I’m not ready. I am an introvert, so being alone is a default setting. The mountain I must learn to climb is connecting and engaging other people outside my own orbit. Becoming sincerely interested in other people may be the only thing that gets me out of this house. Thanks again for your blog. You are very wise and have helped fuel my growth and healing.

  16. Hi Allison, trust me, this is one article I had to read slowly with rapt attention; thank you for such missive.

    In more than one way do I connect with your thoughts. I am proud to say that a large chunk of my character today was formed in the crucible of aloneness. Aloneness is extremely powerful – only to those who are discerning. Loneliness is not the same thing as Aloneness; it is when aloneness is not handled positively that it trickles into loneliness, and terrible habits can emanate from there.

    Nevertheless to trudge on through the path of aloneness and emerge with strong positive mental attitude, a person needs a sustaining power which is beyond ordinary and this can only be sourced from GOD.

    “In the presence of GOD, there is fullness of joy…” This is the only sure place a person can obtain the strength, courage and motivation ‘to allow his caterpillar metamorphose into a beautiful butterfly’.

  17. Lots of wonderful insight here. Having been single the vast majority of my 40 plus years, much of it rings deeply true. My only caution is the blanket statement that social media makes us feel alone. I’ve been alone long before social media and after. Like most things, it’s a tool. For me social media has been a way to get out of myself. To connect and to know that others share the same struggles. The blanket statement that “social media—the exact platforms designed to keep us connected—so strangely and ironically make people feel more alone than we’ve ever felt before” causes unnecessary shame. Can we stop blaming tools?

    Our loneliness is there with or without them. It’s all in how you choose to use these tools. We can use them to “pay attention” to the world around us. For me it has connected me to a vast and thriving community. It’s connected me to other women seeking friendship and validation of their wholeness in spite of being alone. It can allow people to speak and be heard.

    Love so much of what you presented, but I challenge you to go beyond this go-to modern “blame it on social media” line. So many things in life can be used to increase or decrease loneliness if the root is ignored. Seeds of shame definitely cause us to feel alone. Let’s honor the tools modern day people use instead of scape-goating. Focus instead on the other points of your insightful article.

  18. Thank you, Allison, for this post. Your words really touched me this week. I experienced a heartbreak much more devastating than I thought imaginable. But your words help get me through. ❤️

  19. I am 32 and single. Decidedly single. Most of my friends think I’m too picky, but I know I have high standards. It is hard, year after year to see my friends married and starting families, to hear the platitudes nearly every person tells you (and to also grin at those 22-25 singles who say they are so single).
    I personally am not single by my own choice, I have been on very few dates, and most of those ended either with both of us knowing it wasn’t going further or that the guy actually wanted to go out with my friend.
    But God is faithful. He is constant and I am learning to lean and trust on Him in new ways every single day.
    I know this is long winded but I just wanted to thank you for writing this, I needed this gentle reminder that God is everything I need. Thanks. 😊

  20. Very extremely difficult for many of us single good men to meet a real good woman that doesn’t sleep around at all, and to just commit to only one man.

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