All the Single Ladies: Or, What has Love Got to Do With It?

You might be sick of the topic of my single-dom and (lack of) love life, but, unfortunately, things seem to keep happening that gets me thinking about it all over again. The other possibility, of course, is that I’m thinking about it so obsessively at the moment, that completely unrelated things somehow seem related to the topic of my singledom, and I then spend hours making blog posts out of these random incidents and ideas.
Today, however, it was not me forcing anything on the world, it was the world that was forcing the topic on to me.
In the supermarket today, wandering about, not sure if I was hungry, not sure if I wanted to buy food and drink and take it home, or go out to a pub and have a meal there, I happened to spy the front cover of ‘The Observer’. In the corner, highlighted in yellow, with an intriguing looking women beside it, was printed an article title seemingly very related to my last blog post: ‘Why Millions of Women Like Me Will Never Marry’ by Katie Bolick. I was wary, as I must confess my virtual ignorance of ‘The Observer’ as a paper, and wasn’t sure if this was a terrifying UK tabloid, and that the article itself would be a highly offensive polemic about how the feminist liberation movement had turned all women into spoiled brats who didn’t want to have kids and do the housework, and were therefore refusing to settle for all the hugely decent, hard-working men out there, leading, ultimately, to the destruction of life and society as we know it.
But, with nothing else to do or buy, and intrigued enough to want to know more, I caved and paid my 2.50 Euro to see what this Katie Bolick had to say for herself. I sat myself down with a pot of tea in a local Kinsale restaurant, and opened the paper. Within the first paragraph, I was hooked. It opened with Katie Bolick describing the ending of a long-term relationship in her late twenties and the reasons behind it. The whole situation was scarily familiar to me, for a great many reasons, not least of all the question of whether or not this was the worst mistake of her life. I devoured her words voraciously: here was a woman who had gone through what I had gone through, but who was now 13 years down the track and living out my ‘worst fears’ (I’ve put them in inverted commas, because I’m still not sure if they are my worst fears or not). That is, to say, she is 40, has never been married and coming to the conclusion that she may never be.
To read the full article (and I suggest you do read the article, its completely fascinating, thought-provoking and compelling), go to The Atlantic Magazine: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/11/all-the-single-ladies/8654/?single_page=true Its apparently caused a huge stir over in the USA, and there are talks of TV series and movies and all sorts of other ridiculousness, which clearly means its hit a nerve.
For those of you who won’t read it (and I’m sure there’ll be a few, as its quite long), the basic argument is that marriage as an institution is breaking down, and, further, there are a whole heap of women out there who ain’t ever going to get married, for a whole heap of different reasons. However, where Katie differs from the hysterical right-wing, often Christian, conservatives, is that she doesn’t see this as a terrible thing that needs to be stopped, but as a function of our ever-changing idea of what marriage is, and what it means to be married. Our idea of marriage as being a reflection and celebration of ever-lasting love has really only being current for 100 years or so at the most. Before that, it was, as I’m sure you’ve heard, about the consolidation and protection of property. The article talks about how various other issues, such as the increasing rates of female education, the loss of construction and manufacturing jobs in the USA, gender-ratio imbalances and the rise of the ‘hook-up’ culture are also making it difficult, or undesirable, for women to settle down with the men that are available to them. It looks at ways other cultures and societies have organised the raising of children, have expressed love and dealt with sexuality or sexual desire and suggests that our hugely rigid way of thinking around these topics (and insistence of bundling them up together) is detrimental to the ever-increasing group of long-term singles, as well as people in ‘non-traditional relationships’, that are currently getting by, and doing fine in the Western world.
The article goes into a lot of other interesting side topics, but I can’t really summarise it all here (read it, read it, seriously, read it, its worth the time). What it made me want to think about, basically, was what are we, in our Western society, left with, if we don’t have marriage?
I don’t mean that to sound pathetically over-romantic and Charlotte-like. Its a genuine question, that perhaps other people in my group of friends, or in this generation, have already come to terms with, made peace with or got an answer for (I’m all ears, by the way). Because, well, look, here’s the thing: even if I say I’m ‘ok’ with the idea of not getting married, even if I am not particularly fussed on the institution of marriage, per se, I am interested, and quite fussed, on the idea of passionate, soul-crushing, world-changing, romantic love. I’m totally caught up in the idea of a soul mate. Its probably the influence of all those 19th-century novels I read as a kid. I blame Austen! I blame the Brontes! But, whom-so-ever’s fault it is, I do associate that sort of love with marriage, although, obviously, the two don’t go hand in hand: many of my beloved classic novels – ‘Anna Karenina’, ‘Wuthering Heights’, ‘Madame Bovary’ – were about people who found that love outside of their marriage. Now, this may seem like a stretch, and it is actually seeming more ridiculous now that I sit down and try to write it out, but if society as a whole ‘gives up’ on marriage, which, to me, is still about the hope, the search, for that perfect embodiment of everlasting love (even if it sometimes fails, or people sometimes make mistakes), then, where does that leave the rom-com film industry, the chick-lit industry (all of which only have endings because societal conventions dictate that once you’ve found the love of your life, the story ends: they may not state outright, ‘and they lived happily ever after’, but we’ve all heard enough fairy tales by that point in our lives to know that that is what is meant when the credits roll, the book ends)? But, most importantly, where does that leave the idea of the soul mate? That is to say, if we all acknowledge, that, actually, ever-lasting love is probably *not* something that is likely, possible or desirable for the majority of people, what is the point of all this dating, all these relationships, these hook-ups, this anxiety to get together, stay together, make it work?
The rational side of me, the part that is highly influenced by my father, makes jokes about a marriage partner simply being, ‘the most suitable person at the most suitable time’. The rational, cynical side of me likes to come out at a swish, university parties, whilst wearing black and waving a glass of red around. This cynical, rational side is fully down with the idea of ever-lasting, passionate, soul-crushing love being something that we trick ourselves into believing exists so that we can get through those marriage vows, start a family and, get ourselves a companion to (hopefully) last us til our hair turns grey. But, there is also the romantic side of me that still believes, or still desperately wants to believe, that, out there, somewhere, is a person like Aristophanes described, a person who is the other half of my whole, cut apart from me by the Gods, and when that person is found, finally, everything will fall into place. The interesting thing here is that, even the cynical side doesn’t actively attack the idea of marriage itself. Sure, it doubts the existence of romantic, ever-lasting love, but it still feels like, well, marriage is something that, usually, most respectable people do, even if there reasons for doing it aren’t as clear as they think they are.
In short, there is a very strong idea within me that feels like that everyone’s ultimate goal in life is to find their other half, of whatever sex, to then potentially have children. The creation of your own little couple or family unit is the ultimate achievement, whether or not you believe this is based on the finding of your soul mate, a need for ongoing companionship, the need for a stable family unit to raise children etc. Whatever the reason, and whether or not it is eventually made official through marriage, the creation of this little unit of people, which is never meant to be torn asunder is presented to us as the only thing that will ever bring you real happiness in life. The idea is constantly repeated to us, through films, through books, through TV, through interviews with famous people (Tom Cruise on Oprah’s couch, anyone?), and through the hounding, questioning, mocking, ignorance and distrust of those people who choose to live their lives differently. And, I for one, have been well and truly brainwashed.
Katie Bolick’s article points out that, with people getting married later and later, not getting married at all, or having multiple long-term, short-term and other forms of relationships, the idea of the couple, of the two separate halves of a whole is becoming obsolete. Its not just marriage that is becoming outdated, but its the idea of the couple itself as our dominant, expected and most constant state of being that is becoming problematic. You’re probably going to end up spending a lot of your life, if not most of it, as a single: as an uno, rather than as a duo. And through all this chopping and changing, the constant switch from single to couple, to single again, it follows that the most important relationship you’re going to have throughout your life will be with yourself.
That’s maybe not much of a revelation, nor is it actually a physical change in the way we live our lives. Of course, you always had to live within your own body. But, it is a huge change in perception. Instead of viewing yourself as a half who is searching for the other half to make them complete, you view yourself as complete, happy, finished, whatever, just as you are. I’m aware that these is a whole movement out there that would say, you can’t find a partner without feeling complete in yourself anyway, but I find it distinctly ironic that this sort of advice is still given in the context of trying to find that long-term partner.  There’s that horrible old cliche that people often parrot at you as a single, ‘How do you expect people to love you if you don’t love yourself,’ once again, making the goals of loving oneself and feeling complete in oneself only desirable in relation to how they will help you to eventually find a partner.
But, as partners come and go more easily these days, as the relationships we find ourselves in are less definable and stable (one-night stand? affair? friend with benefits? summer fling? boyfriend? partner?), liable to change at any point, and based on the different needs, wants and expectations of the people within the relationships, then, it seems that the relationship with yourself as an individual becomes not a temporary state of being, not as a stepping stone towards the coveted state of ‘couple’, as it once was seen, but as our primary way of existing in the world. Partners become optional extras, like chiropractors or acupuncture on your health cover: nice to have, if you’re into that sort of thing, but, by no means necessary to your overall health, wealth and happiness.
So, what’s my problem then? What’s my problem with letting go of this idea of the soul mate? Of ever-lasting, perfect love? What’s my problem with all these new relationship-types? What’s my problem with looking at myself and what I do, individually, with my life, as the only place to find contentment, peace, happiness and security in the world? In some ways its very liberating, it allows people to create relationships with other people that are unique and special to the individuals within them, it also potentially saves people from making vows of ’til death do us part’ and then cheating, or divorcing and all the pain and existential angst that comes from these abrupt changes in ideals and promises. Over the course of your life, you may have a series of fulfilling long-term relationships, meaning that you get to know intimately, a whole group of people, instead of just the one. I’m not saying its necessarily better, but why do I consider it to be inherently worse?
Well, I think there’s an element of the negative brainwashing. I worry that I’ll be, above all, lonely. Potentially crazy and eccentric (and not in a good way, but in a crazy cat lady, empty jam jar and coupon collecting way). But, I think the negative stereotypes wouldn’t be nearly so persuasive if there were positive examples or role models out there to ‘follow’, so to speak. To look up to, and to show us the way. Of course, there have always been single people in the world. But most of them (not all), are portrayed, or portray themselves, as being single, not through choice, but through a series of unfortunate events and poor life decisions. That ending your life single is a mistake, something to be avoided at all costs, the greatest regret of their lives. These are people that live on the outside, who were never good at relationships, who were alcoholics, players, slightly too weird, unattractive, and so have ended up alone and sad. Their singledom is something to be pitied. What if it were something to be rejoiced in? Is it possible to find happiness and contentment as a single person? And if so, what would that look like? What sort of relationships (romantic or sexual, but also platonic or familial) would that pave the way for? Because, I’m not saying that we need to give up on intimate or sexual relationships – I still think they are important, necessary, but what form would they take, how would they be shaped, constructed or justified without this idea of the search for ‘The One’? Certainly, as a single, as a free agent, you have the opportunity to be more open, more giving with your time, your love, your energy, because its not directed inwards at your personal relationship and family unit. It gives you the opportunity to be more dedicated to your friends, your community, your world.
Once again, I’m not trying to tear apart marriage, or the long-lasting, romantically involved couple. I’m just curious about this idea that has taken over Western society that this is the ultimate in emotional and spiritual fulfillment: the obtaining of a single, everlasting ‘soul mate’. I’m curious that it never occurred to me before that this desire was most likely culturally, rather than biologically determined, and I’m curious about what emotional fulfillment you aim for in life if you give up on the idea of that never-changing soul mate, of ‘The One’. Happiness and contentment, is surely what you aim for. But what does that happiness and contentment look like? For so long, for me, the short-hand has been the image of a loving couple, married or otherwise. Other goals may have come and gone, but that was a constant desire, expectation and comfort. What happens when I actively give up on that image? What is it replaced with?
At this point, I honestly don’t know.
A room of one’s own?

Image from http://www.panoramio.com/photo/11985124
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Filed under Introspection, Random

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