After you’ve broken up with someone, your calendar transforms into a terrifying abyss. Without a significant other, weekends becomes an agony of loneliness. While you used to look forward to the weekend, overflowing as it was with adventure and excitement— mimosa brunches and flea markets and seaside picnics and romantic dinners and day trips — after a breakup, Friday thru Sunday feels as interminable as a root canal at the dentist. As Elena Ferrante once said, an empty day is a “noose to hang yourself with.”
The weekend feels especially lonely if most of your friends are in serious long-term relationships. While your married friends are busy with soccer games and children’s birthday parties, you have too many hours and too little to fill them.
In her lovely essay “The Unbearable Unknown,” one of many insightful pieces from Conversations on Love, wise, warm-hearted writer Natasha Lunn reflects on the sometimes intolerable loneliness of being single. As a single twenty-something, Lunn always made an effort to visit a cafe on Sunday mornings to combat weekend loneliness. Though she was still alone, she felt comforted by the grinding of coffee beans and murmur of strangers’ conversations. On weekends like these, empty hours beckoned with possibility: she could read a novel, she could take a yoga class, she could go on a hike, she could visit an art gallery, she could take the tube to the city. Yet none of these things sounded appealing without someone to do them with. “I resented time for underlining my loneliness,” she writes, “and I resented myself for wasting it.”
What’s the most difficult thing about the quest for love? Lunn argues it’s the torment of not knowing whether you’ll ever find it:
“The obvious story was that I was unhappy being single. Beneath that, a private fear that I always would be; and worse, an anxiety born from not knowing either way. The simple fact of the unknown was one I could not resist wrestling with. Like hauling a heavy suitcase up the stairs at a station, I imagined it would be easier if there were an endpoint in sight, because when you see the top of the station stairs or the finishing line of a run, it’s easy to dig deep for an extra bit of strength to get there. What I found tiring about looking for a romantic relationship was that there was no way of knowing for certain if there would ever be an end point. I would tell friends, ‘I don’t mind if I don’t meet anyone for another ten years, I just want to know that it will happen one day.'”
Unfortunately, uncertainty is a fact of our existence. We can never know if a meteor will strike Earth, if Europe will erupt in world war, if the stock market will crash or if human civilization will obliterate itself in the next hundred years. We can never know how long we’ll live or when we’ll die; we can never be completely assured that our choices were “right.” Did we make the right decision when we walked away from our tumultuous ten-year marriage? when we quit our office job to study French cooking in Provence? Though this “not knowing” is often torturous, it’s what fundamentally unites as humans. As Lunn so beautifully writes,
“Unless you believe in psychics, all of us will face some measure of this uncertainty— it’s part and parcel of existence. Maybe there is comfort in knowing that, whatever we have or don’t have compared to each other, we share this same vulnerability to randomness.”
The unknown is a terrifying void, a fathomless, frightening darkness. However, it can also shine with potential and possibility. Not knowing when (or if) she’ll ever find a partner, Lunn finds herself suspended between two possible futures: how will her story end? She isn’t sure but she knows the experience of being single will teach her invaluable lessons in resilience and self-reliance:
“Maybe not having something you want wakes you up to another kind of romance. And when life forces you to live in the intensity of the unknown, between two possible futures, it’s also a chance to develop the inner resources and love that will serve you well in the years ahead.”
In her pursuit of romantic love, Lunn forgets a crucial fact: love can take many forms. Though she doesn’t have a partner, her life never lacks love. In fact, her so-called “lonely” life already overflows with many of the things she wants: connection, companionship, passion, tenderness, intimacy, physical touch.
Most of us imagine we’ll be happy when we attain “x”: when we buy a house, when we get married, when we land the promotion. Happiness, we contend, exists in the future— not this moment. Lunn is no exception. Throughout her single years, she believes the equation for happiness looks something like this: happily ever after = finding the “one” to share her life with. The result? She misses boundless opportunities for contentment in the present. Love, she soon realizes, isn’t going to gallop into her life as a charming prince— it’s right here, right now in her life as it’s currently constituted:
“[I was so] focused…on receiving love instead of giving it; on waiting for it, instead of building it. Many of the things I was looking for a relationship to provide— physical company; connection; the opportunity to be a mother— were actually available to me without one. And yet, at the time, I could not see the role I played in my own loneliness.”
Rather than bemoan her unfortunate fate, Lunn decides to write a more empowering story about her singledom. She doesn’t have to be a lonely cat-lady spinster who dies alone under mounds of decades-old newspapers— she already has the love she desires. In the end, romantic love is only one piece of the puzzle: the good life consists of the unbreakable bond of family, the miracle of friendship, the unparalleled feeling of fulfillment upon reaching a long-awaited goal, the magic and marvels of small moments.
After what feels like an endless stretch of singledom, Lunn eventually does get her “happily ever after.” In a contemplative moment, she imagines looking through the space/time continuum at her former self, the sad, lonely girl at the cafe who worried she’d never find a partner:
“Part of me wants to…tell her…that one day she will sit at the exact same table, eating pancakes with a primary schoolteacher she’s been seeing recently who she’ll grow to love. And that, even then, even though that will be wonderful, it will only be one of many memorable mornings she will spend in that cafe. There will be the coffee with a new friend who will become a great love; the one time she will come there to grieve; the breakfast she will share with her brother in the sunshine when they first to decide to move into a flat together round the corner. And then all the Sunday mornings she will come there on her own, to write this book, to understand— finally— the difference between loneliness and solitude, and the romance of trying to find meaning in the latter. But perhaps I would not tell her, even if I could, because to do so would be to steal the strange, complicated, sometimes tiring gifts of the unknown. The thrill of all the places she has yet to go, all the faces she has yet to know.
Maybe, then, this is how you try to bear the burden of the mystery with grace: by finding humility where you once saw self-pity, and opportunity where you once saw absence. By saying, ‘Even if I don’t get what I want, I have a good life,’ then paying closer attention to the small details that make that life beautiful. And by never forgetting that not knowing what will happen next also means that anything could.”
Want more thought-provoking and heartfelt essays from Conversations on Love? Read Alain de Botton on idealization as the opposite of love & the manifold miraculous ways to live this life, Sarah Hepola on books as a source of community, companionship & connection, Juno Dawson on having high standards in dating, and Emily Nagoski on the myth of “normalcy” & how letting go of impossible expectations can improve your sex life.