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Young, fun and... alone? The problems with the ‘single positivity movement’

In an era obsessed with personal growth, singledom must be seen as something unambiguously uplifting. But there are legitimate reasons to fear being alone

In the UK, more people are single now than ever before, and there has been a concerted effort to brand this as a positive development. Singlehood today is increasingly framed as an empowering, even politically radical, choice, rather than – as in the past – an unfortunate condition thrust upon people. A-listers like actor Emma Watson describe themselves as “self-partnered”, and the ‘single positivity movement’ has become a cause championed by fellow celebs including Rashida Jones, Tracee Ellis Ross and Mindy Kaling. Singlehood has been rebranded in the mainstream cultural consciousness – where it was once viewed as an unfortunate condition into which people were thrust, now being single is sold as an act of defiant self-actualisation. This attitude may not actually be reflective of feelings on the ground, but it’s no longer in vogue to complain about singledom. Instead, it is meant to be celebrated. In many respects, this is a positive development, but whether it is truly ‘empowering’ to be single is a little more complicated. For some people, it is; for others, not so much. Whether being single entails a glittering life of friendship and rewarding activities or not having a conversation with another person for weeks at a time is largely dependent on your position in the world. There are legitimate reasons to fear being alone, and until we address these, neither being in a relationship nor being single will be empowering – whatever that means – in its own right.

The Lonely Hunter: How Our Search for Love is Broken is an interesting and thoughtful new memoir by American writer Aimée Lutkin, which challenges a number of conventional narratives about singledom and the nature of loneliness. Rejecting the reductive dichotomy of “being single is empowering” versus “being single is inherently sad”, Lutkin takes the loneliness which often comes with being unattached and situates it within a wider context. Being single is not necessarily lonely, she argues, but some single people are especially vulnerable to loneliness for a number of reasons. Lutkin herself acknowledges, “the slow, dull ache of separation from physical and emotional intimacy after years without it” and the way that loneliness can be “like a kind of emotional enclosure from which you can’t escape”. Her wider argument is that loneliness, rather than being a straightforward consequence of not having a partner, is actually a multifaceted political problem that pertains to poverty, race, immigration status, age, disability, incarceration, and more. The answer to these problems is necessarily more complicated than telling people how they should feel about whether they have a boyfriend or not.

The Lonely Hunter takes a more interesting approach to exploring modern singledom than merely heading out on another journey which ends in the writer ‘discovering’ themselves via some time spent alone. There are countless books that proffer a more straightforward ‘being single is empowering’ narrative, but one of the most popular in recent years is Florence Given’s Women Don’t Owe You Pretty, aimed at young women. “Heteronormativity,” Given argues, “has convinced us all that being single is some kind of tragic fate, as though we have been thrust unwillingly into a state of ‘waiting for the next relationship’, a state which we must get ourselves out of immediately.”

While this is no doubt true, the solution Given poses to this problem is a personal one: we should start viewing singlehood as an empowering, autonomous choice, and work to become “the love of our own lives”. But what this approach expresses is a wider cultural aversion to troubling, murky, or complicated emotions; a failure to accommodate yearning, bitterness, or resentment. In an era obsessed with personal growth, all of these things must be transmuted into something unambiguously uplifting.

This way of thinking – which is far, far more widespread than Women Don’t Owe You Pretty – implies that if being single makes you unhappy, it’s really your own fault for failing to shift your perspective. The truth is that being single, just like being in a relationship, can be lonely, painful and humiliating: I don’t see the point in pretending that this is never the case; that it is never, under any circumstance, a legitimate thing to feel unhappy about. If people are excluded from romantic love for whatever reason, it feels like a bit of a cop-out to tell them that this is actually something they should be pleased about. Are they letting the single positivity movement down if they feel otherwise?

As Lutkin argues, whether being single is truly ‘empowering' also depends on a range of socio-economic factors. If you’re an attractive, young-ish professional with a disposable income and exciting social life, it’s easier to find being single fulfilling than if you’re elderly, unemployed, or house-bound for whatever reason. These latter demographics rarely figure in the rhetoric about single life as empowering – most of which seems to be pitched squarely at Carrie Bradshaw. In places like the United States and Britain, it’s the poor, unemployed, displaced and migrant populations that stand to suffer most from loneliness and isolation,” writes Eric Klinenberg in the New York Times. “Their lives are unstable, and so are their relationships. When they get lonely, they are the least able to get adequate social or medical support.” We are not all at equal risk of loneliness, regardless of our relationship status. The problem here is larger than the question of whether it’s desirable to have a partner – for some people it is, for others it isn’t. But narratives of single empowerment will only take us so far, because we will all be more vulnerable to social isolation as we get older; none of us are impervious to becoming disabled or house-bound, and of course many people already are.

“If empowerment is about making people feel more powerful in the world, then I don’t think being ‘single’ or ‘in a couple’ is, in itself, empowering” – Sophie K Rosa

In any case, part of the problem is that ‘empowerment’ is such a nebulous term. “It’s often used to signal some sort of radical politics where there aren’t any,” says Sophie K Rosa, an author who is currently writing a book, Radical Intimacy, about intimacy under capitalism. “If empowerment is about making people feel more powerful in the world – in a meaningful way, that might actually affect change – then I don’t think being ‘single’ or ‘in a couple’ is, in itself, empowering.”

Rosa argues that we should also interrogate the significance of the word ‘single’. If being ‘single’ means not in a committed sexual and romantic partnership, then are asexual or aromantic people always single? “Of course not,” she says. “We are all in various meaningful relationships, whether or not we consider them to take a traditional couple form. The word ‘single’ diminishes the importance of all the varied relationships that might be profoundly important to people that don’t fall into that category. In a society where ‘coupledom’ is at the top of the hierarchy of relationships as the ultimate source of intimacy then, of course, it might feel scary or lonely to be ‘single’ for a long time, even if – in a different society – you might find that fact neutral or even positive.”

As it stands, romantic relationships form the primary source of safety, intimacy and fulfilment in many people’s lives. But this is a heavy burden to bear,  and one which is exacerbated by the fact that we are being steadily deprived of opportunities to develop different kinds of connections. “Labour unions, civic associations, neighbourhood organisations, religious groups and other traditional sources of social solidarity are in steady decline,” writes Klinenberg. We can see a similar dwindling of public spaces here in the UK: pubs are shutting year on year; nightclubs are disappearing at a similarly dramatic rate; the state has closed hundreds of libraries and community centres since 2010. The rise of working from home and gig economy work, where people often have little contact with others, has only added to this fragmentation. In a society where connecting with other people is growing harder and harder, being in a relationship will likely be a temporary reprieve at best.

“The pandemic has laid bare the ways in which we need each other; the ways that finding one person to stick by your side for the rest of your life is so bleakly insufficient as a source of comfort, sustenance and meaning”

It’s easy to talk about the rising numbers of single people as evidence of a decaying social fabric, and it’s perhaps true that the shrinking of public space has made it harder (or in the case of dating apps, less pleasant) to meet prospective partners. But it’s worth remembering that the conventional family set-up was always terrible for lots of people, particularly women, and this is still true today: despite the achievements of successive feminist movements, rates of intimate partner violence remain more or less untouched, and have actually increased since the pandemic. If not being in a relationship means freedom from cruelty and violence then it makes sense to talk about it as empowering. There is also evidence to suggest single women without children are happier than their married equivalents, and that single or divorced women are healthier than their married counterparts (tellingly, the opposite is true for men). But neither being in a relationship nor being single is truly ‘empowering’ if we are deprived of other avenues for meaningful connections, along with the resources necessary to lead independent lives. 

On a personal level, there’s a value in viewing being single as a positive, and actions you can take to make this true. At the end of The Lonely Hunter, Lutkin acknowledges that: “There are definitely things you can do to alleviate a sense of isolation – small movements that will help you to make friends, find new hobbies, feel better for a brief interval.’” But whatever we do individually, here in the UK we should also be thinking about how we can alleviate the problem of isolation on a wider scale. “We need accessible housing for all that allows for communal living,” says Rosa. “We need ways to socialise in our local areas that don’t revolve around work or primarily drinking booze – surely, there are other ways to be together; to build meaningful and multiple relationships.” In addition, she notes, there’s an important role for political organising here: when we organise with our communities to support those around us, as we’ve seen in the case of mutual aid groups during the pandemic, caring and tender relationships are able to blossom beyond the couple form. 

“I think the pandemic has laid bare the ways in which we need each other; the ways that finding one person to stick by your side for the rest of your or their life, is so bleakly insufficient as a source of comfort, sustenance and meaning,” Rosa says. In a world that so often gives rise to brutal isolation, being single and being in a relationship are two sides of the same coin; the difference between them often being only a matter of time. We focus too much on the interpersonal as either the solution or cause of our ills, when improving social conditions would make life more enriching for everyone. Our generation has a solid 40 or 50 years before we’re elderly: that time might be better spent trying to build a society less cruel towards the people on its margins, instead of chasing the illusory security of a relationship which lasts until we’re dead, or repeating affirmations in the hope they become true. But the solutions to loneliness don’t need to be entirely structural, either: we don’t have to wait for a better world to start nurturing different forms of connection.