The Unexpected Joy of Being Single and the Incompleteness Myth
The Sunday Times Bestselling Author of The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober
I’m taking a break from dissertation-writing to stumble back into blog-writing. Yep, even my procrastination involves words. I’ve been reading Catherine Gray’s The Unexpected Joy of Being Single (2019) and I have to say I’m a fan.
She wacks out the stats way better than I ever could so here’s a few:
51% of Brits aged 25-44 are single
98% of Brits aged 18-24 are single
Only one in two millennials are expected to marry in future
Single households in Britain have more than doubled in the past 40 years
We all know that person who just can’t hack being single – who comes straight out of one relationship and belly-flops into the next one for fear of not having someone to spoon.
Gray, in The Unexpected Joy of Being Single, confesses her struggles with what she terms her “love addiction.” Aligning the need she felt to be in a relationship in her teens and twenties with the partying lifestyle she lived then and her struggles with alcoholism, only after getting sober in 2013, did Gray really begin to change the way she perceived relationships. No longer would she allow herself to be crushed by those two blue ticks, or spend her days phone-watching until the screen lit up with a ping of attention from a potential partner. No longer would she let her patriarchal father’s misogynistic narrative linger in her nightmares with words like “spinster” and “biological clock.” Now in her late thirties, Gray muses on her contentment with her single life, her freedom and the idea that “spoiler: you’re already whole!”
Gray has nothing against couples. There’s nothing wrong with marriage, with coupling up, with the house-and-babies thing. If you want that, amazing! If you don’t, amazing – you do you and, like Gray, feel free to live in Bruges or Barcelona or to road-trip Ireland whenever you fancy. What Gray does take issue with is the culture that perpetuates this narrative that single is flawed or single is unhappy. And think about it – she’s right. We’re living in a world where swiping left or right dictates who we date; we judge people’s exteriors on dating apps when (some of us) are looking for more than a hook up. (If you are just looking for a hook up, fair play – this point just isn’t relevant to you right now.) People glisten in their perfect relationships on social media and then have shouting matches outside the kebab shop in town at 3am.
I’m twenty-one so I can’t fully relate to some of Gray’s arguments regarding biological clock fears and the desperation that you’re running out of time. I have a lot of time. But I understand what she means when she argues we are spoon-fed this idea of incompleteness unless we are the ‘this one’ someone captions on their Instagram or posting 'my boy did good' pictures every Valentines. And don’t even get me started of how messed up Love Island is – yes, I still love it; yes, I know it’s problematic. It’s mad, but so true.
Reading Gray’s thoughts reminded me of a chat I had with a friend maybe a month ago. I’d told him about the ever-idealistic movie-esque love that I expect to find at some point. (Think: If I Stay in which Mia’s ex runs through the hospital to find her after she's in a car accident; Say Anything and that famous boombox-under-the-window moment; and Easy A in which Chipmunk Todd sees past all the rumours surrounding Olive and chooses to love her anyway.)
I told this mate I’m not bothered if I find this or not. I’ve always pictured myself as that artsy single mum in her townhouse with a bottle of wine on the go, who has weekly meetings with her similarly empowered artist friends. Think Gillian Anderson in Sex Education - working on a book and rejecting flowers from her toyboy lovers but thanks them and says things like, “It was fun, but we don’t need to see each other again.” But, despite this, I still idealise that movie kind of love – I believe in finding your ultimate best mate, you’re ridiculously happy and that’s it for the rest of your life: perfect happiness with your best mate who you may or may not marry. I remember this friend I was talking to giving me a look like I’d just coughed up Bridget Jones and spat her on the table. He told me his conception of love: that love is great, but it doesn’t have to be life-long. It can be temporary and that doesn’t make it any less worthy or intense. Gray and this mate should go for a drink (as friends) because they’d definitely get on.
Gray also made me think about those grandparent-relationships some people my age idealise. They’d met in their teens, married ridiculously young, having babies straight away and sticking together for the next 60+ years. Very Noah and Allie in The Notebook.
When people idealise that kind of love, I can’t help thinking they might have been together 60+ years, but were they happy?
You may think I’m being cynical but lots of people back then were deeply unhappy in their marriages. In Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique, she characterises the problem of 1950s housewives as that problem which cannot be named. Throughout the 1900s, divorce wasn’t an option in most cases and it was still stigmatised well into the 1960s so lots of unhappy couples did at least attempt to work out their issues because they had to.
And don’t get me started on no-sex-til-marriage. If you’re signing up to one individual for the rest of your life, you need to know if you’re physically compatible.
Even if a couple could and did divorce in our grandparents’ generation, where could the woman go? Women working (in the middle classes at least) only gradually became normalised from the 1960s. Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 shows the sheer nightmare some working women would experience - sexual harassment in the workplace, being constantly belittled by male colleagues, lower wages than their male colleagues – and that was in the 1980s! Add six kids to feed alongside that and suddenly leaving that unhappy marriage with its financial stability and safety doesn’t seem like such a good option. So, sure I grant our grandparents might have typically had fewer and longer-lasting relationships than we typically do now, but that doesn’t equate with complete and utter happiness in 100 percent of cases.
“We [now] want soulmate marriages whereas our predecessors were willing to settle for you’ll do marriages. Way back in the 1960s, 76 percent of American women were willing to marry someone they did not love.”
Gray notes that, by the 1980s, this had dropped to 9 percent.
What else changed in this time? The availability of and loss of stigma around contraceptives, and women entering the labour force. I genuinely believe these two factors enabled us to ditch some of the bottom-of-the-barrel boys. Who knows, without these two things, we might actually respond to some of those you up texts.
In her year’s sabbatical from dating, Gray recounts how she finally learnt what she likes to do. She refers to her love of nature, of yoga and exercise, of travelling. Until then, she says, she’d always felt like her personality was just a mish-mash of different boyfriends. I’ve had so many conversations with so many single and in-a-relationship friends and often you do find the most independent people tend to be single. Not because they’re better or worse but because they have time for themselves, they bestow that love they have to give on themselves rather than on their partner.
My best mate, who is also my independence idol, is a powerhouse of ambition and skill and awesomeness and, while she always has been awesome relationship-or-otherwise, she’s been single for the past year and I’ve seen her identity blossom in ways I wouldn’t have imagined a year ago.
I recently had a chat with a newly-single mate who was feeling down because that post-relationship slump of not having anyone to text or cuddle does suck. I admit it sucks. But it only sucks for a while. Like stubbing a toe or a wound healing, the pain does go away and soon you think what do I think I’m going to get out of a relationship that I can’t get while single? Love, support, sex, great friendships – you don’t need a partner for any of that.
Gray calls this feeling like “Mrs Potato Head” (ironically, there’s no Miss Potato Head) and says her year of being single enabled her to deconstruct the pieces of this mask she’d created to lure potential partners into her life. Instead of thinking how can I optimise my attractiveness to others, she focused on her own happiness, her own goals and got a book deal and a whole lot of life satisfaction out of it.
I’d never even thought of this – but really take a minute. Gray talks about the indignity of the post-wedding bouquet toss.
All the single women diving to grab a bunch of flowers as some symbol that soon they’ll be saved from this supposed hell of singledom. I know it’s meant to be a laugh – but seriously, think about it! There’s no male equivalent – no one throws a beer bottle or a pair of boxers like don’t worry bachelors, you’ll be saved soon. And what are these women fighting over? The chance to be buddied up with some average Joe from IT. I’m good.
Gray's book is flawed. In a lot of ways, The Unexpected Joy of Being Single succumbs to a lot of male/female stereotypes that Gray's trying to avoid and there's a distinct lack of any relationship other than heterosexual. But it's uplifting and a refreshing change from other books with 'single' in the title that sees being single as some kind of disease. So, for Gray, the unexpected joy of being single isn’t really all that unexpected. It all boils down to self-esteem, putting your own happiness first and only settling when you’ve found the person you really can’t imagine your life without.