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Why singles are oscillating between two extremes: either consciously seeking a commitment or gleefully running away from them.

By Lekha Menon

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Published: Fri 30 Jul 2021, 4:17 PM

A wrong relationship will make you feel more alone than when you were single.”

This anonymous quote on a pop-counselling page on Instagram had me do a double take when it showed up on my feed the other day. Having just got off a long Zoom call with a friend during which we had pontificated and philosophised over the merits and demerits of staying single, this was perhaps just what I needed to read (hat tip to Insta algorithms for answering questions I never asked!).

As an avowed singleton who occasionally — and unsuccessfully may I add — made detours towards ‘coupledom’, the quote reiterated two of my long-held beliefs. One, that being single is as challenging as being attached. And two, love and committed relationships were wonderful when they worked out — but dreadful when they didn’t.

Pardon me if that makes me sound like a failed dater who is anti-romance because I am most certainly not! Like the rest of the world, I believe love exists somewhere on the planet and that the pursuit of ‘The One’ will always remain central to our need for togetherness.

Yet, years of being the sounding board for friends (married, nearly-married, single and almost-single), has taught me that wearing rose-tinted romantic glasses can get increasingly tiresome while coursing through the crests and troughs of modern-day affairs. As Pooja Gujral, an instrumentation engineer who’s been happily single for the last 12 years says (with an eye-roll!), says, “Relationships these days are pretty equal, so there is no difficulty in looking for a partner who supports you. But can you actually find one is the question!”

Added to this already convoluted cocktail is a new layer of complication: Covid-19. Among other things that the pandemic has messed up, a churn in attitude towards relationships ranks high. Whichever way you look at it, relationships are messier, thornier and nastier than ever before. And that’s precisely why singles seem to be oscillating between two extremes: either consciously seeking a commitment or gleefully running away from them.

(Not so) Romantic realisations

“I don’t think I want to be in a relationship ever again,” Maria Barton, an Abu Dhabi-based businesswoman, tells me firmly. Maria is gorgeous, gregarious and intelligent, yet when it comes to matters of the heart, she’s had a raw deal. She was in a five-year relationship with a man who had been away in National Service but when he returned, things had changed. “The pandemic made me realise I was actually an introvert who valued being alone but I hadn’t honoured that side of me for a long time,” she says. Meanwhile, her boyfriend’s unexpected mental health issues considerably strained their bond even as she faced her own career challenges. “Being a caretaker and responsible for someone was exhausting. He was loving and kind one day, snappy and abusive the next. I knew I had to take time off and focus on myself.”

It wasn’t easy to pull the plug on a long relationship but embracing the single life and practising self-love through kundalini yoga, meditation and a healthy vegan lifestyle helped Maria find her footing again. “Initially, I felt it would be nice to have a supportive partner. But not anymore... Right now, my life is simple without a partner complicating it.”

It is a thought shared by several single men and women: why travel with another baggage in an already difficult journey? For many, the pandemic has been a wakeup call, forcing them to reevaluate their lives and convictions. Sreemoyee Piu Kundu, author and columnist on gender and sexuality, and founder of Status Single, India’s first and only community for single urban women, notes that while the isolation did impact many women financially and emotionally, they were more likely to remain solo by choice as compared to men. “It does not mean you are always happy; you definitely go through depressing times but financial freedom and dating apps have opened up the world for women. Also, they are demanding equality from men and when they don’t get it, they are ready to give them the boot. On the contrary, fewer men are single by choice — you find them either divorced or separated. And the moment their marriage ends, they are on dating apps!” she says.

Covid may have proved to be a minor catalyst, but Sreemoyee feels that, over the years, the threshold for suffering bad affairs has become rather low. Citing her own break-up, she recalls how her last relationship with a man she met on Bumble had the elements of a perfect match until it all unravelled. Personal problems on both sides cropped up and the distance didn’t help either. “I tried my best to support him during his time of need but realised it was time to end it when he ghosted me at a vulnerable time in my life. Inconsistent people are a huge red flag,” she says. Ever since, Sreemoyee has been single, busy with her writing, other projects and Status Single.

No relationship, no cry

Interestingly, the pandemic and resultant isolation have made many singletons deeply value their independence with the idea that you can lead a fulfilling life without romance in the vicinity further gaining credence. Pooja, for instance, feels lockdowns have been a ‘blessing in disguise’. “It has made me comfortable with my singledom because I looked at the bigger picture of staying around friends and family rather than chase a stranger,” she says. Pooja also particularly stayed away from dating because she was “averse to a ‘texationship’ and during the pandemic, it all boiled down to that”.

On the other hand, Louishia Lee, a Singapore-based HR professional tried dating during the lockdown but has a different tale to tell. Quite like Maria, Louishia has been single after the break-up of a five-year relationship — but that didn’t deter her from giving her love life another chance. “I dated a lot during the pandemic, going from six to eight dates a week to only two,” she laughs. But none stood the test of time as they didn’t tempt her to commit. “I have always been independent, so being single didn’t feel quite as bad. There were lonely moments during the lockdown but perhaps it would have driven me crazier if I had a partner!” she says.

Overall, Louishia believes the period has made her more comfortable being alone, giving her time to reflect on what is important. “If I found the right person, I would love to be in a committed relationship. Otherwise, being single suits me perfectly,” she says, echoing others like her who believe that their best relationship is with themselves.

The male side of the story

Incidentally, the one common thread I noticed among all those I interviewed was that people who remained single for a long time appeared to be more at ease about cementing their singlehood (even if the pangs of loneliness pricked every now and then) than the committed ones in tricky relationships which got trickier due to Covid. Secondly, as Sreemoyee observed, men appeared to have had their own unique challenges grappling with the dilemmas that love posed as compared to women.

Hany Abdelwahid, digital transformation specialist and YouTuber, admits that the solitude of the pandemic last year was hard to cope with, and the subsequent stress impacted his relationship with his Egypt-based partner. “It was not my idea to live alone or be in a long-distance relationship, but there was no choice. Initially we would call each other every day, then it became once every two or three days,” he says. However, instead of allowing the depression to consume him, Hany decided to focus on honing his skills and developing new passions: setting up a YouTube channel, learning rollerblading and web designing, and giving his career his all. “I want to direct my attention on stuff that makes me happy,” he says. “I am now quite comfortable being alone.”

But this kind of comfort level with oneself takes a while to reach especially if you have walked the path of an intense relationship. Harsh Parekh, a media professional, feels that a lot of compassion, EQ and empathy are required for a relationship to survive in these turbulent times. “Remember, you are not the only one going through this, your partner is suffering equally. Unlike earlier, you cannot date, meet regularly and stay connected. So, it calls for a superhuman effort and a huge dollop of empathy to sail through it all,” he says.

Harsh’s own long-distance relationship went through a roller-coaster ride, with the lockdowns making communication with his beloved sporadic and difficult. “We could not travel to meet and iron out differences, the distance grew and eventually it took a toll. The pandemic certainly played its part in my personal life,” he confesses.

A time to reflect

Not surprisingly, most singles these days — regardless (or perhaps because!) of their past experiences — are choosing to tread cautiously. Even if it is not always the case of ‘once bitten, forever shy’, they claim the perks of being unattached far outweigh the cons of being chained to commitment. Louishia adds that at the start of the pandemic, she noticed people were excited to date (even if virtually). But as months passed, they got “jaded”.

For Harshita Dakoju, the operations and marketing manager of a publishing firm, being pragmatic about safeguarding her emotions is of supreme importance. After her divorce in 2012, Harshita remained largely single except for a brief disastrous dalliance that left her wary. Yet, after a point, she decided to give love another shot, this time through dating apps. “I met a few nice guys but soon realised I wasn’t going to get anything solid or substantial,” she says.

The last year and a half was a period of reckoning for Harshita as her entire outlook changed. “I started valuing my other important relationships — with parents, family, friends, and suddenly those seemed more sensible and meaningful than finding a superficial romantic partner. It takes a lot to change your course of life to accommodate somebody in it. I guess when you are with yourself completely, you realise what (or who) is dearest to you.”

Need for companionship

Brutal breakups, introspection, self-reflection — the recent past has seen new perspectives emerge. Yet what remains constant is the need for companionship, albeit with new terms and conditions. For instance, Harsh, despite his experiences, is a steadfast romantic. A tough brush with Covid has led him to value a good relationship all the more. “It was difficult being alone and taking care of oneself. At the same time, one saw relationships that grew stronger in the wake of a crisis. This definitely made you want to be in a good one yourself.”

Even the feisty Sreemoyee confesses to having ‘what if’ moments, especially when she contracted Covid. “During my severe health scare, there were days when I wished I had someone to share my concerns with. But soon I realised that I had some genuine well-wishers which felt great.”

In a nutshell, the tough (and non-existent?) balancing act between being independent and feeling complete within oneself while being open to a partner to complement life is the aim for most single men and women. As Harshita says, “As much as I am comfortable being single, I won’t lie — companionship is needed and not just what is offered by your girlfriends! However, while I don’t undervalue relationships, I don’t overvalue them either.”

So, what does all this pragmatism and wisdom do to the time-tested notions of true love and the adjustments and compromises it supposedly demands?

Well, that concept has been refurbished just like many other things in these testing times. The way I see it, singles want to have it all: the joy of flying solo as well as the company of a travel partner who can add fun to the trip. Looming large though, is the unsaid rider: “I love you, but I love me more”.

And for once, there is no right or wrong side to belong as the grass is green on either side. You just need to choose what suits you best.

(Lekha is a journalist based in India.)

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