PERPETUAL VACANCY:

“How are you still single?” is one of the most unintentionally loaded questions. When directed at you, this phrase indicates a few things:

  1. The person thinks you’re such a gem that they can’t understand why no one has picked you to be on their team yet.
  2. They assume that you are waiting around to be picked for a team as being a part of one (aka in a committed relationship) is something everyone wants.
  3. Being in a committed relationship is the ultimate destination awaiting your arrival.
  4. Something is wrong if you haven’t yet reached that destination; if you aren’t in a committed relationship by a certain age.
  5. You’ve surpassed that age.

This “compliment” has definitely been bestowed upon me and I hate to admit it, but I’ve probably unconsciously delivered it to other people too. In our defense, these ideas about coupling up are still predominant today despite the fact that they’re incredibly outdated. And so, it can require a bit of effort to separate your own true thoughts and beliefs from the ones you adopted from your community or were sold through media consumption. I know I’m not the only one who grew up reading fairy tales and watching romantic comedies; in these stories, “they” as in “they lived happily ever after” is seldom referring to a non-binary character who has discovered the secret to inner peace and balance. A happy conclusion always means two people getting together. Rarely does the protagonist end up a joyful bachelor or bachelorette. As a result, it can be very easy for impressionable children (which we all still are to some degree) to equate their eventual coupling with a prolonged state of joy and the end of all their troubles.

Happy forever and ever and ever…

Truthfully, logically, emotionally, and from experience, I know that life is peppered with challenges, both big and small. And while my movie is still playing — which means as long as I’m in a human body — that’s kind of how it goes. I also know there are many ways to find happiness and fulfillment. Many forms of love. Many types of lifestyles, beyond the default lifestyle we’re often shown. And one is not better or worse than the other. In recent years, I’ve reveled in my singleness and I’ve also wished it away. It is all timing-based; all personally aligned choice. What works for me might not work for you. What felt right for you at one time might not feel right for you anymore. And that’s ok. And that’s how it is. And that’s how it should be.

Personally, I don’t align with any societal norms indicating that coupledom is somehow superior to single life, yet I also can’t deny that there’s still a very organic part of me that would like to experience it. Sure, I may have tried the costume on with unfitting people and rehearsed my lines with solid stand-ins, but I have yet to really know that kind of grounded, long-term love that exists within a healthy, balanced partnership; or at the very least, something consistent with a thoughtful, reliable lover who shows up and stays. And while falling into such a situation mostly feels inevitable, I still entertain occasional doubts.

Lately, it’s become clear to me that after so many years of casting and recasting the role of my longing, I’m not quite sure how to cast someone as my love.

I thought I had finally figured it out several months ago when I allowed myself to gently let go of someone with whom I share a very special connection; appreciating him from a distance without forcing my own agenda onto his own life plans. Perhaps it was a case of meeting the right person (or a right person?) at the wrong time. And so all I was able to do was forgive the typically unforgivable aspects of the situation, release my control, and put my trust back in life. I thought by doing so I had freed myself of all old tendencies to project and expect — to take someone else captive — but I guess I was mistaken.

The recent, surprising entry and exit of a kindred soul — a man I’ll probably always refer to as “my only non-familial COVID hug” — shook my certainty and reactivated some of my heart’s previous habits, like opening up too fast in secret and holding on too tight alone. I hadn’t anticipated meeting anyone new. I had very little interest in it, if at all. But a few days before this encounter, I told a friend that I felt called to write about expectations around dating. So, life decided to give me some fresh material. My intention in sharing my personal story is for it to be helpful, relatable, and inspiring; especially for those who have had similar tendencies or struggles with unhealthy dependency. A before and after picture, if you will, from someone who has (mostly) made it to the other side.

We met four days before he moved out of state to a destination twelve hours away. He was poetic, intelligent, talented, and kind. An Eagle Scout with a progressive artistic temperament. A gentle giant with a working knowledge of my language. I knew our time together would be brief, as we had little of it to spend and with sexual intimacy not even being an option due to the pandemic (at least for me), I just let myself enjoy the sweetness and innocence of it all. It was incredibly refreshing. I had even said to him that whatever the extent of our entanglement, I just appreciated his presence and our shared moments of genuine connection; especially at this time when socializing and physical closeness is so taboo and unadvised. I said this, yet a part of me still got drunk off the attention and all of his romantic sentiments. And so it was only a matter of time before I began to outline our possible future story.

A former acting teacher taught me to look out for those instances in a script where “the pinch doesn’t match the ouch.” When a character’s reaction to a situation is so much bigger than the stimulus that caused it, the real underlying issue is usually very old and very deep; most likely caused by childhood trauma or conditioning, and some would even say inherited from one’s ancestors or based upon certain actions taken in past lives.

I felt nothing upon his quick and expected departure. His family was local and he assured me that he would be back in a few months time. We had been communicating every day since we connected; he was the last person I spoke to before going to bed each of those nights. I figured that despite the physical distance between us, we would continue what had felt like the start of something real. And so it wasn’t until many days of radio silence later and his apparent disappearance, that I did feel a hint of something: that subtle sensation of nakedness, of having one’s roots unearthed and exposed; a bit of that familiar anxious buzz that used to accompany my feelings of abandonment; an indication that the dormant wounded creature within me had been awakened.

It’s only natural, really. She, I, have a long, unattractive history of embarrassing overcompensations for said abandonment, having spent a lifetime seeking the masculine support and validation that seemed to always be withheld. Feeling incomplete, unimportant, unseen, and alone without an object of my admiration to latch onto. Consumed by infatuations and fantasies of love affairs with impossible, unavailable people. Perpetually distracted; rarely able to give my full attention to anything else. Desiring real, true intimacy but terrified of it just the same. Clinging to projected illusions of people who barely knew it, while jumping into bed with random strangers because somehow it felt safer. Never seeing any of them for who they really were, beyond who I needed them to be for me: a temporary way out of my chronic depressions, a means to feeling attractive, desirable, visible, feminine; to feel like I mattered. But none of these feelings ever lasted long; a night’s high quickly became the next morning’s shame; obviously assisted by my best frenemies: alcohol and its recreational chemical accompaniments.

I hid my actions within the normalcy of hook-up culture and some misguided belief that I was a powerful, independent woman who didn’t need to get her emotions involved. But I was anything but powerful, anything but free, and most definitely a volcano of emotion.

Dating someone I was truly attracted to usually brought an underlying anticipation of their eventual departure; an ending before much of a beginning, either due to their certain rejection of me or to my accurate expectation of their sneakiness and lies. Even if I found myself in a stable relationship with someone genuine, it wasn’t long before I got lost in my desire for another. Never feeling satisfied with what I had. Never understanding the state of melancholy that I kept running from and towards. Always on the lookout for that next source of dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin. Believing my good feelings existed in another person and yet unable to allow anyone that was truly good for me in.

I was trapped in a cycle of my own creation and I didn’t know how to break it.

Preoccupied with my secret quest for an all-encompassing, sustained love — that one person who would be the reason for all of my joy and the answer to all my questions; as if my life would finally begin once I found them — but I was chasing something I could never find. There was no satiation for this type of hunger and yet I kept trying to get full off sugar substitutes. There were times I had it under control and times where I definitely didn’t; where my neediness and fear of being alone commandeered my decision-making and put me in some potentially dangerous situations, well past the acceptable time frame for youthful indiscretions. I told myself it was ok; that it gave me plenty of entertaining fodder for Sex And The City-type chats with non-single friends who didn’t have my “freedom.” But my stories always highlighted the fun and humorous aspects; leaving out the resulting shame and the dull, persistent loneliness.

Looking back, I realize all of my behaviors were buffers; developed upon heaps of buried feelings like so many others who have struggled with chronic depression, codependency, varying levels of addiction, and self-destructive habits. And though you can rid your cupboards of alcohol, clear your fridge of junk food, and flush your pills and powders down the toilet, you can never totally cut yourself off from other people. With or without its usual sidekicks of sex and fantasy, love is an unavoidable drug.

Because no one can escape the basic human need for connection, at least not forever.

I once had a boyfriend say to me, “Maybe you’re just not the type that’s meant to be with one person” as if I wasn’t wired the right way for monogamy. I saw the evidence and I saw his point based on my actions in our relationship, but I still didn’t believe him. I had fuzzy visions and future memories of a deep soul bond; one that existed within the confines of a human pairing. A romantic, creative conjunction; partners in life and also in art. Two healthy, balanced people actually in love. Normal, but better than the normal that I’d seen. I had some hope that this kind of ideal situation could be real; that I wasn’t just dreaming it. That I could have it. That it was mine. But I was embarrassed and ashamed of this yearning. And more than that, I still felt too broken, too undeserving, too unlovable. As if my self-concepts and dysfunctional patterns were too great to fix, and I’d have to resign myself to being stuck with them forever.

Eventually, a potent mix of life events catalyzed a much needed change within me and I couldn’t go anywhere but inward, alone. Since then, it’s been quite a long and involved process of unlearning and unbinding. Forgiving. Releasing. Relapsing. Even more forgiving. And of course, the ultimate revealing of my truest, deepest desire; what I had always really been seeking all along. To reconnect to my electric, magnetic, creative, magical, divinely embodied self. To feel balanced and aligned.

To feel totally ecstatically ALIVE.

That’s what I had been chasing this whole time: the power of my being. It was at the center of all that I longed for; the answer to all that I thought I had lacked. I had been plugging myself into all kinds of outlets but the only place I could ever find the source, my source, was within myself.

These days, I take pride in my role as keeper of the switch. And most of the time, I remember that it’s no one else’s job to turn on my light. I’ve come to view loneliness as an accumulation of tiny separations from my true self and not the result of time away from other people. Do I feel totally free from my past? No, but I have exorcised a great deal of the shame I once held due to my previous behaviors. While it’s no longer my driving force, I still keep the vision of one day aligning with a partner who feels like home. Even if the feminine polarity of my being that longs to nest may sometimes be at odds with the masculine aspect within me that needs to fly free, I trust that whoever this love is, they will hold space for both of these sides. I may still harbor the wounded creature and at times she may stir, but I have learned how to sit with her. To let myself feel her discomfort and to forgo the use of a Band-Aid to block it. I’ve discovered that unease, like a craving, tends to pass with acceptance, with positive distraction, and with time.

Yet, as I learned recently, I still haven’t solved the problem of expectations.

Maybe there’s nothing wrong with having them. After all, it’s only logical that when we have a genuine wish for something, for anything, we’ll perk up at the smallest sign of its possible fulfillment. The challenge only comes when our expectations aren’t met and the disappointment sets in. So what are we supposed to do? Never expect anything good? Never get excited at all?

In my opinion there are three things which we can actually do; three things that we can actually control: our projections, our present moment awareness, and our overall perspective.

PROJECTIONS

When we are presented with someone or something that might just be the person or experience we’ve been looking for, we often can’t help but get our hopes up. It’s natural to sit and daydream of the many ways things may align. And as I have learned in my acting training, when we focus on a person, place, or circumstance and repeatedly hold them in our imagination (through processes like daydreaming or visualization), we create emotional connections to that person, place, or circumstance. Even if we know little about them in our waking day to day, through our mental/emotional fixations, they start to become more and more familiar to us.

The majority of bonds we make in real life are built over time through shared experiences and memories created. And yet, when we fantasize our bodies go through the same chemical reactions we would go through in real life if we were living through those shared experiences. So, we are able to create the same types of bonds and attachments to people merely through our own imagination. We can, in a sense, implant memories of situations that never actually took place outside of our own minds.

If you’ve ever randomly dreamt about someone you barely knew and then woke up feeling extremely close to that person, you know firsthand that this can happen. So while this technique can be super helpful for an actor trying to build a character’s backstory, it can also set us regular daydreamers up for a bit of a fall, as the worlds we’ve created inside our heads are not always consistent with the one we’re physically walking in. We may expect the people, places, or circumstances present in our mental movies to assume those same roles for us in real life. But that does not always happen.

PRESENCE

Overall, projection fuels expectations. It also takes us out of the present moment. In the recent example I shared, I could have just allowed my experience with this new man to be a lovely and fun temporary event but my underlying want for something more caused me to project that something more onto him. I saw what I wanted to see. I let myself play in my fantasy world, writing all kinds of possible storylines for us. And because I had my own idea of how things would naturally progress, due to his behavior and the momentum that seemed to be building, it was surprising to me when things did not. In this situation, I am to blame for most of the disappointment incurred (albeit minor) as it was only ever due to my own assumptions and expectations. I created a slew of attachments to a version of him I had mostly made up in my mind. Sure, he may have encouraged its creation and provided some of the materials, but I was the one constructing the illusory tower. Luckily, I didn’t get too far before the whole thing dissolved.

That’s the trouble with meeting someone new, especially in a dating scenario; it’s hard to actually see anyone from the vantage of your own vacancy.

We’re often too busy deciding whether or not they fit the image of what we ultimately are looking for. So much so, that we miss out on just being in the moment and enjoying whatever gifts it may bring. And all we ever really have are moments, right? And even if we’re hightailing it to some future destination because it has the promise of being better than wherever we currently happen to be, we’re STILL going to end up nostalgic about this time period now. We’ll look back and notice all the good we couldn’t see. And we’ll wish we didn’t race out of there so fast because “it all ended up working out anyways and if we’d only just relaxed a little we could have enjoyed more…” I’m just quoting a conversation I regularly have with myself.

PERSPECTIVE

Obviously when basic survival needs are involved, it’s a bit different. It can be much harder to curb your attachment to getting hired for a particular job when you actually need it to feed and clothe your family; when it seems like that job is your only option for making rent this month and avoiding eviction. In these types of instances, it seems silly to tell someone they should just see the job as “an opportunity to enjoy the moment with a possible employer.”

But when we’re talking about dating, especially when our ultimate goal in doing so is to find a long term romantic partner, we may benefit from a few shifts in perspective if we want to lessen the intensity of any disappointments in this area.

Overall, there is a typical mathematical progression to the building of expectations and attachments. It all starts with what we desire; or really with what we believe we lack, which can often be the reason FOR that desire. The greater our seeming lack, the greater our frustration with it. The greater our frustration with it, the greater the pressure to find a solution for it. The greater the pressure to find a solution (which is usually increased by the existence of a time frame in which one needs to find it), the greater the attachment to any possible solution. And the greater the attachment to the possible solution, the greater the fall when that possible solution — the object of our salvation — does not come through.

In most circumstances, our level of disappointment is also based on the conclusions that we draw from the situation. In the wake of an expectation unmet, we may tell ourselves all kinds of fear-based untruths like “It’s hopeless,” “I’m hopeless,” “I’m going to be alone forever,” “They were right, I’ll never be good enough”, “I’m too ____.”

It is all about our assumptions in the aftermath. And those assumptions are only ever coming from within us.

When I had prospective love interests fall away in the past, it used to send me into a crazy tailspin. My “lack of love” seemed so real and so deep, that I felt like I had to frantically search for a mate to become the source of what I was missing. If I actually connected with someone and believed that I had finally secured a consistent supply, it was then devastating when it didn’t work out between us. The funniest part was I often barely knew these individuals, even if we had some sort of deeper, karmic soul connection. I was never upset about losing them because of how wonderful they were as people; if that was the case, we could have just stayed friends and I wouldn’t have missed out.

Instead, it was all about me not receiving the flow of love and validation I so desperately needed. And as a result, I let each loss mean something was wrong with me; even more proof that I was unlovable. And I really believed that to be true. Now that I no longer carry the same needs or beliefs, my conclusions have shifted. In my most recent experience with getting ghosted, after the initial acknowledgement of my inner wounded creature, my reaction was one of confusion and then genuine laughter.

A really important thing I had to learn was that my ability to feel and experience love is never dependent on another person. That’s because love, itself, is a state of being; an openness experienced in our own bodies. It’s a spiritual awakening. A creative and expansive flow of positive energy. An almost heavenly awareness. I’ve felt it when writing or performing, when taking long walks on beautiful grounds, and when genuinely connecting with another soul. Love is desired because it’s our natural and original best feeling state. Other people may activate this state and give us an excuse to feel it, but it is still an experience occurring within. And if that is the case, then you never really have a lack of love; it just may be hiding somewhere inside. You may just need to access a different form of it. The Greeks had several words for the various types of love and when I discovered this I found it quite enlightening.

If you are placing a great deal of importance on finding a “significant other” (a phrase that’s kind of ridiculous but you know what I mean when I say it), ask yourself, “How do I think I’m going to feel when I am with this person? What is the emotional experience that I’m really looking for? What do I believe I am lacking?” Often, when we are seeking a particular experience it’s because we are seeking the feeling that this particular experience promises. So if you want a partner because you are craving companionship, stimulating conversation, and someone to do things with, then perhaps the feeling you are looking for is one of connection.

Meerkat hugs.

Try and find this feeling in other ways. Make plans with a good friend or sign up for a class and meet some new people with similar interests. If you are looking for a partner because you miss the experience of physical touch and affection, then maybe what you are also seeking is warmth and comfort. For the time being, schedule regular massages or ask someone in your inner circle for a hug. If you are looking for a partner because you’d like to have children, then the emotional experience you may be looking for is the ability to nurture. For now, you may want to adopt a pet or volunteer to babysit someone else’s kids; whatever will temporarily fulfill that same need and activate your desired feeling.*

*Side note: I am aware that for females who want to birth their own babies, there may be an increased sense of urgency to finding a partner, especially if their intent is to conceive and raise their children in a traditional two-parent family structure. I imagine the closer one gets to their biological deadline the more pressure they feel to find someone. I may not share this desire as having my own children is not something I need to do, but I can understand and have compassion for it. Several of my friends have found themselves in this type of situation and have taken comfort in the fact that we are living in a time period where a variety of fertility options are available. In addition, there are many ways to nurture and raise children within a loving environment. Not that you should give up on your desired path to motherhood if you are one of these women, but sometimes what we desire (or at least the essence of it) can arrive in an unanticipated manner, especially when we release some of the pressure we’ve placed on it and stay open to other options.

The goal here is to give yourself a dose of whatever energy you feel is lacking, just long enough to take your focus off of that perceived lack. I know you may be rolling your eyes and I’m with you — these activities are most likely not going to fulfill your desires or needs in the long term — but they will place you in a state of “I have” more than in a state of “I don’t have.” And energy tends to expand in whatever direction we are sending it.

I will say, however, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the “don’t have’s.” They keep us motivated and moving toward our desired experiences. The problem is when we start to believe that these “don’t have’s” are the sole reason for our unhappiness; that if we had the six figure income or the loving partner of our dreams, we’d always feel the way we ultimately want to feel and everything would be better.

But loneliness, frustration, sadness, disconnection, and dissatisfaction are still possible regardless of your salary or relationship status.

The truth is, there is no tangible and/or living thing you could ever find or attract that could make everything better forever. That’s just not how life works. It’s no one else’s job to provide you with happiness or fulfillment. No one else can ever be your eternal supply. If we are entirely dependent on outside conditions to determine what’s going on inside of us, life becomes a pretty nauseating rollercoaster ride. And I don’t know about you, but I’m not a fan of all of this jostling. Nor do I want to keep putting off my contentment and satisfaction; waiting for things to change before I can feel the way I want to feel. And how do I want to feel? In love. And I don’t just mean with another person.

Love in its highest form is unconditional. The opposite of fear and possession, it is an unwavering appreciation that allows for whatever is best for each of us at the time. It feels like ease and clarity and lightness. It feels like being free.

Real love is not something you ever have to manipulate.

It doesn’t come with expectations, rules, or parameters. It simply is. While romantic relationships may be the result of real love, they are also based on logistics, timing, shared values, and energetic alignment.

So then, when it comes to dating, all you can ever control and all you can ever ask of yourself is to be your most authentic, honest, vulnerable, and truly loving version.

If you meet someone and you like them and it’s mutual and they stay, great. If they don’t stay, great. Why try to force something that isn’t naturally aligning? If we are forcing, we’re usually doing this out of fear and (once again) our own perceived lack, as if our life’s fulfillment is dependent on this one person. We may try to anxiously manipulate everything to work out the way we think it needs to be, as if we know better than life, but…WE DON’T KNOW BETTER THAN LIFE. Can’t you recall examples where it didn’t work out with someone you wanted to be with, but later on you were actually glad it didn’t? As if life helped you dodge a bullet by sweeping you out of their path? Yeah, me too. So perhaps it’s best to trust in that all-knowing, all-aware, conscious, intelligent, sacred, scientific, orderly chaos – that part of us and that part of everything– that knows a lot more than we do now.

It can be hard to stay hopeful after so many years of misses and disappointments. But perhaps patience is a virtue because it’s also a beneficial challenge; forcing us to find peace wherever we are. And that doesn’t mean ignoring our frustrations and negative emotions. It means giving them a safe space to exist and express. And like the world’s best parent or therapist, it means listening to our own tantrums without judgment.

If there is anything that I have taken away from 2020 and my time in quarantine/“safer at home,” it’s that life, as we experience it, is a series of irreplaceable present moments. Days and weeks and months slip by and the only time we ever get to hold onto is right here and right now.

Overall, we can’t control the outside world. We can’t control the manner and speed in which our manifestations arrive or our needs get fulfilled. But we can always control our own perspective. We can choose to lessen our attachment to possible solutions by lowering the volume on our lack and turning our attention to each moment’s reverberating fullness. Because that’s where all the good stuff is experienced anyway. Right here in the now; which is truly our ultimate destination.

My recently released inspirational message books, Wisdoms Of The Formerly Wilted: Vol I & II are now available for purchase on Amazon & at The Angel Cooperative online store.

For regular updates about new content and classes, sign up here or connect with me on Instagram or Facebook.

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Professional voice actor & coach. Author. Takes a ton of nature photos. Career aspiration: traveling philosopher. www.erikadward.com

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Erika Ward

Erika Ward

Professional voice actor & coach. Author. Takes a ton of nature photos. Career aspiration: traveling philosopher. www.erikadward.com

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