It’s Monday night and I’m at home watching QI and writing blog posts. There should be no better indicator that I am indeed a single person. It has now been well over two years since I was in one of those things… I forget the word… they can be glorious emotional and physical enterprises, but at their worst can be a sort of terrible confinement, like prison but without the free food. What are they called? Phone boxes? No… nobody I know has been in a phone box (monogamous or otherwise) in many years. Ah, a relationship. This gives you some idea of how long it’s been: my last girlfriend has had a fairly long term relationship start, end and start all over again in the time since I dated her. Several of my friends have had children who are now in their teens. No no I must stop with the hyperbole lest I be threatened with sanctions by the UN.
It is odd how, despite the ever-increasing amount of cumulative life experience in the world (now that we can write things down, blog them and so forth) people seem to mature in the same ways. To put it another way, there is no website that assists people in skipping ahead to being mentally in their 20s or 30s while they are still teenagers (although there are plenty that can assist with anyone desirous of moving in the opposite direction). I suppose immaturity is imposed by the growing brain, and there are no possible shortcuts. It’s rather a distressing thought that all teenagers will still have to go through the agony of that period despite the great advances of our age. The point of this is that as a teenager, I remember being desperate to have a girlfriend. In fact, when I was about 15 (I think) I had an imaginary girlfriend (feel free to insert whatever joke you feel appropriate here). I don’t think I have shared that with many people (and I suppose I am still not doing so), but it was vaguely comforting at the time. I think her name was Celine, and she was French. I used to go on holiday to France with my family at least once a year, and so this was at least a little plausible. I think I claimed to have met her on the beach, which for anyone that knows me is rather more unlikely (me being on a beach and talking to a stranger).
To invent an entire person to have a relationship with is surely a sign of desperation, or perhaps merely a rather pathetic kind of loneliness. Many children have imaginary friends, but that seems rather more endearing than pathetic (as children are designed to). And in most cases they grow out of it. Eventually of course, I acquired a human girlfriend who existed and was real (with boobs and everything). From the time when I was 16 until a couple of years ago I never went more than a few months without a relationship and/or sex. That is not any kind of boast, merely a statement of fact (bear with me, it’s relevant). In fact, had I been denied either or both of these things for a longer period in my teens or twenties, I would probably have matured a good deal faster…
My first girlfriend was a sort of structural device (this sounds like some sort of odd joke about sex toys and semicolons, but it isn’t), in that having a girlfriend allowed me to attend social events without having to worry about what I was going to do or who I was going to talk to when I was there. If you’ve ever planned a party for a bunch of couples, you’ve probably thought about this phenomenon as well. A partner is a sort of pre-made conversational sounding board. Unless you have a wonderful relationship, they will likely have to stay around you for at least the beginning of a party, even if you’re talking absolute tosh. So you can warm up your conversation on them, and passers-by can intrude or listen as they choose. But when you add a single person to a bunch of couples, suddenly it gets a bit awkward, especially if they don’t know other people that well. It’s probably worse as a teenager, because you don’t have the same social or conversational skills. Being able to stand in the corner at a party holding hands with someone was, if not actually enjoyable, certainly less stressful than holding hands with nobody (which looks quite odd if you’ve ever tried it).
My second (or possibly third, I was never clear on how one counted relationships in the years pre-facebook 
) girlfriend was more of a psychological necessity. She prevented me from going absolutely insane when I was about 18, and I think moderated my tendencies to write poems about killing myself (all of which contained the word ‘black’ at least once, and none of which were very good) by being generally wonderful and exposing me to her equally wonderful and dysfunctional family.
Both of these relationships were fairly short-lived (months rather than years), but I think I approached both in the wrong way. I barely considered what I might be able to give to someone else, just that I needed someone to stabilize me through a difficult period of my life. A relationship was a necessity. I suppose it was what I relied on before I had medication.
By the time I hit my 20s, I was already married (although not to either of the girls mentioned above). I moved to Canada in 2001 and was married in December that year to a girl I had first met some 5 months previously. Ah the impetuosity of youth! I do have a tendency to approach life backwards, and I think there was some sort of thinking that being married through university would somehow help focus me. I was still mired in mental health troubles, lonely and unsure about the direction my life should take. I had bounced around from fling to fling over the past few years, including a hedonistic time in Israel over new year 2001, and I felt like some kind of structure was needed. Having a relationship was a way of reassuring myself that I was normal and could do normal things. See, I’m married, just like a normal person. I live in a house with my wife and we do normal things like having rubbish sex. Again though, I was really approaching things from the wrong way. A relationship was still something that I needed: I felt lonely, and I needed someone whose job it was to make me less lonely.
And it worked, after a fashion. I had few mental problems for about three or four years. I stopped writing completely, and instead started doing things like cooking, playing baseball outside with my nephews, and getting obscenely high marks in university (by virtue of the fact that I never went out with my classmates and spent every evening studying). But it couldn’t last. Something never felt quite right, and as I started to meet and talk to more people that seemed to be like me, it felt more and more wrong.
By the time I was 25, I was divorced (aren’t I precocious?). This was probably the first moment of real maturity in my relationship life. I had to break it to my then wife that I was not in love with her, and that I did not want to live together any more. It meant the end of a five year marriage, but for me it also meant putting myself, for the first time ever really, in a situation where I might be single for a while. Now if I’m honest, there was never really much risk of that. C, the girl I still love now, was there waiting for me, although neither of us were at that point prepared to admit that’s what we were doing. It led to one of the most confusing, painful, heartbreaking and unbearably joyful periods of my life. And it was a new development. For the first time, I felt like I was the strong one in a relationship. I was the one who was able to stand up and lead someone through the storm. I felt like I had something to offer. It was the first relationship I had where there was what I would call emotional equality. We were both fairly messed up, and we relied on each other. Progress!
I will not go through every relationship I have had since C and I were first together, partly because there have been a lot, and partly because I don’t remember them all (or, as I mentioned above, really know what constitutes a relationship). I have checked facebook and I don’t recall having a single relationship that was ‘facebook official’. But really, even my last relationship was still something that was emotionally necessary for me. To be honest, I have never before thought myself capable of facing the world alone, and therefore I have needed help at every step of the way.
But now, as I approach the final paragraph, things are different. For the first time I feel that I have made some progress in understanding myself. For the first time, I am ok with being single. A relationship is not something I need to maintain my own stability any longer. And I am increasingly concerned, when I think of relationships, with what I could potentially offer to the relationshippee (which is a real word). I think I am finally ready to contribute to a relationship, rather than simply ‘having’ one like a balloon or a hamster. And I know who I want to be in a relationship with. Even weirder, I am actually going to be patient about it. If she is not interested, I shall continue to grow, to think about myself and attempt (if possible) to strive for self-improvement while I wait. And in the meantime, I think I shall devote my time to finding more worthwhile books to read.
Incidentally, I have never been comfortable with the phrase ‘got a girlfriend/boyfriend’. It makes it sound as if you went to some sort of market or ordered them online… now I am being Stewart Lee and making you finish the joke for yourself.
If it has done nothing else (which I’m fairly sure is the case), Facebook has at least given people a way of officially declaring that they are in a relationship without having to go through the ridiculous process of getting engaged or married.