Sometimes when I’m with a large group of friends or peers, I’ll find myself counting off the members of the group who are either married or in relationships. Now in my mid-twenties, regardless of the friends I’m with at a given moment, I’ve noticed that the ratio of people in relationships to people who are single is only getting higher. Meanwhile, I’m one of the few people in my circle who actually switched over to the single side as we’ve gotten older.
Throughout college and into the first few years of my 20s, I was the “Relationship Girl.” My ex-boyfriend and I started dating at the end of high school and, though we ended up going to different colleges and were often separated by hundreds of miles, our relationship lasted for over seven years. While together in school, I was content with my relationship status — we stayed close while giving each other freedom to have the “college experience” of parties in unfinished basements and late night (platonic) adventures with quasi-strangers. We both made sure to never go MIA in our respective friend groups, which young people in relationships are wont to do. But as I listened to my single friends regale me with their tales of bad Tinder dates, one-night-stands, and complicated situationships, part of me felt like I was missing out on some pivotal part of young adulthood because I was coupled up.
My former status as a Relationship Girl became most apparent when I’d go out with my friends. While studying abroad in London, I went out with a bunch of my housemates to one of those big clubs off Piccadilly Circus that’s basically a Chuck-E-Cheese for grown-ups: light-up dancefloors, neon cocktails, you get the picture. At some point in the evening, our large group got separated and I followed two of the girls outside with some British finance bros they had been talking to that night. We were all pretty drunk, and the two new couples discussed going to a secondary location. I knew that I was technically invited to join them, but as they piled into a cab, I realized that I’d have a miserable time playing fifth wheel. I’d just be checking my phone for texts from my boyfriend for the rest of the night.
I let them go off without me and sobered up quickly when I realized that a) I had no idea where the rest of my group had gone, and b) I wasn’t entirely sure how to get home on my own. I eventually found my other friends and made it home safely, but I can’t say that was the only time I found myself in a complicated situation where I felt like an outsider intruding on my friends’ single adventures. As someone in a monogamous relationship, I was “allowed” to participate in the antics of my peers, but only up to a certain point. I’d recoil anytime a guy danced a little too close to me at one of those basement parties or feel a slight pang of guilt when joining in on a cuddle puddle with my theatre friends — however platonic the situation. I had my guard up often, which isn’t ideal at a time when you’re supposed to be making some of your deepest connections.
Eventually, the constant distance took its toll, and my ex and I called it quits. Suddenly, I found myself 25 and single for the first time in my adult life.
While I was mourning my relationship and felt slightly terrified of navigating adulthood without a partner, part of me was ready to get on Tinder and live the cosmopolitan single life that Sex and the City had promised me. And I did exactly that — I hooked up, I caught feelings, I got my heart broken, and I swiped left many, many times. And I shared it all with my friends. To my surprise, though, they suddenly couldn’t relate.
See, while I was going through the task of ending a long-term relationship and re-entering the dating pool, many of them were beginning long-term monogamous relationships. After years of dating horror stories, they had finally found their people and were ready to take “adult” steps like moving in with their significant others and getting engaged. They were trading cheap beer at dive bars on Friday nights for Netflix and cheese plates with their partners. Honestly, I couldn’t blame them, but the single life was proving to be a bit lonelier than I expected. Who was going to be my wingman/woman/person at the bar? Who would I swap hookup stories with at brunch?
To their credit, though, my friends were incredibly supportive and helpful during my breakup and transition to single life. Most of them had been there at some point in time and were willing to listen when I wanted to talk about it — and to leave the subject alone when I didn’t. And they encouraged me to go out, get on the apps, and start dating again. But my early 20s fantasy of a single girl gang going out together in search of phone numbers and dance floor makeouts didn’t live up to the reality of my friends’ coupled-up in their mid 20s. As such, my new single life looked a lot like my pre-breakup life: nights spent at home attached to my phone, but trading a long-distance boyfriend for strangers on OkCupid.
I often wonder if I did things “out of order” by going from the Relationship Girl to the Single Friend.
I’m 28 now. The wedding invitations are starting to roll in, and I usually don’t have a date. At a time in my life when I should — by society’s standards — consider “settling down,” I’m still casually dating, still swiping on dating apps, still generally unattached. But while I do want to build deeper connections and eventually get married, I am pretty content with going solo right now. I simply have other priorities at the moment: I recently started graduate school, I’m building my career, and I’m pursuing my passions, like writing and travel. This isn’t to say that you can’t do all of these things while in a relationship (I know plenty of people who do!), but being unattached has allowed me to focus on my own growth. I believe this growth will help me thrive in future relationships.
Plus, getting to know new people through dating is just...fun. I love chatting with my dates, hearing their stories, and having an excuse to explore more of New York City. Not every date is a winner, but I’m cautiously optimistic and see singledom as a time of great possibilities, one of which could be falling in love.
While I’m definitely still figuring it all out, I think I’d much rather be single now, in my late 20s, than go back in time and experience college unattached.
During college, I was sorting out my anxiety disorder, coming out to myself as bisexual, and feeling completely lost when it came to imagining my future. My ex gave me a shoulder to cry on and someone with whom I could process my shifting identity, and I did the same for him. Having a constant confidante is something I do miss now that I’m single. While I realize that a lot of my friends were going through similarly complicated things in college, I believe my internal turmoil would have made dating around much more difficult for me. But now I have a much better idea of who I am and what I want than I did in college and in my early 20s. That level of self-awareness is necessary for me when it comes to dating.
So while it can be a bit awkward to be the third (or fifth, or seventh, or whatever odd number you choose) wheel in many situations, I can’t complain too much about being the Single Friend. I may have missed out on bonding with my peers over dating adventures in our early 20s, but now they can be fountains of advice as I wade through the dating pool. And, ultimately, I know they’ll be there for me through it all, probably ready to say “I told you so” every once in a while.
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