Everything I Learned About Life And Love As An Ex-Panic Dater

It was early this year that I realized I’d slipped into a dating frenzy. Things had gotten out of hand, and a swift gear change was needed if I was going to reclaim all the marbles I had lost before it was too late.

A little backstory to kick things off: I’m 28 and I’ve been single for two years. Teenage antics aside, I’ve had two life-shaping relationships, one long-term and one not-so-long-term. I’ve loved, I’ve lost, my heart has shattered, and I’ve questioned how I’ll ever be happy again. But despite the pain of goodbyes, I stumbled through the heartache and landed back on my feet, ready to face the world as a single gal and dip a toe in the world of dating (which, warning, later became my whole bloody leg).

I eagerly downloaded the latest apps and gave the task of summing up an entire human in a handful of photos and witty one-liners my best shot. My profile was good to go, and my excitement was growing as I let the swiping commence.

At first, the dating was fun. My working week became decorated with evenings in cosy restaurants and rooftop bars, and I felt carefree, in control, and on top of the world. There I was thinking I’d be sad forever, yet here I was living it up in Soho on a school night! That was, until things changed.

The number of single friends I had was dwindling. A few lonely-ish Christmases and birthdays had gone by, and I could feel my internal jukebox shifting from All The Single Ladies to All By Myself. Here’s when the panic was born.

I’d been out with a fair number of boys, yet I hadn’t found anyone I could see a potential future with. What if I never did? What if I was destined to be single for the rest of my days?

Much to my horror, the voice in my head had become that annoying relative at a wedding who corners you at the buffet table to ask when you’re going to “settle down,” with a tone that suggests you’re somehow letting the side down. Let’s call her Barbara.

See, for some reason, my inner Barbara overlooks the fulfilling career, the loving friends and family, and all other blessings in favor of putting all focus on one thing and one thing only: my love life, or lack thereof. Barbara, in short, needs to get a life.

But the panic (and Barbara) had dug its claws in. I’d come away from dates knowing that person wasn’t a good match for me, but then fear would throw a curveball. What if I’m wrong? What if I’d just been overly picky in the past and it was time to be more open-minded? My rational mind was being pushed to one side and fear was taking hold of the wheel.

As time went on, I found myself stuck in a dating pattern where I’d pin so much hope onto each new person that I’d be left with immeasurable feelings of hopelessness when it didn’t work out. More than anything, I was desperate to catch up with all the couples, who were in my mind gliding off into the sunset with their romantic city breaks and their M&S ‘two dine in for $10’s.

So for fear of missing out on opportunities to find “The One,” I found myself creating opportunities. I remember a time I hung around Leicester Square after a night out with friends, drunkenly messaging my recent connections to see if I could accidentally-on-purpose orchestrate a super spontaneous (and not at all desperate) last-minute date. I couldn’t call it a night until there was a potential love interest on the horizon. When what I really needed to do was get my drunk ass home.

But looking at the stories us women are fed, it’s really no surprise I felt this way.

Fear is universal, and it’s fuelled by stories both true and false. You’ve only got to sit through the first five minutes of a rom-com to see a sad, wine-glugging Bridget Jones (God love her) for an example of how being a single woman in your thirties is painted as a sorry affair.

I knew I was losing myself. I’d gone from confident Queen of dates to anxious dating app junkie. I was making excuses for and overstaying romantic endeavours and taking mediocre dates and rewriting them into a world of possibility. The fear of being alone blindsided me into another date with someone I had so many reservations about. One more date “just to check”. Your body knows when something isn’t right for you if you pay enough attention. It just knows. Yet there I was, putting it through the pain of another date with the guy who’d asked if being a nurse meant I had a sexy uniform at home (Lord, give me strength!).

I was desperately unhappy, and I needed something to shake me out of this funk. I’d always daydreamed about solo travel, so despite the fact that I was terrified, I put on my rucksack (and my big girl pants) and took off to Nepal for a five-week solo adventure.

Fast-forward a couple of weeks and I’m on the side of the world’s tallest mountain, surrounded by breathtaking natural beauty. But instead of breathing into my solitude and letting it be, I was throwing on the cleaner of my two fleeces and heading out to meet the survival expert with the sexy pirate vibe and neck tattoo. I told myself I’d just adopted a “fuck it” attitude, but deep down I knew it ran deeper than that. The panic had followed me there.

I returned to London and the panic-dating continued. But alongside the disastrous pattern I’d gotten myself into, there was something else that kept cropping up. I’d be sitting with friends, hearing them talk about their and their partners’ life plans, and I’d feel these pangs in my chest.

I love my friends dearly, and I’m genuinely so happy for every small win or piece of good news in their lives, so were these seriously pangs of jealousy? I soon realized they weren’t the work of the green-eyed monster. They were a feeling of irrelevance. The feeling that my life was somehow disconnected, unimportant, or lacking in worth if I wasn’t sharing it with someone else.

I felt stuck. How can I plan for the future if I don’t know who I’m going to be sharing it with?

The word “irrelevant” would pop into my mind so often it felt impossible to go into a date with a healthy mindset. Cue the “not [insert adjective here] enough” era.

It was proving difficult to find someone I liked, so I started to wonder if perhaps the problem was me. Maybe things didn’t work out with so-and-so because I’m not musical enough, not artsy enough, not intellectual enough. Maybe my legs aren’t long enough, my skin isn’t tanned enough, or I don’t know enough about politics. I was turning the focus away from my wants and toward my date and their preferences, their verdict of whether or not I was suitable. This only fuelled the panic. The not-enoughness permeated every cell of my body as I took on the belief that in order to find happiness, I had to fit into someone else’s mold.

My once confident self (the girl who thought single life felt sparkly and exciting) was nowhere to be seen, and I’d had enough. It seemed I had forgotten that sure, it’s nice to have someone in the passenger seat, but the driving-along-solo-in-the-sunshine-with-your-music-blaring feeling is pretty damn special too.

So I rolled up my sleeves and set out on a mission to deconstruct a belief system based on the lie that for my life to be worthwhile, I had to be sharing it with someone.

First on the agenda, I had to stop dating (shock horror!). For someone who was afraid of ending up alone and had spent a fair while basing their sense of worth on scraps of validation from the likes of Bumble’s Lewis, 29, this was terrifying.

I could hear Barbara ringing in my ears, telling me I was running out of time and that the pool of available men was getting smaller. But if I was serious about unpicking my unhealthy habits and rewiring whatever had gone awry, it was a necessary evil. Next up was to tackle the untruths.

1. It’s a numbers game.

Undeniably, there’s logic in the notion that the more people you date, the more likely you are to find a match. But not necessarily. And when the quest for connection started to come at the expense of my well-being, I knew it was time to slow down. There was a time when I was dating like it was going out of fashion, which meant not enough evenings to myself and way too many hangovers.

There’s a moment in Sex and the City where a frazzled Charlotte shouts, “I’VE BEEN DATING SINCE I WAS 15, I’M EXHAUSTED, WHERE IS HE?!” I, like a lot of single women, I’m sure, have had my Charlotte moments. But putting in an ungodly number of hours didn’t mean the universe rewarded me by placing a big-hearted, curly-haired man with a camper van at my doorstep. I’ve learned it’s okay to relax.

2. Love is rare.

Some pessimists would argue otherwise, but I refuse to believe there’s a scarcity! As actress Anne-Marie Duff says on my favorite ever episode of Desert Island Discs, ‘‘I believe there is love, and more love.” It will never run out, there is more than enough to go around, and there are still so many good eggs out there.

I’m also a person who has a lot of love to give, and that’s okay too. It won’t dry up or go stale. That part of me is precious, so I’m keeping it close to my chest until the time is right or pouring it into other things that bring me joy like my friendships, my work, myself.

3. You should be worried about “the shelf.”

Ah, the notorious shelf. I once bumped into a woman I vaguely know and hadn’t seen in years in a garden center. Rather than asking me how me/my life/my career/my happiness/literally anything else in the world was going, she asked if I was in a relationship.

Upon hearing the unthinkable truth that was my singledom, she issued a warning: “You’ll end up on the shelf soon if you’re not careful.” Well, thank you for that, random lady in the house plant aisle. You sure know how to make a girl feel good.

I think about this shaming tool and how it’s the biggest load of bullshit I’ve ever heard. Single women aren’t sitting dusty on a shelf, wailing about “the one that got away” and preparing for a life of spinsterhood. And she’s discovered new levels of insanity if she thinks women are lined up waiting to be picked by a man.

No, single women are out there living their lives. They’re traveling the world, excelling in their careers, reading books, learning new skills, raising children, being brave. I now feel proud to be one of these women rather than ashamed.

4. Time is running out.

I have spent way too much of my single life worrying about the passage of time. It’s the very worry that had me lying on the sofa obsessively swiping through dating apps, wishing the sofa would swallow me whole.

A patriarchal society would have us believe that once a woman reaches 30, she’s past her prime, and the possibilities of marriage and children are slipping through her fingers. We’ve got enough sexist crap to sift through without added pressure from fellow women—e.g. garden center nightmare.

Marriage and babies are wonderful things that I hope are in my future, but I begrudge the assumption that they’re the only things I’m striving for, and I refuse to let anyone make me feel like I’m in a race to get them done. Life is not a checklist. These years are precious, and I don’t want to look back and realize I spent so much time looking for Mr. Right that I forgot to build a life that’s right. If that means I fall short of the pre-approved check marks of a woman in her late twenties, then so be it.

5. Maybe it’s just not in the cards for me.

Throughout my dating frenzy, I was plagued by the idea that maybe it just wasn’t supposed to happen for me and it was time to face the facts. I’d been madly in love at the age of 22, so maybe I’d peaked too soon. Or maybe I’d missed the boat. Maybe cupid had come to my door, bow in arms, but I’d been blow drying my hair and hadn’t heard him knocking.

I now know this to be nonsense. Just because I haven’t yet met someone I want to spend my life with doesn’t mean I never will. I trust that my love life is nowhere near over—there’s so much yet to come, and that’s something to celebrate. Who knows who I’m going to meet or where life’s going to take me. But until then, I’ve got a life to live, so I’m choosing to let go of the panic and enjoy all of life’s exquisite uncertainty.

6. People in relationships are happier.

It really is as simple as this is NOT true. Being in a relationship doesn’t mean every day is filled with the joys of spring, just like being single doesn’t always mean total freedom, a better night’s sleep, and more time for the gym (we have commitments too). We’re all just people fumbling our way through this funny old life, having good days and bad days and all kinds of days.

I know that being single isn’t always easy, but it ebbs and flows much in the way all of life does. And although we’re programmed to crave companionship, and it can be tempting to settle for a “something is better than nothing” approach, my experiences have shown me that’s not the case.

Not settling for something that doesn’t fill you up takes courage. Some days a stab of loneliness will take me by surprise, but most days I look at my life, full of love and purpose, and feel certain that right now I wouldn’t change a thing.

So if I ever have a daughter, yeah, I’ll talk to her about the beauty of love and relationships, but I’ll also talk to her about the strength that comes with independence. Being alone doesn’t necessarily mean being lonely.

Panic dating is exhausting. It’s a constant pendulum swinging from manic hopefulness to disappointment and back again. But dating can be so much fun when you’re doing it for the right reasons and from a healthy headspace.

I’m not perfect, and I’m sure I’ll still go on to have my wobbles, but I can talk myself down from that perch far quicker than I ever could before. And I now vow to only engage with things that impact my life in a positive way. Outstaying and ignoring what my instincts are telling me? Not for me, thanks. A date showing lack of effort and inconsistency? See you never. Someone trying to tell me how I should be living my life? Not interested.

So, to any panic-daters out there, I urge you to slow down and be gentle with yourself. You can create your own happiness, you can go to that event plus one-less, and you can hold your head high while doing so.

Looking back, I find it hard to recognize the girl who feared she wasn’t [insert adjective here] enough and spent hours scrolling through Hinge as if her life depended on it. There have been tears, soul-searching, and moments where I’ve wondered if I’m doing it all wrong. But I think I’ve found something more valuable to me than having someone’s hand to hold through my 27th and 28th year could’ve ever been.

So the idea that I need to have a partner to lead a fulfilling life is no longer one I subscribe to, and thinking I needed a relationship to feel relevant was the biggest untruth of them all.

The world puts so much emphasis on romantic love that we forget that we can flourish beautifully in other places too, including singledom. I’m hopeful that I’ll meet someone I want to share my life with someday, but it’s no longer such a huge stressful focus, and I’m done with pulling out all the stops to try and make it happen. It’s time to keep the balance.

So until that day comes, I shall sit and drink my coffee in the sunshine, watch the world go by, and feel nothing but relevant.


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