You can, of course, enjoy the state you're in and work to maintain that happy state. So for example, if you prefer being single, it's best not to sign up for uniformdating.com. But if you want to be absolutely sure, you've also got to avoid lingering eye contact with strangers on buses and in book shops, avoid making new friends with people of romantically-compatible genders and orientations, and ruthlessly ditch old friends at the slightest change in your feelings about one another. You can have sex, but only with deeply unattractive strangers, and even then there's some risk that you might get talking, find that they have a dazzling personality which cancels out the warts, and that third eye, though not matching the others in size or colour, has a certain sort of bloodshot charm in the first cool light of morning.
So however much you love the single life, if you are capable of romantic feeling, a mutually-electrifying bolt may strike. It's perfectly healthy to work on the basis that it won't, but if it does, your choice will be significantly diminished. If two people are in love and want to be together, it is unlikely that they will prefer any life without the other.
This is why when I see the phrase single by choice, I wonder. Some people are, of course, aromantic or not particularly inclined to romance, and others have phases in their life when they're not interested, but that stuff's not a choice either. However, it really doesn't matter. For one thing, some people can exercise romantic preference in ways others cannot and maybe I can't understand. For another, we live in a culture which privileges the heterosexual couple above all other combinations of adults and family units. Single people are certainly not the most reviled sexual minority (I mean, how?!) but our culture is constructed in a way that makes being single - a state that most people will experience for at least some years of their adult life - tougher than it ought to be.
What gives me the willies is couples who behave as if they have made a choice. It makes me worry that they did. These are the sort who believe that life is always better lived in pairs and that everyone, absolutely everyone would be better off if they were to follow suit. Due to my medical condition, I have only been single for four days since I was eighteen, so I've never been subjected to the mean things said to single people, but I do hear things said about them. Obviously, there's the universal assumption that single people are lonely, unfulfilled and actively looking for a partner, but the other great offenders include
- "She could easily find a partner if she wasn't so fussy." You can be too fussy about food when you're eating nothing but baked beans and white bread. You can be too fussy when shopping for a pair of winter shoes when it's already November and you're still wearing sandals. You can even be too fussy when applying for a job you only need as a stop gap. You can't be too fussy when it comes to love or sex or any significant emotional investment. This stuff is about joy! In the absence of the joy potential, what's the point? And how precious is romantic love if you're not extremely fussy? "I love you, but any number of people would do just as well."
- "If only she met someone, maybe she'd be able to lose weight." I've also heard meeting someone as the solution to mental illness, financial hardship and simply being a little bit odd. I don't know how common the weight loss one is, but I have a family member who says this about any woman who is both fat and single, whatever her life circumstances. As well as the assumption that all fat people want to lose weight and the assumption that love will do that (what with all those full English breakfasts in bed, boxes of chocolate, romantic restaurant dinners, champagne celebrations, tiramisu-flavoured body paint etc.), it reminds me of a time that pregnancy was recommended to me as a way of boosting my immune system. Not a responsible attitude towards major life events!
- "He'll settle down once he meets a nice girl." This is usually heard about young men who are in some kind of trouble or aimlessly drifting, but can be heard about men of any age who haven't met other people's standards of growing up and settling down. It's this idea of men as naturally a bit savage and useless and women as a civilising force. To me, it begs questions such as, would such a man want such a woman? Would such a woman want such a man? Might the two of them not make one another dreadfully unhappy, given that one is apparently a Neanderthal and the other is a Homo Superior?
Much of any critique of the single life or coupledom is about gender stereotypes. When attached people lament the plight of their single friends and family, it is often gendered; women need someone to look after and men need someone to look after them - and sometimes vice versa, but always in very gendered ways; a man providing money, a woman providing someone to be ambitious for etc.. When the BBC asked for readers stories about single life, some men wrote about their freedom from controlling women and some women wrote about their freedom from infantile men. Several readers felt compelled to mention that they weren't gay or anything. Single, but not gay - who could have imagined such a thing?
(Weirdly, I observe that missionary marrieds are particularly moved by the plight of their single gay friends, and try to set them up with even greater desperation. If straight Susan is single, they'll try hooking her up with the postman who is roughly the same age, shares her love of Thai food and has a cousin who was an extra in Susan's favourite movie (although he's never seen the film himself). If lesbian Laura is single, they'll try hooking her up with a woman they met on holiday in Brazil, who still lives in Brazil, is thirty years older than Laura and already has a wife.)
Coupledom is, of course, completely overrated and our culture acknowledges this fact at the same time as thrusting it upon us as a model of normality. You only need to watch your average ad break to see what our culture depicts as normal couples, not getting on very well, resenting each other and buying stuff to make them feel better. The Dulux paint one is my favourite - look at the exchange of looks between these two at the end! It started out so nicely with the sexy red walls, but now their life has become - like their walls - grey. It's a fate worse than magnolia!
There are various practical and financial advantages to pooling your resources with another person. And the idea is that it is nice to have someone else around to listen to your troubles and to be able to have sex without so much as putting your best shoes on. That's the idea, but it is awash with complexity and trouble unless you genuinely, sincerely and consistently delight in one another's company. After all, you have to listen to their troubles, and maybe they have a headache - or a shoe fetish! Meanwhile, apart from the sex part, all of this could be achieved with close friends or family members (or what s. e. smith describes as a queerplatonic partner), without all the cultural expectation of exclusivity, permanence and the dedication of most of your free time.
Because being in a romantic relationship with someone who isn't even your friend has got to be far lonelier and more humiliating than being single, especially when you've been led to believe (by your culture and perhaps your partner too) that this is a great deal better than the alternative. Lonely people often live in terror of increased levels of loneliness. But here's something I learnt.
After I left my first marriage, I considered whether I had wasted ten years of my life being miserable and lonely. And at times, I had been desperately lonely, have many unhappy, humiliating or frightening memories from being with my ex. However, I also have many happy memories from this period of my life. I didn't see nearly enough of them, but I did have very good times with friends and family. I lived in interesting places and enjoyed the world around me. I read a great number of books. I learnt to play the guitar. I made stuff, I sewed, I painted, I started this blog. I studied. I listened to a lot of music and watched lots of films. And against incredible odds, I wrote my first novel (which is now prize-winning, if as yet unpublished).
And had I been single, I might have done a lot more of all that and would have been a very great deal happier. Of course, I don't have a clue - genuinely - how I would enjoy being single. I wouldn't live alone because I couldn't, and so long as I found somewhere comfortable to live, I imagine I would be cool with it. Being mutually head over heels in love (despite the collision and entanglement of legs) makes me extremely happy, but putting all this time, energy and emotion into somebody who is anything less than fantastic? Never again. I have fantastic friends. I have fantastic family members. I am, myself, fairly fantastic. Stephen gets my time, energy and love because he is super-fantastic, and gives me much more in return.
Love is underrated. Romantic love is underrated, and treated with cynicism in our culture. I think it's tragic the way that the idea of coupledom, a state of gender-based mutual irritation and tolerance, has become the dominant model of what romantic relationships are like.
But all the other kinds of love, and especially friendship, are even more underrated and undervalued. Love is a big part of what makes any of us happy, but it comes in many different shapes and flavours, and rarely involves a conscious choice.