Don't ask! That kind of thinking sets you up for nothing but agony and self-doubt. If you're really serious about love, Katherine Russell Rich has the questions you should be asking.
Last summer, when I lived in the country, an ad for a local dating service would come on the radio every time I drove around. "But I'm as pretty and interesting and nice as my friends. Why am I single?" a petulant voice would say. Then an announcer would cut in and tell her to go to speed-shuffle date night; her friends would soon be choking with envy, he'd imply, and each time I'd think, Yeah, right. Okay, she existed in drive-time and was doomed to lament her situation every 15 minutes, but that wasn't what made me doubt that she was heading toward paired happiness. It was the question. She was asking the wrong one.
If you've been without a partner for a while and aren't happy about it, it's natural to wonder why. But put that question to yourself, and the result is you find yourself confronted with obstacles—some considerable. You're single because you moved to New York, where the odds are tipped in favor of men, and not to Alaska, where they aren't. Or because you take jobs that keep you at the office till the dead hours, or because you keep falling for married men, or because your husband died, or because you're over a certain age, which, beginning at about 25, is generally ten years less than what you are right this minute. Then what do you do? You consider cashing in your career and moving to Anchorage, or signing up to be a mail-order bride to China—and then you weep.
I'm not saying that any of these obstacles are permanent or insurmountable. We all know stories of people who found flaming happiness exactly when everyone was convinced they wouldn't. I recently heard—true story, I swear—of a woman in her 60s who was widowed unexpectedly and two years later married a Canadian mountie. Another woman, a landscape artist obsessed with her work, turned down man after man on the grounds that they were wrong for her, then, to her tsking friends' astonishment, ran off with the right one. I was one of the friends who tsked, so I can testify firsthand. She's radiant.
But what's the point of finding happiness after years when you can find it right now? "Yeah, right," you say. How? Easy. And hard: You change that question.
Consider, for starters, what happens when you ask yourself, "Why am I still single?" You immediately lump yourself in with a designated sorry category that, I'm going to argue right here, doesn't truly exist. Let me explain. In all those social science studies of singles versus marrieds, everyone knows that the singles group is considered the unfortunates. That's why it's always news when they find—who would believe it?—that the single women have managed to eke out some happiness in their otherwise bleak lives. And yet, in actual terms, there's no such thing as single as a bloc. It's not a solid category like Armenian. It's not a fixed characteristic like shoe size. If anything, it's a false social construct. Nowadays we're all single at some points in our lives, involved at others, which is why it gets you a whole lot farther to ask yourself, "How can I make the most of whatever stage I'm in?" And then set about to figure out the answer.
Now here comes the hard part. To find answers, you have to truly embrace this stage you're in now. Do that and, paradoxically, you're more likely to end up with a boyfriend—for reasons I'll explain—but you can't be doing it to get a boyfriend. You have to relish where you are right now, without a view to side returns—something of a Zen conundrum. How are you going to "be here now" when you're bombarded with all the single-woman messages? "You'd better hurry up and find someone." "Time's running out." "There are no men out there." "Watch out, he's about to cheat on you." (Oh, wait, that's the one the married women get.)
"Leap into another [relationship] just to shore yourself up from the last, and a nasty cycle sets up."
To begin with, you're going to banish the words "out there" from your vocabulary and mind. For all the discussion we give to it, it's easy to forget that it's not a real place. Out there has a lot in common with Narnia, in fact: It's fraught with peril, and it's invisible. I've been at tables of women where we've spooked ourselves all night with discussions of out there ("Once you reach a certain age, you begin to try to make it work with anyone, because you realize there are no men out there"), then we've turned to the single among us and advised, "You know, you just have to get yourself out there." (All conversation guaranteed verbatim.)
Start to pay attention to your thoughts when you're freaking, and you'll begin to see how often you're getting flummoxed by unnecessary fear. The question, Why am I single? sends you in one direction and one direction alone: toward a zone of fear. The implication is, you're failing. You're in the void. That kind of thought is a trap. "Has anything good and strong ever come out of fear?" my friend Sarah asks. "It's a bad motivator. It always drives you into things that are wrong." For instance, and above all, the next bad relationship. Leap into another just to shore yourself up from the last, and a nasty cycle sets up. Because you're in the new relationship for shaky reasons—to salve the pain from the first—the second's pretty much guaranteed to fall apart. At which point, if you don't step back, you'll end up scrambling for a third that's destined to self-destruct.
Here's where the good question comes in. If, at that same panic point, you say to yourself, "All right, this is just where I am. How do I get the most out of this part?" you're putting yourself in a very different place, a zone of possibilities and expansiveness.
There are things you can do to help yourself enter that zone. A meditation practice is one of them. "One thing meditation's shown me," says Sharon Salzberg, author of Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience and cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society, "is that experience is one thing and our interpretation of it is another. The interpretation seems so solid and comes so quickly, we don't realize that there's space in there and that we have a choice of responses: compassion versus impatience, positive versus negative." To illustrate the difference between experience and interpretation, she laughingly gives the following example: "The other night, I was walking in the rain toward the class I teach, when I saw this guy coming toward me on a bicycle. My first thought was, "Oh, this poor guy, out in the rain on a bike." Then he splashed me. My next thought was, "Oh, how ridiculous to be out in the rain on a bike."
When you can separate incident from interpretation, she continues, you see more clearly, with more heart. "You learn to dare to say, 'What happens if I try viewing this event from this angle instead?'" she says. "It becomes like an adventure. You say, 'Wow, I spent all those years catering to the needs of this other person. Look at this: I'm going to be myself.' Or 'I'm going to write my book. Or I'm going to reach out to these other people.'" If you think happiness can lie in only one thing, she concludes, you miss all the available happiness.
When you're in that zone of expansiveness, you become more generous with others and yourself. You give yourself time to figure out what you want. "The longer you're not with someone just to be with someone, the more you get a better sense of what's negotiable for you and what's not," says my friend Sarah, who, through allowing herself a breather, came to understand, "I can't hook up again with someone who doesn't love dogs. Or who wouldn't think of doing some sort of charity work, since that bespeaks a kind of stinginess at a spiritual level. Someone who has a lot of money—I don't care about that. On my own, I've learned these things about myself."
Generosity is a higher form of power, one that no one can give you but that you can freely take. Another friend did just that when she decided to stop telling herself, "I want to find someone to love me," and tried saying, "I want to find someone to love." Not long after, she did.
When you expand yourself, you expand your world. And that's why you do it, why you shift into a generous realm, not to get a boyfriend, though there's a good chance that will be one result. (You're a lot more attractive with a wide, full life than when you're judging each man by what he can give you.) You do it for the broader vision, for the expansion itself, which will build on itself till your life will have levels and depths you never thought possible. You do it in order to be fully present at each moment of your life. When you are, anything can happen. When you're shut down by fear, not much will. And you do it because when you're in that larger place, you get to see, once and for all, there's really nothing out there.
Katherine Russell Rich is the author of The Red Devil: To Hell with Cancer—and Back.
More from the O relationship vault: Marriage without a map
Printed from Oprah.com on Sunday, December 8, 2013
© 2012 Harpo Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.