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‘I’m okay with being single, but I feel like I’m letting my mam down’

Ask Roe: I’m struggling with the weight of societal expectation that I should want to find a partner

Dear Roe,

I’m a heterosexual female in my early 30s, and I’ve never been in a relationship. I’m very comfortable in my own company, and I do believe I would ultimately be fine by myself. I think I am lucky in that I have no desire to have children, so I don’t feel any pressure in that regard. However, it has been harder to remain positive about things lately. The majority of my friends are engaged or in loving relationships. Sometimes I can’t help but wish that I could experience a good relationship, just to see if I would like it. My experiences with men have usually not been very positive. I have been ghosted, gaslit, slut-shamed, called ugly, fat and stupid and dumped for a friend. I have worked hard on building my confidence and self-worth. I won’t allow poor treatment any more and insist on healthy boundaries, honesty and communication. If the person won’t reciprocate with mutual respect, I will reiterate these boundaries, and walk away if nothing changes. It doesn’t help that my mam seems distressed about it. I feel like I am letting her down. I realise that relationships were seen as security for her generation, but I am finding it harder to reassure her that I will be okay one way or the other. I suppose what I am struggling with most is the weight of societal expectation. Everyone has advice on what I should do, and the issue always seems to be that I am not doing enough, that I am not enough, or that I’m too much. I’m advised that I should take up lots of hobbies, change my appearance or that I’m always looking in the wrong places for the wrong types of men. I have tried lots of different things over the years and I always do activities that I enjoy doing so that I will feel fulfilled regardless of whether I meet someone. Anyone I like usually doesn’t like me back. I hope I don’t sound bitter, I’m just a bit worn-out. I ultimately want to have faith that being myself will attract like-minded people into my life, but I am getting worried that I’m doing something wrong.

You may be well-boundaried when it comes to romance, but you may need to instate clearer boundaries with your friends and family. The phrases “I’m not looking for advice, thanks” and “My love life isn’t up for discussion” are your new best friends. You’re right that there is a huge amount of pressure on people, notably women in their 30s, to get into serious relationships, and you don’t need the important people in your life repeating that endlessly. Know that while some of their desire to see you in a relationship may come from love, some of it is also to do with their adherence to the heteronormative life model where people must be coupled up. Seeing you comfortably single disrupts that narrative for them, which can feel confusing and uncomfortable and even a little bit threatening. That’s on them, not you.

I feel strange adding any other response to your letter given that I want you to stop listening to anyone else’s opinion on your love life – but you did write in. So here’s the deal: I will give you advice as long as you promise you will genuinely consider it – then utterly disregard it if it doesn’t feel right.


Because it can be true that you’re fine on your own – and it can be true that you want a relationship, and there may be something new to try. Here comes the bit that may feel like all the other patronising platitudes you’ve heard, but if you permit me to get personal for a moment, I promise I only say this because I believe it to be true.

You dance around it, you mention an intellectual curiosity in it, you indirectly express a hope that potential partners could wander into your life – but never, ever do you actually say “I want to fall in love and be in a relationship”

I’m an unabashed fan of love. I’ve always been very good at falling in love, belatedly became interested in staying in love, am increasingly enamoured with the contours of a long-term love. It feels exciting precisely because it’s a choice – I don’t feel like I need to be in a relationship, and I don’t think the heteronormatively ordained milestones of marriage and children are necessary for my happiness. If I end up single, I’ll wholeheartedly commit myself to loving everything else the world has to offer; I’ll have passions and loves and friends and family and art and poetry. I’ll be okay. I feel this in my bones.

However. Do you know when I find myself saying “I don’t need a relationship, I’m fine on my own” the most loudly, the most often, the most ice-cold independent-woman never-felt-anything-for-anybody sassily? When I’m absolutely terrified. When I’m afraid someone is about to leave. When I feel not just alone, but lonely. It’s then that my “I’ll be fine on my own” refrain kicks in at full volume. Not because it’s not true, but because when I’m feeling good and confident and open-hearted, I don’t say it. I use the belief that I’ll be fine without a partner as the foundation blocks for a life full of doors and entrances and windows to let in people and connections and light. But when I’m scared and defensive, I use the “I’ll be fine” blocks as a wall to keep people out, and to keep myself safe.

I wonder if this could be part of what’s going on for you: that you’re smart and strong and boundaried and know that you’ll be fine alone – and you enter into potentially romantic interactions in this strong, intellectualising, defensive, “I don’t need anyone” stance. But love isn’t about need. It’s about want. Where’s the room for what you want? Where’s the room for vulnerability? The vulnerability to sit across from someone and say “I like my life – and I’d still really like to fall in love and be held and have someone to count on and to mess up and to learn about myself and to maybe get my heart utterly shattered and to recover and try all over again”? Nowhere in your letter (which is longer than printed) do you actually say what you want. You dance around it, you mention an intellectual curiosity in it, you indirectly express a hope that potential partners could wander into your life – but never, ever do you actually say “I want to fall in love and be in a relationship”.

I suspect you’re very good at thinking, at intellectualising, and not so great at feeling, because feelings are harder to control

I think you may be scared to say it, to own it – and the thing is, dating and love is all about vulnerability. This is why so many people are terrible at it. This fear of vulnerability is why people ghost and play games and end up in endless “situationships” – because they’re too scared to admit what they want. But while you’re not doing those particular things, you could be avoiding vulnerability in another way, by entering into interactions thinking “I don’t need this”, instead of thinking “Maybe this could be something I want” – and then paying attention to how you actually feel.

I suspect you’re very good at thinking, at intellectualising, and not so great at feeling, because feelings are harder to control. But if you turn up closed off instead of open-hearted, intellectualising instead of feeling, evaluating instead of emoting, you may be turning away people who themselves are emotionally available – and could be telegraphing to closed-off people that you won’t really care if they disappear.

You’ll be fine on your own. You know it, I know it. But in the same way that I don’t want people settling for “fine” relationships, I don’t want you settling for a “fine” singlehood either. Stop thinking about need. Start feeling what you want, and saying it loud. See what happens. Good luck.