“My therapist thinks I’m a love addict.” I’m having coffee with one of my girlfriends, who is single and for obvious reasons, very unable to mingle. I try and think of something positive to say back, but am worried I'll come across condescending.
I recently got engaged, you see. After spending seven long years on the single bench, I am in love. What's more, in an astonishing twist of fate, the man I love totally loves me back! A pre-requisite for any future married couple, right? As my previous romantic misadventures will attest, that hasn't always been a template I've stuck to.
Allow me to elaborate. For years, I stubbornly only allowed myself to fall for men that showed no interest whatsoever in me. I convinced myself this was love — definitely unrequited, but love nonetheless. There was the time I kissed a tall and handsome stranger at a party and spent the next 18 months telling everyone I subsequently encountered that I’d met my soulmate. And I really mean everyone. If you asked how my love life was going circa 2016 you will have walked away from the conversation thinking I was completely cuckoo. I would have earnestly told you about the boy I was going to have children with—the same one who yes, I had kissed just the once. To this day, distant acquaintances still ask me about him — let’s call him William.
The fact that William didn’t want date me (and told me explicitly) did not deter me in the slightest. I knew we were meant to be, so could not let this tiny detail (his feelings) get in the way of our future happiness. I became friends with all his crew so as to run into him more often. I agonised over what to write back when he sent anything my way (this was not often). I cried in the toilets when I saw him kiss other girls (on multiple occasions). An old pal of mine, utterly bemused by my behaviour (I refused to go out with anyone else during this time), made me a sticker that read: "I am Williamosexual". Perhaps he meant it as a joke. Or perhaps it was his way of trying to get through to me. Oblivious to the fact I’d lost the plot, I stuck it on the back of my iPhone. The phrase became my battle cry (key word here is ‘cry’).
You’d think this anecdote would be too mortifying to air publicly just in case he were to see it. The truth is, one of his friends (who was also my friend by then), got there first. He saw the sticker, and told the object of my affection. The shame. From then on, the narrative in my mind shifted. William continued to want nothing to do with me (can you blame him?), but I told myself that the reason for his lack of interest was simply because I hadn’t “played the game”. While it was true that I had applied a questionable intensity to the situation, it was also true that I'd made the biggest mistake in the book; I’d revealed to the world how much I cared instead of pretending that I didn’t. You get told this a lot when you’re single: pretend you don’t care for long enough, and they will fall into your arms. When are we’re going to stop pretending that this is how relationships work? Being yourself and at least being somewhat honest about your feelings is the only way to move forward. And being yourself is also the only way to ensure that they last.
Love is showing up. It means being there for someone no matter what. It has been the strangest thing, to fall in love again after almost a decade misreading the signs. I spent my twenties seeking passion and validation, only to realise in my thirties, that what matters the most is acceptance. “To love is to burn - to be on fire, like Juliet or Guinevere or Eloise," said Marianne in Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility. But no one survives a fire.
I don’t want to pretend that the fact I am engaged suddenly makes me competent to dish out relationship advice. My own love addict days may be over, but I’m only just coming to terms with just how toxic my behaviour was throughout my twenties. There is definitely something about meeting Mr Right that brings all your past mistakes into sharp focus. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20 vision, all your indiscretions neatly lined up like ducks in a row, to be examined should you care to laugh at yourself. Turns out, all the Mr Rights I once pursued were not the issue. It wasn’t them; the real problem lay within myself. Perhaps this is why I find conversations with my unattached friends so confronting. How do I tell them that if it's this hard, it’s probably not right?
My behaviour wasn’t level-headed when, aged 31, I met my now-fiancé. On our anniversary, I celebrated by scrolling through a year’s worth of messages to exhume the text I sent to a friend the night he came into my life: “An absolute catch is sat opposite me. I’m in love.” Not that he needed proof. Things were so easy when we started things. We hung out. He texted back. We talked. We fell in love so easily, without the agonising stops and starts of modern courtship, I barely recognised it for what it was. He said "I love you" in a car park. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t need to.
Back to my friend who is single and unable to mingle, as we enter dreaded lockdown number two. I should probably extoll the idea that healthy relationships only come once you have developed a loving relationship with yourself. We all know it to be true, but this wisdom implies that you are able or have the inclination to do the work. Please. Who has time to become the best version of themselves these days? I’ll answer that: no one bloody does. A lot us tried that in lockdown one - we baked bread, we promised to write books and cultivate new and fulfilling hobbies. Now, more than ever, we’re all in survival mode and it’s ok to admit that. It's ok to remove the pressure.
Instead of dishing out advice, I’m learning to listen. We all need someone to really listen these days. After all, meeting the right person is a combination of luck and timing. It also happens throughout our lives and regardless of how old you are, regardless of what society might tell you. It can happen during pandemics, but it will also happen afterwards. People will always continue to fall in love. There isn’t much you can do to make someone like you back (except this: don’t send everyone a save the date before you consummate the relationship). Do get to know yourself. To trust yourself. The rest will follow.
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