It feels vaguely blasphemous to be writing about how great it is to be single on my first Valentine’s Day as a married person. But given that some quick fraction work reveals that I’ve spent just over 85% of my life so far as a single person (by which I don’t mean “unmarried”, but not in any kind of romantic relationship at all), I feel it is a subject that I know something about. Sure, a lot of those years were when I was a child, but my point still stands.
I wasn’t a great single person. In fact, I was probably about the worst kind of single person there is. I wasn’t that Sex & The City style woman with her expensive shoes and cocktails, confidently eating up every man who crossed her path. I was that girl who would whine incessantly about being single, who would burst into tears and lie in bed listening to angsty Liz Phair songs whenever a fledging relationship fizzled out.
Intellectually, of course, I knew that all this was ridiculous. (I was well versed in my feminist literature.) But intellect wasn’t enough to override the emotional impacts of a lifetime diet of Dolly, Girlfriend and Dawson’s Creek. In which dating was just what people did, whether you were 12 and going to your first middle school dance (The Babysitter’s Club), 16 and hanging with your beau at the local milk bar (Sweet Valley High), or 17 and hooking up with your lab partner because you don’t want to go to college a virgin (Britney Spears’s Crossroads).
Plenty of people I went to high school with didn’t date: I went to a girls’ school, and the boys my friends and I met were few and far between. But that didn’t mean that we did internalise the messages that we received from the popular culture that engulfed us. We “knew” that teenagers were “supposed” to date, party and be plagued by sexual temptation. And we “knew” that girls who had boyfriends were superior to the ones who didn’t. I still recall the instant boost in popularity one of the girls in my Year 7 class experienced when she was asked out by a guy on the train.
So when I grew up and my life looked nothing like Sweet Valley High, I took it to mean there was something wrong with me. That I was somehow defective, unattractive, abnormal. I never felt so defective that I was willing to enter into a relationship with someone I didn’t actually like, but I spent much of my youth with the niggling sense that there was something lacking in me.
Sometimes I wonder if, maybe if I’d spent only 70 or 80 percent of my life single (as opposed to my current 85 percent), I would have felt differently. If I would have then been one of those single people who loved being single; who actively chose it instead of feeling like it was chosen for them.
Because the truth is, in retrospect, being single actually was kind of fantastic. And while I didn’t always enjoy it at the time, I can see now that it actually shaped my life in all sorts of beneficial ways.
Being single gave me the time and space to cultivate all manner of amazing friendships – the kind of friendships people write stories about. It meant that when Mr Musings (someone with a similar ratio of single to not single time as myself) and I got married a few months ago, we were able to do so in the room filled with friends. Not just people we had passed the time with, but people with whom we had shared our lives and true intimacies, in a manner that is frankly difficult to do when you’re investing all your intimacy into one person.
Being single meant I had the freedom (and again, the time – this one is so important, I think) to throw myself into my interests, enmesh myself in my community(s), to try new things out and, yes, to ultimately discard them if I found they didn’t work for me. It meant I could hold down a job, freelance, do a PhD and still have time to go out three or four nights a week. In temporarily forgoing one facet of the richness of life, I was able to experience more of so many others.
Having spent so much of my life single means that I will never (I hope, at least), be one of “those” coupled people who organises exclusive “couples weekends”, feels awkward about inviting single friends to dinner, or tells their single friends, “you know, maybe you’re just too picky”.
Being single gave me a foundation: of friends, of genuine intimacies, of what I was passionate about. It meant that when I did end up in a relationship with someone I wanted to stay with, I knew what I wanted from life, and to choose someone who wanted basically the same things.
That’s not to say that serial monogamists can’t have these things, too – I know plenty who have – but I do think that having that wealth of time to myself in the earlier part of my 20s helped me to achieve them.
A few weeks ago, a good friend of mine – a friend whose ratio of single time to coupled time is even higher than mine is – wrote an emailed wondering if, as a “perpetual bachelorette”, she was destined for a future of boredom and loneliness. The irony is that this particular friend leads one of the most vital, inspiring lives of anyone I know, filled with tight knit friendships, passions and projects.
The point isn’t that the grass is greener on the other side. The point is that both sides of the proverbial meadow are green… even if we don’t always appreciate that.
Related: Welcome to the Institute for Sweet Valley High-related cultural studies
Wanting to be with someone you LIKE means you’ll be alone FOREVER
The Musings of an Inappropriate Woman Guide to Feminist Wedding Planning: Part 5: The Opposite of War Isn’t Peace, It’s Creation.