The mythology of being single

Sometimes people choose to be single as much as they choose to fall in love.

“Are you seeing anyone?” my friend asks. It’s neither uncommon nor unkind for them to ask, but I know my answer isn’t the one they want. “No,” I reply. It’s a little disappointing, because now we have to find something else to talk about.

The experience of love seems like the only thing that human beings have not been able to destroy. Instead, we have built cities in our head around it. When being single is defined as the absence of a relationship — as a city with no centre — it can be a little disorienting to feel yourself floating, untethered to another person.

A childhood of fairy tales, adolescence of romcoms and young adulthood of sitcoms and Sex & The City have given significant cultural voice and a gracious sense of normativity to being single. Self-love and self-partnership language and practices have been a more recent example of this. As a result, stronger friendships, self-awareness and self-knowledge have become the corollary to single life. Notwithstanding this inherent power, it still contributes to constructing the idea that being single is a defined state of being, a type of personhood and a way of moving through the world.

To define your life as stages and measures of romantic entanglement or commitment can feel disempowering and reductive of where you might be in relation to any given person. When you kiss your ex in the back of a cab after running into him on a night out, and you ask yourself, “What are you doing?” — why are you necessarily doing anything? When you spend all day drafting a nonchalant message. When you get broken up with and don’t know why. Implicit in the constant pressure to define your experiences is to fit another person within certain objectives and, in so doing, take ownership of them. It’s hard to take ownership of something you feel like you’re chasing, or something you don’t yet understand.

The binary of being in or out of a relationship might be the way most people operate, but the existence of a binary should not diminish the ambiguities and complexities of emotion experienced both in and out of love. Yet within established states of un-attachment, we still prescribe sub-states: emotionally unavailable, currently on Hinge, keeping things casual, self-destructive behaviour, heartbreak, heartbreaker. Bordering these states are the questions that keep sailing in: what you’re looking for, whether you’re putting yourself out there enough, why you’ve been single for so long, if you’re ready for something new. These questions don’t have fixed, or necessarily apparent, answers. They are all valid and important questions, but, again, they place our relationship status at the centre of our relationship with ourselves.

When a relationship is a destination, being single is presupposed as a temporary holiday spot. We all need to visit once in a while, perhaps on a Friday night, for a few months, or, for some of us, we take a year or two off, before we settle back into the routine, safety and security of our everyday lives and lovers. But when a relationship is a destination, being single is also the car breaking down on the side of the road, always missing the train, running out of time to get there fast enough and forgetting to enjoy the journey.

Whenever something is called a journey, it immediately acquires a sense of illusion, or fantasy, or ridiculousness. And it is. Because love doesn’t make sense. People have no idea what they mean to one another, and sometimes people choose to be single as much as they choose to fall in love.

Who decided that I was waiting? When does ambivalence become apathy? When does not caring become shutting yourself off? When does caring become desperation? Does feeling empowered, and like you don’t need anyone, actually stem from a place of cynicism? This constant pull, down a spiralling staircase of self-reference, into a library of what was and what could be, is the force of internalised pressure, cultural consciousness and external excitability about relationships.

A friend of mine said that it’s okay to still enjoy something about which you do not feel completely powerful in every way. Maybe we were talking about sex, maybe we were talking about being single, maybe we were talking about love. It’s not really that important. The beauty is in the fact that it could mean so many things, and to so many people — whatever your relationship status — so will you.