Growing up, I always thought of romance as inevitable. Like hitting puberty, I saw being in a relationship as a milestone of sorts, one that everyone eventually experiences. Every YA novel I read or TV show and movie I watched reinforced that idea. From enemies-to-lovers to best friends-to-lovers to “the one that got away”-to-lovers, romantic love in its many tropes is shown and celebrated so widely by so many cultures that, as a teen, it never occurred to me that it doesn’t happen for everyone.
And yet, here I am. I’m 27, and I’ve never been in a relationship — romantic or physical. I’m batting zeroes across the board.
Not long ago, I would have felt too ashamed to voice my always-been-single status out loud to a friend, let alone strangers on the internet. My lack of relationship experience felt like an embarrassing secret, a failure of sorts, one that always made me wonder: Is there something wrong with me?
I grew up in a conservative, Muslim, Desi household, in a small town in a predominantly Muslim country. My school was segregated by gender, but even so, I watched awkward flirtations play out in the hallways and online. Girls and boys craned their necks around corners for glimpses of their crushes and fostered fledgling relationships over Facebook. I smiled and supported my friends as they gushed about their crushes and partners, vicariously living through their experiences. But when my thoughts turned to my own relationship status, I felt a little anxious. Chalking it up to general teenage awkwardness, I brushed those feelings aside and was happy to wait for my own crushes to develop.
High school came and went without the appearance of my first love, though. I was disappointed, but not too concerned yet. Maybe my foray into romance wasn’t meant for high school, I reasoned with myself. So I accepted that living in a small town, in the home of my conservative parents, was what had kept me from ticking off the experiences I was meant to be having. In university, I resolved, I’d relish these moments that everyone else was already living.
But it didn’t happen then, either. And as my friends graduated from their high school relationships to more adult ones, I began to feel as though I was falling behind in some way. I was afraid that by not dating, experimenting, hooking up, or falling in and out of love, I was missing out on something big, and not living a full life. But I could never bring myself to invite, seek out, or facilitate romance. And because I had shed so many of the limiting beliefs that had been holding me back, I couldn’t understand why.
There are times when I’ve become preoccupied with my (lack of a) love life. It once got to the point that, when meeting up with friends on a trip back to my hometown, I admitted to a crush that didn’t exist, simply for the sake of having something normal to add to the conversation for once. I was tired of feeling like a bore; no one ever said anything, but I could sense my friends’ disappointment whenever I failed to have a relationship update. I doubt it was intentional, but I’d walk away feeling less than, lacking, unaccomplished.
After university, I experimented with dating apps: Bumble, Tinder, Minder (Muslim Tinder), and even an offbeat app that’s supposed to cater to introverts. But using the apps felt fake and forced, akin to how I used to go through the motions of religious practices — except, instead of doing it to please my parents and community, I was swiping in order to please the norms of a wider, global community. Mostly, I constantly tweaked my profile, trying to best reflect the essence of me. I made some matches, but let most of them expire, and while I chatted with some nice-seeming people, the prospect of actually meeting up seemed more stressful than exciting. Finally, in one fell swoop, I deleted all the apps.
Around then, my internal monologue around my lack of relationships became harsh. Am I a loser? I wondered. Am I weird? Is there something wrong or inherently unlovable about me? Am I just emotionally stunted? I felt jealous, not over my friends’ relationships but over how crushes and flirting and dating seemed like second nature to them. I was even jealous of unrequited love; I wanted to feel something. I looked everywhere for justification for my disinterest. Am I asexual? Demisexual? Is low self-esteem or social anxiety keeping me from “putting myself out there”? Is religion part of it?
These thoughts continued to spin in my head, exacerbated by my family’s own frustration over my constant rejection of potential arranged marriage proposals. “At least meet them,” my parents would say. “Aren’t you worried about ending up alone?”
Usually, these questions made me feel like something was wrong with me. But one day, the thought crossed my mind: Am I worried about ending up alone? Immediately after those words popped into my head, they were followed by another question: Is that the only point of a relationship — to not be alone when I’m older?
I’d spent my teen years expecting to want a relationship and my young adult years wanting to want a relationship, but I never stopped to think about what happened next, after I “got” the partner. Once I began thinking further in the future, I realized I couldn’t genuinely say that I did want to share my life and all its moments with someone else.
I’ve always liked to daydream about the life I want. As a kid, I spent hours upon hours dreaming about being a writer — how it would feel to see my name in print, to profile people, to weave stories and touch readers. Eventually, I became a writer. Then, when I decided a 9-to-5 job wasn’t for me, I vividly daydreamed about freelancing full-time — and again, I achieved it. Later, I began dreaming about packing up and moving to a new continent, a process I’m actually in the middle of right now.
But when it comes to relationships, I’ve never really fantasized much. I’ve wondered how it would feel to be intimate with someone, but I’ve never spent hours really envisioning it, desiring it, finding myself preoccupied with picturing it. Instead, I thought of relationships like I would think about skydiving or chowing down on an Insta-worthy meal: something I might do for the experience, or because people expected me to do it, or because I was afraid of missing out by not doing it — but not because I genuinely needed to do it.
Ultimately, I realized something simple but true: I’ve never wanted an actual relationship. It’s a truth that’s always been there, just waiting to be realized. A truth that was hidden in plain sight, an underlying feature that lay in my early anxiety and passivity toward relationships, in my inability to open myself up to the same experiences that others so warmly embraced, and in every moment where I said no to my parents and their revolving door of potential suitors. It’s a truth that came together piece by piece as I learned to separate what I want versus what I think I’m supposed to want, in all aspects of life. A truth that unveiled itself through identifying what a full life means to me, through learning that alone doesn’t mean lonely, and through acknowledging that the fictional relationships I looked to as an ideal were a far cry from what reality has to offer.
Society perpetuates this illusion that being coupled up is an essential step in one’s lifetime journey, and pop culture portrayals tend to lump women who choose to be single into one of three categories: (1) the confident, sexual being, (2) the elegant yet wounded widow or otherwise traumatized individual, and (3) the homely, lonely, and sad woman. Must I identify with one of these tropes to justify myself?
The general belief that a relationship is the key to happiness stretches back centuries. In ancient Greek mythology, humans were created with four arms, four legs, and a head with two faces. The Greek god Zeus, fearing that our contentment and power would keep us from worshipping him, cleaved us in two, sentencing us to spend much of our lives looking for our “other halves.” But I feel whole with my two arms, two legs, and one face. And while I sometimes feel like an oddball, and wish I had a perfect answer for why I don’t want to date, I’ve decided that berating myself for who I am is no different than wishing I was three inches taller — I’m just not built that way.
So here I am: At 27, I’ve never had any sort of a relationship, and I don’t know if I ever will. I might, someday, but I’m finished waiting around to be struck over the head by the kind of love that’s supposed to shake me to my core and complete me. Of course, I have my own share of regrets, of things in my life that I’m dissatisfied with, outcomes I wish I could change — but my relationship status isn’t one of them.
Welcome to The Single Files. Each installment of Refinery29’s bi-monthly column will feature a personal essay that explores the unique joys and challenges of being single right now. Have your own idea you’d like to submit? Email email@example.com.
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