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22 April 2023

Being single should neither be demonised nor celebrated – it’s just life

Should our lives really change so drastically depending on our relationship status?

By Marie Le Conte

It feels quite uniquely jarring to have done something for most of your life and be defensively told by strangers that it is great. Did you know that it is not merely fine but actively wonderful to have a nose? No, really, there’s no shame about having a nose on your face. People may want to judge you for having a nose, society may look down on you, but having a nose is just swell.

Listen – those writers say – I spent so much time thinking that having a nose made you a lesser person that I feel I missed out. Having a nose right below my eyes and above my chin is better than I could have ever imagined. Here’s to noses!

Does this all sound insane to you? Because I can tell you, that’s what pieces about the joys of being single read like to me. There have been a number of them recently, either because journalism loves a trend or because the pandemic broke up one too many long-term relationships.

[See also: To catch a catfish]

Suddenly we are being told, again and again, that it is nice to go on holiday by yourself! It is great to build and nurture friendships! It is wonderful to find some hobbies you can do alone, and to go to the cinema unaccompanied! The tone is always one of sheer surprise – these are epiphanies the writers have just had, for the very first time, and they are delighted to be sharing them with the world. It makes me feel like I’ve had a stroke.

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I am 31 years old and have spent the majority of my adult life single. I have had a number of flings and a couple of longer-term relationships, but none serious enough that we ever moved in together. I feel neither great nor terrible about it; it is merely a fact of life.

It is also not an entirely uncommon state of affairs. Data on relationships is relatively limited but we do know that, as of 2015 the Office for National Statistics found that 34.5 per cent of the adult population was single and had “never cohabited or married”. A different data set from the same study found that 61 per cent of adults were living as a couple and 39 per cent weren’t.

It seems fair to assume that those numbers more closely reflect people my age and older than they do younger adults, but the point remains. It is not a freakish abnormality to be single. Still, it is clearly unusual enough that being in a relationship is treated as the norm, meaning that singlehood becomes the exception by default.

[See also: Maybe you should just be single this Valentine’s Day]

I find it hard to put into words just how absurd I find this. It’s like sharing a planet with a benevolent but irritating alien species. Why on Earth would it be odd to eat alone, or go for a walk alone, or live alone, or do virtually anything alone? Everyone’s their own person, we live in a free country, what possible reason could you have not to do whatever it is you want to do, accompanied or not? Equally, must we really pretend that it is always fun and great and liberating to do all those things by yourself?

I want to applaud the women – let’s face it, it’s always women – who have decided to fight back against societal expectations and glorify the joys of single life, but I find them just as grating as smug serial monogamists. There is no intrinsic value in being by yourself, just as the mere fact of being in a relationship, any relationship, does not guarantee happiness and fulfilment.

Both should be treated as equal and neutral states of being, with varying advantages and drawbacks. I’ll freely admit that it doesn’t make for thrilling copy, and would act as quite a drab rallying call, but it is at least realistic.

It is also what we should be aiming to teach younger generations. Building a society in which marriage is no longer the sole expectation is a good thing, but we shouldn’t over-correct by painting singlehood as always idyllic.

Instead, it is worth wondering if more thought should be put into who we are as people, and whether our lives really should change so drastically depending on our relationship status. I am not evangelical about my accidental, mostly single life but it has taught me something worthwhile. Because being alone has been my default state, I have always been able to retain my sense of selfhood, even when seeing someone. My day-to-day life was different, of course, but my centre of gravity never shifted. This isn’t to say that break-ups cannot be devastating – I’ve had my share of sobbing fits on public transport – but they always meant reverting to the mean.

It may well be a divide too fundamental to be breached, but I do wonder if this could be a better way to think about what happens to us when we are no longer paired up. Being single isn’t great because it is full of unceasing, unexpected delights; it should just be a normal state of being. Sometimes it’ll be neat, sometimes it’ll be crushing. That’s just what life is.

[See also: Newly single, I’ve fallen back in love with my own life]

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