I have recently moved back with my parents in my early 30s after over 10 years of living independently, and while my parents love having me here and we have a wonderful relationship, I feel as though I am failing at the linear life path that nearly all of my friends are living. Most of my friends are settling down in relationships, buying properties, excelling in their careers. However, I have been single for over eight years and do not seem to be able to attract a partner. I don’t want to settle and dating gay men is difficult if you don’t look like a Greek Adonis. I absolutely love my job but I work for a charity, which means I don’t get those salaries my friends in financial services get and it’s hard to excel up the career ladder quickly because of limited roles, and I have minimal savings so the prospect of home ownership is nothing short of a fantasy.
Why do I feel so stressed and sad about this? I know we all have our own paths in life and the standard line life isn’t so perfect. But I just feel as though I am getting older and missing out on those milestones that I should be and do want to be experiencing. Does this get easier and do you care less as you get older?
Eleanor says: People love to flash these things like badges – the house, and the marriage, and the car, and the business card. What’s mysterious is what exactly they communicate – what club do they get you into, such that people on the outside feel shut out of somewhere good?
It can’t be the club of happy people, because these things are absolutely useless predictors of any wellbeing worth predicting. Like Leonard Cohen says, everybody’s got that broken feeling like their father or their dog just died. Everybody. The idea that the house and the career by themselves fix that feeling is promulgated by people who sell houses, or want to keep people at work.
I think the club those badges get you into is just the club of people who have those things; we’re taught to want them so it feels good to display them when we get them. It’s natural that you’d feel bad surrounded by those displays – nobody likes to be reminded of pleasures they can’t access. But don’t lose sight of the pleasures you have that other people can’t access.
You sound like you have a wonderful life. You have a family who love you and a career you’re proud of, one that doesn’t give you Sunday-night dread. You have a clear sense of what you want in a romantic partner and enough self-esteem to not compromise it to avoid being alone. You have a life that you chose and you cultivated.
That gives you something that many other people don’t have: a path that doesn’t look like anyone else’s. Your world has your tastes and priorities imprinted on it. It is not a replica of something you were taught to aspire to. This reflects genuine skill on your part – it is tremendously difficult to create something unrepeatable when we’re surrounded by tropes and well-worn grooves. A lot of money and psychological effort goes into shaping your preferences; you resisted that and made something of your own. That deserves applause – and it’s a pleasure that many people will never know.
It’s just bad luck that this kind of pleasure doesn’t get much press. The skill of being unreplicable doesn’t get a toast and rounds of congratulations. That’s a shame – and one that could easily make you feel conspicuous for not “giving” your parents or yourself a big occasion, like you’d get if you bought a house or got engaged.
But don’t be fooled by that into valuing the joys you don’t have more than the joys you do – it’s an accident of culture that we publicly celebrate what we do. The best gift you can give the people who love you is to live your own life well. You’ve done that already, no matter whether or when you arrive at the traditional reasons to throw a party.
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