Between what some consider a sex recession and a record number of Americans never having been married before, it’s clear that the standard monogamous partnership -> marriage -> kids life path is becoming less culturally mandatory. And yet, being in your late 20s without any romantic relationship experience can make some people wonder if it’s “normal” to never have exclusively dated someone before. So… is it?
The short answer, of course, is a resounding yes. But for anyone asking themselves this question, they might know that logically, and still feel like they’re the only person they know who’s never had a serious relationship. Over time, it can feel very isolating, and platitudes about embracing the single life probably don’t do much to help, especially if one knows that they alone are enough… while also really wanting to find love and share their life with someone else. There is nothing “wrong” with someone who hasn’t been in a romantic relationship before, and thinking there is can lead to a lot of shame and pressure that actually makes it harder to just… date. But there are ways to process this experience in a way that ultimately helps you get closer to having the relationship you want.
Try to look at the situation like a social scientist might.
To start, therapist Andrea Bonior suggested looking at the situation “like you’re an outside scientist.” At every stage of the dating process—matching with someone on an app, the first few convos, actually going on the first date—the person should ask themselves, “What are the characteristics of people I’m attracted to? What starts to not feel good? How am I meeting these people? Do things tend to move too fast? How is this good or bad?” For example, someone who is often the one to jump ship after a few dates (or a couple months of non-exclusive kinda-dating) might be tempted to think that there’s something wrong with them or who they choose to go out with. But it’s a much more useful and productive practice to think about how each specific situation and person made them feel, perhaps with the help of a therapist if they’re not sure where to begin.
Consider how things are going in non-romantic intimate relationships.
Bonior also said people who haven’t been in a relationship and want to be might benefit from doing some deeper digging into other relationships they’ve had, including non-romantic ones, and considering whether they tend to have unrealistically high expectations, or cut people off at the first sign they’re less-than-perfect. She said to ask questions like, “Do my friends sometimes tell me that I have harsh standards? Do I feel like people in my family let you down consistently?” If a person feels like everyone around them kind of sucks and they’re always looking for the one person who won’t ever disappoint them, it might be a good idea to work with a therapist to better understand why small flaws in people make them want to write people off immediately.
Also, look at the dates themselves: are you always dipping out because the conversation is boring? Are the people being picked via apps always super incompatible when you meet in person? If so, it’s good to think about why that is, and what can be done to change it.
Know that too much self-reflection can actually lead to self-sabotage.
People who often find themself hitting it off with new dates for the first few weeks, only to abruptly get blown off can start to believe they’re somehow undateable or simply pick the worst people. But while looking for overt patterns like Bonior recommended can be helpful, it’s important not to go too far. Suzanne Lachmann, a licensed clinical psychologist, said that believing one is doomed to repeat a pattern (“I guess I just always attract emotionally unavailable softbois!”) can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. She said that seeing oneself as “failing” at dating sabotages everything from the start because of the insecurity and even resentment that might come out on the first date.
Be mindful when venting to friends.
Being frustrated with one’s lack of dating “success” can often lead to venting sessions with friends, or even asking friends for feedback on what could be “wrong.” Since everyone’s buddies will have different comfort levels around how honest they’re willing to be, Bonior said it’s good to start by saying that you’re down to hear the whole truth, even if it might sting a little at first. She advised saying something like, “I know we’ve talked about the fact that I’m having a hard time with dating. I’m trying to be more self-aware about it, and learn what is getting in my way.”
That being said, Bonior suggested only having these conversations with trustworthy people… and even then, taking what they say with a huge grain of salt. “Friends have their own lenses that they look through, with their own insecurities, biases, and distortions,” she said. And even well-meaning encouragement like, “Screw them, you’re perfect and deserve the best!” isn’t always the most helpful thing to hear when this is the fourth time in a row a person has ghosted you after a few dates.
Remember that not getting into a relationship just to be in one is a good thing.
All of the above is a lot of emotional work to do for the sake of being in a relationship… which might make a person realize that they don’t actually want to be in one! Sometimes people think that the “right person” will suddenly make them horny for monogamy (or even just horny) when in reality, they feel fine about their single status and confident about their approach to dating.
“We’re living in a culture that for a very long time has been absolutely obsessed with marriage and romantic coupling,” said Bella DePaulo, a social scientist studying single life. Rather than thinking of perpetual singlehood as self-sabotaging, she suggested seeing it as “self-saving”—it’s choosing not to commit to something one knows won’t make themselves (or the other person) feel fulfilled or happy. “It is going against the grain to get to 30 without ever having had a long-lasting romantic relationship,” she said. “But as more people declare themselves as having lived their whole life without ever putting a serious romantic relationship at the center of it, the easier it will be for others to follow.” While friend groups or family members may not relate, there are plenty of people out there who either start their first relationships a little later or have no interest in doing so ever.
Speaking of friends and family, Lachmann recommended gently setting healthy boundaries with anyone who is pressing the issue a little too hard (even as a “joke”) by saying something like, “I know you don’t mean to, but asking when you’ll get grandkids makes me anxious, and even if I want to find someone, there’s no way I could possibly speed up that process and be happy.”
Even though the pressure to marry or settle down with kids isn’t as prevalent as it used to be, our society is still very much focused on monogamous, romantic partnership as the “end goal” in life. That can be a hard thing to deal with, whether a person wants to be single indefinitely or to be in a real relationship someday. The biggest challenge—and most important part—is to try to remove some of those expectations, and find ways to make the process of looking a little less tedious and frustrating. Bonior recommended “trying to reframe how you think about dating, and focusing on the experience itself—what it is good for, even if it doesn’t lead to something. Can it teach you more about yourself? Can it introduce you to more adventures, or even just another restaurant?” That way, dating becomes less of a chore to slog through. It’s not that people “find someone when they’re not looking”—it’s that fully experiencing the date (and life outside of dating) is worthwhile, regardless of how things turn out.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Julia Pugachevsky on Twitter.