Mid-February is the most frigid time of year, so it’s always seemed apt that that this is when they choose to hold the highest holy day of the cult of coupledom.
If you’re reading this, there’s a not insignificant chance that you are one or several of the following: a) young b) female c) single or d) nauseated by the sheer volume of saccharine romantic propaganda sloshing around the public sphere at this particular time of year. But none of us live outside culture, and feeling frustrated on Valentine’s Day doesn’t make you stupid or duped or a mindless drone for the greetings-card industry.
With that in mind, it’s time, as the Americans say, for some real talk.
Anti-Valentine’s rants are almost as cliched as the hearts-and-flowers parade. I have too much respect for you to subject you to yet another list of reasons to enjoy being single, or things to do whilst you wait for your soulmate to arrive. In practise, these mostly seem to involve wearing pyjamas, applying face-masks and modelling for stock photos. But this is a point in the calendar when people start asking the internet for love advice, so here’s mine.
I think that it’s usually better for women to be single. Particularly young women. Particularly straight young women. Not just ‘alright’, not just ‘bearable’—actively better.
I have spent most of my twenties single, sometimes by choice, and sometimes because I was dating men and unable to locate one of those who didn’t try to hold me back or squash me down. I spent quite a lot of time being sad about that, even though my life was full of friends, fulfilling work, interesting lovers and overseas adventures. Looking back, though, staying single was probably the best decision I made, in terms of my career, my dedication to my work and activism, and the lessons I learned about how to care for myself and other people.
It’s not that I didn’t get upset and frustrated. There were times when I badly wanted a partner, and for much of that time, I felt like I had to choose between having one and being my best self. That self, the self that was dedicated to writing, travelling and doing politics, that had many outside interests and more intense friendships, was not something men seemed to value or desire—at least not in that way. I don’t mean to suggest that I don’t also have gigantic, awkward flaws that make me largely unbearable to be with—just that boys rarely stuck around long enough to find that out. Plenty of them were perfectly happy to sleep with me, but after a little while, when I became a real person to them, when it became more than just sex, they turned mean or walked away.
That was hard. There were weeks where I walked around like I’d been kicked in the chest, wishing like hell that I had the ability to be someone else, someone more stereotypically loveable. With hindsight, though, I’m glad that I’ve never been willing or able to narrow my horizons for a man. It didn’t turn out to be half as scary, or a fraction as lonely, as I’d been told. And, you know, I had a bunch of fun and got a buggerload of writing done.
I’m not single right now. It’s sad that I felt I had to wait until that was the case before publishing a post like this. Part of me, I suspect, wanted to justify myself, to prove to you that I could attained the love of a man-shaped human, and thereby be an acceptable female. I wanted to wait and see if I felt the same way from the other side of five years without a primary partner. It turns out that I do.
You see, I don’t believe that my relationship constitutes a happy ending. I don’t want a “happy ending”. I don’t want an ending at all, particularly not while I’m still in my goddamn twenties—I want a long life full of work and adventure. I absolutely don’t see partnership as the end of that adventure. And I still believe that being single is the right choice for a great many young women.
Nothing frustrates me so much as watching young women at the start of their lives wasting years in succession on lacklustre, unappreciative, boring child-men who were only ever looking for a magic girl to show off to their friends, a girl who would in private be both surrogate mother and sex partner. I’ve been that girl. It’s no fun being that girl. That girl doesn’t get to have the kind of adventures you really ought to be having in your teens and twenties. It’s not that her dreams and plans don’t matter, but they always matter slightly less than the boy’s, because that’s what boys are taught to expect—that their girlfriend is there to play a supporting role in their life.
You see them everywhere—exhausted young women pouring all their spare energy into organising, encouraging and taking care of young men who resent them for doing it but resent them even harder when they don’t. You see them cringing for every crumb of affection before someone cracks and it all goes wrong and the grim cycle starts again. You can fritter away the whole of your youth that way. I know women who have.
What I’m trying to say is that there are a lot of things that are much worse than being single under modern patriarchy. The feminists of the late 20th century were often single by choice, and they’re mocked for it now by those who like to forget that they had good reason for it. It was better to be alone than to make the sort of grim bargains marriage or partnership required and still requires of heterosexual people who happened to be female.
It just wasn’t worth it. Sometimes it still isn’t worth it.
For those of us who mostly or exclusively date the so-called “opposite” gender, romantic love really can be a battlefield. It’s where politics play out intimately and, often, painfully. We’re not supposed to acknowledge that love is political. But how can it be otherwise? How can it be anything but political, when relationships with men are so often where women experience gendered violence, where differences in pay and privilege hit home, where we do all the work of caring and cleaning and soothing and placating that patriarchy expects us to do endlessly and for free?
Buried under the avalanche of hearts and flowers is an uncomfortable fact: romantic partnership is, and always has been, an economic arrangement. The economics may have changed in recent decades, as many women have gained more financial independence, but it’s still about the money. It’s about who does the domestic labour, the emotional labour, the work of healing the walking wounded of late capitalism. It’s about organising people into isolated, efficient, self-reproducing units and making them feel bad when it either fails to happen or fails to bring them happiness.
Today, whatever else we are, women are still taught that we have failed if we are not loved by men. I’ve lost count of the men who seem to believe that the trump card they hold in any debate is “but you’re unattractive”. “But I wouldn’t date you.” How we feel about them doesn’t matter. Young women are meant to prioritise men’s romantic approval, and young men often struggle to imagine a world in which we might have other priorities.
The trouble is that in order to win that approval, we are supposed to lessen our power in every other aspect of life. We are supposed to downplay our intelligence, to worry if we have more financial or professional success than our partner. We can be creative and ambitious, but never more so than the men in our lives, lest we threaten them. And there are so few men that are worth making that sort of sacrifice for.
“In patriarchal culture,” as bell hooks observes in All About Love: New Visions, “men are especially inclined to see love as something they should receive without expending effort. More often than not they do not want to do the work that love demands.” Even the very best and sweetest of men have too often been raised with the expectation that once a woman is in their lives romantically, they will no longer have to do most of the basic chores involved in taking care of themselves. When I’ve spoken critically about this monolithic ideal of romantic love in the past, most of the pushback I’ve received has been from men, some of it violent, and no wonder. Men usually have far more to gain from this sort of traditional arrangement. Men are allowed to think of romantic love as a feeling, an experience, a gift that they expect to be given as a reward for being their awesome selves. That sounds like a great deal to me. I wouldn’t want that challenged.
Women, by contrast, learn from an early age that love is work. That in order to be loved, we will need to work hard, and if we want to stay loved we will need to work harder. We take care of people, soothe hurt feelings, organise chaotic lives and care for men who never learned to care for themselves, regardless of whether or not we’re constitutionally suited for such work. We do this because we are told that if we don’t, we will die alone and nobody will find us until an army of cats has eaten all the skin off our faces.
Little boys are told they should “get” girlfriends, but they are not encouraged to seriously consider their future roles as boyfriends and husbands. Coupledom, for men, is not supposed to involve a surrendering of the self, as it is for women. Young men do not worry about how they will achieve a “work-life balance”, nor does the “life” aspect of that equation translate to “partnership and childcare”. When commentators speak of women’s “work-life balance”, they’re not talking about how much time a woman will have, at the end of the day, to work on her memoirs, or travel the world, or spend time with her friends. “Life”, for women, is envisioned as a long trajectory towards marriage. “Life”, for men, is meant to be bigger than that.
No wonder single girls are stigmatised, expected at every turn to expected to explain their life choices. No wonder spinsterhood is supposed to be the worst fate that can befall a woman. “Spinster” is still an insult, whereas young men get to be fun-loving bachelors, players and studs. There would be serious social consequences if we collectively refused to do the emotional management that being a wife or girlfriend usually involves—so it’s important that we’re bullied into it, made to feel like we’re unworthy and unloveable unless we’re somebody’s girl. Today, we’re even expected to deliver the girlfriend experience in the workplace, as “affective labour”—the daily slog of keeping people happy—becomes a necessary part of the low-waged, customer-facing, service-level jobs in which women and girls are over-represented.
That’s an ideological reason to be single. Now here’s a practical one. The truth is that most men in their teens and twenties have not yet learned to treat women like human beings, and some never do. It’s not entirely their fault. It’s how this culture trains them to behave, and in spite of it all, there are a few decent, kind and progressive young men out there who are looking for truly equal partnerships with women.
The trouble is that there aren’t enough of them for all the brilliant, beautiful, fiercely compassionate women and girls out there who could really do with someone like that in their lives. Those men are like unicorns. If you meet one, that’s great. You might think you’ve met one already—I’ve often thought so—but evidence and experience suggest that a great many unicorns are, in fact, just horses with unconvincing horns. If you don’t manage to catch a real unicorn, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. Either way, you should have a plan B.
Not everyone has that choice. Many young women are already parents or carers. The global movement against welfare affects women more than any other group, since women do the majority of caring labour, forcing them back into dependence on partners, primarily men, unless they are privately wealthy. Austerity and anti-welfarism are an attack on women’s independence under capitalism. This is why agitating for economic change, like the institution of a guaranteed minimum income, should be one of feminism’s core projects.
In the meantime, however, we have to organise where we are. That’s why it’s so critical that women with the ability to do so—particularly women and girls at the beginning of their adult lives—prioritise their financial and emotional independence, including from men.
Rejecting that sort of partnership doesn’t mean rejecting the whole notion of love. On the contrary: it means demanding more of love. I’m a gigantic squishy romantic at heart. It’s just that I think compulsory heterosexual monogamy is the least romantic idea since standardised testing, and I don’t see why our best ideals of love and lust and passion and dedication need to be boxed into it.
The worst thing about traditional romantic love is that it’s supposed to be the end of the story—if you’re a girl. The music swells, the curtain drops as you fall into his arms, and then you’re done. You’re get to drift off into a life of quiet bliss and baby making. Isn’t that what every girl really wants?
It is not, nor should it be. There are many different routes to a life of love and adventure and personally, I don’t intend to travel down any one of them in the sidecar. So we need to start telling stories about singleness—and coupled independence—that are about more than manicures and frantic day-drinking. We need to start remembering all of the women down the centuries who chose to remain unpartnered so that they could make art and change history without a man hanging around expecting dinner and a smile. We need to start remembering that the modern equivalents of these women are all around us, and little girls need not be terrified of becoming them. More than half of women over eighteen are unmarried. More than half of marriages end in divorce. It is more than time to abandon the idea that a single woman has failed in life.
Even supposedly empowering stories of singleness, from Sex and the City to Kate Bolick’s recent book Spinster, seem to end with the protagonist finding her soulmate just when she’s given up hope. That’s not where my story ends. I’m enjoying the novelty of not being single, but it’s bloody hard work.
Any dedicated love relationship is hard work, even when you’re big and ugly and lucky enough to be able to negotiate your own boundaries and insist on your independence. It’s work I only just manage to find time in the day for. It’s work I definitely would not have had time for two or three years ago, when I was completely absorbed with churning out three books at once while simultaneously trying to become a better human being. And it’s work I’d advise most young women not to be bothered with, in the knowledge that their human value is not and never will be contingent on being someone’s girlfriend.
It’s just not worth it.
We have to get on with saving the world, after all, and we can’t do it one man at a time.