I keep falling for the wrong people — people who end up being emotionally unavailable, though it’s truly not apparent at first! How do I come to terms with the actual fact that I may be alone for the rest of my life? I have friends and family and feel lucky, but I truly worry I may never have a partner, like I’ll perpetually be Ross from Friends, sans the happy sitcom ending.
Your letter has echoes of the first question we ever fielded in this column, a variation on that prickly, persistent fear that strikes all of us sometimes: that we’re lovable only in small doses but intolerable in undiluted quantities or on indeterminate terms. It would be almost boring to keep returning to that same spring of existential angst — the fuel for hundreds of mediocre film scripts — if the fear, in all its many worst-case fantasies, weren’t so familiar. Preferring a solo life is a decision. Being forced into one feels like a disaster.
You have a different take on that familiar question, though. You don’t want help believing you’ll find someone; you want to accept that you might never. You’re not asking how to trust that there’s a yes out there. You’re asking how to plan ahead for the no.
I can understand why you’d want that. There’s some sense of safety in being able to imagine the thing you want least, some idea that if you can plan ahead for it, you can prepare. Think about how perversely satisfying it was to huddle under school desks during earthquake drills, picturing the ceiling tiles crumbling down over your sturdy shelter. You could still end up miserable, frightened, bruised or worse — but at least you wouldn’t be taken by surprise. You might end up a sad, bitter lonelyheart, a Ross without a Rachel, but at least you won’t be a chump.
That’s the logic. It feels like worrying ahead of time can mitigate the misery of the critical moment.
The problem, of course, is that it’s nonsense. When the ceiling falls down, it’s going to be terrifying no matter how much you’ve planned for it. And if the specter of ending up alone takes shape as a fact rather than just a fear, it’s unlikely to happen so suddenly, anyway. Hope seeps away like a leak, not like a bathtub drain. You get used to changing expectations as they shift — and most of the time, that shift feels less like a calamity than like compromise. Adaptation. Just the way things become.
But while anything seems inevitable in retrospect, the glance ahead is murky, full of apprehension posing as anticipation. It’s almost entirely guesswork. There’s no anticipating the future beyond updated seismic sensors and emergency evacuation procedures. You can prepare, but not predict. And unlike earthquake likelihood, the chances that you’ll end up solo are impossible to quantify. As long as you keep meeting anyone at all, anything is possible.
That means that it’s not loneliness you need to make peace with, but uncertainty. Loneliness might catch up with you anyway, partnered or solo, now or later. Uncertainty has been right next to you from the start.
In some ways, uncertainty is harder to accept; like lab rats pushing a button that sometimes spits out treats and sometimes doesn’t, we cling to hope when there’s hope to be had, even if we don’t want to. If Ross had really given up on Rachel, maybe he’d have been able to move on with his life for real, maybe even in a relationship he hadn’t idealized since high school. But hope doesn’t go anywhere unless you force it out. The only way to accept being alone forever is to decide to be alone forever.
That’s an option, if what you want is certainty. If the bait-and-switch of available maybes turning abruptly into unavailable nos is too painful to bear another time, you can be the no yourself and not wait for someone else’s.
Or you can decide that another maybe is still worth it. That the end of relationship means it reached its expiration date, not that you have. It’s easy to jump to conclusions about the future from where you’re standing, especially when what you thought was solid ground suddenly starts quaking under your feet. But we don’t have any guarantees into the future; we just have desks to climb under. You have your own resilience and your own willingness to come out from under it when the ceiling stops falling down — not because you’re certain the ceiling will stay put for the rest of your life, but because you know that if it doesn’t, you’ll still be okay.
You have friends, family, a rich life that makes you happy. You also have hope that leads you to people who eventually disappoint you. That’s frustrating, discouraging, painful. But cutting off that relentless, resilient part of you — which, by the way, sad sack Ross never had — won’t make you happier or take away your hunger; it’ll just harden you. Don’t confuse that brittle, stubborn defensiveness for strength or for acceptance. And don’t worry so much about the happy sitcom ending. Most of us spend most of our lives in the messy, confusing, joyful, difficult, uncertain middle — and you’re already doing that part way better than Ross ever did.
For a little unprofessional advice in these uncertain times, send your questions to our anonymous portal. We want it all, from the epistemological to the inane. We’ll dig deep to find some answers in the next installment of BLARB’s advice column, Asking for a Friend.