There’s an oft-repeated mantra among young people and those who cater content toward them that being single is the secret to “finding yourself.” The internet is littered with articles about why being on your own beats out coupling up because you have the space to focus on yourself since you don’t need to worry about all the tough stuff that comes with relationships. Singlehood “gives us the distance and clarity that we need to get to know who we truly are as a person,” one expert told Bustle this year. “You learn to love yourself for who you are and become a stronger, better, and more attractive person because of it,” BuzzFeed tells us.
In other words, if you really want to grow as an individual, you really need to ditch the partner.
As someone who has more or less been in long-term relationships without pause since I was 16 years old, I tend to shrink away from the conversation when anyone brings up this strange myth. The subtext of the assertion, of course, is that relationships hold us back in our personal development. It used to make me wonder: Should I have spent more time being single in my youthful years? Am I less strong of a person, less independent, less self-loving, less feminist, even, because of my perpetual desire to share my life with another person?
Now that I’m older and the most confident and personal growth-focused I’ve ever been, I know the answer to that question: Hell fucking no.
The idea that you need to be single to figure out who you are is total BS. There are a lot of upsides to flying solo at every age of your life (and to everyone single and loving it, rock on), but we need to stop selling the lie that “finding yourself” isn’t possible in a long-term relationship. Only unhealthy relationships do that. Only unhealthy relationships force us to sacrifice our relationship with ourselves.
A solid, supportive relationship offers stability, peace of mind, emotional support, and tons of learning opportunities. All of these things have the power to bring out the best, most productive, and most authentic version of you there is.
Relationships push you to grow
Whether you’re sharing your life with somebody or going through life solo, you’re going to run into challenges. Sure, when you’re in a relationship, your partner may impact the kinds of obstacles you face — diminishing certain challenges while possibly magnifying others — but each instance will still provide you with a unique opportunity to learn about yourself and grow from the experience.
“We use relationships as vehicles for personal transformation,” relationship and intimacy expert Marla Mattenson tells Like A Boss Girls. “When you approach relationships from that perspective, it’s like blame, judgment, and all those negativities completely disappear. What happens is, when you get into a conflict with your partner, basically the conflict is the opportunity to look at how you are being activated. So — how am I being activated in this conflict? What is it that affects me?”
Popular culture frequently suggests that some of the best methods for finding yourself are only found in single life, like encountering lots of different kinds of people through a bunch of one-off dates or traveling solo in a foreign country. Personally, I believe that coupledom can often provide many of the same benefits. Relationships help us pinpoint the behaviors that bug us, which situations throw us off, and the type of atmospheres that we thrive in. Life as a couple constantly forces us to be in motion with another person — an experience that, arguably, presents an even greater personal challenge.
“You don’t need to find yourself outside of your life. You can find yourself in your life, in your real life,” Mattenson says. “The relationship is one of the only places in your life where you can’t hide who you are. It’s the best opportunity to look at the truth of how you’re showing up in your life and to pivot in the direction of growth. To pivot in the direction of being the better version of yourself and being more kind and loving.”
Relationships make you think about how your decisions impact others
For all the talk about self-care, there’s still something to be said about kindness and mindfulness toward others. When you’re with someone you really, truly love, you earnestly want to treat them right — not because you “have to” or because they’re forcing you to, but because you honestly just want the best for that person. That sincere motivation means you’re constantly asking yourself whether you’re truly being as kind, caring, empathetic and communicative as you could possibly be. These qualities you develop are likely to carry over to ultimately make all of your relationships better, and on a larger scale, these are traits that have the power to make you a force for good in the world.
This isn’t to say that single folks can’t be all of these things. Some people feel that same push to be better from having kids, taking care of an aging parent or younger sibling, or from investing in a friendship. But being in a healthy romantic relationship is one surefire way to bake all these personal growth targets right into your day-to-day life.
Stability in your personal life gives you more energy to put toward your other goals
When one of your friends gets into a serious romantic relationship, you may become anxious about how little you are going to see him or her in the months or years ahead (that is, until you get into a serious romantic relationship and the roles are reversed). Further feeding into this myth of the all-consuming relationship are the people who say they “don’t have time for a relationship” because they’re too focused on their careers.
These narratives may apply to the very beginning of a romantic relationship or to a particularly turbulent or toxic love affair, but a strong, stable, long-term relationship often results in the exact opposite behavior. In a healthy relationship, your emotional and sexual needs are being met. When you don’t need to worry about all that stuff, you can actually focus on all the other important things in your life: succeeding at work, spending more quality time with your friends, and developing hobbies.
That’s certainly been true for me: During the few brief periods I’ve been single, I whittled away my free time with swiping on dating apps, looking for sex, and obsessing over cute boys texting or not texting me back. That stuff is draining and feels like it all takes up so much time. Being in a committed relationship, on the other hand, opened up my free time and created fresh headspace so I could really focus on my writing and hang out more often with my friends.
Meggie Jenkins, 27, even thinks dating her now-husband for so long helped her expand her mind and consider new possibilities for her life.
“When I was my own person, I was very sure of myself and what I wanted out of life. When I started dating Ben, he opened up a whole world that I never knew existed,” Jenkins tells me. “We come from very different backgrounds, even within our small town. I was strong, but sheltered and smart, but had only my narrow perspective on the world, having been raised on a farm. He was so clever and alternative and showed me a whole new way of thinking.”
Jenkins thought she’d live on a farm in Illinois her whole life, but she says her husband completely revolutionized her thinking — she has since moved with him to the big city of Chicago and works in higher education after getting her own degree in history and education.
Even relationships that end can have a huge impact on other areas of your life. California-based writer Laura Munoz recently ended an engagement, but she credits that support system she’d had with her ex-fiancee for helping her figure out where she wanted to be: “When we started dating, I was knee-deep in a career path I didn’t like at all, and I think he really saw that with more clarity than I was able to at the time. He helped me figure out that I had other options, and I don’t think I could have made a career change without his support.”
You can embrace being single without casting a shadow on relationships
I believe that the suggestion that singlehood is great for finding yourself comes from a place of good intentions. We are seeking to assure single people that their lifestyle is something to celebrate with no shame attached — and to that end, this dialogue is a good thing. Particularly for women, cultures across the world subscribe to the rhetoric that marriage is a necessity for a happy life. We desperately need to construct a new narrative that emphasizes that a forever-single life can be immensely fulfilling.
But in our desire to point out why there’s absolutely nothing wrong with independence, we need to be sure not to veer too far in the other direction — falsely claiming that the single life is the only or best method for finding yourself. While this idea may make some people feel good, it shames the people who do thrive in a relationship. Simultaneously, this narrative lowers our standards for what a healthy relationship actually looks like and further distances us from our right to autonomy and individuality in a romantic relationship.
Take a look at some of these explanations for why singlehood is so great:
- You get to go out with friends all the time “without the guilt,” an Elite Daily article touts: “Just think — no need to ‘check in’ with someone to let them know who you’re with, where you’re at and what time you’re expected to be home. Freedom at last.”
- “Nothing holding you back, nothing keeping you from exploring or traveling, so take it all in and make the most of it,” says The Odyssey.
- “You can eat what you want to, when you want to, and any way you want to, all without feeling judged,” BuzzFeed celebrates with glee.
- “The most logical response to really liking someone can be to choose not to live with them,” warns The Huffington Post. “It is almost impossible to cohabit and not eventually succumb to a degree of scratchy familiarity, contempt and ingratitude.”
According to these accounts, all relationships are personal death traps that suck out all the individuality from your body, handcuff you to an increasingly depressing domestic life (that apparently has no food involved) and make you hate everyone you once loved.
Our words matter. Every time we sell these toxic narratives, we’re setting up not only negative expectations about what being in a relationship is like but also creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we normalize love that looks like what’s described above, is it any surprise that we’ll later accept people who treat us like that into our lives?
Bottom line: Your personal growth shouldn’t be linked to your relationship status
Being single is neither good nor bad. As a matter of fact; the same goes for being involved with someone. Everybody needs different things for different reasons and at different times in their lives, and everybody thrives under their own unique set of circumstances.
“Everyone is on their own path,” Mattenson says. “Their path is exactly perfect for what their growth trajectory is. Whether that’s being single, whether that’s being in a relationship, it doesn’t matter. Everyone is on their own personal growth journey.”
Let’s stop selling the story that one relationship status is better than the other. Single or hitched, the bottom line is that your life will be defined by the type of relationship you’re in with yourself. If you genuinely love yourself, you will naturally attract the type of people that will add value to your life, including significant others. If you are confident standing on your own two feet, then being in a healthy romantic relationship won’t put a damper on the trajectory of your personal growth.
Yes, some people who jump from relationship to relationship do so out of insecurity, but it is unfair to assign that stereotype to everyone. It’s absolutely possible to be a “relationship person” and still be confident, independent, personally driven, and actively involved in meaningful friendships.
Whatever your relationship status is today, it should bring out the best in you. Please, don’t project your single vs. partnered preference onto those around you — each one of us deserves the freedom to choose the lifestyle that we believe is the right fit in the pursuit of our best self.