If there’s one image I’ll remember from my visit to New York, it’s the Manhattan Bridge, viewed from Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighbourhood, where I was staying for a week with a friend.
Watching from the waterfront on my first night, the sun-speckled, blue-grey bridge stretched across the East River, the skyline glimmering in the background. We were two single, 30-something women free to spend the next week together as we pleased. “There’s nowhere I’d rather be than right here, right now,” I thought.
The visit was the culmination of two conscious choices made at the start of the year. The first was to prioritise the things that bring me the most joy: friendship and travel. The second was to take a break from what had, for a long time, detracted from those very things: dating.
Dating took up the lion’s share of my energy
Until recently, I’d dated consistently for almost a decade. It took up the lion’s share of my energy, the chunkiest slice of my pie, often eclipsing friendships, ambitions and dreams. Even when catching up with friends, my recent dates had become a focus of conversations all too often. Sometimes they were funny anecdotes. Almost always, they were stories that made me feel weak or uncertain when I walked away.
It also affected my travel plans. While I’d dream of embracing the joys of post-pandemic adventures (especially having become a remote worker because of it), I found myself reluctant to do so while still single.
My factory setting was to prioritise romantic relationships
Even someone I’d known for a fortnight would serve as a ballast to keep me at home, mentally, if not physically. If I was away, part of me would always be waiting for a text. Subconsciously, I’d think twice about extending a trip because I wanted to give this seed of romance – this “thing that could be a thing” – a chance. I realised enough was enough.
There’s a Janis Joplin lyric, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”. I realised ‘nothing left to lose’ was exactly what I needed: a clean break from dating. It wasn’t that my experiences had been terrible, just that my factory setting was to prioritise romantic relationships above everything else – and it had sapped the joy away from other areas of my life.
No date could ever match shared dinners with friends
So, I reprioritised. With date nights and endless swiping off the cards, I had more time and energy to spend with friends. One of the only major upsides of being single for the past decade is the close friendships I’ve cultivated.
I chose to fully embrace them by hosting group dinners at my flat. I also tried out new exercise classes and booked comedy nights to which I invited others along. I threw myself into two lots of bridesmaid duties. Most memorably, I shared seafood platters with my school friend of 17 years, realising no date would ever match our endless stream of 100mph conversation.
After the lost years of the pandemic, where these platonic interactions had been put on their own hiatus, it felt good to embrace these friendships: the true love in my life that had been there all along.
I began to invest in new friendships through travel
Not only did I embrace the friendships I already had but I began to invest in new ones by spreading my travel wings. The abstract vision in my mind no longer resembled the outline of a man’s face but the curves of a continent: Europe, South America, North America, Asia – in the past six months, I’ve visited them all.
Time began to feel slower thanks to the sheer amount of novelty I was experiencing. Hours were spent meandering the cobbled streets of Valencia’s old town, exploring every room in the Abu Dhabi’s vast Louvre and rooting through a flea market in Bordeaux.
I made new friends along the way: a Canadian medical student in Florence who I climbed to the square of Piazzale Michelangelo with after a chance meeting outside a church. The woman I dined next to at the counter of a Cartagena ceviche spot.
I felt a sense of abundance I’d lost in my dating life
In these newly forged friendships, I felt a sense of abundance I’d lost in my dating life, where a mixture of app algorithms and coupled-up friends’ parties can make you feel like there’s no one left to meet. I felt excited for what lay ahead.
It was all this combined that liberated me to spend my savings on that flight to New York, to watch the sunset over the Manhattan Bridge without a care in the world.
It hasn’t been without its hurdles – take weddings, for example
It doesn’t have to be a binary choice, of course. Many people are able to make travel plans or nurture deep friendships, regardless of their relationship status. But I needed to opt out completely for a while: no Harry, 31, sending dopamine hits with each sporadic communication, no upcoming date with a friend-of-a-friend’s cousin. Nothing, and no one, to claim that mental space.
If I’m making this six-month dating hiatus sound like a breeze, it hasn’t been without its hurdles. Weddings, for instance. Some 48 hours before flying to New York, I watched my younger brother marry his soulmate, in a ceremony so beautiful it wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Richard Curtis film. While I felt nothing but vicarious, impartial joy for my brother and my new sister-in-law on their big day, I was disappointed by the amount of unwelcome comparisons I received from others.
I was already there surrounded by the loves of my life
“How’s your love life?,” I was asked, out of nowhere from older relatives and family friends. It was a question I no longer knew how to answer. Confessing my dating hiatus at a wedding felt as inappropriate as a fit of giggles at a funeral. But I knew, deep down, that outside of the country house I was reaping the benefits of my own different but perfectly valid life choices. That I was already there surrounded by the loves of my life: my wonderful family and my two best friends.
For years, I’d internalised the amatonormativity – our societal tendency to assume everyone wants or needs an exclusive romantic relationship. That sense of “lacking” managed to keep me from joy elsewhere – from seeing the abundance in my present, in my friendships, in all the places I hadn’t travelled to yet… But this summer, I’m soaking up joy in every aspect of my life and savouring every second of it
Francesca Specter is host of the Alonement podcast – all about the positive side of spending time alone.
Got a story or adventure that could inspire a solo traveller like you? Tag @flashpack on social or email [email protected] to be featured.
Images: Francesca Specter & Unsplash