As women, we’re set up to believe that snagging a partner and settling down should be our ultimate goal in life. But why?
With the results of one study indicating single people have more job satisfaction and form closer bonds with their friends and family than their coupled counterparts, Kasia Delgado, assistant features editor at the Radio Times, argues that its high time we stop searching for the one – and learn instead to focus on celebrating the here and now.
A few years ago, I had to leave a dinner party full of strangers because I thought I might faint. I was at a hen party in the countryside and almost everyone around the table was about to get engaged, or they were already engaged, or they were married, and they had all been talking about John Lewis registry gift lists for exactly 23 minutes.
I only knew the bride and two other people. We were all in our early twenties and I was at university, in a relationship and not remotely worried about my future. Yet that weekend spent with a group of girls already choosing plate designs for their proper kitchens with their proper husbands had me suddenly struggling for breath.
It wasn’t that I wanted those things – I could barely buy milk, let alone choose fine bone china – but I suddenly wondered if I should want those things. All this time that I’d thought I was normal, was I actually supposed to be thinking about plates?
Now that I’m in my late 20s, my summers have been filling up with engagement drinks, hen parties and weddings – and recently even a baby shower. This is the time when it all starts happening and it’s genuinely exciting. But it can also do strange things to your mind. Friends and colleagues my own age are now spending huge chunks of their salary, time and emotional energy celebrating other people’s romantic milestones – and however happy they are being single, however well they’re doing at work and however much they like their own lives, going to all these celebrations can make them wonder if they’re lagging behind.
I certainly felt like that last summer after going to a total of three hen parties and four weddings. While at the time I was newly single and wouldn’t have wanted a boyfriend even if the man in question was Ryan Gosling cradling a Labrador puppy, I had that same moment of panic all over again. Somewhere between leaping around the dance floor to I Will Survive and toasting the Best Man’s speech, I questioned the life that a few hours before I had been completely sure of.
Once wedding season was over, I forgot all about husbands and kids because I knew I didn’t actually want any of those things yet. There was plenty of time for that and I could see that, somewhere among the blur of bouquets and champagne, I had lost perspective.
But it also showed me how much we internalise the pressure to be ‘sorted’ and ‘settle down’, and why people succumb to it. I have friends who treat dating less like romance and more like an interview: “Will you be able to cure me of my singleness and get me back on track towards marriage, mortgage and future offspring? Yes? I know we don’t have even a tiny bit of chemistry but that’s ok. Step this way.” They panic about what they’re meant to be doing rather than what they may actually want to be doing.
I’m guilty of this too. The only time I’ve ever dated someone I didn’t really like was around the time I was going to all those hen parties. Although I found him deeply dull and humourless, he seemed sure he’d love to get married and have several children sometime so I thought hey, maybe I should go for it. Even though my heart plummeted when I remembered we were meeting for drinks that night, and we had so little in common that during dinner I had to run to the loo to brainstorm topics we could discuss next, I thought I should probably push through for a third date. “Give him a shot, you never know,” said the bride-to-be as she adjusted her sash. But I really, really did know.
I have friends who panic about what they’re meant to be doing rather than what they may actually want to be doing.
So I decided that the only way to resist the pressure was to try and start thinking differently. Whatever our parents and teachers tell us, we are set up to believe that life only really counts as a success when we tick certain boxes – and the biggest box of all for women is Settling Down. While I would love to be in a relationship again and eventually have a baby I can dress in Breton stripes and a bear costume, that’s not when my ‘real’ life will begin. It’s already started. Everything up until that point – nights out, a promotion at work, finally finishing that incredible book that made me cry on the tube, meeting new people, hilarious flings, awful break-ups – is all valuable and worth celebrating as much as a relationship.
Because while it’s normal to worry about finding someone to spend the strange, uncertain future with, it’s worse to be with the wrong person than nobody at all. Humans are at their most attractive when they’re happy, having fun and doing interesting things – and that’s usually when love comes around. My new rule is that if I’d rather be watching Friends alone than going on a date with this person, then they’re not for me.
To be clear, I’m not opposed to John Lewis registry gift lists – I could definitely do with some plates that aren’t cracked, or a carafe to hold all that red wine I drink – and finding the right person is a rare and thrilling thing that deserves to be applauded by family, friends and a handful of confetti.
But we also owe it to ourselves to stop treating those who happen to find that right person like their life is more worthwhile than ours. Celebrate them, but don't denigrate yourself.
If I’d rather be watching Friends alone than going on a date with this person, then they’re not for me.
And those in a relationship shouldn't assume their single friends are just waiting, hoping and praying for the moment they'll get there too. They might be, or they might be perfectly happy as they are – but either way it’s unhelpful, and contributes to this feeling that coupling up for good is the be all and end all.
It’s also worth remembering that whether you’re single, married or pregnant, life is never “sorted”. Similar issues, confusions and uncertainties follow because amidst all the joy and excitement, that’s the stuff of life. You can’t lock people down or ensure you’ll never be single again whether you get married or not. It’s all a gamble.
So while of course most of us ultimately want a partner in crime and it’s a wonderful thing to find, we should treat the time we're single with the respect it deserves.