Last fall, I had three isolated conversations with single friends that were eerily similar: Being single was fun for a while, they all said, but they were over it. More pressingly, they felt ready for “the next step” in their lives but weren’t meeting the right people with whom to take it. Each friend was feeling a distinct resulting sadness.
As I joined each of them in exploring the prevailing thinking on singlehood, our conversations went in an unproductive circle: “Maybe the answer is to learn to love to be alone and really dig into life as it is now instead of waiting for something to change it. Or maybe the more enlightened approach is to be aware and unashamed of what you want and pursue it seriously. Or maybe that’s exactly when it doesn’t happen? Or maybe that’s a myth…”
It didn’t take long for us to recycle and discard all the contradictory looking-for-love tropes. Nothing felt good enough. In the following months, perhaps a little selfishly, I chewed on this a lot. I hated how unhelpful I’d been and how unexamined my thinking was on the topic. I could blame the fact that I’ve been in relationships for most of my 20s (which, of course, comes with its own challenges), but I had a feeling there was a larger conversation to be had. I just wasn’t sure what it was yet.
A few months later, I asked hundreds of unattached people to tell me how they felt about being single. Their answers proved, first and foremost, that being single is a much more nuanced experience than cultural stereotypes give it credit for. It’s not sad or fun as a rule; it can be both, neither, whatever. But weaved within many of the responses was a lesson I hadn’t anticipated and haven’t forgotten since: Not everyone cares to define themselves by the relationship binary.
“‘Being single’ is terminology that feels isolating,” one person told me. “I’m not an Other when I am not in a romantic relationship; I do not change when I am in one. … Being single forces me into intentionality in my friendships, and I like that. My loneliness is also a place of great depth and inspiration. I embrace it knowing that it is part of me, just as love is.”
Her answer was smart and beautiful, and it finally pushed my thinking into new territory. It took a couple of weeks to percolate, but I soon realized that, in her words, I recognized an attitude I’ve admired in the body-neutrality movement. If you haven’t heard of body neutrality, it’s a push for women to think less about their bodies instead of trying to love them. In the words of Romy Oltuski, who wrote about the movement for Man Repeller: “A more moderate approach to self-image, body neutrality aims for self-acceptance over self-love, attempting to move beyond the reflex to constantly judge our own appearances, positively or negatively. Where body positivity’s motto might be ‘love yourself,’ body neutrality’s would probably be ‘underthink it.’”
It made me wonder: Does the idea that people have to “love” — or simply feel any specific way about being single — give the concept of romantic attachment too much power? After all, most of us know that relationships don’t solve problems, but rather they change them. If most of us have moved on from the idea that marriage necessarily represents fulfillment, means happiness or signals success, why haven’t we stopped talking about being single as some kind of unfortunate or temporary state that ideally ends? What would “relationship neutrality” look like? To borrow Oltuski’s words, maybe it would aim for single-acceptance over single-love, attempting to move beyond the reflex to constantly judge your relationship status, positively or negatively.
The insistence to either revel in singlehood because it ends, or put an end to it because it’s not ideal, is predicated on the idea that romantic love is inevitable, a prerequisite for happiness or an endpoint for loneliness, none of which are categorically true. The divorce rate and number of people struggling with monogamy are proof enough.
I don’t think feeling any way about being single or otherwise is wrong, but I wonder if those feelings would shift if we all placed less importance on relationship status in general. In the same way that a less aesthetically driven society might free us up to think less about our looks, could a less romantically driven society free us up to think less about about our relationship status? Or better put: Might it enable us to place romance in its place, alongside the myriad big and wonderful things a good life has to offer?
When I asked all those people “how it feels to be single,” I reinforced a binary that I now believe needs less attention, not more. I’m still not sure what a relationship-neutral society would look like. Less “single shame”? Less relationship humble-bragging? Smaller-budget weddings? Less pressure from relatives about “the next step”? Fewer rushed engagements? New measures of success? Maybe I’m thinking too big, but I’m eager to explore it, even just as a mindset.
What do you think about “relationship neutrality”? Does it sound possible? Appealing?
Collage by Emily Zirimis.