Prioritising work over relationships: a solitary’s view

Building a life around work instead of love isn’t necessarily ‘wrong’ or unhealthy.

Photo by Artem Podrez on Pexels.com

I look to work – whether that’s a paid job or personal projects – to give me a sense of identity and purpose. 

It’s important that I spend my days doing something interesting and  meaningful; that might make some sort of difference, no matter how teensy-weensy.  

This is because I don’t have close, interpersonal relationships. 

Some people might be able to put up with a humdrum job, because they see it as just that, ‘a job’; at the end of the day they go home, shrug off the role of ‘worker’, and become partner, father, mother, best friend. 

It doesn’t matter so much that their work is bullshit or boring. It’s their intimate relationships that bolster them, and provide them with a sense of identity and of belonging. It’s who they are in relation to their loved ones that makes life worth living.

For me, being so solitary, it’s different. I am not a wife, mother, or anyone’s close friend – nor do I ever intend to be.  Therefore because I don’t have those relationships, I look beyond love, and instead to work, to fulfil me. 

It’s in what I do, as opposed to who I exist in relation to, that I seek my sense of being in the world. 

Yet prioritising work over relationships is generally considered to be bad for us. It’s good relationships and strong social connections that are vital to human health and wellbeing, we are told

To pursue personal projects instead of intimate relationships is also just considered to be wrong – as in weird – as in it goes against human nature; because humans are social animals. 

We are therefore led to believe that, first and foremost, we need each other; as friends, lovers, partners. How can we be happy otherwise; without love? 

Relationships aren’t everything, though. 

Anthony Storr, in his seminal book on solitude, called err, Solitude,  pointed out that humans don’t only exist in relation to each other; we also exist as individuals. Therefore, we shouldn’t only seek to connect with others, but to define our individual identities as well. And one way we can achieve this is via our work, and/or personal hobbies and interests.   

As such, “interpersonal relationships” shouldn’t be deemed “the only source of human stability and happiness”, Storr argued; “it should be possible to point to other individuals who do not seek fulfilment in this way, but who achieve as much stability and happiness through their work”. 

Furthermore, Storr went so far as to say that “some natures are more inclined toward finding the meaning of life” not in close relationships, but in their “interests, beliefs, or patterns of thought.” He identified the latter “natures” as being introverted, perhaps also schizoid. 

These people, “are able to define identity and achieve self-realization by self-reference; that is, by interacting with their own past work rather than by interacting with other people.” (Storr’s italics). Their “primary source of self-esteem and personal fulfilment” may be their work rather than their relationships. 

Ultimately, Storr argued that perhaps psychologists had gone too far in positing relationships – love – as essential to a life well lived. And I agree. 

The choice – or inclination – to pursue a life centred around work rather than intimate relationships, should not always be viewed as unhealthy or unnatural. 

It doesn’t mean one is lacking in anything, even lacking in love (you can love something/s or well as someone/s); it doesn’t mean one is lonely, merely compensating for not being able to couple up. 

I believe someone can find as much happiness in life as a doctor, painter, lawyer, sports player, train driver, coder, carer, musician, writer; a foodie, a film buff, a bookworm; a nature lover, a traveller; as they can from being a parent, a friend, a partner. Especially when you are someone who is more socially distant, more solitary in nature, for whom people bring more pain than pleasure. 

A life without intimate relationships may be a less common one, but that doesn’t mean it has any less value. Not when it’s filled with work and other activities that bring just as much fun, and fulfilment, as others find in family or friendship. 

I never made a conscious choice to prioritise my work and personal interests over personal relationships. It’s just the way things turned out. 

At school and university, I was always more interested in my studies than hanging out and hooking up. And now, in adulthood, I’m completely devoid of that desire I see in so many other (straight) women my age, to partner up and settle down; a desire which has them desperately scrolling dating apps, as if the very point of their lives could only possibly reside in romantic love and parenthood.  

However, as I’ve grown older, I have become more conscious of what it means to remain single and solitary. And this is why it’s important to me, as I mentioned above, that I have meaningful work, that I do something with my life. I’m not going to be a mother, a wife, a partner, therefore I feel compelled to make my mark, to squeeze the juice out of life, another way i.e. through my work and extracurricular activities. 

This isn’t a matter of regret for me. I don’t wish I could have wound up more social, more ‘normal’, so I could have been likeeverybodyelse, building a life around family and friendship instead. I know that, for me, satisfaction and self-esteem are to be found not in love, but in vocation. 

However, building a life around work hasn’t been easy. Far from it.  My whole adult life I have struggled to really get clear on what it is I want to do, to find work that I actually like doing, and to maintain the focus, courage, and confidence necessary to make something of my personal endeavours (namely, writing).  And I think my extremely introverted nature, my schizoid-y and socially anxious ways, have a lot to do with that. 

I’ll discuss this further in my next article, which will explore some of the difficulties solitary and socially distant folk can experience with work. 

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