At a party recently, a woman complained to me about how awful it is to be single at 30.
“Girl,” I said. “I’m 33.”
That shut her up real quick. I didn’t age-drop to make it sound as though I had it worse. Rather, I meant to show that I know what it is to be a single in your 30s — and that most of the time, it can be great.
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I was fortunate to be employed throughout the recession that began in 2007 and never boomeranged back to my parents’ house in my 20s, but millions of my fellow millennials have and continue to do so. Even if you have steady work in your 20s, the beginning of a career can be marked with uncertainty over the future and questions about what to do with your professional life. When you’re deeper into a career, you’re more experienced, more confident — and the work is generally more fulfilling.
What does work life have to do with being single? Well, when I’m fulfilled at work, the rest of my life is better, too. I don’t have to spend my “free time” looking for new employment; rather, I can focus on the rest of my life — seeing friends, spending quality time with family. Which also means I have more time and energy to date.
My new acquaintance’s comment at that party was in reference to what she views as a bleak dating scene for 30-something women. If you’re looking for a partner in your 30s, it’s not that there are suddenly more prospects to choose from (believe me, I’ve read all about the shortage of single, college-educated men in cities). But while the pool of singles is smaller, I’ve found that dating gets easier with time.
In my 30s, I have a better sense of what I’m looking for in a partner and what I’m unwilling to put up with. I’m more confident in my decisions about when to keep seeing someone and when to say “see ya.” I’m more resilient; rejection isn’t as rough as it was in my 20s. I’ve felt no panic to “settle” for someone with whom the connection’s not quite there.
And I have come to understand loneliness, not as a condition that single people are “condemned to” (as Justice Anthony Kennedy cast it in the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision), but as a natural part of life that all people — single and married — experience. In fact, I believe that learning to cope with loneliness is a marker of adulthood, on par with becoming financially independent or learning to live alone.
Most important, my life is full with or without a partner: something I didn’t necessarily foresee in my 20s when I thought about what it might be like to be single in my 30s. I may be looking for a partner, but I know that my life’s happiness doesn’t depend on finding one.
With Americans spending more of their lives single than married, learning to enjoy both states is key to a full life. “I wound up happily married because I lived in an era in which I could be happily single,” Rebecca Traister writes in her forthcoming book, “All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation.”
When marriage is more of a choice than an economic necessity, as it has been in earlier times, single women’s standards rise. Which is ultimately good for marriage, too. “Holding out for better partners is part of how we’re improving — and thereby saving — marriage,” Traister writes of today’s single women.
Learning to be happily single isn’t something that’s often preached in places of worship or taught in schools. And perhaps it can’t be. It’s achieved through life experience, as plenty of older single adults have shown me and as I hope my 30-year-old friend will come to understand.
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