We live in a culture saturated with monogamous romantic relationships. Almost all movies and TV shows are full of them, even from genres which have nothing to do with romance. Weddings are considered to be the event of a lifetime by many, an occasion that justifies spending one’s life savings on a party. Even primary schools have Valentine’s Day events, and it is seen as an acceptable question by many to inquire into other’s relationship status or when (always ‘when’, never ‘if’) they plan to get married.
Yet not everyone wants a romantic relationship. I am one of the rare few who are happy being single, though at times I wonder how rare that really is. It is not seen as socially acceptable to say you never want to have a long-term partner or marry, even if people pretend it is. Whenever someone says something along those lines, the responses often include “but why not?” and my personal least favourite “oh, you’ll change your mind when you get older”.
The latter is particularly amusing when said to people in their 40s, which is something I have had the misfortune to witness. Especially for women and people perceived as women, these questions can be incessant and irritating, alongside the old “when do you plan to have children?” invasive question. They’re often accompanied, particularly when addressed to women over 30, by such unwelcome comments as “you’re not getting any younger”, “men won’t want someone with wrinkles”, “you want to settle down while you can still have children!”
To which I say the following: Not every woman is straight. Not every woman wants children. Not every woman CAN have children. Not all men are so vain as to hate older women. People do not have to justify their personal choices to you.
Our society’s heteronormativity places the heterosexual couple as the ideal that everyone is expected to live up to. Our society attempts to force everyone into a box labelled ‘one man, one woman’ that doesn’t work for everybody. While we’ve made great progress in gay rights in recent years, the only gay couples that society will begrudgingly accept are those who perform a facsimile of society’s beloved heterosexual couples, complete with pairing, living together and seeking marriage.
Women especially are expected to present themselves in a manner deemed ‘beautiful’ and ‘attractive’ by society in order to attract a man. Modern-day femininity is constructed around what makes one attractive in order to seek romantic love. Anyone deviating from this is considered unfeminine and less of a woman than those who adhere to societal conventions regarding their appearance. When people are asked to think of a woman who is single by choice, how many will conjure an image of a ‘crazy cat lady’?
Single people, especially older single people, and especially women, are often seen as abnormal by society. This is how we get terms such as “crazy cat lady” or rumours that the old woman who lives alone at the house on the corner is a wicked witch. People who are able to get pregnant but choose not to are often seen by society as somehow denying something to the world, like they have some kind of right to someone else’s womb. Also, infertile women are constantly reminded of their condition by nosy people asking invasive questions about why they don’t have children.
There is a perception within society that people who have been long-term single are somehow unlucky or unwanted. It is rarely considered that this could be a choice on their part. Yet for many, it is. Not everyone wants to live with a partner, not everyone is into the trappings of romance, and not everyone fantasises about their wedding day. This is a perfectly valid way to live; relationships are not compulsory. Yet, societal judgement of single people is still pervasive.
Platonic relationships are seen as less valid and less desirable than romantic ones, which is the root of such phrases as ‘just friends’ – implying that friendship is somehow lesser than being romantic partners. It is this culture that makes some lament being ‘relegated’ to the ‘friend-zone’ rather than celebrating making a new friend. While romantic relationships are placed on a pedestal of being important and desirable, platonic ones are denigrated and seen by some as almost infantile, as something children have before they can experience the true companionship of romance.
This compulsory monogamy excludes those who are either single or polygamous by choice, as both options challenge the societal structures which the most privileged and elite are desperate to maintain. Woe betide anyone who challenges such narratives as ‘everyone has a soulmate’ or ‘the nuclear family is the only way to raise happy children’. Challenging such fundamental societal institutions as monogamous marriage or the nuclear family presents a risk to the privilege of those in power, and thus it suits societal elites to present anyone outside the norm as degenerate or unlovable.
Marriage tax cuts, couples’ railcards, holidays for two… our culture is covered in promotion of the couple as the correct way to live. Single is seen as a temporary status before you find ‘the one’, not as something you can choose to be for your whole life. Despite improvements in recent years, our culture is still focused on the heterosexual nuclear family, and those who deviate from this norm are seen as odd. Something that is all-too-rarely considered is that it is perfectly possible to be single and happy.
It is possible to enjoy your own company, to want to live alone, to travel alone and go to the cinema or eat in a restaurant alone. These things should not be seen as odd, or judged harshly, yet they are. It is possible to find joy without finding romantic love, to find companionship in platonic friends, to want to travel the world on your own and to reject every single offer of a date you ever receive. Normalise being happy while single, and always consider that maybe the middle-aged woman down the road isn’t lonely at all, and just really likes cats!