It’s the vogue to say, contrary to received wisdom, that single people are happier than those in relationships. It is suggested that single women in particular might be better off without men.
I increasingly come across people who say relationships just aren’t for them. People write in the Guardian and the New York Times to declare they don’t want a long-term partner. The Reddit thread “ForeverAlone” has 183,000 members. It demands “No incel speak” from users, but as the thread’s name suggests, it’s full of people who don’t even date in the first place.
This trend is borne out by the British census’s statistics on marriage (the best proxy we have for relationships): 63.8 per cent of men and 54.2 per cent of women aged between 30 and 34 were unmarried in 2021, up from 28.1 and 18.3 per cent, respectively, for the same age group in 1991. Here it’s worth inserting all the obvious disclaimers that bad relationships do not make people happy – and yes, being single is perfectly fine. But we should dream bigger than just “fine”.
If the last 20 years saw a defiant rejection of the stigma of singledom – think Beyoncé repeatedly asking single women to identify themselves at every club night since 2008 – it has now reached the point of over-correction, where singledom has been reinvented as a mandatory state of enlightenment. Hence the inane platitudes dished out to people who want to meet someone: “First, you need to be happy in yourself”; “It happens when you least expect it.” A desire to seek out romantic connection is no longer healthy, but rather an indication you are depressed and insecure.
Only Christian and conservative commentators are left to espouse the virtues of marriage. (Perhaps the suspicion that Mary Harrington is trying to strong-arm them down the aisle makes people wary of monogamy.) In the media, meanwhile, drama-free relationships are rarely seen. No account of a “shall I put the kettle on?”, plodding marriage would go viral in the same way that an article by Molly Gunn did earlier this year: she wrote in the Times about pondering divorce with a husband of 22 years she no longer finds hot.
It is fashionable to suggest that the single woman needs no man in her life, and is instead defined by her group of supportive girlfriends, as popularised by writers such as Helen Fielding, Candace Bushnell and Dolly Alderton. But in my experience, isolation from male friends or couples can mean everything is seen through the eyes of the repeatedly spurned women, creating misunderstandings around why male dates act the way they do. I almost broke off my two most recent relationships prematurely after female friends identified mistakes on behalf of the men in question as “red flags”.
This echo chamber can be seen in action on the Reddit thread “ForeverAloneWomen”, a 19,000-strong offshoot from “ForeverAlone”. The top post earlier this week was titled “I’ve been on this subreddit for nearly a decade”. In it the user, rather sadly, asks why she’s not met anyone. But she’s answered her own question in her headline. If you surround yourself with people who believe they’ll be alone forever and that men are like dogs, it’s tricky for a guy approaching you at a bar to contradict that narrative.
The “happiness expert” Paul Dolan, who supposedly found that unmarried, childless women are the happiest demographic, is often cited in arguments for staying single. Since 2019, his conclusion has been breathlessly reported everywhere, from women’s magazines to the Telegraph. Dolan used data from the US census that suggested those who identified as “spouse absent” were unhappy – he assumed this meant their partner was out of the room while they answered the question. It makes sense that married people only say they’re happy when their wife or husband can hear, right? But “spouse absent” actually referred to the partner being out of the household altogether – and you would obviously expect a married person who’d been walked out on to be unhappy. Dolan later admitted his error, but his misstatement is still quoted.
In reality, the strongest predictor of happiness has been found over and over again to be relationships. The longest study of human happiness, in which Harvard psychologists tracked people over 84 years, found that good relationships are the greatest guarantor, particularly long romantic partnerships. They are more important than wealth or class. Having a partner is repeatedly shown to improve health and lifespan. Maybe such findings are obvious. Humans are built to connect; we learned the protective effect of unconditional love as babies.
There’s an economic argument for why relationships are superior, too. Couples share the burdens of rent costs, shopping and in marriage receive tax breaks. Landlords, app creators and owners of office-adjacent wine bars are the people who benefit from us being single.
But it’s easy to see why the current climate puts us off relationships. Traditional markers of relationship progression – buying a home together and having children, are now prohibitively expensive. And good luck finding someone in a fickle era of dating apps. After that small hurdle comes the challenge of committing to one another in a world of globalised distraction and increased life expectancy. Relationships force you to address your issues and open up to someone who could hurt you. Why bother at a time where “situationships” are socially acceptable? Underlying this all is a sense that relationships come at too much expense: financial, personal, emotional.
I didn’t want a boyfriend for much of my twenties. I didn’t want to renounce my freedoms and found (well, still find) dating exhausting. It was easier, cognitively, to embrace independence – and slowly slide into resenting men. But being single is not costless either – and I am slowly learning that the best things in life rarely come without sacrifice, heartbreak or wasted time. In a world of Deliveroo, Netflix and Uber, we forget that frictionless, on-demand interactions aren’t necessarily good. I want to tell those women on Reddit not to convince themselves that they’re better off without a relationship. Yes, rejection is part of the game. But you’ve got to play – just in case you win the prize.