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I can always sense the question coming. It’s preceded by a look of curiosity, a thoughtful tilt of the head: “How is it you’re single?”
The question used to make my body warm with flattery; it implied I was interesting enough, or conventionally attractive enough, or both, to deserve a romantic partner. It implied that I didn’t belong to that category: to the perpetually single, the lacking. The question meant I was an outlier in an equation the asker thought they’d understood, and I was grateful to be considered anomalous. But not so long ago, the question started to make me uneasy, even a little irritated. You tell me, I’d reply, and turn to another friend.
I’m 26 and have been single now for five years. And while I’ve had romantic interests during that time, a few electric beginnings, all eventually petered out for the standard reasons: differing values, long distances, an imbalance of interest. Of course I mourned those almost-relationships but, once I moved on, I wasn’t particularly bothered; I was completing my master’s degree and had enough friends that if I said “yes” to every invitation I would have been busy nearly every night of the week. Nights in were accompanied by cinnamon tea and trashy reality TV. I wasn’t exactly what you’d refer to as lacking. Except, as society would point out through the mouths of my well-intentioned friends, I didn’t have a partner.
The longer I stayed single, the more frequent the question (“How is it you’re still single?”) became, and the more hounding the asker. They were confused. They wanted to know why it hadn’t worked out for me yet. “Was I trying to find someone?” they’d ask. “Sometimes,” I’d reply, shrugging. Their pained looks at my indifference made me wonder whether I should pity myself, too.
The problems with a question such as “How are you still single?” are the assumptions that must be made in order for it to be considered a compliment, which I think is how people genuinely expect it to be taken. The question assumes two truths: 1) that being in a relationship is preferable to being single; and 2) that there are those who are more deserving to be in relationships than others and, by default, that those who are in relationships belong to a higher calibre of people. If this inference feels like a leap, consider what would happen if I turned the question back on my partnered friends: “How is it you’re in a relationship?” Such a question would be considered insulting, as though the person is too selfish or too boring or too unattractive to be in a partnership.
I began internalizing this line of thinking, flipping the question over at night to expose its more insidious edge. Why was I still single? If being in a relationship is the mark of a more compassionate, intriguing person, than what was wrong with me?
Everywhere I looked in the media, this idea, that being in a relationship was proof of an exceptional person, was reinforced; we cheer when the antagonist gets dumped, and anger when the protagonist remains alone despite his or her many virtues. If a celebrity, particularly a female celebrity, is single for a long stretch of time, the tabloids are quick to pity her (“unlucky in love,” “single again,” “desperate and alone”) or else hypothesize possible personality deficits as the cause. I decided that if romantic love is the ultimate measure of a person, I wanted the gleaming gold medal of long-term monogamy. I didn’t want to be the girl alone on the sidelines picking grass.
I started swiping right more than left on dating apps. I went to darkly lit bars and made small talk with strangers all the while wishing I was with my friends, or catching up on work or cuddled up watching the latest episode of The Bachelorette. I often came home drained, swearing that date would be my last, but then someone would ask the question, or some variation of it, again and a panic would flare up inside me and all I could focus on was that missing element in my life and how that void might be interpreted. Never mind that I was content with my life in almost every other arena, never mind I didn’t really want to date. Never mind that there was plenty of empirical evidence around me that proved the underlying assumption – those in relationships are somehow superior to those that are not – bogus; I knew plenty of selfish people in relationships, and plenty of fascinating people who were single. I was desperate to prove that I could be in a relationship, if I really wanted to be in one.
I went from being grateful for the things I had in my life, and I had plenty, to narrowing in on the one thing I did not. During a tearful diatribe of my singledom to my sister, also single, she bristled.
“What’s so wrong with being single?” she asked.
My mouth went slack. I was surprised not so much by the defensiveness of her tone as by the way I related to it; it was the same tone I’d used when friends probed about my own single status. Inadvertently, I was perpetuating the same stigma that sent me reeling in the first place. I, too, had become a mouthpiece for society’s outdated and gendered expectations.
I was also stunned because I couldn’t come up with a decent answer to her question. I didn’t actually think there was much wrong with being single. I liked being single. Yes, there were nights when my bed felt too big, when I wished there was someone to listen to my rants about organized religion or speculate why it was Arie chose Lauren over Becca, but I suspected, and vaguely recalled, that I desired to be in a relationship as much as any person in a relationship wished they weren’t. The truth was, I was more afraid of what being single meant than I was of actually being single.
There are beautiful and virtuous reasons to want to date: companionship, support, love, but dating out of fear of judgment, I reasoned, was not one of them. Slowly, I pulled back from the dating scene, promising myself I’d only go out with guys I was truly interested in. I relished my nights in and scrolling through dating apps suddenly became more fun when there wasn’t so much pressure.
I am not totally inoculated against the occasional swell of insecurity when a person asks the question, “How is it you’re single?” Now, at least, I have a better answer: Because I am.
Rachel Jansen lives in Vancouver.