There are those adverts featuring doe-eyed couples, and that question – “how’s your love life?” – that dries your mouth faster than overdone turkey.
It’s no wonder some single people find Christmas a more stressful time than Valentine’s day, according to one survey by e-harmony.
This year, though, Christmas is different for everyone. A year with limited dating, plus intimate “Christmas bubble” gatherings ahead has intensified anxieties for some. But for others, the pandemic has provided a moment to breathe, allowing a shift in perspective.
Andrew Steel, 32, moved from Wales to South London in 2012 and has been largely single since, with a few short-term relationships that never coincided with Christmas. He tends to feel “a slight sense of dread and sadness” as the season approaches. Sadly, this year is no different.
“I will be seeing my parents for a few days and I know they’ll ask if I’m seeing someone and be disappointed by the answer,” he says. “My friends are all married, or close, so this situation does make me feel rather immature and like a failure. Given that I would really like to share myself with someone, I can get very low during this time.”
Christmas is always tough for Andrew, but this year feels harder. “Mostly because of the pandemic, it’s been such a lonely year,” he says. “I live on my own and my landlord never replied about me getting a cat, so I haven’t had any physical connection.”
The year has also been hard for Jennie, 39, from London, who’s been single for two years – and will be finalising her divorce before the end of 2020.
“In the past I have volunteered at Crisis or gone on a meditation retreat between Christmas and New Year so I remove the dread of talking about NYE, dealing with couples and feeling more lonely,” she says. “This year there are virtual events, but there’s just something about being away from your surroundings and being able to focus on something else.”
With its focus on family, Christmas presents a particular challenge for Jennie. She and her ex-partner tried to conceive for several years via IVF and suffered two miscarriages before they separated. With a divorce and a 40th birthday on the horizon, she feels that door has now closed.
“For me I believe time has run out when it comes to children,” she says. “I don’t know if I ever could have carried a child full-term.
“I grieve the Christmas days I’ll never have: the daughter who believes in Santa so much she couldn’t sleep, buying the present that will make her smile so much, seeing their faces, hosting Christmas and having my sister and my parents to my house for Christmas Day while bickering with my husband in the kitchen about having too much food. All of that will never happen for me.”
Cecilie Harris, who’s 46 and lives in London, can relate to this. “Christmas, for me, is usually another strong reminder that my story didn’t play out the way I wanted and the dreams of having children slipped away from me,” she says.
Being single usually fills Harris with feelings of “independence and a sense of freedom”, but she often feels her positivity wavering during December. This year will be even harder, as she can’t visit family in Norway.
“Christmas takes the dream you lost and shoves it in your face,” she says. “Your only choice if you want to remain sane and content is to reframe your reality – to find an alternative path that gives you purpose and makes you happy. To find acceptance that your story took a different direction and that this one is okay too. Otherwise, you may break into a million pieces.”
It’s not unusual for Christmas to heighten feelings of loneliness or longing, causing us to think of what “could have been”, says Ruairí Stewart – aka the Happy-Whole Coach – a psychotherapist who specialises in self-esteem and relationships. The season can test those who are otherwise happily single the rest of the year, she says.
“If you think about the images and marketing around Christmas time, it’s heavily geared towards people being connected and coupled, staying at home during the cold, dark winter nights, money being spent on displays of commitment, love and togetherness,” he tells HuffPost. “For someone who is single, this can be overwhelming and bring up feelings of loneliness or judgement.”
As we approach the end of another year, Christmas can also be the catalyst for questioning where you are in life, “especially if you start comparing yourself to siblings, family members or friends who have settled down,” adds Stewart.
“This can be a painful to process and bring up mixed feelings of loneliness, anger, sadness, envy, shame and lead to you giving yourself a hard time for feeling this way and not being able to actually enjoy the holiday season.”
For some though, the pandemic has eased apprehensions they’ve previously had about being single at Christmas.
Bridget Gilmour, 47, from Northamptonshire, has been single for most of her adult life. This year, she’s happy to be alone and is looking forward to making Christmas Day special for herself.
“My feelings this year are very different as having had so much time alone, and so much going on out of my control, I became calmer about life,” she says. “For the first year in a long time I’ve not had toxic, disruptive people around me. I have lived each day for what I could control in the moment and as a result, my world has become fuller and more empowered.”
*Bethan, 29, from South-East London, is also feeling more optimistic this December compared to last, when she was newly single after a “slightly hectic” 18-month relationship.
“I think this is definitely to do with the pandemic,” she says. “It’s more practical than any sort of great perspective shift. You’re not going to Christmas drinks or office parties or family gatherings filled with people asking about your love life. Plus if anyone asks how dating is going you can just looked shocked and respond ‘in a pandemic?!’ which is the best explanation for being single.”
The two national lockdowns have been helpful for Seema, 39, from London, who’ll be spending her second Christmas alone after separating from her husband last year.
Her divorce should be coming through in the new year – just in time for her 40th birthday – and the pandemic has given her time to process the end of her 13-year relationship.
“I’ve spent a good chunk of this year living completely alone and sitting with my own thoughts,” she says. “It’s been hard at times, but I’ve also got to really know myself and actually, that’s been wonderful.
“I was together with my ex from my first year at uni. I’m now 40 – and I’m a very different person. I’ve found that I actually quite like myself and I feel excited and hopeful about what lies ahead.”
The run-up to Christmas hasn’t been completely joyful, though, and Seema has found herself worrying about the progress of the coronavirus vaccine, or questioning whether she’ll ever find love again.
“I went for a walk the other day past my local garden centre, filled full of happy families carrying their Christmas trees home – it was hard, I won’t lie,” she says.
“I had a bit of a cry as I walked past. But I got my tears out, listened to some power ballads, got myself a hot chocolate with marshmallows and realised how far I have come this year.
“I’m actually really proud of myself, getting through these lockdowns alone.”
If you’re struggling with being single this year due to a specific reason (such as involuntary childlessness), it can help to connect with support groups. Gateway Women, for example, is a group that unites women who are childless not by choice – Jennie and Cecilie have both found it helpful.
Anyone struggling with loneliness may want to contact a charity for support – you’ll find a list of useful websites and phone lines at the bottom this article.
But for those who are on the cusp of embracing singledom this Christmas and simply need a helping hand, Stewart recommends setting some boundaries regarding topics of conversation with family ahead of time. This can include informing them that questions about your love life are out of bounds.
“What you allow is what will continue, and learning to empower yourself by setting boundaries with family is something that you can control,” he says.
If you’re not ready to be upfront about it, Nicola Slawson, founder of The Single Supplement newsletter, recommends asking one person to spread the word.
“One thing I have done in the past is put the word out via a trusted love one that I don’t want to talk about my love life,” she says, “Otherwise, usually what I do is make a joke or be vague about it, then immediately change the subject.”
If that fails, Slawson recommends combatting intrusive questions by firing back a question yourself – so prep some ahead of family gatherings. “People love talking about themselves,” she says. “If it’s an older relative ask about their son’s promotion or whether their grandchild is walking yet, for example.”
And a word of advice? Don’t ditch the decorations, just because you’re single. Slawson is also a fan of decorating for Christmas – whatever your relationship status. She’s been surprised to see other single people without kids posting on social media to say they won’t bother this year, due to Covid stopping guests.
“It’s a shame,” she says. “I decorate my house because it makes me happy. I’ve got a 6-foot tree and as well as buying myself lots of beautiful baubles, I’ve enjoyed making my own decorations for it. It’s been a real labour of love.”
Ultimately, says Stewart, the key to shaking off any negative messaging you’ve internalised about being single at Christmas is remembering your worth is not defined by your relationship status.
“Being single in’t a negative thing, you just haven’t met someone you’re happy to be with, so think about the fact that you’re free from being tied to an unfulfilling or unhappy relationship,” he says.
“You have so much to offer as a human being – your quirks, talents and unique personality, all the things that make you you are valuable. Being single doesn’t take away from who you are at your core.”
Useful websites and helplines
Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).
*Some names have been changed to provide anonymity. Some interviewees also chose not to publish their surnames.