A woman I knew once told me that she couldn’t imagine being single. Her name was Mary Ellen. She was married to a great guy named Stephen who loved her and treated her well. They both had successful careers and had just bought a house together.
(All identifying information has been changed to protect privacy.)
Mary Ellen told me she had watched a friend who was single obsess about finding a husband. She said her friend had been frantic to find a man for years. Mary Ellen told me she didn’t think she’d be able to find someone else if anything ever happened to Stephen. She said she wouldn’t know how to go about finding someone new. She said she was lucky because she had met Stephen when she was young. She said being single would be agony for her.
Stephen died from cancer suddenly when he was 33 years old. The conversation Mary Ellen and I had had predated Stephen’s death by about five years. It came back to me when I heard about Stephen’s death. I had changed cities and lost touch with Mary Ellen so I don’t know how her story ends. My hope, however, is that she learned to be comfortable being single. At least until she had had enough time to grieve Stephen’s death.
I remember telling Mary Ellen, when she said she couldn’t imagine being single, that there are worse things than being alone. I remember starting a list. There’s being battered. There’s being emotionally abused. There’s living with an alcoholic or a drug addict. There’s living with a gambler who forces your into debt. There’s having a partner who sexually abuses your children.
There are so many situations people can find themselves in that are worse than being single. Mary Ellen’s concern about being on her own made me wonder why she was so afraid? What was so scary about being alone?
Sometimes my clients are afraid to be alone, just like Mary Ellen was. This is often the case when someone has been in a bad relationship and doesn’t feel good about themselves. This fear also often comes with having experienced developmental trauma (meaning neglect and abuse as children).
When someone is afraid to be alone, I help them explore whether watching a movie by themselves with a bag of popcorn is really so bad? I help them learn to enjoy the company of a good book, taking long walks, exploring a bookstore for a couple of hours, taking a road trip somewhere they’ve always wanted to go, and even getting on a plane to see a musician perform in a new city.
We do this work together because it’s important they learn to enjoy their own company, and to be confident in their ability to live on their own. If you’re desperate to be with someone, then you won’t feel able to tell someone who is treating you poorly to leave. This is how people end up remaining in domestic violence or with an alcoholic or a gambler.
Really. There are worse things than being alone.
— Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta