The fairy tale goes like this. Boy meets girl, they fall deeply in love, have an exquisite wedding, give birth to beautiful children, and live happily ever after. But what happens if girl and boy don’t meet a “happily ever after” partner? Or maybe girl meets boy, but he ends up an alcoholic, or girl meets girl and they break up over whether to have children or not?
If you’re sick of the endless couples dinners and ‘are you seeing anyone?’ interrogations, here’s how to get through them.
We can find ourselves in the tight grip of deeply embedded social expectations if our life path doesn’t match the “normal trajectory”. Being single can be one of these scenarios, especially if you are a woman. “You don’t want to end up a lonely old cat lady do you?” The pressure on men is a little easier as they are often viewed as less of a social threat and tend to re-partner more quickly. However, regardless of gender, there can be a stigma attached to being single and some may view you as having failed in life.
The dream vs reality
Times have changed and we are witnessing the dismantling of many traditional social expectations. Marriages in Australia have declined slowly over recent decades, especially as de-facto relationships are seen to be a perfectly acceptable alternative – although marriage remains a common goal for both heterosexual and some same sex partners.
We are getting married later, 32.3 years for males and 30.5 years for females, and having children later. The percentage of women having their first child over the age of 30 has more than doubled from 23% in 1991 to 48% in 2016. One in three marriages still end in divorce, with the highest rate for those aged 25–29 years.
This means that inevitably people are spending periods unpartnered while in search for, or in recovery from, a relationship. Single-person households are the fastest growing, now making up 25% of Australian homes. Despite these changes, it seems to be taking time for social expectations to catch up.
Single people can feel like they have “no excuses” not to re-partner because of the advent of apps to assist, as if they now have a fast track to romance and the options are endless. While meeting someone online can be successful, anyone searching for a partner finds it takes time, and your morale, patience and trust can go up and down along the way. It is common to get a bit burnout from trying, and to take time out to brace yourself before getting back into the fray.
Others speak with enthusiasm about being able to meet people for a casual hook up and can see this as even an empowered way to enjoy being single but not without sex. They seem to travel with comparative ease with the emotional risks of this, while for others they know their heart could be shredded or they simply couldn’t take it that lightly.
In whatever way you find yourself single, reluctantly or deliberately, in a couple focused society, it can take some effort and confidence to stand up to the potential pressure and pathologising that can come with it.
Ten thoughts for single people on surviving social expectations
You don’t have to be in a relationship
Take the pressure off and take time to meet a partner. You deserve happiness so always be honest with yourself and never settle for mediocrity. It’s better to be alone than to be in a bad relationship. If your parent has “grandchild hunger” don’t make that your problem. There’s nothing wrong with you if you decide not to have children, as more women are doing.
Ignore “single shamers”
“Single shaming” views being single as somehow ‘lesser’ to being in a relationship. Many people find life just as fulfilling without a partner. Being single is far from purgatory and can be full of opportunities and a lot of fun.
The value and opportunity of learning to be alone
Many people relish the freedom of living alone and value it as an opportunity for personal growth. In fact, we may be more likely to meet someone when we have had time to become more comfortable with ourselves and not desperate to find love. Living alone can be lonely at times and takes astute management, but many people who are in relationships feel lonely too.
Come to terms with uncertainty
Much as we would like to, we cannot force a relationship to happen, or know if it ever will happen. Uncertainty and a lack of control over the future can be hard to accept. This explains why astrological or tarot readings can provide comfort in the absence of any answers appearing in real life. All we can do is let life evolve in a natural way and live as fully as possible one day at a time.
Remember: everyone else isn’t necessarily happily partnered
If you make yourself sad by thinking everyone else is happily partnered, think again. It is ironic that while many single people long to be partnered, many married people long to be free. Many couples still stay together despite being desperately unhappy or challenged by any number of difficulties. Many people in relationships are too scared to be alone or too comfortable to make a change.
Being single doesn’t mean you have to be lonely
Find friends to share good times and interests with, and who care about you and like you for who you are. Give them the same in return. Keep putting yourself out there, be open to new experiences and try not to judge people too quickly. Just as friends cannot take the place of a life partner, a partner cannot replace the powerful and protective value of strong friendships.
Dealing with unwanted questions
“When are you going to get a partner?” “Why aren’t you dating?” Try not to take these questions from “well-meaning” friends and relatives personally. Get some lines ready that assert your privacy and boundaries so you are not caught short. You might say “I haven’t met the right person yet” or “I’m really enjoying being single”.
Yearning for intimacy
Don’t be hard on yourself if you yearn for intimacy – emotional and physical. Before you get involved with someone sexually be sure you are in the right place to handle any outcome. Sex and emotions can become entwined and without awareness can lead us into painful places. You might have heard of others having friends with benefits or the value of a hook up, but you may know that won’t suit you. Don’t join in if it simply feels wrong. It doesn’t make you boring or prudish to be more cautious. You’ll find your own path.
Do you have unfinished business?
Do you have attitudes and behaviours that hold you back? Are you comfortable being yourself with others, or do you hide aspects of yourself because you want approval and fear rejection? Do you carry hurt and anger from a previous relationship that might come across as defensive, bitter and cynical? Do you limit your options by looking for a certain type instead of a decent person?
Avoid the self-loathing, self-pity trap
We all want to “fit in” but low self-esteem can make you vulnerable to becoming a puppet to the opinions of others. You don’t need to be thinner, more attractive or more successful to deserve to be loved. You may long for a partner but s/he needs to be the icing on the cake, not the cake itself. Bring a full self and full life to the relationship; a partner can’t fill in the gaps.
If you need support and a fresh perspective while considering your options, especially if most of your friends are partnered, or if unfinished business or low self-esteem are holding you back, seeking some professional support can help.
Need further support? There’s professional help available. Relationships Australia offers a range of counselling services. We also offer a range of group programs that can help you learn new skills and get back on track if you’ve been feeling stuck lately. Find out more about our group-based Relationship Education Programs here.