Single through the twenties 1/2: expanding what we mean by love

Siwe: Thank you for chatting to me about this, Ija. It’s a fascinating topic because I think within the Christian sphere, we talk a lot about like single people, but the way we talk about single people, the quality of that sometimes makes me go “ahh, I don’t know”. I mean, you and I have had this chat about how there’s all this pressure, and all these ideas of what growing up looks like for those in the church, and singleness is part of the areas we haven’t done too well in.

Ija: Yeah, that’s definitely true. Thank you for having me, I am looking forward to chatting about this topic.

So, the first thing I want to ask you is: how single were you in your 20s?

Ija: So it’s a tough question…

Siwe: Okay, haha!

Ija: And I’d say, the only real relationship I had was in my early 20s. Like a proper ‘we both know what we’re doing’ type of situation. In my mid to late 20s, I would say pretty much single but vibing with people at different times. Since I don’t consider those situationships relationships, I would say single.

Siwe: That’s the point, how single would you say that is? My thing is, a lot of us when we talk about how we were single through our 20s, are talking about it in the form of formal relationships. I recently wrote a blog about all the situationships that I was in, in my 20s. When you read it, you’re like ‘were you really single though?!’

Ija: And I guess then the answer becomes complicated. Because there were a number of situationships. There were a number of going on dates, and just kind of vibing. There were a number of friendships that were probably incredibly grey, where we both played a partner to each other even if we didn’t realise it. Where we definitely had all the the cards that you can pull on in a relationship, in the way you expect someone to show up. I’ve definitely had friends where we had that. If I colour it in, then I’d say it was complicated.

Siwe: I know we can’t speak for other people, but from a general observation of the populace, how many of your Christian friends and people that you were walking with, were actually single? I am not talking about going on dates, because that’s fair for single people to do, right? Because you’re getting to know people. But where it’s like, you’re in these murky pseudo relationships but you’re single. Do you know people that weren’t like that?

Ija: I don’t. Like, I think with all my friends, there may have been periods, maybe six months or whatever, of people actually being single. Yeah, but outside that, there were definitely always either situationships or “I am hanging out and vibing with this guy but I don’t know what’s popping”. So, there was definitely that for all of us.

Siwe: So no long periods where there were no weird shadow relationships, basically. That’s what they are.

Ija: Yeah. So there were definitely always shadow relationships.

But like, why. Why was it okay, personally for you. Why was that an acceptable thing? Did you want to be in shadow relationships?

Ija: I think there were times where it was never a conscious ‘oh I am entering a shadow relationship’, but it was just maybe a friendship. But upon reflection I’d be like, okay cool, actually this was a shadow relationship. Where we were fulfilling that for one another. And then there were those where it was purely like, I find you attractive and I enjoy spending time with you. And now we’re here in this thing and I am enjoying myself. Yeah, those were a bit more premeditated because it wasn’t a basis of friendship. But it was more a basis of, we met each other and we entered this pseudo relationship under the guise of friendship. So, I think more than anything it was just liking the person, but also perhaps a desire for that kind of companionship.

Siwe: So I know that when I reflect upon most of the situationships that I was in, I would say that I did desire a relationship. But like, I was still trying to be a cool girl, right? I didn’t want to be the girl who is like, what are we doing and why are we in this thing that doesn’t make sense?, you know. I was trying to be too cool for school. And then I ended up in all these situations that I actually wanted to be more, but they weren’t. What was your general experience in that respect?

Ija: I think two experiences: there were some situationships where I wasn’t sure if I wanted it to be more. So, say it was an existing friendship and I liked it. I know things are a little bit blurry, but I’m not sure if I want it to be more. Then there’s no real conversation, and I guess there was a rationalisation of ‘this is just how we are’, and then a comfort in that way.

And then there were instances where, yes, I did want it to be relationship but I also felt like I wasn’t that certain about it to put my neck out. So, I wasn’t that convinced about you that I could tell you. And if it’s a loss, it’s a loss and I am actually okay because you’re one that I wouldn’t want to wonder about you. Where I would be willing to tell you ‘listen bro, I like you and I don’t want to wonder about you, so what’s this story?’. So, none that I felt that strongly about because if I felt that strongly then I would have probably done it. And I did it once in my early 20s.

Siwe: Whaaat? You told him?!

Ija: Yeah! I was like, “listen I may be reading this entirely wrong, but I like you and I just want to know where to interact from with you, because this is not working for me”

Siwe: And what did he say?

Ija: So that one went bust. He was like “I, I like you too, and I respect you too much”. That whole chat that guys give women they’re vibing with but don’t want to be in a relationship with, when they get confronted.

So our 20s were colourful!  Well, you’re still in your 20s so that doesn’t count, haha. But at this point, do you desire being in a relationship?

Ija: I think right now I more clearly desire that, yes.

Siwe: When did that become a thing? Like, when did you realize that okay wait, I actually want to be in a relationship and then like, clarifying all that clutter that was there?

Ija: I think a bit of that desire was always there. But perhaps it was distorted by just being steeped in so many situations that you can’t even come up for air!

Siwe: Yes! You just cannot see in the mist of situationships

Ija: In my late 20s there have been far less situationships, and being very intentional about trying not to fester in that space even when it happens.  So if it’s a friendship we’re in, then let’s do that. If it’s not, let’s just not do what we’re doing to each other. And I think that brought the clarity around, actually I want to be in a relationship where we’re both in this thing. Where we’re both very clear about being in this thing and wanting to build a life.

And I think now that’s been layered with being in later 20s, and thinking deliberately about actually building my life. I am building who I want to be a lot more deliberately. I feel like a lot of the stuff of early 20s, mid 20s have been weeded out and there’s just like, a sense of walking towards greater clarity.

Siwe: No, that makes sense especially when you have gone through the process of decluttering and weeding out all the weird non-relationships that bring hurt and confusion.

In terms of the clarity of partnership, to what extent is that a function of having friends and peers getting into serious relationships?  Did a lot of your friends get into relationships in the early or mid 20s and what function did that play in your growing desire for a settling of sorts?

Ija: A lot of my friends probably got into relationships mid to late 20s. Some of them like me, are still single. I think that seeing friends get into relationships definitely plays a factor in one, seeing the shift when people are in relationships very practically, in terms of availability and all these other things. Also, I think having a lot more conversations with friends around relationships, around the idea of building a life and what that looks like with a partner. Those conversations definitely have a role to play. And then I’d absolutely be lying if I didn’t say socialisation and the idea that your later 20s are for such things, yeah.

Siwe: I wonder if there is a greater extent with age, of clarifying the kind of love you want to be a part of? Do you feel the fact that you’ve had time to think about it has clarified things a lot more, or would that not make a difference if you got into a relationship?

Ija: I think it definitely would make a difference. Because who I’ll be as someone who loves another person right now is very different to my 25-year-old self. I think I would love someone far better now, because it’s intentional and deliberate. But I also think the ways in which so many things have formed, like things you’ve seen, things you’ve experienced. Things you’ve seen from your friends, things you’ve read, things you’ve listened to, now I have a greater respect for companionship. Like, for one to be someone’s companion, and for that person to entrust that to you. And I also think I have greater clarity in terms of what rituals I’d want in a romantic relationship. I think I’m very okay with verbalising what I desire and if those desires are not being met. And how we can maybe come together in some middle ground, or even just vocalising how I feel loved.

Siwe: Yeah, I think all these things that you’re talking about, I hadn’t thought about as intently, so it was in relationship that I started to grapple with these questions of the rituals more intently. Obviously relationships will always mess with your head, things aren’t perfect and you’re two people grappling with what love looks like. But, having come with like a clarity of what you want, that influences the way that you negotiate your presence in that relationship, but also the way that you negotiate whether you even get into that relationship or not.

Do you think that your thinking through these things has narrowed your ‘pool’, if you will?

Ija: So, I think to a certain extent my pool had always been narrow, but now it’s even narrower. But I also think, there are certain superficial things that I wanted in my pool that aren’t that important now. Then there are certain things around like, just the substance of the person that have been clarified, where it’s like here are some things that I just need you to have, or I need you to be working on. And then to come alongside you, I think that that’s cleared up.

Siwe: Looking at your friends who got into relationships early or mid 20s, how has that informed the clarity?

Ija: It’s made me more deliberately think about things. So the conversations that I have with them about their boyfriends or husbands, or like conversations we have about what they’re finding out in love. I think those conversations have definitely made me think about things. I also think it’s sobered me up around like, the reality that yes, relationships are fantastic but it’s also work and difficult. And then when you marry someone and you live the rest of your life, that’s even more difficult because now you’re together forever. So, I think it’s cleared up that you need to know what you want to build with for the rest of your life.

Siwe: For me, part of what had influenced me to be honest, was unfortunately a lot of cases of what I don’t want. So I was like, I don’t want that, I don’t want that either. And it’s not even just what people say but looking and observing and seeing that okay, that’s clearly not what I’m looking for. And then it’s like, what do you want? What do you actually want?

Ija: I think for me it’s definitely been a combination where it’s like okay, I don’t want that and therefore, we’re not doing that and I like that. I think probably more of the latter has influenced me, where it was more of okay based on what you’re telling me, I think that’s something I should think about.

Thinking about your 20’s again, what would you say are the liberating or good things about singleness?

Ija: I think there’s definitely a lot of freedom around self-determining. So in terms of where you choose to be physically. Choosing to move cities or choosing to go to school or choosing to make certain life decisions that alter your life, there is a lot of freedom in that because I don’t have to consider anyone else’s life and anyone else’s plans or hopes, I just need to solve for myself only.

Siwe: Yeah, and that thing is real hey! That’s a real thing dude. Thinking through how to organise your life with someone else in mind.

Ija: Even now, I appreciate it and I need to make the most of this! I think that’s the one thing and because there’s not this one person that your affections are kind of skewed towards, you’re able to grow in so many other relationships and have deep meaningful relationships with so many people. And just enjoying a lot of different people, which I think has also crystallized what kind of person I want to be with. Like, I’ve really enjoyed just having a lot of meaningful relationships.

I also think realising that there’s a psychological burden that comes with caring about someone else, and caring about yourself in relation to that person that I don’t have. Just having that psychological and mental real estate to focus on other things. Because I think when you’re single, there’s a mental real estate because you don’t practically have another person to think about, which makes it easier to focus on certain things just for yourself. In hindsight, I’ve enjoyed that as well. And it’s something that I’m also very conscious of enjoying now. Because I think that it’s something almost understated, that “building together” and what that may do to who you were when you were alone and what you wanted alone.

So, I want us to zoom into what you just spoke about of building good relationships, or deep relationships. Have you found that as your friends get into relationships while you stay single, has been a fairly manageable adjustment or have your friends just dumped you as soon as they’re in relationships?

Ija: I think very early on in the relationship, when the relationship is new, I have experienced gone girls and gone boys across the gender line. So, people being less available, not necessarily bringing certain parts of themselves to you that maybe historically they would have. So just less, I don’t want to say depth because I don’t necessarily think that depth is singular, but there’s definitely a shift in what you have access to. In what they bring to you, versus now what they bring to their partner. Then as the relationship kind of normalises, that’s not so much the case because things revert to normal and we find a new rhythm and whatever.

Siwe: Have you had a lot of grace for your friends who dumped you and then came back after their relationships end?

Ija: Yeah, I have. Because I think in those times, I have grown in depth with other friends who are also single. And so, it’s not that I haven’t necessarily missed them but I’ve understood their season.

Siwe: You’re better than me. I was always ready to cancel them, haha. But the Lord is gracious man, he has really helped me to be more gracious and forgiving also.

I was definitely a lot more self-righteous in my early 20s and I used to just have very little grace for that. Because I just thought that I would never do that. I was on my high horse, certain that I would never dump my friends because of a man, haha. So, if you are making me feel like a second class relationship, then let’s both make it second class. When you come back like, “let’s go back to first class”, I was like “nah girlfriend, second class is where it’s at because I’ve readjusted our relationship”. And so, it wasn’t even like, I don’t want to be friends with you anymore. It was a mental adjustment of the relationship to a certain level and I guess being nervous that if I ramp it up again, then I must be ready for a similar dumping when you get into another relationship. Now, I’m a lot more understanding and gracious because even I have had my own failings as a friend, so it’s only natural to be forgiving and open to reconciliation and therefore open to adjusting that relationship up again to first class.

Ija: Yeah, no I hear that.

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