What You Can Actually Learn From Being Single

Photographed by Rachel Cabitt.
There’s this weird thing that a lot of us do when we find ourselves at the end of a relationship. We’ll be out with friends, sifting through the rubble of the breakup, and say something along the lines of this: That relationship taught me so much about myself. It’s like a consolation prize we give ourselves in order to feel like the relationship wasn’t a complete waste of time. And many times, that sentiment is true. You do learn things from relationships, whether it’s that you can’t date someone who doesn’t want children, or that you can’t stand being with a person who is always late.
But this past winter, as I realized that 2017 would mark three years since I’d been in a “serious” relationship, I started to question whether or not I was learning things about myself. Sure, I’ve learned things about “single Maria” — like she loves yoga, digs a Saturday by herself in the park, and isn’t afraid to take herself out to dinner.
But I wasn’t in a relationship, so I wasn’t learning about myself in relationships. I took this to mean that I was doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again. And I do have very specific patterns when it comes to romantic partners. Since I was always convinced that being with a terrible guy was better than being alone, I’d explain away bad behavior in order to make myself comfortable. I’d stay in bad relationships, even when the little voice in my head was screaming at me to get the fuck out of there, Maria! The spine that I’d spent so much of my single person life developing would turn into Jell-O the second I met a guy with a sleeve tattoo who owned a cast iron skillet and a record player.
Then, back in February, I started talking to Jude*, a guy who I felt was way different from any of the men I used to date. He was upfront and honest about what he wanted, and he never played mind games with me. There were so many times when I expected him to act in a certain, shitty way — because that’s the way all of my exes would act — only to have him turn around and behave in the normal, sane way I never expected. It was nice, and we settled into that “we’re seeing one another but aren’t in a relationship” situation quite well. And I found myself maintaining my spine: I wasn’t afraid to tell him exactly what I needed or wanted, and he seemed very receptive to it all.
After a few weeks, though, shit hit the fan, and I found myself repeating a mistake I’d always made: explaining the bad things away, and pretending I was okay with them. Did I care that Jude had had lunch with his ex-girlfriend the week my grandmother died and he was taking care of me? Of course not! How lovely was it that he was still on decent terms with his ex. How about the fact that he refused to spend time with me on Saturdays, because that was his “guy night,” even if he’d already spent Friday with the guys? I couldn’t be mad at that! He wasn’t my boyfriend, and doesn’t every guy deserve a night out with the boys?

The spine that I’d spent so much of my single person life developing would turn into Jell-O the second I met a guy with a sleeve tattoo who owned a cast iron skillet and a record player.

In the back of my head, I knew that all of these things were red flags. I knew that Jude would inevitably do something that would really test my resolve, and I was terrified that I wasn’t going to be able to walk away when he did. I’d get into long conversations with my friends and my mother in which I’d justify all of my behavior, but then show some righteous anger in order to make them feel like I hadn’t (once again) lost my spine. “If he pulls this shit again, I’m walking!” I’d declare. But on the inside, I wasn’t so sure.
And then, one night, Jude invited me over for tacos and proceeded to tell me he’d slept with someone else two days before — after he and I hadn’t been intimate for a couple of weeks. I lost it. I started screaming, which made him cry, which then made me cry, which made the whole situation incredibly confusing. We both laid our shit bare for an hour, after which he begged me to stay the night so that we could just figure this out. Maybe it will be better in the morning, I thought. So I sat down at his breakfast bar and watched him plate tacos for us. But the voice in my head was screaming at me to get the fuck out of there, Maria. And this time, for whatever reason, I listened to it. I quietly packed up my things as he watched, told him I had to go, cried into his chest, felt my resolve waver, but then walked out the door.
In the cab home, I cried on the phone to my mother, telling her everything that went down. “But, this time, I left,” I told her. As I said those words, I realized that I had, in fact, learned something about relationships, even though I wasn’t actually in one. Living without a partner for as long as I have been has showed me that being single actually doesn’t suck so much. Do I get a twinge of sadness when it seems like everyone in my family is either getting engaged, married, or pregnant? Yes, as a matter of fact, I do. But that no longer hurts so badly that it makes me want to stay in a bad relationship. That’s a lesson in and of itself — and it’s one I learned outside of a formal partnership.
As the cab pulled up to my apartment, I said goodbye to my mother, and told her, “I’m getting closer.” I meant that I was getting closer to finding my partner, but I’d like to amend that explanation now. I may be getting closer to finding a relationship, but I’m also getting closer to being the type of person who won’t compromise herself in order to stay in that partnership. And even though I was alone when I learned it, I know it will help me recognize the mistakes I make in “serious” relationships — and, I hope, keep me from repeating them, too.
* Name has been changed.
After being raised on a steady diet of Disney movies, I expected to meet someone and fall passionately in love — but wound up collapsing under the pressures of modern dating. Luckily, I eventually realized that there's no "right" way to date, and that I need to find happiness within myself, no partner needed. It’s Not You is where I write to calm the voices in my head — and hear from all of you. Follow me on Twitter, on Instagram, or email me at maria.delrusso@refinery29.com.

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