Long Reads

“This is what I’ve learned from being single for a year”

Welcome to Stylist’s first ever Love Week, where we’re celebrating the relationships that matter the most to us with a series of beautiful essays. Here, writer Megan Murray celebrates her one year anniversary of being single, and shares the lessons she has learned over the past 12 months.

“So it looks like you left me in 2018 then, huh?”

I looked at my phone a full three weeks after New Year’s Day and rolled my eyes to the high heavens.

One of the f**k boys from my 2018 post-breakup dating spree apparently still thought the new year was a good hook for his chat up lines. Naturally, I sent a screenshot of his message to my friends straight away.

The group chat replies started rolling in thick and fast: “Why do you think he’s messaged you? What are you going to reply?”

Without a conscious thought my fingers took control and answered for me: “I’m not - he’s already been archived.” 

About 0.7 seconds later, I was struck with how far in the last year I’d come, and just how proud of myself I was for it.

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How a solo Valentine’s Day taught me to be alone without feeling lonely

You might be feeling a little lost, dear reader, so jump inside my Tardis and let me take you back in time to last Valentine’s Day, when I was in what we’ll call ‘not a great place’.

After finding out my now ex-boyfriend had been texting his old flames, we’d had a painful few on-off months, over which he tried to persuade me back into a relationship and I internally debated whether I could trust him again. By the time I finally decided we should be on for good, it was the week of Valentine’s Day. So, after a few conversations about how we were going to make this work, I gave in to my romantic side and sent him a Valentine’s treat to his house, accompanied by a message about how much I loved him and how excited I was for the new chapter of our relationship. 

Writer Megan on her first solo trip to Paris

His response? Thanks, but no thanks. He had suddenly decided that this whole me-and-him lark wasn’t, well, for him. As you can imagine, it wasn’t what I expected to hear. Five hours later I was at a singles party, pissed as a fart and subjecting the rest of the gathering to listening to ‘our song’ as I progressively got more snotty.

As any newly single person knows, the first few weeks after a breakup can be rough. The attention and affection that I was used to getting were suddenly snatched away from me, and I felt not only destabilised and alone but also compelled to ‘show him’ and reclaim my body. And my way of doing this was to blunder into dating just so I had the satisfaction of knowing he wasn’t the last person to have me.

This is pretty normal behaviour. A recent study found that many of us try to attain some sort of sexual attention or affection from a new partner as a way to cope with the end of a relationship. And this was me all over. I downloaded Tinder and had gone on my first date (and had my first one night stand) within a week since the relationship ended. Over the next three months, I continued talking to several men a week on dating apps, while going on another few Tinder dates. I let friends set me up with people and accepted an invitation to go for a drink with a past fling, even though I wasn’t really that into him.

I even indulged in possible romances that I knew weren’t a good idea. I dated a man from Paris, even though he was actually quite boring. I then scored a second international lover on a holiday to Portugal. As soon as he got off the Gatwick Express I knew the holiday magic had vanished, but I continued to entertain it because I not only liked the attention, but felt scared of how I would feel being completely alone.

But deep down somewhere I knew that the relentless dating wasn’t really what I wanted. I needed to process, to heal and to use this time as a way to get to know myself better and, more than anything, be comfortable with myself. So nearly four months in I just… stopped.

I deleted all the dating apps on my phone and cut off pointless conversations with people I wasn’t really interested in, to remove the temptation to look for attention.

I tried to rewire my brain so that I stopped thinking of the men I met as potential partners. I stopped actively looking at men in the street, at bars or at parties. And once I had wrapped my mind around the idea of not dating, I released myself from the self-consciousness I had sometimes felt in the past. I no longer worried about what I looked like, and I started living more in the moment, released from any pressures relating to my own vanity.

get over a breakup

 Now that I was no longer dating I was free to get know myself better

Not only was this incredibly freeing, but it’s true what they say - time really is a healer. As the weeks went by, I felt the fog start to lift. I was beginning to realise how often I’d wasted my time with someone who wasn’t really worth it, just for the feeling of being liked. 

Once that metaphorical fog had gone I could see all the space I had around me. Now that I was no longer dating I was free to get know myself better, pour more time into my female friendships and tick off some of the goals I’d always dreamed of doing. I gradually got used to not having anyone to message me or plump up my self-esteem, and relied on myself and my friends instead.

So I went for it, and decided to go away on as many trips as possible with the people I love the most. I took my Mum to Hamburg to trace our family’s Germanic history, visited Paris with my dad (something that had always been on his bucket list), spent a weekend in Amsterdam with my flatmate, said yes to a work trip to Vietnam and planned a staycation with my university friends. Not dating also frees up a fair bit of money, by the way, not only time.

I also invested in being the best version of myself (however cheesy that sounds) whenever I had free time. Instead of participating in meaningless chat with a random person on Tinder, I put my energy into catching up with as many friends as possible. This included starting a gratitude Whatsapp group to encourage my friends to say three things they’re thankful for every day. I took my first solo trip alone and reveled in five whole days with nothing to do other than satisfy my every whim (hello champagne at midday in a beautiful French cafe), trusting myself to get me from A to B (“yes you can work this metro system”) and just really get to know myself.

hamburg holiday

Snaps of Megan and her mum on holiday in Hamburg

The rest of the time? Well, how does doing a calligraphy course and taking up French lessons sound? Doing these things nourished who I am as a person, without me having to preen my exterior (no new hair do needed) to genuinely help me feel at peace.

Of course, there have been plenty of wobbles along the way and I haven’t magically forgotten about my breakup. In fact, I still think about that relationship every day, but I think that’s OK. I register that it meant a lot to me and was a big part of my life, and without having had another new, meaningful relationship it’s my last point of reference when I speak to friends about their own relationships. But the important thing is that instead of plugging these feelings with someone new, I have been dealing with them and creating a base level of emotional stability for myself. 

And I’m not the only woman who thinks like this. A recent study found that although women tended to feel the pain of a break up more deeply than men, they also processed this upset on a more granular level in order to move on in a healthier way. In contrast, men were more likely to continue to move from partner to partner in order to avoid addressing their emotional state.

Now, I’m more comfortable being alone. In the past I may have given in to a crappy chat up line, telling myself that I might as well go for a drink if I’ve got nothing better to do. But I’m now fully aware of how much of a waste of my time this would be. I’ve got better things to do! I can see my friends, go on holidays and just generally enjoy being fabulous.

being single

“After having a series of long-term boyfriends I realised that I hadn’t been properly single in six years”

Of course, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t go out for a date with someone you don’t like. But for me personally, making the conscious decision to stop dating for a year not only cleared my head from my last relationship (and puts me in a better position for my next) but gave me the space I deserve to concentrate on myself in a way I never have. After having a series of long-term boyfriends, I realised that I hadn’t been properly single in six years, and that pressing refresh and spending time on my own was essential before getting into something new again. 

I do hope to meet someone new at some point, but I feel less focused on that now because I’m so happy with everything else in my life. I believe that forcing myself to be single and getting used to being alone has meant that, when the time is right and I do click with someone, I’ll be in an emotionally stable place, rather than feeling the need to find someone to fulfill me. Instead, I feel fulfilled on my own. I’ve done it, and it’s wonderful.

So here’s to Valentine’s Day, my single anniversary. Although last year’s event was pretty painful I’m glad that it happened, because this one could be the best yet.

How to be single

Looking to spend some time alone? Here are five things I did that helped me embrace being single: 

  • Concentrate on being a better friend. Take up the mantle as head of events in your social group and keep getting brunch and dinner dates in the diary. Revel in being a host, be the first one to anticipate your friend’s birthdays, check in with your closest friends and family everyday if you can and start sending actual post - it makes people really happy (and picking cute cards is fun!)
  •  Take a trip alone. Wait until you’re ready and don’t go too far afield if you’re not comfortable, but if you’ve never done a solo trip before, it will feel like a real achievement. Pick somewhere you have always wanted to go, plan beautiful places to visit while you’re there like art galleries or museums that you can spend as long or as little browsing as you want, and have super long lie ins and breakfast in bed cuddled up in a fluffy robe. That’s a must.
holiday with dad

“Check in with your closest friends and family everyday if you can”: Megan with her dad

  • Invest in your creative side. I took a lot of joy from learning a new skill (in my case, calligraphy). Not only did it make me feel like I had something new and interesting going on in my life, but having to use my hands to do something creative meant taking a break from looking at my phone and the thoughts whirring around my head.
  • Spend a chunk of your pay packet on something wonderful for yourself. Although I concentrated mostly on nurturing the inner me and not my outer appearance, it felt really good to spend £200 on my first Net-A-Porter purchase simply because I wanted to. The item in question was a floor length, pink, silk dress that I saved up for because it’s fabulous. I felt like a boss when it arrived, which is a good enough reason for me. 
  • Start a book club with yourself, collecting recommendations from people you admire and pledge to reading them. Reading is such a personal thing, it transports you away to a different place and sometimes that escapism is exactly what you need when all you can think about is your heart hurting. Taking an hour before bed every night to read is an act of self love, because it’s dedicated time just for you. It will slow down your mind and relax those thoughts that keep racing at night and stopping you from sleeping. It will improve your vocabulary and expand your mind, which in turn will make you feel more intelligent and accomplished, building your self esteem. It will also give you something to talk about other than your emotional state.

For some people, Valentine’s Day can hold a certain pressure to be in a relationship, but for me it was the perfect jumping off point to being single. I know it sounds cliche, but if you’ve caught yourself at any point wishing that you had someone to share today with, remember that you do - yourself. So make a promise to spend the next year treating yourself in the way that you deserve.

Images: courtesy of author, Unsplash