Being single in your formative years can mean you develop a better relationship with yourself (Picture: Getty)
Being a 20-something who has never had a relationship isn’t as rare as you might think.
As a 24-year-old singleton – who’s always been single – I get a mix of responses to my relationship history (or lack thereof).
A friend is convinced that my eventual first boyfriend will be ‘the one’, but people who don’t know me so well aren’t always as kind.
On a recent Zoom call with a mix of journalists, someone who didn’t know me personally made the blasé comment: ‘Isn’t it strange to not have had a girlfriend at that age?,’ when discussing a man – not on the call – in his 20s.
Different or uncommon, perhaps, but strange? Most people in this boat are deciding to live like this for themselves.
Andrea Balboni certified sex, love and relationships coach, says: ‘Being single in your formative years can be a great choice.
‘It gives you the time and space to focus on you, your studies or your career, developing rich friendships and getting to know your place in the world without anyone tugging at your edges.’
Of course there are certain groups of single people in different circumstances, some of which with terrible reputations – take incels for example; those who are ‘involuntarily celibate’ and blame the women who won’t sleep with them.
Then there are Forever Aloners, who struggle to form romantic bonds for reasons including, but not limited to, suffering from mental health issues and being an adult virgin. They don’t want to be associated to incels as they don’t blame people for their lack of romance, nor are they concerned only by sex.
Then there are other people, who, for various reasons, slip through the net of the romantic relationship world, skipping out on that first teenage relationship and beyond.
Jem*, 25, puts his experience partly down to his Punjabi heritage. He tells us: ‘You grow up given the doctrine of like: “There’s plenty of time to date later, focus on your education”.’
He doesn’t go out on dates, and was once told he ‘gives off big asexual vibes’. Jem, confident of his sexuality, knows that when he does find himself in a relationship, he wants a high level of commitment.
Right now, though, he doesn’t feel he’s missing out on much. Plus, as a man he knows he has a biological advantage with the timeframe he has to settle down and start a family.
‘What always shocks me is that when I tell people “I’m 25 and I’ve never been in a relationship,” they’re like: “That’s an option?”
‘It’s an option to check out just as much as it’s an option to check in,’ he says, while adding that he usually gets this response from people with different ethnic backgrounds who might have ‘a more casual attitude to relationships’.
When observing others in situationships, he adds: ‘I see the hurt, the damage incurred in that process… the heartbreak, the trust issues, the trauma often offset the potential gain.
‘I might not experience the same lofty heights of being in love but my stable situation is much more preferable to me.’
Codependency might well be a fear for long-time single people, but Andrea says the resilient and independent attributes that come with being single can set you up for healthy dynamics.
‘Healthy relationships come from a space where both individuals know themselves deeply and can express what they want and need from a place of fullness because they are able to practice emotional responsibility,’ she says.
‘Interdependent relationships are ones where each person has capacity to take care of themselves should their partner not be available to be there for them.’
Content as he is, naturally there are times Jem reflects on his singledom. When people ask if he feels like he’s missing out, he uses the analogy of someone asking you not to picture a black door, which means all you can think about is that image.
‘I’d be lying if I said the way I felt about being single was static – it’s more in flux – but I’m quite practical so if something was upsetting me all of the time I think I’d do something about it,’ he says. ‘I’m at peace with it.’
Angelina, 22, from London, isn’t in any rush to find a partner – instead, she’s learning to put herself first.
Never having felt the need to be in a relationship, she says: ‘I know who I am as a person. I’ve spent time with myself and I know friends who go from one relationship to another and they struggle to be alone.
‘They’re dependent on having that second person. I don’t have that issue. It’s very freeing.
‘I’ve always done what everyone else has asked of me. The older I get the more I understand I wasn’t putting myself first.’
She doesn’t believe she’d do well in a relationship currently with that attitude. She did, however, date often and usually through a mix of dating apps such as Inner Circle.
Angelina knows what she wants because she’s had time to grow alone (Picture: Angelina)
Sometimes it’s a case of not having met someone ready for a meaningful connection.
‘I haven’t been the most lucky with my experiences,’ Angelina explains. ‘I feel like every date I’ve been on hasn’t turned out the way I wanted it to, or they have an idea of what Asian women are meant to be like and they fetishise it and project it onto me.’
Most of her matches, she feels, ‘don’t know who they are or what they want.
‘They sort of pull you along and you feel like you’re wasting time, so it’s best to cut it off.’
If someone does take her interest though, Angelinaa says disclosing that she’s never been in a relationship is a ‘hurdle’ because dates assume that her inexperience will be a problem.
She says: ‘They don’t give you a chance. It’s very unfair. They sometimes put blame on way I was raised,’ suggesting that she was kept ‘under lock and key’ – which wasn’t the case. If anything, she idolises her parents’ relationship as being the perfect ‘equal partnership’.
These negative reactions do lead to a level of intimidation when dating someone that has a serious relationship already behind them. Angelina wonders how she matches up, saying it can feel like being a kid talking to an adult.
While Angelina is happy at the moment, like Jem her feelings towards her single situation shift.
‘There are days when I do get upset and I feel like I’m missing out – going to family parties, for example, where they single you out,’ she tells us. ‘They sort of blame you as well. I think as man it’s good that you’re still single and it’s not your fault, but as a women they’re like “What’s wrong with you?”‘
Even on nights out with friends she sometimes feels ‘mute in one corner’ when conversation turns to partners.
Recent news of a close friend getting engaged has made Charlie, 25, from Cardiff, reassess his own comfortability with singlehood.
When he was younger he didn’t think about it much, with his mind being occupied by family issues and travelling, but now he’s approaching his late 20s and seeing more of his peers settle down it’s starting to occur to him more.
‘I wouldn’t say it’s been a massive worry, but it’s become a bit more obvious that I’ve not had a full-blown relationship.’
He explains: ‘I’ve always been a bit terrible with dating. I’m not the most confident person so if I like someone it’s always been hard to say or to ask them out.
‘I’m awful on my phone and I always forget to message and stuff which isn’t great when you’re starting with someone. I’m not trying to be rude but then I feel bad.’
Low self-esteem can affect Charlie when in dating contexts as he occasionally finds himself pondering, half-jokingly: ‘I haven’t been been in a relationship so maybe there’s a reason.
‘When I was younger my mum used to hint “When are you getting a girlfriend?” and I’d get a bit defensive.’
However, like Jem and Angelina, he’s seen benefits to being single throughout his formative years.
‘Not being in a relationship allows me to concentrate on my goals a bit more,’ he notes. ‘You do a bit of introspection and you get a better sense of yourself, though I do think in a relationship you can learn from each other.
‘If I were in a relationship I could definitely work towards goals but maybe being single makes it a bit easier.’
Charlie says the same goes for time and money, as he is better able to invest those things in himself until the right person comes along.
Andrea says: ‘When you’re on your own, you learn how to be resourceful and to take care of yourself when life feels challenging.’
Whenever Jem, Angelina and Charlie find themselves in their first relationships, Andrea believes ‘these are great qualities to have’ for romantic partnerships.
The reality is that everyone has to learn how to be in a relationship – waiting a little longer to do this for the first time doesn’t mean you’re doomed to fail.
Andrea says: ‘Though it may seem like the whole rest of the world has had some experience, it’s not true.
‘We learn about relating from our caretakers and from those around us – relatives or friends or what we see in the media. These oftentimes aren’t the greatest examples.
‘No one is born knowing how to be in a relationship.’
*Name has been changed.
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