There is nothing wrong with being single. One of the most important lessons someone can learn is to be a whole and happy person on their own. A failure to recognize this can drive people into relationships that don’t satisfy them—or that make them miserable. Moreover, when the decision to enter into a couple is based on low self-esteem or the fear of being alone, people tend to make poor choices or “settle” in their love lives. Sometimes, however, the fear of getting hurt keeps people solo. Exploring what these triggers might be can provide freedom to individuals seeking lasting love.
I'm not advocating for couplehood at all costs. Just as I encourage people in a relationship to consider their motivations and desires, I encourage single people to do the same. If you feel averse to the idea of relationships in general, your attitudes are worthy of exploration. Something else may be going on, something deeper and less conscious. There may be a lot of good reasons why you’re not in a relationship right now, but I’ll aim to explore the not-so-good reasons people steer away from love, intimacy, and possibly even their own happiness.
Cynical attitudes about love pervade our culture. Statistics remind us how often couples split up and countless personal stories tell us how people get hurt. For many, particularly those with negative experiences, cynical or critical attitudes hardly allow them to get to know another person, much less fall in love.
It is easy to write off potential partners for a long list of reasons. Do any of these sound like something you would do?
Question the approach:
- “He seems too eager.”
- “She’ll be uptight.”
Disapprove based on sexual stereotypes:
- “Men only want sex.”
- “Women just want to control you.”
Attack love and relationships in general:
- “People disappoint you.”
- “Love never lasts.”
- “Dating is too awkward.”
- “Relationships tie you down.”
While we may justify these negative perceptions using facts, figures, or our own experiences, our cynical feelings and attitudes often originate very early in our lives.
The way people related to us as children, and how our parents or early caretakers related to each other, has profound impact. We may form preconceptions or opinions about relationships based on the negative dynamics we've experienced or observed. If we had a parent who was absent, we may grow up feeling more distrusting. We may carry around the idea that “all men leave” or “all women are cold.” If we had a parent who was overbearing and intrusive, we may have thoughts about potential partners like, “They’ll want too much from me. They’re too dependent. They’ll just take over my space and try to control me.” Having a parent who went through a difficult divorce and never dated again may leave us thinking, ”Relationships are just too hard (or dangerous).”
These points of view can be reinforced by the disappointing or hurtful experiences we have as adults. Yet, these attitudes are often misplaced or misguided. They paint a caricature of the people we encounter and create a barrier between us and the world. When we grow cynical toward potential partners, relationships or love itself, we limit opportunities to really get to know and connect with another person.
If we manage to get past these early uncertainties and give someone a chance, we may find ourselves in love. For a time, our hypercritical attitudes may even quiet down a little. Ironically, though, they may creep up again when we start to feel really close with the other person, when things get “more serious,” so to speak. This is because our own fears and psychological defences against love are being challenged, which leads us to subconsciously find ways to push love away. Being critical of a partner can be a way to protect ourselves and create distance. In reality, all people are flawed. We can choose to hone in on someone’s shortcomings, or we can choose to be open, vulnerable, and compassionate in our approach to others, particularly those who mean a lot to us.
In addition to criticizing others, people also become critical of themselves in relation to finding and maintaining a loving relationship. Many single men and women feel so overwhelmed by insecurities that they find it hard to even lift their head and look at a person they find attractive. These thoughts comprise what my father, psychologist Robert Firestone, refers to as the “critical inner voice.” This voice is like a commentator in our heads judging our every action. When we look in the mirror, it may start in with, “You’re so unattractive. Look how out of shape you are. No one would be interested in you. Just stay home.” When we go on a date, it may flood our heads with thoughts like, “What are you even talking about? You’re so dull. This is a disaster. He (or she) isn’t having a good time. Just call it a night.” And finally, if we actually get involved with someone, it may really tear into us: “This will never work out. Nothing lasts. They'll find someone better and leave you. Who do you think you are?"
The inner critic, when acted on, can sabotage relationships. It creates a negative filter through which we view ourselves, our partners, and our relationships. Whether we choose to be single or not, it’s important to identify and separate from this inner critic in order to decipher our real point of view and understand what we really want to go after in life.
So what do we really want? Just as there are statistics that make us feel hopeless about relationships, there are plenty of facts and figures to support pursuing one. Studies show that love and relationships lead to faster healing, reduced pain, a sharper mind, more success (as a leader and in business), decreased stress, increased happiness, and longer lives. There are even studies in neuroscience that say romantic love can last a lifetime, with the same sparks firing decades later that ignited when two people first fell in love.
If we want a lasting, loving relationship, it isn’t outside forces that hold us back; more likely, it is the unexpected fears of intimacy that reside within us. Many of us try to protect ourselves in order not to get hurt. We do this by avoiding relationships altogether or by pulling back when things feel too close.
Most of us who have a history of strained connections are afraid to be vulnerable. The idea of getting into a relationship feels like it would threaten our very identity—like we lose a part of who they are. You may think of entering a relationship as a sacrifice, believing you'd be losing your sense of independence and freedom and could miss out on future possibilities. In a good relationship, however, just the opposite can happen: When two people get together, their worlds should grow, not shrink. We will meet new friends, explore new adventures and, most importantly, discover new parts of ourselves that we didn’t even know were there. It’s possible to find someone who supports our interests, while they introduce us to theirs.
On this adventure, we will get hurt because of the defences each of us has formed. Yet, by confronting the hurt, we create the opportunity for great joy and personal development. If we can stand up to our own defences and internal critic, we will discover that we are strong enough to handle whatever life throws at us. With this foundation of personal strength, we will discover that vulnerability is actually the safest place to be to get what we want. As researcher Brené Brown points out, “Vulnerability is not about fear and grief and disappointment. It is the birthplace of everything we’re hungry for.”