I recently spent time with a friend who is grieving the death of her husband of 26 years. She noticed that we’re switching places. She is now single and I’m happily partnered up. She wanted to know if I had any tips on how to do it well. This being-single-business. I was flattered, mainly because my singleness, for the most part, hasn’t been by choice. (Ok, it has – I’m choosy. Very much so. But poor company is not a sustainable or healthy substitute for the partner of one’s heart.)
Being single is something I’d done with varying degrees of grace and enthusiasm over the past many year, most of the time grudgingly. That notwithstanding, I was surprised at how quickly I was able to come up with a list of things that have either contributed to the Thrive or Survive categories of my life, and I’d like to share them here.
In no particular order…
1. Take exceptional care of yourself. Find ways to rock your own cradle. With great tenderness and generosity. For me, this has meant a gym membership to a place with a steam room. Good pillows. High thread count sheets in colors that I love. And change them regularly. Kombucha in my fridge on a regular basis despite the fact that it’s expensive. Thinking of myself in the third person, especially when I’m feeling sad. As in “What does my friend Naomi need right now? How can I provide that for her?” One day it was a beautiful Italian copper pan. Another day it was an ultra clean and tidy apartment. Fresh flowers. Morning walks really fill my heart. Three summers ago, it was a writing and yoga retreat in Bali as I got ready to become a foster mom. On a Tuesday night it might be a movie that inspires me. This week, it was new art supplies at Michael’s and permission to spend as much time as I wanted being creative.
2. When the loneliness gets really bad, find a way to be of service ASAP. It’s hard to focus on making someone else’s load lighter and feel the weight of your own at the same time. If you don’t have any social energy and love animals, go to an animal shelter and walk dogs. Pet cats. Get some critter love. Visit senior citizens. (And bring a critter with, if allowed.) Are you musical? Go from room to room and sing! Even if you’re not musical – you can at least manage “You are my Sunshine” and that’s a greatest hit with ALL oldsters. Make cookies and bring them to a firehouse. Or drop them off at a local school with a note of appreciation for the staff. School people work SO HARD and need someone to notice it from time to time. Create a random acts of kindness blitz. Check out this link for ideas.
3. Find things you love to do and do them. Alone. I have gone from resenting having to do things along to really enjoying my own company and looking for time and space to do things alone on purpose.
Watercolor. Learn how to surf. Write. Go for hikes. Make a gourmet meal. Fix something you might normally replace. Garden. Go to a car dealership and test drive something amazing while playing really loud music. Notice how you can be present to an experience or activity in a whole new way when you’re doing it by yourself. You can really listen to the forest. Or the morning sounds of your street. Appreciate the swirl together of tangerine and goldenrod watercolor in the sunset you just painted. Realize that you can dawdle over your third cup of coffee at the cafe and no one is hustling you along other than your own self. There’s a way that when you’re alone, you can draw deep breaths up from the very ends of your toes and exhale. Truly exhale.
4. Sometimes indulging in an old-fashioned pity party feels great. At times, mine have also included alcohol and tears and, one evening, my dad patiently on the other side of the phone for two hours while I cried out my heartbreak to him. (Bless you, Dad.) It’s more than OK to visit the land of wine and tears from time to time. Just don’t buy a house there and make friends with the neighbors.
5. Remember that feelings are energy and give them the permission and space to change. More than one time I’ve had to ask myself if I wanted to be right that God had forgotten about me completely and I didn’t matter OR happy in the middle of having a good day and not feeling lonely and maybe God hadn’t forgotten about me after all…but then that would mean that I was WRONG. And how did I feel about being wrong? Sometimes I really just wanted to be right. That’s worth looking at.
Sad, mad, hungry hard feelings need to come out. Find a way to give them voice. If not, they’ll become like crazed, post-screentime five year olds with cabin fever after too many bowls of Coco Crispies, ricocheting off the walls of your heart and mind until you snap. And snapping looks different for all of us. It can be a substance bender – alcohol, drugs, sugar (Oreos? Ben and Jerry’s?), risky behavior, inappropriate sexual stuff, enormous anger outbursts over small things, intense impatience with other people, physical violence, self harm.
Exercise is good for this. Screaming in your car with the music turned up loudly. Drumming. Stabbing a cardboard box with a freshly-sharpened pencil. Pounding pillows.
6. Feel free to excuse yourself from gatherings of happy couples if you’re feeling fragile. It’s OK. Truly. You don’t even need to give a reason why. A simple “I’d love to come but it’s just not going to work for me tonight” is sufficient. And you can text that, too. I’m here to give you permission if you need it. It took me a while to come around to this one. I used to think I needed an excuse. Sometimes I would make them up. (sorry) YOU. DO. NOT. NEED. TO. EXPLAIN. YOURSELF. Unless you want to. And the jilted party is a sympathetic one.
7. Sometimes you JUST need to get out of Dodge. Or Ypsilanti, in my case. I moved across the country when going to church every Sunday and seeing nothing but sweet couples (a few who I used to BABYSIT for) with their adorable children got to be too much. I felt like a failure in the love and family department. I felt like the last kid picked for a sports team. I constantly wondered what was wrong with me and why this thing that I’d longed for and felt I’d be great at just hadn’t happened yet. It was always in my face. I went somewhere where my peers were also in a similar state of life. It helped tremendously.
8. It’s a numbers game. Most people end up with someone at some point in their life. When I’ve been able to tap into that energy, I can really enjoy the wonderful things about being single. And there are a LOT of them. Sometimes I’d ask myself “If I knew I’d find love at some point here, would it change how I’m experiencing being single in this moment?” It sure did. It helped dissipate the heaviness of despair that would sometimes come creeping in when I’d contemplate a lifetime of beige sweaters, a house full of cats and trying to come up with a non-bitter response to “You’re such a great catch! How come no one has snatched you up yet?”
9. And IF it is a numbers game and most of us end up with someone at some point along the way, there are certain things about being single that are good to enjoy NOW, while still single, because they simply won’t be as normal a part of life forever. Like sleeping in as late as you want. Expendable income. Buying that extra pair of shoes or new golf clubs instead of shelling out for soccer camp. Ice cream for breakfast. Champagne and potato chips for dinner. Weekends away. This whole open afternoon I have right now for writing. Leaving dishes in the sink for three weeks (I have done that once or twice. I could have brought some impressive mold specimens in to work to share with my science teacher friends, except I didn’t want this to happen: “Ok, kids, let’s look at this mold sample that Miss White grew for us in her kitchen sink…”
10. Find ways to keep your heart and spirit juicy. For me, that’s been dancing and personal growth workshops. Trading massage with massage therapist friends on a similar path. Thick liquid turquoise eyeliner. Flirting with old men at the grocery store. Surrounding myself with beautiful colors. Travel with a spirit of openness and curiosity.
11. Speaking of cliches, BTW, it’s NOT when you least expect it. (Well-meaning friends: REMOVE THIS PLATITUDE FROM YOUR VOCABULARY IMMEDIATELY.) It’s dismaying the amount of people who have said this exact thing as if they had just come up with it themselves,while putting a sympathetic hand on my shoulder. I need to get a prize for not hissing and spitting in their faces or jerking away from their touch.
It’s when you’re ready. AND when your person is ready. Those two need to happen at the same time for the best possible outcome. And our idea of readiness and God’s are very different. God is like Gandalf – seldom early but always right on time. (Or maybe it’s Gandalf who is like God since God came first?) I’ve always thought I was the ready one and it was my fella who was late to the party. After he showed up in my life, I asked God what took so long. The answer came immediately. It’s possible I could have made it up, but I think not. “You weren’t ready for him yet.”
Forgive me, sweetheart.
12. I try to remember to play this game when I’m in the middle of any sort of struggle or pain. I ask myself “What if before I came to earth, God and I sat down and mapped out my whole life. And I said YES to all of it? Would that change how I’m experiencing this thing now?” And the answer invariable is affirmative. It DOES change pain if I feel that I accepted whatever is currently happening because in fact I knew that everything was going to work out in the end. It’s the difference between dragging a load of rocks in the sun because I’m a slave and have no choice OR getting ready to build my own home with them.
13. Learn to enjoy your own company. This is an inside job and I have no idea how to coach anyone into it other than practice. That’s what it took for me. Actually getting out there, or staying in, and doing things alone.
14. Travel by yourself. I’ve done it so much that it’s become something I really enjoy doing. The interactions I have with people are different as a woman alone than as a woman partnered up, or even traveling with a girlfriend. And I no longer resent exquisite sunsets or charming European historic districts because I don’t have someone special to share them with since I’ve learned that Naomi is, in fact, quite special and it’s enough to share them with her. (Self in third person again. It really works.) This took awhile and I’m not sure that there are any shortcuts.
15. Ask this question frequently: “Where are things coming together in my life? How can I focus more on that?” And then make the choice to herd any sad, angry, spiraling-into-non-helpful-spaces thoughts back to what’s good. Your new haircut. The fact that the dishes are washed. Fresh sheets…there is ALWAYS something good on which to dwell. If you can’t find it, you’re not trying hard enough.
16. Find something(s) you are passionate about. I never feel more vibrant and alive than when I’m engaged in something I love to do. For me, it’s been lots of traveling. And writing. Sometimes cooking. Art. Reading. Hiking. Playing with my watercolor pencils. Creating a soap opera script for my Spanish students. Perhaps for you it will be going to Ren Faires or learning acro yoga or going to a paint and pour or learning to draw or riding a motorcycle. The point is to discover what gets you excited and makes your own heart beat faster independently of someone planting soft kisses behind your ear.
17. Get professional support. But find a good one. Don’t be afraid to move on if she or he doesn’t meet your needs. It’s really helpful to have professional assistance in navigating painful seasons of life. And the growth that’s possible is an investment that shores up the structure of your emotional home, whether you live in it alone or share it with someone else. It’s worth it. A relationship is only as healthy as the least healthy member.
18. Remind yourself what you’re holding out for. I despise platitudes, especially the ones about patience and waiting. However, this one grabbed me because I’m a storyteller… “God’s timing makes for the very best story.” We all love a good story. And there are few things more beloved than an excellent love story. I want to live that. The VERY best love story. Get a dry-erase marker and write it on your bathroom mirror so you don’t forget.
19. Be selective with whom you share your struggles. Not everyone is going to respond in a helpful way and there are only so many cliches and suggestions one can hear and respond to in a gracious fashion.
20. Nourishing touch. Let’s face it. Our skin gets hungry. Probably all of us have a story or several of poor choices made trying to feed that legitimate hunger. (Orphaned babies have been known to die from lack of touch despite all their other physical needs being met. Just sayin’.) There are excellent ways to meet this needs – massage therapy, giving hugs, asking for hugs, mani-pedi, reading to small kids (this frequently involves them sitting close enough to snuggle), getting a hold-able/snuggle-able pet, borrowing someone else’s pet. Cuddling has actually become a professional business. Read here to find out more about it. If you don’t feel like going through the article, here’s the bottom line: “While Stahl was lovely, spooning with her for an hour was the emotional equivalent of holding a lump of clay. In the end, intimacy, as the word suggests, has to come from intimates.”
21. Becoming increasingly comfortable in my own skin is a huge gift I give to my beloved and to other people in my life. One of my “this-is-why-I’m-still-single” stories involved not conforming to traditional and celebrated US beauty standards. If I could take all the time I’ve spent hating my body and exercising and dieting and invest it into writing a best-seller, I’d be rivaling JK Knowling.
It is NO ONE’S job but mine to make me feel good in my body. If I criticize myself in the hearing of others, it sends a perhaps-not-so-subtle message that anything less than what is seen on billboards and in magazines isn’t safe with me. Ouch. I don’t EVER want to communicate that. I have someone in my family who constantly is talking about needing to lose that extra ten pounds and what she’s doing for her workouts. I feel my own way-more-than-ten-extra-pounds acutely in her presence. It’s hard. The more I love and accept myself, the more I spread that vibe and create a space of acceptance and exhale for whomever surrounds me. Including and especially my lover man.
22. Cultivate trust. Mother Angelica, a now-deceased Catholic nun of EWTN television fame, had this to say when asked if she feared death. “I’m scared to death of dying and having the Lord say to me, “Angelica, this is what you might have done had you trusted more.” I’m petrified of that.”
What would it look like in my own life, in your own life, to lean into trusting God even just a little bit more? In this arena, for me, it involved forgiving God for not giving me what (and who) I wanted, when I wanted it. And then thanking Him for all the times that it seemed like He was thwarting me. That ludicrous, grace-filled, inspired moment of me, the creature, forgiving God, the Omnipotent Creator, opened a new space of trust and release in my heart. The resentment and self-pity that had been my fairly faithful companions along the single-girl journey quietly fell away.
This is a good thing to do anyhow, both in regard to matters of the heart and every other area of life. Find stories of people who have trusted God/their Higher Power that you vibe with and that inspire you. Remind yourself that your own story is still being written.
Lean in to Grace.