On a recent bank holiday, with nothing pressing to do, I baked myself a cake—two cakes, actually, so I could decide which recipe best satisfied my chocolate craving. I iced them and, for the finishing touch, added swirls of whipped cream and plump maraschino cherries dripping red. Reader, I ate both. Are single women happier? That’s debatable, but they’re certainly better capable of having their cake and eating it too.
That wasn’t always the case for me. For the better part of my life, I would bake those perfect cakes and give the best slices—you know, the ones with sweet maraschino cherries—to others. And I didn’t stop there. I’d make sure everyone else had the best cuts of steak and the freshest cups of coffee. I’d pile seconds onto their plates even if I hadn’t gotten my fill. I could always eat yesterday’s leftovers, after all.
When I was married, this made me feel like a good wife and provider. And yet I also worked a demanding full-time job, did the bulk of the child care and housework, and was a doting and attentive spouse in so many other ways. Let’s just say I ate a lot of leftovers in that marriage.
That was part of the problem. My purpose in life had become pleasing others. I didn’t bother figuring out how to be happy; I found moments of joy in making my partner happier at home. And I got lost in the shuffle.
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The dating game
When I finally decided, after 16 years, to leave my people-pleasing life behind, I thought I understood what made single women happier. I had an appetite for life. I said yes to everything that crossed my path—including online dating.
On my very first try, I got lucky, and what was intended as a casual fling turned into a four-year love affair. I still gave him the biggest piece of pie, the last dinner roll and the maraschino cherry, but this guy showed gratitude for it.
And I never once questioned my lifelong habit or thought about setting boundaries. After all, doesn’t selflessness sustain a relationship? Aren’t you supposed to put your loved ones ahead of yourself? Doesn’t that make you a good person, not to mention a desirable partner?
In time, though, I had a mental shift. It was the beginning of the end.
Swiping for Mr. Right
I won’t say our relationship fell apart over an ice cream sundae, but it certainly played a role. We’d gone out for a treat and agreed to share. I was craving a massive brownie sundae, but when it came time to order, he wanted toppings. I didn’t, but I acquiesced. Until he said pineapple.
I thought he was joking, but when he stuck with it, I gave it to him straight: We were sharing, and I couldn’t stomach a sundae smothered in pineapple. He ordered it anyway, and I had to sit silently and watch him eat that monstrosity by himself. The cherry on top? I paid, as usual.
We did not last long after that. In the aftermath, I didn’t even consider dating again. The idea devastated me. I loved the story that he was my one and only swipe right almost as much as I had loved him.
But somehow dating found me again. I met someone, we chatted and a friendship grew. It was only a casual thing, but it was a nice distraction as I continued to heal. And I liked having someone to care for again, to cook for again.
What I didn’t like was getting a call from the wife he had told me he was divorcing. Or hearing that, no, they weren’t splitting up. They’d just bought a new house together. I’m not overly picky when it comes to dating, but the guy’s single status? Yeah, that’s non-negotiable.
Single and staying that way
Any reasonable person would have called it quits at that point, and I did. I didn’t just give up on that six-month relationship but on dating in general. Clearly, I wasn’t cut out for it. If I wasn’t attracting losers, I was at least failing to discern them in the wild, and either way, it wasn’t a test I could stand to fail again.
The thing I didn’t realize when I retired from dating, though, was how much happier it would make me. Reading through profiles and trying to engage men who are still single but “open to kids” at age 45 and older took time and patience that I just did not have. And more important, it wasn’t any fun.
I was wasting time on dating. The way I saw it, my energy was better spent on things with a higher rate of return. So I took on more assignments at work, spent more time making my kid pancakes the shapes and colors of his favorite cartoon characters, booked travel and cultivated a few new hobbies—all the cliche post-breakup stuff that is supposed to make newly single women happier.
There’s a reason it’s a cliche, though: It works.
Coming of age (again)
With my new mindset, I had something of a second coming of age. I wasn’t constantly trying to be happy or successful at work—I was happy and successful and fulfilled.
At the end of that awful, awful year, I sat down at my computer to figure out my taxes and stared in awe at the number at the bottom of my spreadsheet. I couldn’t believe I’d had the highest-earning year of my life, especially when I spent so much of it grappling with depression and loneliness.
I’d also won an award for my work, with a medal and everything. I completed my first solo home renovation project, painting and redecorating the bathroom and even wiring a new light fixture. I pulled off a homemade escape room birthday party for my son.
When I flip through my phone’s camera roll, I can’t believe all the new things I’ve tried and adventures I’ve been on—all totally alone. I visited a wolf sanctuary. Took a class at a circus school. Dove off a diving board for the first time ever. I commissioned art for myself, started learning sign language, traveled to both Portlands (Maine and Oregon), hiked vertical cliffs in the Arizona heat and sailed the Caribbean.
I read books (actual novels, not just self-help books!), spent time with friends and hiked hundreds of miles with my dog through newly discovered trails. I reaped the many benefits of volunteering by donating blood, time and money to causes I believed in. And I went to bed every night feeling a deep sense of calm satisfaction in my soul.
Slowly, my natural positive attitude and faith in humanity returned. Best of all, I regained faith in myself. While I absolutely look forward to becoming a cat lady someday, I don’t hate relationships or people who are happy in them. And I still think romantic love is something to aspire to.
Indeed, studies show a link between marriage and happiness. Still, there’s a trick to making single women happier, and it has to do with community. When researchers looked at the happiness levels of married and unmarried people, they found that unmarried folks were more likely to socialize with others, and that socialization was strongly connected to happiness.
What I’ve come to realize is that I don’t need a romantic relationship to avoid loneliness or to feel fulfilled. I am very content. For the first time in my life, I treat myself the way I’ve always treated others. I put myself first, buy myself the finer things and always, always save the biggest, best piece of cake for myself.
- Applied Research in Quality of Life: “Social Capital, Happiness, and the Unmarried: a Multilevel Analysis of 32 European Countries”
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