How No Longer Being The Single Friend Challenged My Identity

Lea Rose Emery

From 2006 until 2015, I was the ultimate single girl. Not only was I single, I was every kind of single there is. I was the "I can never imagine myself in a relationship" single, I was the "I love casual sex with my hookup buddies" single, I was the "Why are all of my friends paired up?" single, and, I was the "Dating around is the best" single. It was only at the very end of that period — and after about eight years of being single — that I became the "I'm looking to get into a relationship" single. For nearly a decade before I decided I interested in a relationship, being single was the bedrock of my identity. And then, I met my girlfriend — and that all changed.

There is no doubt that I'm happier now. Happier than I've been in a relationship and, really, happier than I've ever been in my life. That's not just because of the relationship, of course. There have been so many changes over the last four or five years in my personal life, my career, and in just my general sense of who I am. I finished grad school, admitted that I had a drinking problem and gave up alcohol, and I stumbled into a new career that I love. And yet, for some reason, getting into a relationship seems like the biggest change that I can point to in the last decade.

When I was single, I didn't realize how much being "the single friend" was a part of my identity. I sometimes had a partner in crime, another friend to be "the messy one" with or "the joking about how alone I am and living in a Liz Lemon meme" with. But I was the steadfastly single one. The one who gave the best advice during a breakup (despite not having gone through one in years), the one who would dutifully stay out until 3 a.m. at your birthday party, or would be around when your plans dropped through at the last minute. Without realizing it, I wore my single friend status as a badge of honor.

"Some single women don't want to be single, but for years I reveled in it."

On the one hand, it was a a sign of reliability, loyalty, and steadfastness. But it also was a status symbol. Some single women don't want to be single, but for years I reveled in it. It not only meant I was a better friend, but I was someone who valued a career and individuality over codependency and Ikea trips. I was stronger, concerned with bigger things, and free of the boring restraints of coupledom. I had better sex — and then I got a job where I was paid to write about it. In short, I was smug as hell.

And, at times, I was also lonely. Deeply, core-shakingly lonely. A lot of people think admitting that you're lonely when your single is somehow proof that your so-called independence is really just a ruse, but it's more complicated than that — the two can coexist. I often felt like being single was the better, stronger, more exciting choice, but occasionally have the wind-knocked out of me by loneliness and the feeling that everyone else had someone who they relied on who came through for them. Sometimes I felt like — from friends to f*ckbuddies — I was everybody's backup plan. But for better and for worse, that singleness was my identity.

The truth is, the biggest hit to my identity didn't come from getting into a relationship — it came from admitting that I wanted to get into one. That was the difference. After years of touting the benefits of single life, of scoffing and eye-rolling at friends who sacrificed who they were just to be in a relationship, I decided I wanted to join them. Not because being in a couple is better than being single — I still stand by the fact that I genuinely enjoyed being single for years and for some people, it's the right decision. But something in me changed. I realized that to have a romantic relationship again would make me happy. And it wasn't just about admitting I wanted to be in a romantic relationship — the really scary part was admitting that I wanted to be happy.

I had some experience with this. When I gave up drinking, I had to swallow my pride and give up being the cool, irreverent girl who had zero effs to give and drank, smoked, and partied her way through her early 20s. I remember explaining to one of my drinking buddies that I had to give up. "I can't do this to myself anymore," I said. "I want to be happy." And I was ashamed of that. Wanting to be happy has somehow become decidedly uncool. Caring about things has become uncool. It's become earnest and lame and somehow embarrassing. Or at least that's how it felt to me. It's how I felt when I gave up drinking and it's how I felt when I decided I wanted to get into a relationship. I had to admit that I wanted to try.

"I became terrified of looking like I got swept away in a relationship. I couldn't look like I needed someone or lost my pragmatism."

I was lucky in that it didn't take me that long to meet my current girlfriend. After a few months of casual dating and a month or so on Tinder, I met my partner. And as I fell for her — and fell hard — I started to realize how desperate I was to cling onto some of my single friend identity. We took it slow at first and didn't see each other that much, something I clumsily would point out to all of my friends at any given opportunity. I made it a point to still spend lots of time socializing without her, partially because I am genuinely an independent person, but also so nobody could say I had become one of those couples. Even though we've had an amazing relationship, every step has been slow and deliberate. I'm not one to rush into anything, that's true, but I also realized how I didn't want to look like someone who rushed into anything. I became terrified of looking like I got swept away in a relationship. I couldn't look like I needed someone or lost my pragmatism. I wanted to keep that image alive.

But there was no denying it, I fell firmly into couple territory. Brunch, painting walls — we haven't made it to Ikea yet, but I'm sure at some point it will happen. And though I am three years into an undeniably serious and amazing relationship, I'm glad that I clung onto part of that single identity. It did mean that I took a more reasoned approach, both when I was dating around and when I started getting serious with my girlfriend. We took the time to build a strong foundation and a relationship where we both feel grounded and solid.

I just wish I had realized that I didn't have to fight so much, that I didn't have to fight my urges to get into a relationship or my desire to cling onto my single friend identity. If I had been open to the idea that I could be a balanced, independent person while still being in a relationship, I wouldn't have felt the same embarrassment or awkwardness. I would have allowed myself to try to be happy as soon I realized what I wanted. And I probably would have given my friends in relationships a little more credit and stopped being so damn smug.

Getting into a relationship felt like a huge challenge to my identity as the single friend, but it was really just an extension of who I was before. Knowing what you want is hard, admitting you want to be happy is hard, and putting yourself out there is really frigging hard. There's no reason to give yourself a hard time on top of it. If what you want changes, then embrace that change and go for it. There's so much more to be gained from putting your energy into pursuing what you want than worrying about what other people will think that says about you. It's so important to follow your instinct — and I'm so glad I did.