Is It Actually OK To Be Single?
Illustration by Mr Michael Parkin (Folio Art)
The contemporary self-help literature tells us that there is power in being on our own. Love yourself, primarily, and everything else will fall into place. And according to Twitter (sorry, X) and dating apps, relationships don’t look like they once did. Out are eternal vows and nuclear families; in is polyamory, solo date nights and nuclear anxiety. Who needs marriage when you’ve got Feeld, a side hustle and the world is about to end? What’s more, being single has never been such a team sport. Just a few months ago, the Pew Research Centre found that 63 per cent of American men aged 18-29 have, much like 30 per cent of the entire population, got no one to argue about towels with.
But I am single, and something is wrong. I am outside a pub in London’s Soho, a couple of weeks after I started thinking about writing this story, and I am fielding those questions that come from a friend of a friend of a friend. I’m 34, yeah. No, I don’t have a partner. “What’s wrong with you, then?”
Well, how long have you got?
But also: nothing, really, right now. Life’s never been better. I just, you know, don’t have a girlfriend.
Despite the nihilism, I believe in the concept of a monogamous, loving partnership. I’ve had enough casual hook-ups and non-committal relationships to know that it doesn’t work for me. I’d like children one day, if it’s possible. And I would like a girlfriend in the near future, when I am ready, should the opportunity present itself. But I am not on any dating apps (I like the idea of meeting someone IRL). I am single by choice and have been for almost a year.
I have always been in and out of relationships, so I am gaining strength and happiness from being with myself for a bit. But there is a reason this question didn’t just evaporate into the lazy summer air with all the other random sentences. I feel it on some level. I’m in my thirties and I’m single? Something must be wrong.
Year after year, studies show that men are less happy being single than women. Indeed, unmarried, childless women are the happiest people in society, according to one study, while male loneliness is on the rise.
I don’t feel lonely, personally, but I know from talking to some single male pals that it can be tough to be out of a relationship. Mr Jon Spiteri is a 64-year-old restaurateur who was married for 16 years and has three children. In January, he came out of a five-year relationship, his longest since his marriage. “I hate it,” he tells me over lunch. “I can’t remember the last time I was single; I tend to go from one relationship to the next.” Historically, this has also been my pattern. “During the week when I’m doing things and working, I meet my friends, I go out for lunch,” he says. “At weekends, I feel this huge loss. I don’t feel like a loser being on my own, I just feel lonely.”
“I’m in my thirties and I’m single? Something must be wrong”
Spiteri struggles with the etiquettes and parameters of dating apps and, like me, wants to meet someone in real life. “I’m fun, I’m well-connected, I like to eat out, I behave properly, I’m a gentleman. But I think [potential matches] see a completely different thing to me. They don’t know me. It’s just six pictures.”
It’s great Spiteri can own the fact that, despite living a full and rich life, he experiences loneliness in this specific area. It makes me wonder if I am lying to myself. I like my own company, but I often fantasise about a relationship. And I am probably single now, however happily, in preparation for a relationship. I’m doing the groundwork.
We agree that there is a societal taboo about being lonely. It is tempting to assume that this weighs more heavily on women – the old trope of the spinster and the eligible bachelor. This may be true to some extent, and men do not have the same biological pressures as women, but I have heard men talk openly about, say, depression or therapy at parties – never about being lonely. It might represent a unique sense of failure for a man. What’s more, women seem better at handling their solitude.
Data suggests that much of what men need from a relationship, women tend to get from their friends. In a 2021 survey, only 21 per cent of men said they received emotional support from a friend in the past week. Apparently, men are still not hot on talking to their mates about feelings. This would explain the huge rise in men’s support groups in recent years.
“All the emotional support I would get from a partner I have found in my flatmate… It’s an interesting model of a relationship that’s non-traditional”
I have a brilliant, supportive friendship group of men and women that could hold pretty much anything I wanted to give them. I’m comfortable talking about my feelings and fears. But I feel that a loving, romantic relationship “hits different”. It’s built on a carefully constructed, unique symbiosis of feelings and interests (and random things you hear at dinner that become an eternal, absurd in-joke) that a friendship, however old and deep, can’t replace. It’s a 24/7, unconditional thing rather than an as-and-when pick-and-mix. But maybe that’s my needy male view...
Mr Snake Denton, 26, is a journalist for Vice and The Face. He has been single for a year and recently came out as queer. “It doesn’t surprise me that men report being lonelier than women,” he says. “In [women’s] relationships, there are fewer boundaries, so they get a free exchange of emotional support. Whereas with men, I think it’s less intimate. Male relationships can be quite policed. When I watch women communicate, I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’”
Denton’s flatmate ably fills his relationship void. “I live with a girl who is also queer and we’re super tight,” he says. “All the emotional support I would get from a partner I have found in my flatmate, but the sexual side has conveniently been taken off the table. It’s an interesting model of a relationship that’s non-traditional.”
Denton had always wanted to emulate the traditional, heterosexual marriage of his parents and grandparents, but his experience of coming out made him reassess. “Suddenly, all those ideas I had fell away, which was really liberating,” he says. “The whole world is reflecting back a very specific idea of what a relationship is – on the train, in movies, it’s everywhere.”
The idea of a “perfect”, conventional relationship, reinforced in culture, is a potent one. It has probably been a factor in me spoiling perfectly good relationships in the past. I have sought perfection (whatever that even means), despite sometimes being way below an ideal partner myself. If we could shake the idea of what things should or could look like, like Denton, we’d be a lot better off. After all, the UK divorce rate is estimated at 42 per cent. Marriage and monogamous, conventional, ever-lasting partnerships are not unobtainable. But they needn’t be a given or a goal.
“Being single can be super fulfilling. I’m still not sure why that can’t be a lifetime thing”
Mr Rob Woodhead, a 42-year-old entrepreneur, is single, like me. But, unlike me, he has spent most of his adult life without a partner. He also suggests that relationships are rarely linear or conventional. “Some of my friends are divorced,” he says. “They are able to go on and do other things. Other relationships are just other chapters. I can have a five-year relationship. It doesn’t have to be forever.”
Woodhead thinks that finding a relationship is more difficult for men because women are simply more capable. “I see a higher barrier to entry,” he says. “Women tend to be content in their lives.” This reminds me of something Spiteri said about his ex-wife. “She’s on her own. She’s happy in herself. She’s built a life. I think men are fucking difficult.”
At the risk of being a pavement psychotherapist, I hear elements of avoidance in Woodhead’s dating history (he says he is scared to hurt people) that I relate to. I’ve read enough books on attachment to note the pattern in myself. “The maturity of men happens a lot later,” he adds. “The desire to settle down.” Sure enough, in my twenties, I was not able to be a present, mature or unselfish partner. This is another reason I am single now.
It seems like single men feel an element of fragility about their place in the dating world. You might be single by choice, or because of your actions or character – but if you are actively looking for a relationship, it can feel out of reach or scary. Finding solace in your support groups as you get older isn’t so easy, either. Woodhead’s friendship group has become more fragmented in his forties. “Some of my friends have moved away from central London,” he says. “They have also gained a load of new friends from their NCT classes or pre-school. I don’t have as many friends as I used to.”
I think about some of my own friendships that have been diluted with the introduction of a child. What’s more, feelings of envy or inferiority can creep in next to friends who have started a family.
Being single clearly means different things, depending on your age. My own vague anxiety may be rooted in the idea that my current stable and carefree situation won’t last forever – so finding someone in the next few years feels significant. But we are back to that idea of things not being linear or predictable, relaxing into our solo status and even redefining what it means. It doesn’t have to represent the absence of something. “I do think [the state of being single] feels somehow temporary,” Denton says. “I do wonder – can we reimagine ways to live together? Being single can be super fulfilling. I’m still not sure why that can’t be a lifetime thing.”
Woodhead agrees. “There are some massive positives to being single,” he says. “I can go to the Philippines next month, my business partner can’t. The traditional marriage-and-kid thing is not dead, but you can happily live alternatively to that.”
I might not have anyone to argue about towels with right now, nor might I in the future. And perhaps that’s something to celebrate.