It's Saturday afternoon and I'm heading to the pub to meet up with my mates, blissfully unaware that I'm about to be confronted with my singledom in an incredibly sobering (ahem) light. As I sit down, I glance around at my group of friends. I do some very basic maths. I'm the 13th wheel.
I've become quite used to being the token single friend in my group, even though I've had several long(ish)-term relationships. But in comparison, my chops in the committed relationship game have clearly fallen short. This is because most of my friends have been dating each other for over ten years.
At first, there were the standard couples that everyone knew were always going to get married. All of them had that high school meet-cute moment in an art class or on a football field and had steadily grown their relationship to the point that they were now no longer single entities; they were intertwined. Like salt and pepper.
As beautiful as it was to see, I never envisioned myself going on this path. At age 30, I still consider myself to be in child bride territory. Kids? Absolutely not — at least, not until I have approximately three eggs left in my body. I've spent my twenties much more consumed with growing my career, managing my mental health, taking myself on solo trips to Europe, and buying yummy treats to eat on Friday nights while I binge-watch my favourite movies.
After many years of working on my insecurities, I've reached the point where I'm deeply comfortable with my solitary life. I like that I can do what I want each day without considering what someone else wants to do. I like the feeling of being in a new place alone and surrounded by strangers. I like solo dinners with just a book in hand. Single life is far from that nightmare I thought it was in my early 20s. Now, it's something I'm afraid to give up.
Yet, I didn't expect myself to react the way I did when all of a sudden, my other single friends steadily started joining the couple committee. Boys that I had never, ever seen with girlfriends suddenly became doting partners. They moved into new flats with their fresh loves. They spoke about children and marriage. And then, they actually started getting married.
It's a complicated feeling to be ecstatic about your friends' happiness whilst also mourning their marriage. Every engagement ring, every wedding dress fitting, every hen party and every bridesmaid dress was a reminder that my friends had leapt off the pier into a different life. I was left still standing on the edge, dry and alone. It was impossible not to see that I was the only woman in my group who was unmarried (let alone single!). I was the only person not moving into an apartment with their shiny new partner, instead opting to live with my mum. I hadn't even been on a date in the last two years (though this one is understandable given the current dating market).
My solitary nature, which was usually a source of pride, transformed into a coping method of self-sufficiency — the only way I could handle being with my friends without entering a self-doubt spiral.
Unlike my emo era, this wasn't just a phase my friends were going to be snapped out of. Soon, becoming an outlier became the standard. During Christmas lunches, I'd overanalyse where to sit at the table so I wouldn't break up any couples. For game nights, I'd have to ask if someone would pair up with me first to avoid being picked last by default. Sunday sessions at the pub would be cut off frighteningly early as everyone wanted to get home and... do couple things? My solitary nature, which was usually a source of pride, transformed into a coping method of self-sufficiency — the only way I could handle being with my friends without entering a self-doubt spiral.
But when we consider the psychology behind friendship, it's not hard to understand why this alienation can trigger us to feel resentful, jealous, or insecure about our friendships. "Our closest friends and the people we spend the most time around, have a huge impact on our understanding of ourselves and how we feel about relationships," psychologist Ash King tells Refinery29. "Our personal sense of self is derived from other people: the peer groups we are a part of, what they think of us, how they treat us and what kind of behaviours (or social norms) they model or expect."
This modelling and expected social norms add up to the equation of feeling alienated, lost, jealous or resentful of our friends' shifting lives, especially as the single outlier. "It's a challenging experience to want the best for and be happy for our friends, while simultaneously feeling resentful or potentially yearning for what they have," King says. When our friends are ticking off life experiences and adhering to the 'social clock', which King and other psychologists call the "culturally defined timeline for social milestones", it's easy to feel like you're being left out or are falling behind. In fact, these feelings are totally natural.
These timelines can often come in the form of completing a degree, buying a home, having kids, and yep, getting married. King says that the people who tick off these culturally appropriate milestones often receive acceptance and approval, whilst those who lag behind or choose to disregard the clock entirely "run the risk of alienation and judgement from the society they exist within". In turn, this can heighten anxiety, depression, or negatively impact our self-esteem. Damn, I hear that.
So, how can I navigate my friendships as the only single person?
There's obviously no one-size-fits-all fix to these types of scenarios and feelings. But King shares that there are a few things that might help.
Know that you’re not broken or flawed
King says that being the only single person in a fully coupled-up friendship group can leave you with thoughts like, “What’s wrong with me?”, “Why haven’t I got anyone?”, “I must be broken / hard-work / unloveable. "It’s easy to fall down these mental rabbit holes, particularly if you find yourself yearning for a good partner," she says. "While building self-awareness and understanding your relationship patterns can be useful, severe self-criticism is not so useful. It will likely leave you feeling more miserable."
Acknowledge that feeling isolated just feels hard
If you're feeling sadness, disappointment, embarrassment or envy about your situation, King emphasises that these are totally normal emotions to have, especially when you feel like you're out of step with the normative behaviour in your social group. "It’s easy to feel isolated when you aren’t doing what others or doing — and it might feel isolating to be single, especially in social scenarios when everyone is all loved up," she says. "Remind yourself that these feelings are normal."
It’s hard to feel “off-time”
The pressure to hit certain culturally endorsed milestones can be a real trigger for many people, says King. "While this is not unusual, it can be challenging to work through this alone — so getting some mental health support can be useful, or even finding other supportive social communities whose current relationship status or values mirror your own." It's okay to feel a little behind compared to what others are doing. It's also okay to skip these milestones entirely. Surrounding yourself with people who think like you and have similar priorities to you can do wonders.
You don’t need to want what everyone has (but if you do, that’s fine too)
"It's challenging when you find yourself wanting different things to those culturally endorsed milestones and achievements that everyone seems to be ploughing through," says King. "If you do want something different, chances are that there are other people like you who want different things too! The internet is a cool place to find them." Alternatively, if you do want to achieve those milestones, that's totally okay too. King says that it's important not to give up hope of finding a partner or starting a family altogether, if that's what you want. Just give yourself a little more patience, curiosity and kindness.
While I know that I'm not going to ever be suddenly okay with being the black sheep of my friendship group, perhaps what's more important is knowing that there are so many other people out there who are also dealing with these complex emotions. Perhaps it's time to start a virtual movie club with other single babes — wanna join?