My heart leapt as the chiming of my phone alerted me to a new text message. After all, it was February 14th, which meant that today could finally be the day when I received the message I had waited a decade for: a declaration of undying love from an understatedly gorgeous man with a penchant for literature. It didn’t matter that this undying love was delivered via text message. This was the man I was going to marry.
Unfortunately, as it turns out, the message was actually from my doctor:
‘Dear Naomi, you are due a smear test. Please call the surgery.’
Whilst I am grateful my doctor takes such a keen interest in my gynaecological health, this wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for. ‘Say it with swabs’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. I duly concluded my Valentine’s Day drowning my sorrows in a kebab, listening to my best friend moan about how we would be single forever at this rate.
This was five years ago, and yet this is basically how I have spent most Valentine’s Days throughout my life. Not the kebab, the keen sense of disappointment. Yes I know, for some people Valentine’s Day is a very special and wonderful occasion when they publicly and extravagantly display their adoration for their special someone and shower them with flowers, chocolates and some sort of stuffed animal cradling a love heart. But, for the rest of us, this is the day where we wish we could go and live in a cave. I can’t walk down the street without a man with a bucket trying to convince a random bloke in an anorak to buy me a rose. All the shops look like a Care Bear threw up on them. It feels like someone has stamped ‘SINGLE AND ALONE’ on my forehead and I belong in a spinster home with all the other desperados and their cats.
Now these are all frivolous concerns, but it is what they represent that bothers me. The thing I most dislike about Valentine’s Day is the lie it perpetuates.
The lie is that we believe our lives are only complete when we are in a relationship. For so many years, I have believed this to be true, chiefly because it’s brainwashed into us on a daily basis. Whether through films, books, music or art, we are constantly inundated with the message that a romantic relationship is the be-all-and-end-all of living. Even toothpaste adverts seem to suggest that the only reason to bother looking after your teeth is because a permanently topless hunk will simper at your gleaming pearly whites in the bathroom mirror. I believe our obsession with romantic love is something our culture has got desperately wrong. It lessens the power of other forms of love; it is exclusive, addictive and compulsive; it places far too much value on a flawed person being the source of all our happiness.
The flip side of this is the message that there is nothing quite so bad as being alone. This is a dangerous thing to believe because it means we start making compromises. We go out with the wrong people just so we can say we’re ‘with someone’. We have sex with strangers to fill the void, hoping that maybe, finally, that brief encounter will blossom into the relationship we’ve been dreaming of. We start dating our job so we don’t have any free time to miss our imaginary partner. We do everything we can to avoid the utter misery of acknowledging we are alone in the world.
My desire to be in a relationship really came to a head in my last years of being in my twenties. I was acutely aware that I was coming up to the big 3-0 and this felt like a ‘deadline’ by which I should have achieved my goal of being in a relationship. I started making compromises and ended up getting myself hurt because my desire for a relationship trumped my willpower to discern if someone was right for me. I ended up feeling lonelier than if I hadn’t bothered in the first place.
I’d read so many books and articles trying to convince myself that singleness was great, but all the promises and assurances seemed so empty: ‘You get all the chocolates in the box!’ (yes and you develop type two diabetes before your married counterparts); ‘You can watch whatever you want on TV!’ (yes and you find yourself ugly crying for the 500th time in front of Pride & Prejudice because you don’t have a Mr Darcy of your own); and ‘You can throw yourself into your work!’ (yes, but what happens if you don’t like your job or you get fired?) Ultimately, all these supposed ‘advantages’ of singleness are incredibly selfish, and rather than solving the problem, they simply ignore it, by denying the innate need that humans have for relationship. They don’t offer any real hope, which I desperately wanted.
As my 30th birthday loomed on the horizon, I finally reached a turning point. I was simply fed up with moping about being alone. What I really, desperately wanted was just to be content. To go into my thirties feeling like I was okay being single. Now I don’t want it to seem like I was totally miserable, I had a vibrant faith and a great church supporting me. But I still felt like something was niggling in the back of my mind, bringing me back down every few months.
A big change came when I met someone who was slightly further along on the journey than me and still single, despite really wanting to be married. To my amazement, she had reached a place of joy and contentment in her singleness, a contentment I never thought possible in my own life. She helped me see that it was possible to find happiness in something far deeper than a relationship with a man would ever give me. That my identity was so fixed on being loved romantically that I’d missed a greater kind of love that was so much more satisfying.
As I understood afresh how distinctly and passionately I am loved by God, I felt a renewed sense of happiness and hope that this love was enough for me. Although my desire for marriage hasn’t disappeared, and there are of course times when I am sad about my singleness, somehow the pain seems less raw. I have more time for others, more emotional energy to give because I am not so unhappy and insecure about being single all the time. I have discovered a peaceful solitude when I am alone, in place of acute and empty loneliness.
So if you’re single this Valentine’s Day, don’t run to distraction from being alone. Look beyond your loneliness to what it points to: your need to be known by the one who made you. For, whether single or married, we are loved and valued for so much more than our relationship status.