As more of us are actively choosing singledom, Lucy Vine, 31, explains why she’s happy to be alone
There’s an excruciating conversation I’ve had so frequently now that my answers snap like reflexes. “Why are you single?” it begins, with a side of subtle yet obviously implied criticism. I never have to think about my reply. “I’m happier on my own,” I say honestly. Shamelessly ignoring me, they invariably then ask whether I’d secretly quite like to meet someone again. I say no, breaking into another forced smile. “Don’t worry,” they say. “There’s bound to be someone out there for you.”
It’s intensely irritating, obviously, to be patronised in such a reductive way. But worse than that is the assumption that being single couldn’t possibly be a lifestyle choice. Because of course it could – and is for more and more women like me. The single population is growing 10 times as fast as the population, according to the Office for National Statistics, there are
17 million single men and women in the UK, while new research reveals one third of British women would be happy to stay single forever. Millennial women are increasingly choosing to go it alone, with only 26% of adults aged 18-32 getting married in 2013 and cohabiting couples accounting for 16.4% of the non-single population (that’s compared to 48% of baby boomers and 36% of Generation X-ers). And with the film How To Be Single hitting cinemas this month – and the return of the ultimate singleton Bridget Jones to our lives later this year – being single is finally back in the spotlight.
I’ve been single, in a more or less serious way, for the last four years. I can’t really remember what it feels like to be in love. I hope that doesn’t sound sad, because I don’t mean it to be. I was happy with my first proper boyfriend, Daniel*, who I spent five years with from the age of 19. But I also remember the final two years, which we spent torturing each other and boomerang-ing in and out of each other’s lives. We finally broke up, thankfully, when he met someone else. It took a while to feel like me again, and I was afraid, for a long time, of turning into the crazed “relationship” version of myself again, who would cry regularly, get angry over nothing, and obsess over messages that – in hindsight – had no meaning.
No more drama
As the sort of person who actively avoids conflict at all costs, I quickly realised being single suited my temperment. Without a permanent man in my life, I could be drama-free and happier for it. Though it doesn’t mean I stopped dating altogether. I had a few short-term boyfriends over those next few years and in 2010, aged 27, I quickly got serious with Tom*, a friend of a friend. He moved into my flat after six months. But, much as I adored him – I’ve never laughed so much over banal little things than I did with Tom – I still felt itchy for time by myself. I had intense pangs of territorialism that it was my home he’d invaded – one I’d saved and worked for by myself – and after a while I would lie to him that I had plans, so he’d go out for the evening and I could be alone for a few hours. I was resentful that I could no longer be entirely selfish when it came to dinner, weekend arrangements and my wider life choices, like my secret plan to move to New York for a year. And when, after a little over a year together, I told him I needed more space, he panicked and got closer. I panicked and pushed him away.
Since then, I’ve only really engaged in what a friend recently termed “expiration dating”. I choose men I can’t have a future with; men who are going travelling in a few months, or don’t live in the country at all. It’s easier that way, and means I can have sex if I want to. Usually I’ve made it clear by date three that things are unlikely to go anywhere serious. I’ve realised I like my own company too much to fill it with another person. Emotional intimacy takes work – digging into someone’s life, finding out what makes them tick, learning how to make them happy when they’re in a bad mood – and I’m not prepared to put that work in when I’m so happy alone.
It’s an attitude that Kate Bolick, author of Spinster: Making A Life Of One’s Own, says emerged from second-wave feminism; “the elevation of independence over coupling”. Sexuality and reproductive rights were dominant issues for the second wave as the US government approved the contraceptive pill in 1960. Books like Robin Morgan’s anthology Sisterhood Is Powerful were telling women they could do it on their own and have fun with it. Bolick tells me, “Coupling is wonderful in many ways, but it can also be confining. The freedom to do and be whatever you want is exhilarating. My strictly-single years – roughly, age 30-40 were among the best in my life so far. I lived alone for the first time, and loved it; I met all kinds of people and made many new friends; I travelled; I committed myself to the pleasures of my work. All in all, I lived more largely than I ever had before, un-sheltering myself – so to speak. As a result, I found and created meaning in many things that existed beyond romance and relationships. It made my life fuller.”
That’s how I feel; rather than lacking something, my life is richer with the absence of another. And that’s what makes it so frustrating when society still views single people as lesser. When it takes us less seriously and sees our lives as frivolous. Author Dr Bella DePaulo calls it “singlism”, and her research found that perceptions of single people are almost all negative (except for one – single people are seen as more independent than couples). Single people – men and women – are perceived as less mature, less well-adjusted, more self-centred and envious of people who are in a couple. And not forgetting that couples individually earn approximately 26% more than those of us on our own, at equivalent levels.
Yet, as more of us make that choice, society is being forced to recalibrate. Maybe the default happily-ever-after setting remains, for many, deadlocked at marriage, but the connotations and language we used around “spinster”, “desperate” and “bunny boiler” single women 10 years ago has definitely shifted. Such were the extremes of perception in 2007, that Dr DePaulo used ‘single girl myths’ as ironic chapter titles for her taboo-busting book Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, And Ignored And Still Live Happily Ever After. They included, “Too bad you’re incomplete” and “Poor soul: you will grow old alone and you will die in a room by yourself where no-one will find you for weeks.”
Cultural icons such as Carrie Bradshaw and Bridget Jones, hailed for their single status, seem horribly outdated now, rooted as their characters were in a search for completeness in the form of boyfriends. “There was a sense that a seismic demographic shift was taking place,” says Bolick. “But because nobody was putting voice to it, the changes taking place weren’t being examined or understood, and so were handled as reductively and as easily as possible – as stereotypes. Carrie Bradshaw represented the power women were experiencing; Bridget Jones represented the fear.” And both had a so-called “fairytale ending” in the form of a man. Sex And The City creator, Darren Star admitted in January that the show’s Mr-and-Mrs-Big conclusion “ultimately betrayed,” what the show was about – “which was that women don’t ultimately find happiness from marriage.”
Today’s single representations are better. Like Jennifer Lawrence who openly says, “I never feel lonely. It’s not a sad thing to be alone… I don’t feel a lack of something not being in a relationship.” Or the until-recently-single Amy Schumer who could “catch a d*ck” whenever she wanted. DePaulo, now in her 60s and still very much single, tells me, “Living single is such a different experience than it was in the middle of the last century. Even though women are still paid less than men for the same work, many women have enough different job opportunities, and a decent enough income to support themselves and maybe even some kids. They are no longer tethered to a husband for economic life support.”
Fertility too – having a “sell-by date” – is no longer the issue it once was. “There is far less stigma around single parenting,” says DePaulo. “It has become ordinary. And advances in reproductive science mean that women can now have kids without needing a man in their lives. Women can pick up the cheque at work and the sperm at the bank – they don’t need men or marriage for either.” In fact, by 2020, experts predict 70% of people buying donor sperm will be single women – and it’s more than OK to choose not to have children at all, which is probably where I’ll land.
Perhaps the one remaining taboo around choosing to be single is loneliness. I read an article recently that claimed it as “one of our biggest social issues”, with one in 10 Britons often feeling lonely. I remember as a teenager obsessively listening to songs about loneliness and love, and how, without the latter, you will always have the former, and feeling melodramatic and excited about the future when I would experience such emotions. I’m still waiting.
Obviously, there are times when I think a relationship would be nice – someone to rant at about work, or double date with. And sometimes I think how rich I’d be if I had someone to pay half my bills. But it’s never about loneliness for me. In fact, the only points in my life when I remember being lonely were when I was in the wrong relationships. In fact, research shows that being single actually makes you far more sociable. As DePaulo points out, “Single people are more connected to friends, neighbours, siblings, and parents than married people. In fact, on average, people are more insular when they marry.”
I have a huge, warm family I’m close to, and lots of friends. I’ve learned not to feel awkward going out with couples – conversely, sometimes I think my attitude can make some couples uncomfortable. When I’m at a dinner party, where I’m the token single girl – most of my friends are coupled off – and yet again being quizzed about ‘why’ I’m single, I can feel other people’s confusion and suspicion. And interestingly, it most often comes from the men at the table. I think women see the appeal of single life, while men are slower to let go of those single girl stereotypes.
When I was a kid, I might have given myself the same bewildered looks; 27 was to be the magic “adult” age when marriage and children would all be in place – when life would be arranged. But here I am in my 30s, late to my own life party because I’m having too much fun at the pre-drinks. And so are my other single friends. There’s Sophia*, who quit her job in 2013 to work with orphans in Mexico for a few years, and Natalie*, who’s just taken a four-month sabbatical from work to backpack around Asia. And Kath* who just wants to sleep with as many people as she can before she’s 40. Being single is fun.
Of course, not everyone might feel like me. I have unhappy single friends and unhappy married friends. But I hate the assumption that being in relationship is good and being single is bad. It’s possible my feelings will change about relationships in the future – just as Kate Bolick’s did when she met the man she’s been in a committed relationship with for a few years now, and that’s her – and my – prerogative. For now, I’m going to carry on ignoring the repetitive questions I get at dinner parties and continue to live my single life – full of possibilities and travel plans and whole days in bed watching boxsets with no-one to answer to – with passion.
The single woman’s little black book
Where to survive in a coupled-up world
The restaurant: Blixen
While we’re not implying single women always dine alone, solo diners do get the best seat in the house at Blixen, in London’s Spitalfields – where singles are welcomed at a long bar right next to the kitchen to watch the chefs at work (blixen.co.uk).
The app – Hey! VINA
A free app for women to connect with other women – either to make new friends or network. It works in a similar way to Tinder (without the dubious sexual propositions) with users creating a profile listing their interests and other users swiping left and right when searching for a new connection (itunes.apple.com).
The travel company: Shoestring.com
Specialising in singles who want to travel together, there are no single ‘surcharges’. And with prices from £346 for a 15-day trek through Nepal, it’s affordable too (shoestring.com).
The hotel: Dukes London
This hotel in London’s St James’s Park has created a package for the single female traveller in their ‘Duchess Rooms’, with services including flowers, magazines and a quiet corner table in the restaurant (dukeshotel.com).