It's a bit shameful to admit that I often fantasize about being single, considering I live with my long-term partner. Nevertheless, I do. No matter how much guilt I feel for longing for my Tinder days of casual sex and wildly overpriced cocktails, I still imagine what it would be like to be back there, swiping merrily away without a care in the world.
Yes, you could be forgiven for thinking I'm unhappy and my relationship is doomed. Honestly, though, I respect and love my partner a lot. We spend the vast majority of our time together either cracking up or making out. It's fun, fulfilling and exciting. Still, I like to daydream about going on dates and sleeping with other people. Not specific, IRL people I know...just, other people.
I've been internalizing this feeling for a while, worried that discussing it with friends will only show me up as an Absolute Witch. Finally, though, I've put on my Big Boy Pants and come clean. And guess what? SO many of them could relate.
Jess*, 21, feels the same after being with her boyfriend for five years, "It's not that I fantasize about other men per se, more than I experience a constant (sometimes stagnant, sometimes overarching) fear that I and my boyfriend are settling," she explains. "Are we 'comfortable' rather than 'content?' Are we really happy, or just used to routine? Am I going to marry him, or freak out in 10 years time that I don't know WTF I've been doing with him all along?"
For her, that's where the fantasy about single life comes from. "It doesn't stem from wanting to be with other people—although that is sometimes a part of it—but more the worry that we're in a routine that works, but may not be the perfect fit. Maybe I'd actually have more fun by myself. Maybe I should spend some of my twenties alone. Maybe I should go on shit dates. Maybe I should go out all night and not worry about texting to say I'm home safe."
Like me, Jess reckons this could be a classic case of "the grass is always greener." She says, "The inclination to be single fades and fizzes depending on my mood, but if anyone finds the answer, I'll be listening."
Is it normal?
I asked Dr. Andrea Pennington, author of The Orgasm Prescription for Women and I Love You, Me!, whether this kind of thinking is "normal?"
"Many people in long-term relationships admit that when hanging out with their single friends, they often fantasize about how life used to be when they were single," she tells me. "This doesn’t mean that they are not happy in their relationships, and it doesn't mean they necessarily want to replace their partner."
Dr. Becky Spelman, a psychologist, agrees there's nothing wrong with fantasy and imagining yourself in different scenarios. "Up to a point, imagining being single can be a healthy safety-valve, allowing us to think about how things could be different, while also enjoying the comfort and security of a loving relationship," she explains.
So, why do we do it?
Dr. Pennington says, "Some people certainly imagine how fun it may be to go through the whole infatuation and falling in love process, with all of the emotional rush and butterflies with a new partner. That's because it's usually a memory of a simpler life, with fewer obligations and pressures. It can be fun to reminisce about the feeling of 'freedom' we have when we are not in a romantic couple." Dr. Pennington defines freedom in this situation as being able to "look at or flirt with others," and to "come and go as we please."
And, she says that's fine. "Unless there is significant turmoil in your relationship, chances are, it's a harmless fantasy."
When is it actually time to quit?
"Alarm bells should ring, however, if you find you are no longer treating your significant other with respect and care," Dr. Spelman says. "If you just seem to annoy one another, and no longer have any fun, your fantasies about single-hood may show that you are already mentally 'checking out' of the relationship and planning to leave."
When you notice feeling like this, it's pretty much make-or-break time, she says. "For many people in this situation, couples counseling will help them to either rekindle their relationship or figure out a way to leave one another compassionately."
What can you do to work around it?
Instead of fantasizing about single life, dating expert and author of The Curious History of Dating: from Jane Austen to Tinder, Nichi Hodgson suggests injecting your relationship with a bit of novelty.
"Could you style yourself very differently for a date? Could you use pseudonyms, while your partner attempts to pick you up in a bar you've never been to? Or could you simply agree to meet in a different city, for a dirty weekend break and make all domestic topics of conversation off limits? That way, you can reminisce about what it was like when you had no shared responsibilities, only shared attraction," she says.
However, if you find yourself fully in love with your partner but your mind still wanders, Nichi suggests non-monogamy as an option. "That doesn't necessarily have to mean full-on polyamory where you date a whole bunch of other people simultaneously, but maybe a mutually agreed 'free pass' where you and your partner let one another flirt, go on a date or sleep with another once or twice a year."
Nichi warns that with this option, you must be careful, "if you get a taste for dating others and what you're really lusting after is a life without your current partner (i.e., any number of other options seem preferable to the person you're with), then you need to be able to recognise it as such—and acknowledge it could be simply time to move on."
Take time for yourself.
If dressing up and opening your relationship isn't your style, there are other things you can do, says relationship expert and author of How to be Selfish, Olga Levancuka, "Take a minute and think, 'What is it that I'm really craving? What's my subconscious mind trying to tell me? Do I miss the excitement of the unknown and getting to know new people?"
If that's the case, Olga says you can fulfill this desire by "visiting new places, taking up a new activity or joining a social group. If you're missing alone time, arrange to be alone. Being in a relationship doesn't mean you don't deserve time alone. You and your partner don't have to be tied at the hip. Take the time to do what it takes for you to rediscover your own identity."
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com/uk. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.