I have a distinct memory of my dad telling me a certain boyfriend “wasn’t worth it”. I was 16. It had been my first love, and we’d just broken up. “You’re a beautiful girl, Laura,” my dad said to me, while driving. “You’re smart and you don’t have to put up with someone that makes you sad.” It’s simple advice, but it stuck. I reminded myself of his words often in the following years, usually following a breakup.
But when my longest relationship ended late last year, my dad was no longer able to give me the same speech. The breakup unfortunately coincided with the gradual loss of my father to dementia. It was a horrible experience: I found out that my boyfriend of five years had cheated on me while I was visiting my parents in New Zealand. My dad’s health was rapidly deteriorating and my mum feared it would be the last time I saw him, so I attempted to hide my heartbreak.
I flew back to New York, where my partner and I lived together, to find myself single for the first time since college. After the official split, one of the first places my mind went to was that conversation I had as a teenager with my dad. While my ex-boyfriend packed his bags and moved out, the memory of those words was my only source of comfort.
Very quickly, I entered the dating world — for all the wrong reasons. My ex had started seeing someone in Paris, parading her to places we had visited only a few months prior, on an anniversary trip no less. My natural reaction was to enter the unspoken game of who cares less. I developed a routine: Go out on a date that I wasn’t ready for, come home alone to a house that felt empty, check my ex’s Instagram stories, then message or call my mother to ask how my father was doing in the dementia home he had just moved into back in New Zealand.
During this time, it’s no surprise that the connections I made weren’t healthy. I downplayed the heartbreak I felt over my ex and completely avoided talking about the nightmare happening at home. I accepted treatment that I otherwise wouldn’t have, grew tired of people quickly, and ended things with anyone who was remotely “too nice” to me. “You’re just too happy, and I’m really not,” is an excuse I’m ashamed to admit I used.
I was grieving the slow loss of my father and the abrupt loss of my relationship. My ex-boyfriend had become like family to me, and I was living far away from our home in New Zealand. In that state, my search for a new partner was getting confused with a search for a sense of security. But I quickly learned that forcing intimacy with someone I wasn’t entirely into left me feeling worse than I did alone. I’d often leave dates wishing I liked the person, giving them a second or third date in the hopes that I eventually would, then starting over with someone new when I realized I was ultimately uninterested.
By luck, I ended up on a date with someone who soon became my best friend. Though we were both unavailable for a romantic relationship, we went to events together, had movie nights, and scheduled dinners every week, in a dynamic that felt comforting and loving. He was also a writer, and we’d read each other’s work and have lengthy discussions about our concerns around romance. Slowly, I began to open up to him about my father. While he moved away during the pandemic, in hindsight, I can see how our interactions gave me insight into how a less traditional partnership could take shape, creating something that's sustainable, and enjoyable, for the more long-term future. We’re still building on our relationship everyday.
My father passed away a few months ago, in August. By then, I found myself in a place where dating was the lowest thing on my priority list — and instead of reaching out to a new partner, I was immediately surrounded by love and support from true friends. While I’d already decided to be more intentional with dating, my dad’s words to me as a teenager took on a new importance. They became a guiding force, encouraging me to cut ties with anyone who wasn’t adding value to my life and to unlearn the societal pressure that teaches us that our worth as humans comes from how desirable other people find us to be. For me, this looks like speaking to fewer people, saying no more often, and putting more energy into friendships and self-development.
I put this into practice during my first dating experience since my father’s passing. During dinner, I noticed that I wasn’t feeling supported. My date spoke over me while I discussed my work and made subtle jokes about my interests, even though he had very few of his own. However good he seemed on paper and however faint the orange flags may have been, my father’s advice inspired me to opt out of seeing what the next date would bring. While this may seem like a small step, it felt empowering to choose to be single rather than pursuing the wrong relationship for the sake of being in one.
Three months since my dad’s death, that ongoing work has led to me being the most happily single I’ve ever been. Without my dad to look out for me, I’ve found myself more eager to look out for myself. I’ve also made the decision to keep my family name if I ever decide to get married (something I’m very much on the fence about). While there have been moments where the loss has left me feeling the urge to make more connections, I’ve built a complete life outside of dating that I hope will only be complemented (not made) by anyone I choose romantically.
I doubt my father had any idea that a car conversation we had about a teenage boyfriend would become my go-to principal through dating as an adult. But his advice rings true for all of us. Too often the pressure to feel desirable or not be alone, especially for female-identifying people, leads us into romantic situations that are just not “worth it.” Interrogating that idea has led me to a healthier outlook on being single. Guided by father’s wisdom, deprioritizing romance during this time has been more fulfilling than I ever expected. Which is why it’s also my plan moving forward. For my dad’s sake, I intend to advocate for myself as strongly as I know he would, if he was still alive.