Getting your head around being single Annie Harrison spent a session with relationship psychologist Susan Quilliam

. This helped me gain an understanding of the mental anguish experienced by the recent (and reluctantly) single thirtysomething woman who finds herself staring into the nuclear family abyss. SQ: Whatever the reasons for finding yourself single again ‘at certain age’, there will be a raft of emotions bubbling beneath the surface and occasionally bursting out. This is not an easy time for anyone who doesn’t want to be single, and because there is a perceived ‘tiny window of opportunity’ in your life calendar for finding someone, falling in love, settling down and having babies, the very nature of its urgency can instil feelings of panic. While many women in this demographic ‘soldier on’ bravely, some become burdened by the sheer weight of negative emotions. Help is available, and it could change your life for the better. AH: What’s going on inside the head of a woman alone and emotionally ‘at the end of the line’? SQ: Typically, a woman in this situation will be experiencing a range of feelings akin to bereavement – mourning opportunities lost and potential, the past and present. She may be grieving for the children she hasn’t had and might not have, and this can be an overwhelming emotion, manifesting itself with tearful outbursts. Plus there may be fear and despair: ‘If I don’t move quickly, it will never happen’, ‘This is my last chance of finding happiness and fulfilment’. Like a rabbit caught in the headlights she is gripped by panic as she wonders how to go about finding someone and what to do first. Inaction is seen as time wasting, although she may well be harbouring negative emotions or regrets from the past. These will undoubtedly hamper her progress.

AH: What other feelings might there be? SQ: In addition to the feelings above, there may be feelings of anger: ‘Why didn’t I make my last relationship work?’ ‘Why did I allow myself to be let down?’ ‘Why did he eventually choose someone else over me?’ At this point blame and self-blame rear their ugly heads. Although a person reading this book is probably past the denial stage, she might be in a state of shock: ‘I’ve wasted the last ten years. Maybe it’s all too late’, ‘I have never made it work in the past – how can I suddenly turn it around now?’, ‘How did I manage to screw things up so spectacularly?’, ‘My ex-boyfriend put me in this situation and it could ruin the rest of my life’. In some cases these feelings may lead to depression and acts of desperation. Real depression is a feeling of helplessness. She will feel upset, angry and powerless to do anything. To give these feelings validity, she will be grieving the loss of relationship. Sometimes, the memory of a former love is the most difficult thing to exorcise from her mind. He will be always there, dormant, ready to emerge when prompted by places, music, key dates and events or moments of loneliness. She will be wondering what he is doing and whether he is missing her. He might be regarded as ‘the one who got away’ and irreplaceable. There may also be a tiny germ of hope lingering that one day this defunct relationship might be rekindled. AH: How do these feelings manifest themselves? SQ: Usually in three ways: attitudes to self, attitudes to the wider world and attitudes to potential partners. AH: What are her typical attitudes to self?

SQ: She may find herself crying easily, spontaneously and fairly frequently. She may blame herself, may end up overeating, over-drinking, having one-night stands or taking drugs. All of these self-destructive behaviours are simply ways of trying to get comfort at a time when she feels incredibly vulnerable in her life. Not only will she seek to accelerate an inappropriate liaison into a courtship but she will see sex as a comfort – a needing to be loved: ‘It’s better to wake up with someone’s arms around me, rather than alone.’ But there are positive aspects too. Her state of singleness may instil a feeling of empowerment. If she has enjoyed a successful career and holds down a demanding job, she may take a business-like approach to her situation. She will be proactive and positive in taking steps to change her life around and move things forward. She might decide to join a dating agency or try online dating. She may decide to give the dating game a rest and pursue some new interests. In a way, this is like the end of the bereavement process and acceptance of the situation: ‘He left, and he isn’t coming back’, ‘I’ve got a lot going for me’, ‘I’m better off without him’’ ‘I’m OK’. AH: What about her attitudes to the wider world? SQ: She may find companionship with single friends who are in the same situation. There will be safety and comfort in her peer group, although this might not necessarily be the best way to overcome her manless state. She will start to value herself differently and will shift the way she lives her life to be surrounded by similar people. Other women may take a different stance. They might cut themselves off from the world by staying in or immersing themselves in their work. Or they might decide to do something

radical and different – work abroad, go travelling, do voluntary work or learn a new skill. In the process, they will find a new peer group while learning salsa or German. Whatever she decides to do, although it might be quite manic in its approach, she will work through the solutions to her predicament internally. AH: How might she come across to potential partners at this critical time in her life? SQ: Her subconscious will give off signals that she is frustrated at not finding Mr Right. The classic case is that she will move into total desperation mode. She will do anything to get a partner, take anyone, jump into bed, come on strong and fast forward the first date into assessment of a man’s potential as a partner and a parent. Her attitude may shoot and destroy a potentially good match in her quest to make it all happen – fast. I have even heard of some women enrolling in speed dating sessions and using their allotted three minutes to ask the chaps about timeframes for settling down and having children. It’s all too much, too soon, too upfront. The feelings of bereavement, desperation and anger will not help ‘sell’ the real woman. It is worth remembering that men who are single and looking for love are emotionally vulnerable too. Advertising for a mate with the aggressive rejoinder ‘no time wasters’ is unlikely to encourage the perfect man to step forward. I would urge women not to take out their anger or bitterness on men, even if they are deemed unsuitable types. No man wants to be the recipient of someone else’s emotional resentment, anger or bitterness.

Sadly, if a woman does manage to find a potentially suitable partner, if she is still holding a torch for her past love (or a voodoo doll), then the man may bear the brunt of her regrets, possibly for some time. This is testing in the extreme for a new relationship. AH: How much time should a woman leave between one relationship ending and another beginning – given that time is of the essence here? SQ: The amount of time will depend on her emotional state and the intensity of any feelings she still harbours following the break-up of her last relationship. A classic mistake is for a woman to rush into something too quickly, with an aura of helplessness and fury. A woman may make a bad choice in her haste to fix things. AH: Why would this be? SQ: For instance, if a man and woman meet and they have both come out of unhappy, long-term relationships or marriages, they will share mutual emotional and baggage issues but two years down the line, once those particular issues are resolved, they may find they don’t actually have too much in common. She might also latch onto the next available man or (in her mind) the last available man on the planet. Her self-esteem will be low and she would rather be with someone, anyone, than be alone. I would urge anyone still mourning her last relationship to get over it before even contemplating attempting to find someone else. AH: How can someone in this state of mind get over her previous relationship? What help can she get?

SQ: The easiest thing is to relax, switch off and look the other way. Open yourself up to be surprised. Change the patterns of your daily life and enrich it by exploring new things. You need to boost your confidence and offload completely your emotional baggage. Clear the path so you can develop relationships with people that you meet along the way. You may need to change your outlook too. Don’t be too precise about your ideal ‘type’. It doesn’t matter what age you are but you can never conjure up an ideal mate in the exact mould as created in your mind. But don’t surrender your standards either – make a list of rules about what you are not going to accept and avoid repeating unsuccessful patterns in the selection of your partners. If it applies to you, be clear that you will not tolerate abusive relationships, addictive behaviour, emotional immaturity or other negative traits you may have tolerated in the past. You cannot change other people but you can change your outlook and your standards. Self-help books or counselling can work wonders too. AH: What guidelines would you suggest in choosing a counsellor? SQ: Deciding to go for counselling is a serious and important decision. A counsellor will be an instrument of change in your life, so it is vital that you (as with a prospective partner) choose carefully. You must relate well to your counsellor – you will need to test them and trust your gut feeling before you commit to a programme of therapy. Refer to the British Association for Sex and Relationship Therapy and the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy for help. While Relate doesn’t provide advice to singles seeking a partner, this national service does offer help on relationship recovery.

AH: If hypnotherapy can work to help people lose weight, overcome phobias and quit smoking, can it be used to help someone panicking about a stage in her life? SQ: Absolutely! Paul McKenna and Hugh Willbourn wrote a wonderful book with a mind-programming CD entitled I Can Mend Your Broken Heart. This is all about overcoming emotional pain at the end of a relationship. Another recommended read is Cutting the Ties That Bind: Growing up and Moving on by Phyllis Krystal.

Susan Quilliam is a relationship psychologist and agony aunt based in Cambridge, UK specialising in intimate relationships, love and sexuality.

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