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In defence of true love

Date

Daisy Dumas

As much as we may celebrate being single, who hasn't dreamt of finding a companion for life?

Jennifer Aniston and Justin Theroux have just become engaged, sparing Aniston the 'trauma' of being single. But is it so hard to be uncoupled? The answer may depend on what stage of life you're in.

Jennifer Aniston and Justin Theroux have just become engaged, sparing Aniston the 'trauma' of being single. But is it so hard to be uncoupled? The answer may depend on what stage of life you're in.

Jennifer Aniston is engaged, ending the star’s unlucky-in-love spell.

But while some cheer, others have questioned the applause: why should being single be any cause for comment or concern? After all, many more of us are single than we may have been 50 or even 20 years ago. We're divorcing more, marrying later, embracing LGBT life, cohabiting and living-apart-together. It's normal, we are told, to choose something other than another half.

Or is it?

"Being single is losing its stigma, and rightly so," says Hugo Schywzer, an American social commentator and expert on all things couple-related. "It's absolutely false that being uncoupled is always a 'second best.'  Many single people - some celibate, some not - lead very fulfilling lives and wouldn't choose to be partnered no matter whom they met."

The trouble is – and this is perhaps the crux of the Aniston fall-out, a "big but" as Schwyzer puts it – we have screaming double standards. “We also live in a culture that shames people for wanting to be in a relationship,” he said. "If you aren't satisfied on your own and make it obvious you're looking for a partner, you can get teased for being 'needy' or pathologised as not really capable of handling things on your own."

He’s right. Just recently, a Salon piece did its level best to fly the flag for singledom in a world that remains "couples-obsessed".

"I don’t think we even know what being single is. We live in such a couples-obsessed society that there really are no 'singles' out there — everyone is pre- or post-coupled," says Michael Cobb, a professor of English at the University of Toronto, in the interview.

Cobb's argument pivots on the reality that being attached is certainly no silver bullet to lasting happiness and that being single is the best way to really get to know yourself, your world and connect with other people. It gives you time to pursue personal goals, take up tennis and spend time with family. To be, well, selfish.

Cobb talks about the fear of being alone that prevents many couples from ending bad relationships – though “that fear is probably much greater than the actual experience of it."

Many of us have been there - eking out a painful union because the other side looks far too barren. It's not, of course - or at least not in the long term. I, for one, can attest that a relationship with no trust, is far, far better off avoided than struggled with.

In that vein, simply because you're in a relationship doesn't mean you are any closer to cancelling out ever-growing amounts of emotional baggage, says Cobb. No, that would be far too easy.

Indeed, "the marker of success, the end of the romantic story, is riding off into the sunset with that person. But you don’t get to see the next 30 years of boredom, or anxiety, or terror or concern."

We have heard the horror stories, read the divorce statistics and doubled-up with pain when our hearts are broken. But as much as we love to hope that singledom is the hottest date around, our surroundings attest to a very different approach.

In Australia, at least, marriage remains overwhelmingly popular. A new RSVP survey showed that 67 per cent of Gen Y singles are keen to marry. Seventy-one per cent of that age group's women would like to spend the rest of their lives with the one. Reach a certain age, somewhere around our mid- to late- twenties, and we are all likely to know more couples than singles. Perhaps that's because we're less risk-averse (read old-fashioned) than Cobb and his American countrymen.

Yes, we may be putting marriage off until later – the mean age to tie the knot has shifted from 25.4 in 1990 to 28.75 in 2010 - but, as social commentator Bernard Salt told me when we discussed living-apart-together couples in May, changes in Australian coupledom are not likely to replace "the Mum, Dad in the 'burbs model" anytime soon.

In short, a pro-singledom argument – and this is not going to be popular – may be a stubborn show of strength rather than a choice born from deep desire.

John Curtis, a relationship expert, author and proponent of alternatives to marriage is not so sure. "The argument for singledom has an array of motives, some, no doubt, born of pain, loss and being unlucky in love but another argument is that it is a choice, not unlike a nun or priest who forsakes all other options except the commitment to one vocation and life of service." But how many people really choose to be single?

Most of those who want to be single - just 12 per cent of single Baby Boomers in the RSVP survey want to get married - seem to have tried marriage. All of the rest still have the hope, the naivety, the dream, the gut instinct to find the one and walk into the sunset, hand in hand.

Aniston, J-Lo and Elle Macpherson are all “post-coupled”. Their marriages did not last, though they once (or even twice) promised to live the rest of their lives in a partnership.

Schywzer sees the ideal of coupledom as something rather more elastic than it once was. Which is lucky, given fairytale-shattering divorce rates and morphing family models.

"We live in what might be called an 'if/then' culture," he told Life & Style. "Many young people say to me 'If I meet the right person, then I might consider being in a relationship - but if I don't, then I'm okay being single.'  Part of the reason more people are single is that we've all raised our standards, and that's largely a good thing. But it's always going to be important to support those people who do want to be in a relationship to find the love they want, even as we celebrate the fulfillment they can have on their own."

True, we have more options open to us than ever. "There has been a decades-long ‘experiment’ to explore new possibilities for relationshipping," says Curtis. "Women have gained the most freedom in this regard and have had a huge variety of new options open up to them. They have gone from a single trajectory of marriage and motherhood to a much broader range of options including being or staying single and childless." There are few who join the rollercoaster of having a child with the aim of being single for the ride, surely.

And there’s the rub. Yes, it would be ideal to celebrate both singleness and meeting the right person but there is a deep, instinctive desire, a fluid, yearning hope within most of us – even those of us who have been burnt or who are stubbornly independent - to find someone to just be alongside. A teammate. As Phoebe might say to Aniston's Rachel, a lobster. As long as coupling is possible, the caveat to single life remains: until something better comes along. No amount of friends, nieces, after work tennis clubs or sweaty bars can salve the longing for deep human companionship, no matter how brief. And that's nothing to be ashamed of.

The marriage naysayers, the staunch loners, the modern enlightened: they all once upon a time dreamt of finding a sidekick. As even Curtis admitted, "falling in love is part of a growth opportunity to become more complete as a person, not driven by the need to fill a void but more like a part of a life adventure approached with a sense of wonderment."

And who could turn that down?

47 comments

  • I am getting married next year. I love coupledom. But you know, either I or my partner (unless we take a pledge to kill ourselves together) will be single again at sometime. And that is ok, because I was alone before and it didn't kill me. Marital status is just a box on a form. You live your life to the fullest how so ever you find yourself. Well, that's how I see it.

    Commenter
    chichi
    Location
    richmond
    Date and time
    August 22, 2012, 10:31AM
    • Stop projecting your fears and insecurities onto everyone else. Those of us who are uninterested in romance do, in fact, prefer to be single. We may be a minority, but we exist. And the fact that you think a desire for "deep human companionship" can only be fulfilled by a romantic relationship...well, that's just sad.

      Commenter
      FaintlyMacabre
      Date and time
      August 22, 2012, 10:51AM
      • Totally agree with you. The writer of this makes sweeping statements that she knows the mind of every single (in both meanings of the word) person in Australia and the world. Like you, I sniff an insecure person.

        Commenter
        Moya
        Date and time
        August 22, 2012, 11:48AM
      • See if you still have that opinion when you're 40 and all your close friends are married with kids.

        Commenter
        LM
        Date and time
        August 22, 2012, 12:41PM
      • LM: You seem to have missed the point rather comprehensively. I am not yet 40, but have been single my *entire* life and have no desire for that to change. Most of my friends are married; this has no impact on my happiness. The very thought of having kids makes me profoundly grateful to live in a state which has legalised abortion. People who have no romantic or parental desires exist; we don't appreciate being erased.

        Your condescension is noted.

        Commenter
        FaintlyMacabre
        Date and time
        August 22, 2012, 1:06PM
      • @LM what my close friends are or are not doing has absolutely no impact on how I feel about myself.

        Commenter
        DMH
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        August 22, 2012, 1:11PM
      • LM I am over 40, have been in relationships, not bitter about them or a man hater or anything else that you might like to accuse me of - I just don't like them.

        The thought of living like my friends, with children and a partner, seriously makes me want to throw up. If I"d been stupid enough (and a big thanks here to those who won safe, legal abortion and contraception rights for women) or unlucky enough to have had children I would have killed myself. I cannot stand the thought of living in a family.

        The person who wrote this article is a sad little human being. Poor Daisy. Her life, and therefore, no-one else's, can be fulfulling or interesting unless she is hanging off someone's arm. Excuse me while I go away and barf.

        Don't get me wrong. I am all for family life and coupledom etc. So long as most people do it and create a stable society, it means I can keep up my lifestyle of travelling when I want to, lazing around all weekend reading a book if I want to, going to see what I want when I want and.....you guessed it.....work aside doing pretty much what I want. Selfish I hear you cry. So what. I'm not hurting anyone, I volunteer, I donate to charity, I am a good citizen. I just don't choose to buy into the 'you are nothing without a man by your side' discussion.

        Commenter
        vj
        Date and time
        August 22, 2012, 2:58PM
      • vj, you sound a wee bit bitter to me, sorry.... totally agree with LM & have friends in the same situation. They hide it well, but the anger, longing, loneliness, bitterness - they're all things that don't lurk far beneath the surface. And the more they profess that they're doing great, they're the same girlfriends who are in tears after the first glass of wine. Very sad.

        Commenter
        Rach
        Location
        sydney
        Date and time
        August 22, 2012, 5:42PM
      • I LOVE being single! I've had a long-term relationship (marriage) and am still good friends with my ex. I'm 45 with a child and have been single for 5 years and I can honestly say that after the first 2 years of transitioning and rebound relationships I'm in a really happy place now. I adore parenting, working from home and socialising with friends. A significant 'other' is definitely not essential for genuine happiness. My foray into Tibetan Buddhism has shown me that again and again. I'm not the slightest bit interested in entering into a relationship. The only people who seem to be concerned about me are those who are fearful of being alone and are in relationships primarily based on need and comfort. Their projection amuses me. :)

        Commenter
        LovingSingledom
        Date and time
        August 22, 2012, 7:11PM
      • Unless, of course, it's watching all your friends get married and have kids that makes you realise that hell yeah, being single is the life for you!

        Commenter
        photondancer
        Date and time
        August 22, 2012, 9:01PM

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