herald

Sunday 13 July 2014

It's time to back off and allow singletons live life on their own terms . . .

THE way the world at large sees it, one is the loneliest number. Those who are single may be footloose and fancy free, living a life largely unmarred by emotional turmoil and obligations ... yet if you're single, society cannot help but fret about your solitary status.

I've lost count of the number of friends who happily pay lip service to loving their independence while they are between relationships ... then defect to coupledom with sheer, open relief.

What's more, once they are firmly aboard the raft of domestic bliss, they are happy to wade in with their advice on how you can get on to 'their side', what you might be doing wrong, and how to better your chances of landing that someone special. To which I often reply, colour me disinterested.

Just last night, I caught up with a friend who has recently ended a two-year spell of singledom. His first question: 'What men are you checking out here tonight?' I had to remind him that I was not adrift in loneliness; no rescue mission needed here, thanks. When I replied that I wasn't on the hunt, now or any night, his expression was priceless. A mixture of confusion and sympathy, he continued his line of questioning in the 'but why?' vein. There was another subtext: 'What a waste.'



Immunity

It's worth pointing out that this never came up during his own two years of singledom. And for most single people, this sort of invasive questioning really grinds our gears. We wouldn't dream of asking someone in an unhappy relationship about their personal choices ... because in society the relationship is sacrosanct. Once you're in a couple -- any kind of couple -- you have immunity from prosecution. If you're a solitaire, it's always open season on your personal life. Just ask Jennifer Aniston.

Canadian academic Michael Cobb has had enough of being treated like a second-class citizen on account of his single status. Believing that coupledom 'legitimises' people in society, he penned Single: Arguments For The Uncoupled. And, given that Michael is one of the few men writing about singledom (largely the preserve of women), the book has received plenty of attention worldwide.

"This was an academic book meant for academics, but the press picking up on it has been fascinating," he admits. "People are certainly craving this conversation, and people have contacted me to say that they're delighted that I'm finally bringing these issues out into the open, because they are made to feel suspicious."

The germ for the book came about when Michael was having dinner with a friend: "We had both been single for ten years and have these great friendships, careers and lives, and yet no one thought we were happy. Why were people so suspicious of this, and wanting to fix us up? We didn't fit into the large cultural narrative of what it means to be grown up. I wrote the book to try to answer why there is this disconnect."

The big irony, of course, is that more people than ever are choosing to live alone. The 2011 Census indicated that there are now 392,000 one-person households in Ireland. This number grew significantly over the five years, increasing by 62,500.

A recent study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, also found that women who live alone rate their lives as happier and healthier than if they cohabited. What's more, single-person homesteads will be one of the huge social trends of the next decade or so, accounting for 70pc of the growth in households by 2026, according to official figures.

According to the market research firm Euromonitor International, the number of people living alone globally is skyrocketing, rising from about 153 million in 1996 to 277 million in 2011 -- an increase of around 80pc in 15 years.

So why is there still a stigma around going it alone?

"I can only speculate about why singleness is so unnerving to couple culture," notes Michael. "One reason might be that coupledom isn't great either. Yes there are wonderful relationships. But if one relationship is supposed to be the most important, inevitably there will be disappointments. The single life is a scapegoat.

"When my grandmother died, I remember her saying to me, 'I don't want to see you alone', and this is a constant, common comment," he adds.

"What will you do when you're old? What will you do with your assets?; It's been ingrained from childhood that you will meet someone. No one ever got a message as a child that they would grow up to be independent and alone."

Far from criticising those in couples, Michael simply wishes that they weren't the dominant model in society.

"There's a sense that couples are the more important force, and they are happy because they have simply met a special someone," explains Michael. "The narrative is overwhelming. Cultural, pop cultural, political and familial presumptions cast singleness as a lonely, sad, pathetic, reviled existence. You haven't grown up. You're not making the right commitments.

"There's this assumption that if you're critiquing coupledom, you're bitter, failed at love," he adds. "I'm trying to clear up space for both singles and couples to thrive."

Naturally, pop culture plays a part in the portrayal of the singleton as a sad sack who is always either pre- or post-couple; never just happily on their own.

"Sex & The City was about single ladies, but as the series devolved they eventually coupled off," says Michael. "There was this relentless pursuit of a relationship, and the single friends were merely a support group until they got to their next relationship. Same with Beyonce's Single Ladies, where the moral of the song is, 'you have to put a ring on it'. And look at romantic comedies ... so few of them end in anything other than a couple getting together. What you don't see are the 40 years afterwards of arguments about who will do the dishes."

Ultimately, Michael is hopeful for a sense of understanding for singles; that in time we'll not be viewed as this suspicious, unknowable gang. And, just maybe, the nosey investigations and baleful looks will be a thing of the past.

"There's this real relief from family members when I'm involved in a relationship, like it's finally going to be okay for me," he laughs.

"Ironically, in the past I have felt most lonely while being next to someone I'm in a relationship with. Of course, people can change their minds -- I've been in relationships before, and I'm sure I'll be in them again. But really, let's just not have couples be the focus of everything."

Michael Cobb's book Single: Arguments For The Uncoupled is out now.

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