You don't want a partner, you love living alone and you don't date: you thought it was just you, but it's not. Welcome to the single-positive revolution. By Fleur Britten.
There's an inevitable moment when catching up with old friends, a look of pity that accompanies the question "Any joy on the dating front?" Well, I say, "Joy — yes! Dating — no, thanks." Life is joyful precisely because there is none of the anxiety, disappointment or heartache that usually accompanies relationships. I finally have autonomy over my brain since its liberation from domestic politics, in-laws and hidden credit-card bills. As a single and sociable working parent to two children, aged four and seven, my headspace and my diary are at capacity, my heart and bed brimming. I patiently attempt to explain all this to incredulous expressions, but I sense they think I'm missing something or, rather, someone. It is, of course, as if I am incomplete without that other half.
Next time I see them, though, I'll be bringing the latest trend reports with me. I am, according to the forecasters, "single-positive" — along with a growing number of happy singles, singledom is my choice. No need for sympathy, smug marrieds, I'm finally validated. I'm trending. "There has been an attitudinal shift," reads the Future Laboratory's recent briefing on the Uncoupled Society. "For some, singledom is not a state that they long to be out of, but a lifestyle choice with benefits. Family and marriage are no longer the primary focal relationships for consumers." It cites Euromonitor's prediction that by 2030 single-person households will see faster growth than any other household type globally. Meanwhile the ad agency J Walter Thompson has just produced a bumper trend report on the so-called Single Age. "Single people are steadily becoming not outliers but a new norm," it reads, "and they report finding great satisfaction in their decision." The new singleton is, according to one of JWT's case studies — Aleijuan, a fortysomething entrepreneur — "enlightened, self-aware, compassionate, open-hearted. I don't feel defined by my relationship status. I'm defined by my individuality."
Finally, then, the single stereotype has moved on from "sad" Bridget Jones, "temporarily single" Carrie Bradshaw and the tragicomic Ann Widdecombe. Even Tinder knows it: the dating app's recent Single, Not Sorry study found that 72 per cent of single people aged between 18 and 25 had made a conscious decision to be single for a period of time, to "focus on other things in their lives". Singledom, said the respondents, variously made them feel happy, adventurous, empowered and proud. These gen-Zers are not alone: according to JWT, it's actually millennials who are the "driving force" towards living solo.
None of this is about marriage bashing, though. We single-positives aren't ruling out being in a relationship, but, says Christine, a happily single parent of two, "We just won't settle for unhappiness." The Future Laboratory calls it the "uncoupling of society" — a gradual movement away from the monogamous couple as the ideal towards more diverse options.
The prevailing narrative of coupledom has proved hard to shift, though, hence those looks of pitying disbelief from well-intentioned married friends. Bella DePaulo, an American pioneer of single studies — who has written two books on the subject, including Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After — calls it matri-mania. "Some people are invested in the ideology of marriage, and think that married people are happier, healthier, maybe even morally superior, than single people," says the 65-year-old "single at heart" social psychologist, who has spent the past 20 years debunking such myths. "I have also heard from people who only got married because it was what they were 'supposed' to do."
Blame the media, of course — that trusty scapegoat. "Most films are love stories, literature is all about love and romance, as is practically every song," says Holly Friend, who led the Future Laboratory research. The media, she says, is guilty of "amatonormativity", which assumes that an exclusive, amorous relationship is the norm and a universally shared goal. "But people are starting to think more practically, that actually their career, friendships or self-fulfilment are more important."
For the single-positive crowd, the pros far outweigh the cons, with benefits including personal space, financial and personal independence, and the freedom to choose one's friends and leisure activities. The key disadvantage is the financial penalty, argues the American writer Glynnis MacNicol, 44, author of No One Tells You This, her bestselling memoir that dispels the notion of unhappy singlehood. "I feel this in my rent, my bills and my health insurance. We live in a capitalist society that is geared towards couples." According to the Office for National Statistics, people living on their own spend an average of 92% of their disposable income, compared with two-adult households, who spend only 83% of theirs. And before you say "What, no sex?", JWT reports that "DIY is the new masturbation mantra, with modern women encouraged to BYOO (bring your own orgasm)" with genderless sex aids. "Increasingly, designers are asking if women want penis-like vibrators at all."
Yes, singledom is a feminist issue. The cultural norm of coupledom is a result of "years of heteronormative and patriarchal brainwashing", argues the 20-year-old single-positive British influencer Florence Given. MacNicol agrees, saying that, for the first time in history, "we are seeing a world in which women can support themselves and decide what they want their lives to look like". Friend adds that while studies have shown that men often feel more secure and happier in a relationship, women now "want control of their lives. They don't want to be less of an individual by being in a relationship for a long portion of their life."
Ironically, another driver of the recent surge in singledom is the dating apps themselves, argues Sasha Cagen, a 45-year-old American life coach and perennial singleton, who founded Quirkyalone, a global community of single people, in 2000 — a time when it was actually considered quirky to be alone. "The dating apps encourage a shopping mentality where there's always someone better to try out, so the goal becomes ego-stroking, as opposed to doing the uncomfortable work of actually getting to know someone." Since 2016, Cagen has facilitated seven self-marriages.
A-ha! So is the single-positive community a bunch of indulgent millennials, ill-equipped to sustain romantic relationships? "This comes up a lot," says Friend, "but that narcissism can be positive." Friend quotes findings from Northwestern University, Illinois, which state that, instead of searching for "the one", people need multiple "emotionships" — different people to cater for different emotions. People who diversify their emotional needs across multiple people have more overall life satisfaction, claimed the study: "They may be better off than those who tend to concentrate their emotional needs on one or two close relationships." DePaulo points to research that shows that singletons are less selfish than their married counterparts, and do more to help, support and stay in touch with siblings, parents, friends and neighbours; they typically have more friends than married people. Time to delete the dating apps, folks?
The single-positive lexicon
• Singlism: Prejudice against single people, includes the single-lady tax.
• Single-lady tax: The financial penalty for being single, plus the effect of the gender pay gap.
• Sologamy: The act of marrying yourself. Not legally recognised, therefore it's not considered bigamous if you're already married.
• Otherhood: The child-free version of motherhood.
• Amatonormative: The belief that romantic relationships are a universal goal. Flawed, obvs.
• Galentine's Day: A celebration of self-love for single girls.
• Aromantic: When you don't experience romantic attraction. Has its uses.
Written by: Fleur Britten
© The Times of London