The 'S' Word
If you want to understand the inner stirrings of a person’s mind, look no further than the notes on their phone. A dumping ground for shopping lists, wistful travel plans and abandoned business ideas; conscious and unconscious thoughts alike. In my phone, there sits an old, sad note titled ‘Things I like and dislike about being single’. Although, it’s not the pros and cons on the list that are telling, it’s the footnote at the bottom which reads: *Remember, this was never about Being Single.
Let’s choose to ignore how OTT it is to even include a footnote in this setting. The end of my long-term relationship last year was honestly never born out of a desire to Be Single (capital B, capital S). I had no intention to enter the virtual dating playground governed by Tinder, Bumble and whatever other apps these crazy kids are using nowadays (and christ, there are so many of them now). I have had very little interest in entering the real-world dating game either. And yet, whether I wanted to be or not, as soon as the bonds of that relationship were broken I was immediately cast into the ether along with every other person bearing the label Single. The murky world of intrusive questions at dinner parties where you’re expected to die on your own stake telling people the ins and outs of your hilarious/tragic/rom-com dating life; where everyone apparently gathers at the local watering hole scouting out those without a ring or person hanging off them; where it’s somehow both taboo to admit you’re happy being without a partner, but also to say that you aren’t happy without one.
The most common definition of a single person is someone who is without a romantic partner, unmarried, partnerless or not in a relationship. The common denominator? A negative affix. The consequence? That Being Single has become synonymous, by definition, with Being Without. It is a vacancy, shorthand for an ‘open for business’ sign. It is a lighthouse calling out into the sea for fish, of which there are supposedly plenty. It has come to be viewed as a waiting room for those willing for something better to come along, a period of longing for the significant other who will bring you out of the negative status of Being Single and into the positive state of Being, free from un-, non- and -less.
There seems to be an obsession with Singleness right now, from both sides of the fence. Modern day champions of independence such as Dolly Alderton and Lena Dunham are driving the movement to accept single as empowering rather than a failure, providing a stage and deserved limelight for platonic relationships that carry as much (if not more) significance in or lives than romantic ones. Not to mention the forum that social media provides for the growing comradery against overt shaming of singles (you may have seen the latest onslaught in response to distasteful ads by mobile banking app Revolut). But I still find myself asking the question: can we succeed in reengineering society’s perception of Single, when the very word carries the baggage of absence and loneliness?
Most of us will be guilty of asking someone, or can recall a time when we ourselves have been asked: How’s single life? The question that is only ever asked in anticipation of scandalous recollections of unsuccessful but hilarious Tinder dates, jealousy-inducing tales of racing pulses and excitement in a blossoming new relationship, or more often than not the woes of failed attempts to fester an emotional connection with any other human being. Anything short of this is unsatisfying. The only acceptable responses are centered around the very presupposition within it: that Being Single is a state one should be trying to get out of, making for perfect anecdotal material whilst doing it. Ask me how Single Life is, and you will not want to know that I’m speed-reading at every possible moment in desperation to finish my book before the next book club, or that I’m exercising more since I recently discovered that Hamilton the musical the ultimate running soundtrack (it’s true). By society’s expectations of Being Single, if there’s one thing that my time on my own hasn’t been, it’s Single.
We enter new realms of shameful applications of the word when we’re speaking about other people. I am ashamed to admit that I myself have most definitely described someone as “very single” – as if it’s possible to be anymore single than single – or more ruthlessly uttered the words “no wonder he’s single”, as if all of his unpleasant traits can be expressed in that one descriptor (knowing, I might add, that my companions will fully understand what I mean when I say it). Now, as someone who legitimately fits in the bucket of ‘not being in a relationship’ I cringe and despair at the thought of former me having the gaul to describe a person in that way, or thinking about someone else speaking that way about me. We perpetuate Single shaming by using the word in these kinds of contexts, forever reiterating (and justifying) the non-existence of a romantic relationship whilst doing it.
And yet we all start from the same level playing field when it comes to relationship status’. None of us are born married, engaged, romantically involved, and are not introduced to the parallel universe of co-dependent romantic relationships until we reach double digits – primary school crushes and playground games of Kiss Chase aside. So when does the default setting switch to ‘in a relationship’, and we start to see Single as a stop-gap for something greater? As a 25 year old, I’ve noticed the shift happening in the last year. The table flips and suddenly relationships become the default; those who find themselves outside of a romantic relationship are all lacking, justifying their reasons for Being Single – whatever they may be – and on the receiving end of society’s watchful eye.
The Cupid of the digital age, Tinder, have even made attempt to battle this head on with their #SingleNotSorry campaign, in celebration of single culture and championing the idea that Single Is A Terrible Thing To Waste. Bus adverts parading around London portray the unapologetic joie de vivre of a single woman who ‘never has to go home early’, which compared to the humdrum routine of a committed relationship seeks to empower and motivate. But still, the brainwave behind the campaign hooks on the very same observation about how we view Single today, and is another example of the baggage the word itself carries around as something we should feel sorry for in the first place. And nevermind that it also plays into the idea that singles ought to be out having The Best Time Ever™ and coming up with stories a million to share and entertain with. Sometimes single people are tired too – we don’t need to fill the absence of another person with wild tales of nights out and excitement.
But, as I said, I’m not the the first and definitely not the most eloquent person to have challenged modern perceptions of single culture and to fly the flag in favour of changing how we think about periods in our adult lives that do not include a romantic relationship. We are finally starting to see and hear non-relationship-based narratives of love, success and happiness from inspiring women to reframe the way we vieW this precious time on our own. A new day is dawning where we can be defined by more than our relationship status, and we are no longer expected to swipe left on Being Single in favour of the “something better” we were promised.
I applaud past-me for having the self-awareness to manage my own expectations for so-called ‘single life’ as I sought to find comfort in the notes on my phone. But I also resent the use of the word Single to denote my life status right now, when I certainly do not feel lacking or without in any way, shape or form. I’m not kidding myself, it will be a long time yet before questionnaires and medical forms provide an additional tick box under Relationship Status for Doing My Own Thing or Just Being Me, and more likely it’ll never happen at all.
Sometimes it is nice to go home early and be with myself – to feel I want to head home, turning down the chance to tell wild tales simply to be by myself. Sometimes I am the other half calling myself to the quiet.
For now, at least I have my little reminder that will keep reminding me: this was never about Being Single.
This piece was originally written for and published on Into The Fold mag, thank you for sharing my words!