This time two years ago, I was still recovering from a broken heart. I’d turned 30 at the end of 2014, and despite the fact that I never admitted it openly, or even to myself, turning 30 and being single was not something that I was particularly happy about.
I’d seen myself being in a very different place by this stage. When I was in my teens, the ideal age to be married, I figured, was 20. This would give me time to date my childhood crush for a sensible one to two years (although he knew nothing of these plans, and it was debatable that he knew of my existence, either). Then we would be engaged for year maybe, and then presto! Marriage in a candle-lit forest, with all the guests sitting on hay bales and a harpist playing under a willow tree.
As I approached 20 with no viable proposals, the ideal age became, after careful consideration, 25. Much more sensible, and my career as a successful classical singer slash interior designer would be well underway by then, I reasoned. Perhaps I would even be ready for a career break at that point, because: global tour exhaustion.
Fast-forward to 29, and I had decided with grim determination, to date pretty much every guy in London. It was no easy feat, but I was committed to the cause, with the deadline of ‘30 in December’ looming in my head. I don’t know what I thought would happen to me when I reached 30, but I was fairly sure if I was dateless, it would be terrible. I don’t think I was even necessarily concerned about meeting the love of my life before 30 – more that I wanted to make sure I had a date for The Date.
I dated one guy for about five months, before I began to suspect that he wasn’t that serious – and that maybe I wasn’t either. Eventually, after five months, he finally admitted it ‘wasn’t a long-term thing’ from his point of view. And even though I knew deep down that I felt the same way, I was humiliated that he’d been the one to admit that. And back to facing a dateless birthday.
So then I did what seemed to me to be the next most sensible option: I went on a dating bender.
In a period of quick succession, I dated so many guys that the space-time continuum was disrupted. Okay maybe not, but it was quite a blur. This was a period of many nights of self-questioning and crying into my pillow about five-month guy, who I was actually missing, despite myself.
Once I was feeling more like myself again, a friend called me up, asking if she could set me up with her friend (let’s call him Mark), who she reassured me, would be a great date. I agreed to let her give Mark my number. Ten minutes later, Mark texted me.
Mark was amazing. He was charismatic, intelligent and hilarious. He also seemed to be very into me, which I found intoxicating after what I perceived as a year of embarrassing rejections and dismal dating. Mark took me out on some pretty amazing dates, and made me feel like I was the most fascinating and beautiful girl he’d ever met. The dates were phenomenal, each one outdoing the last in their thoughtfulness and romance. I was suddenly a girl with good dating stories, not just disasters. I didn’t feel pitied by people when the talk turned to relationships. My ‘bad luck’ seemed mythical now.
Two months into our relationship, Mark asked me to be his girlfriend. Over the moon with excitement I said yes, and mentally counted down the days till my party – only a few weeks away now – where I could introduce him to all my friends.
A week later, without warning or explanation, I was single again. Dumped with the illuminating explanation that I was “fantastic, but it just wasn’t going to work”.
A few months earlier, I would have gone on another dating bender – a few weeks, there’s still hope for a plus one! – but this time I was done. This time I was crying into my red wine on a Sunday night, with a friend reassuringly stroking my hand, while trying to shoo away a curious waiter.
I’d really let my guard down with Mark, and I’d felt there was quite a future for the relationship – or perhaps that’s just what I’d wanted to believe. Either way, I cried for three days straight, until I suspect, my tear ducts simply gave up the ghost.
It was when I started googling ‘monastic communities’ that I realised I couldn’t escape the cold, hard fact that life at almost-30 was going to look quite different from how I’d imagined it – and that I had to face that squarely in the face.
I’d like to say that I have some really profound thoughts on how I got through these difficult feelings of rejection and failure. There were things that made a difference: kind friends, prayer, and a lot of soul-searching. But one of the most helpful things at this time was a little piece of paper stuck to the wall, on which I’d written the line: even Bruce Springsteen got dumped.
Now, people who know me well know I have a long-held love of The Boss. Don’t even get me started on the reasons, and yes I realise this makes me sound like a crazed fan. Such a crazed fan in fact, that when I got dumped I went to Google and asked it if this had ever happened to Bruce. And what came up was some brilliant footage of Bruce at a concert consoling a recently-dumped fan by saying: “I got dumped plenty of times myself. And oh, they’re regretting it now!”
I have this theory that a huge part of our feelings of embarrassment and shame are because we believe that we’re the only ones that feel the way we do. That we’re the only ones to get rejected.
In doing this, we isolate ourselves. We lie to one another with our behaviour, pretending that everything is OK. And in that environment, shame flourishes and tells us that we’re the odd ones out. That everyone else is ok and we’re not.
What I’ve found in life is that the thing that breaks us out of that sense of shame faster than any other, are the simple words: “Me too.” The acknowledgement from someone else that they have walked this path as well. That this is a journey that is well-traveled by many people. That we’re not alone.
Whether it’s a friend or a hero, most of the time we all know someone we think is so devastatingly awesome that the fact they could be rejected by anybody is unbelievable. But chances are they got dumped. Badly. Embarrassingly. Publicly. Just knowing that can be unbelievably comforting and empowering. Getting rejected puts us in the same camp as – well, pretty much everyone else, ever.
So the best thing – the only thing – to do is start telling ourselves the truth when we face rejection. Sometimes that requires asking ourselves difficult questions, and facing up to uncomfortable truths about ourselves; after all, there were some legitimate issues behind why I was bankrolling Kleenex on Valentines Day. But other times, we simply need to let go of the need to analyse ourselves and our circumstances, and admit that this just happens to the best of us. Literally the best of us (yes, I’m talking about Bruce again, sorry).
Two years on, I’ve realised that what I learned from that time is: in dating, in singleness and in all things, if at first I don’t succeed, rejection isn’t the end of the world. I can dust myself off and try again.