In my twenties, I spent a lot of time thinking about being single. My mother is beautiful, well-travelled and clever, and has had fascinating jobs in journalism, the arts and education. She didn’t meet my father until she was 37, leaving her plenty of time to date interesting but rackety men whom she held off committing to, instead creating her own community in a mansion block in London where most of her girlfriends also lived. They went to feminist meetings and pursued careers, and seemed to have all the time in the world.
As she got older, Mum decided that she might not meet the right man, but wasn’t much troubled by it. Then, when my father turned up, they had a six-month courtship and were married. I grew up knowing that she’d held off on marriage and a family – not because she didn’t want them, but because her life was filled with relationships that gave her so much more than one person could provide.
My mother would not be rushed into anything by the ticking of a biological clock. But unlike her, in my twenties I felt keenly aware of a need to find a partner. “Don’t wait!” whispered my fertility. “This is your prime!” shouted my unlined skin. Despite my mother’s evidence to the contrary, I found it unlikely that a man would want me aged 37. Indeed, the idea of tackling my own future as she had seemed like a huge risk.
And so I began the search. I dated without a break. I had disastrous love affairs with men who were not available to me and extended chances and forgiveness to people who neither asked for nor deserved them. None of them was to be the companion that I felt I needed. Then, at 28, I met someone who scooped me up and rushed me towards a future. Within three months we were living together and celebrating our engagement. I was stunned that I’d cracked it – without ever considering what “it” was. I gave little care as to whether this was the relationship I wanted, or if I was merely seeking any relationship.
The wedding came and went. As did the marriage. In less than a year we were done – I had spectacularly tanked a marriage before I’d even hit 30. I had ignored the problems in our relationship, clung on with my fingertips, and still it was all for nothing. I felt I’d failed at the one thing I had aimed for. The fear that I’d be left on some proverbial dusty shelf had merely been put on hold. In the weeks after my husband walked out, I wondered many times how I could muster the strength to start anew.
And yet, it somehow offered up a reset button. Freed from any obligation to find a mate (there’s an unspoken rule that you get a year off dating after a disastrous marriage), I sought the advice of a therapist. For the first time in many years, I no longer needed anybody to stand next to me offering reassurance. I realised that, while my mother had spent her youth working on becoming a person who could offer up the onion-like layers that Carol Ann Duffy describes in her magnificent poem “Valentine”, I’d spent mine trying not to miss the marriage moment.
There have been millions of words written about the wonders and pitfalls of single life, but these testimonials often ignore an important distinction – the stark difference between being single and being alone. When Stevie Nicks was asked about being on her own, she gave one of the best answers I’ve ever heard. “People say, ‘But you’re alone.’ But I don’t feel alone. I feel very un-alone. I feel very sparkly and excited about everything.”
Without the societal pressure that previous generations were under to couple up, us single people no longer have to worry about having children out of wedlock or having sex without a ring on our finger. In 2017, we are increasingly given the space to make true friends and to choose a path without having to compromise with a partner. That could feel daunting, but for me, the joy of choosing my own routine feels like a luxury to be savoured. I can stay up writing late into the night. I can book a holiday where I only lie by the pool. I can run all morning, if I choose. And I do.
More people remain single now than at any point in history, and there are nearly 2 million of us in the 30-to-34 age bracket (I’m 33). Some of this can be attributed to population growth and a lessening of the stigma surrounding divorce, but why else has this number steadily risen?
Perhaps it’s because we are no longer viewed as the poor relation of the coupled up. Unlike my mother when she was my age, I have yet to be called a spinster. Being on your own is increasingly a choice, rather than a fate inflicted upon you. The portrayal of single people in popular culture has changed to reflect that, too, moving on from the loud, funny desperation of Bridget Jones to more nuanced representatives, such as Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character inFleabag.
The average age for people to marry has been on the rise since the Seventies, too, today hovering around age 34 for women and 36 for men. Whether you choose to marry or not, it’s clear you’ll now spend a fair amount of time alone as an adult – so it’s no wonder people take solo holidays and reserve a table for one in a restaurant without anybody batting an eyelid. I happily sit in a café alone and detect no stigma. Nobody asks me to bring a date to
a wedding or dinner party – if I’m invited, it’s not for my other half.
Previously entrenched notions of family have also opened up to single people. The shame and judgement surrounding solo parenting has diminished over the years, and though we are still nowhere near equal pay, many women earn enough to support themselves, lessening the need for a partner to provide financial stability. The emphasis my parents placed on my future career far outweighed any hopes they had for me to find the right partner. I was told to have an interesting life and to find ways to be happy, and this never (OK, rarely) involved being introduced to eligible suitors. Despite this, I dithered for much of my twenties, working as a journalist but never seeing a definite path in front of me. It’s no coincidence that when my husband left, I grew the confidence to demand a career. Singledom enabled me to focus on what I wanted.
Equipped with a newly acquired certainty of self, I also began to develop more meaningful relationships with friends. Perhaps I had previously just seen mates as the ones who occupied the waiting room with me, but now I sought people who would really understand me, people who would last. After all my uncertainties about my marriage, I wanted friends whom I could love properly and unthinkingly.
And I found them. In the fall-out from my marriage, I gained two new best friends – a male neighbour who would meet me at the pub that stood between our two houses and endure self-indulgent weeping, and a woman whose background is the opposite of my own but who echoes my thoughts in almost every situation. As our tentative friendships cemented into certainty, we incorporated others – my sister, work friends, a girl I’d known since I was born but never been close to as an adult. There were dinners, trips and days hanging around in people’s kitchens. Cold walks with my dog, ill-thought-out dance classes. My best friend spirited me away to Edinburgh for the perfect “romantic” weekend. I was single, but as Stevie Nicks says, I was never alone.
Living by yourself is no indicator of loneliness, either – it can be far more isolating to be in a bad relationship. I have never felt so alone as I did at some points in my marriage, with somebody who should have been the closest person to me just feet away. My parents, who had lived a stone’s throw from me, relocated out of London, and one of my closest friends moved into their house with her boyfriend. Soon, they had a baby, and I was to be found hammering away at the door 10 minutes after he was born in the sitting room, sobbing at the promise of a new life among us. The baby is now 16 months old, and a family which was once just my mother, sister and father is now made up of seven when my parents return to stay in London. My father can be found sharing toast with the toddler, my mother babysitting, my sister making him laugh. Our old family house has come alive.
While I am fortunate enough to be given all of this, I’m also able to spend time on my own, working out what it is that makes me happy. I’ve developed an interest in running, and in cooking the most complicated recipes I can find. Technology means you can be physically alone but also interacting with others all the time, too. Twitter, WhatsApp and FaceTime all mean that company or advice is only a click away if you need it.
It would be pollyannaish to claim the community that has grown up around me can provide everything. There can be surprisingly shaky moments at 2am when I think how nice it would be to touch someone else’s skin or hold a warm hand as I sleep. Birthdays, Christmas, the dreaded New Year’s Eve – all are times when I look around and appreciate how lovely it must be to experience with someone else. I still think about the joy of another person wanting to know my very bones. But although I date, I know now that in always rushing to become half of a couple, I never bothered to understand myself fully.
“All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy,” Oscar Wilde wrote. I have an interesting and textured life. I have a real career. I have people who are my people. I am independent. I no longer live by the demands of the invisible egg timer. So perhaps Wilde is right – perhaps I have become my mother. If so, it is neither a tragedy nor a rom-com. It is a real life, one that has sometimes been impossibly tough to envisage. My teenage self would be utterly horrified. And that, it turns out, is no bad thing.