Viewpoint: Why are couples so mean to single people?

Man lying on double bed

In a world that celebrates romance and finding The One, people can be rather rude to single people, writes James Friel.

No-one is supposed to be single.

In the course of my life, I have loved and lost and sometimes won, and always strangers have been kind. But I have, it appears, been set on a life of single blessedness.

And I haven't minded. Or rather, I realise, I haven't minded enough. But now I kind of do. Take dinner parties. There comes a moment, and that question: "Why don't you have a partner?"

It is usually asked by one of a couple, with always a swivel of the eye to his or her other half, so really two people are asking this question.

And I struggle to answer: "I have never found the right person... I am a sad and sorry manchild... I am incapable of love... I am a deviant, and prefer giraffes."

The author

James Friel

James Friel is a novelist. His latest novel is The Posthumous Affair

Hear more from James Friel on Radio 4's Four Thought on Wednesday 7 November at 20:45 GMT, or download the Four Thought podcast

Any answer will fail to satisfy. The questioner expects no happy answer. I am only covering up my bone-deep, life-corroding loneliness. The questioners know this, and the insight they believe it affords comforts them. They are safe.

They look down from the high castle of coupledom, protected from such a fate. But if I were to ask: "Why have you settled for him? Why are you stuck with her? Were you so afraid of being alone?" such questions would be thought rude, intrusive.

Last week a friend of mine went on a date. A foolish thing to do. The man she met had been married three times and had a child by each wife. An example of emotional continence I'm sure you'll agree. And he asked my friend, single and childless, why she had failed at life.

It was a shortish date. Failed at life?

Single people can also feel this way about other single people, and about themselves. You see, no one is supposed to be single. If we are, we must account for our deficiencies.

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Carol Clewlow described me as a male spinster. I admit I was a little bothered until she added, 'like George Clooney'”

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A recent book claims on its cover that single people might be the most reviled sexual minority today. But it's not just today.

Take the word "spinster". It is withering and unkind. The word, of course, is innocent, but its connotations are unhappy, dismissive and disrespectful.

A few years back, in an age of Bridget Jones-type heroines, the novelist Carol Clewlow wondered about a female reader of her own generation, a woman who had long decided not to twin her destiny with another's. She wrote a novel about this single state. About spinsters.

She called it Spinsta.

She delivered Spinsta to her agent, who was delighted, as were her publishers. A campaign was initiated. Various columnists and celebrities were to be asked to consider and celebrate this word, but then another word came back from the booksellers.

That word was "no". They would not stock and no one would pick up a book with such an ugly word as its title. The novel was retitled Not Married, Not Bothered.

When I speak of this subject with women, the conversation, the anecdotes, are plentiful, wry and amusing.

Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason

With other men, gay or straight, the talk is more wistful, hesitant, inconclusive, and even a little pained.

Legal now, the gay man must also account for not having a partner. We even agitate for marriage. To be recognised as couples not just by the law - which is right - but by God, which is redundant. But couples rely on such iron definitions, need them.

Someone might take them to be single, and no one is supposed to be single. And yet I am. Carol Clewlow described me as a male spinster. I admit I was a little bothered until she added "like George Clooney".

Cool, I thought. I could go with that. But Google "male spinster" and there is much bother at the term. Top of the search list is an unreasonably popular piece from London's Evening Standard.

Can a man be a spinster?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary Online, the word spinster was first used in the 14th Century to describe a woman (or, rarely, a man) "who practises spinning as a regular occupation".

However, by the 1600s, it was used less in the context of drawing out thread from wool or flax and more often to describe "the proper legal designation of one still unmarried" - along with that other less-than complimentary phrase of "old maid".

The male equivalent was a bachelor. The online Collins dictionary says this was probably derived from the 13th Century Old French "bacheler", meaning a youth.

It was used in Britain for a young knight who served under the banner of another.

While both terms assumed a legal status to describe those who were unmarried, the Registrar General of England and Wales dropped the terms as official labels in 2005.

It reads: "A male spinster is an unmarried man over the age of 35, a moniker that implies at best these men have 'issues' and at worst are sociopaths. One fears for these men, just as society has traditionally feared for the single women. They cannot see how lonely they will be."

How kind this fear sounds. No-one is supposed to be single. To be single must mean to be lonely but far lonelier are those who fear being alone.

Namely, the "I" who is incomplete without a "you". The "me" who is without substance or purpose unless rhymed with a "we". Those tyrannised by the need, the obligation, to go about this world in pairs.

In order to argue for the single person, it seems one must criticise the couple; the culture that coerces us into coupledom, the religions, the familial pressures, the pop songs, the movies, the game shows, the gossip, the unavoidable, inescapable pressure to conjoin, to love.

Freud has it that we become ill if we do not love, and songs tell us we must succumb to a love that - bonding us - will devastate us too. I am nothing, nothing, nothing, if I don't have you. How kind is such a love? Isn't it a little punitive?

Laura Kipnis, in Against Love, has a chapter called Domestic Gulag, and the prison rules a couple must follow:

  • You can't leave the house without saying where you are going
  • You can't not say what time you will return
  • You can't leave the bathroom door open - it's offensive
  • You can't leave the bathroom door closed
  • You can't have secrets

Nine and half pages later, Kipnis concludes: "The specifics don't matter. What matters is the operative word, can't. Thus is love obtained."

Recent views on single life

According to Michael Cobb, whose book Single is referenced in Slate.com: "The contemporary individual is not lonely, just single - but this is not culturally recognized."

Meanwhile, Shanghai Daily looks ahead to Chinese Singles Day and finds 38-year-old Christine Liu enjoying the life of a "left-over lady - good looking, with good pay and good taste".

The Huffington Post finds the author Lindsley Lowell - a wife of two years - refusing to join the "Smug Married Club".

And the Daily Telegraph found the number of Britons aged 45 to 64 living alone had increased by more than 50% since 1990.

And Michael Cobb reminds us in a book called Single that Plato defined love as our name for the pursuit of the whole, our desire to be made complete. But Plato has Aristophanes remind us that this pursuit - this need to be completed, this quest for coupledom - is a punishment.

Perhaps single people secretly wish to reclaim an original state of being, somehow sense that we do not need to be completed by another, somehow sense that we are able to complete ourselves. The single person might just be too self-possessed.

Perhaps we are too honest to be coupled. Perhaps we cannot tell another person: "I love only you. And I will love you forever."

It's quite difficult to tell someone the more truthful: "I love you, you know, for now."

Sorry. The single person might just be too self-possessed.

Personally, I don't wish to make satiric judgements against the couple because such judgements - patronising, dismissive and even fearful - are what I resent when asked to explain why I persist in being single.

I want to describe myself more positively and not against some grain that abrades both me and anyone else who believes and lives differently.

My favourite character in literature is the difficult, unclubbable Lucy Snowe from Charlotte Bronte's Villette. At the conclusion of her slippery and singular tale, she manages in her lone voice to define herself as wife, widow and spinster all at once and so none of these at all but - simply, complicatedly - her own marvellous, darkly brave and tricksy self.

Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham Dickens' Miss Havisham - compelled by an unrealisable conception of love?

And I would rescue, too, that martyr, the maligned Miss Havisham. Because I don't believe the single person has a sceptical or reductive notion of love but suspect, rather, that they might be compelled by an even higher, almost unrealisable, conception of it.

In the world through which we move, increasingly, we do not expect our relationships to endure. Increasingly, our relative affluence and advances in new technology allow us to live comfortably alone.

Increasingly, this is what we seem to be doing: we are choosing to live alone. We need stories not about how to become couples. They are legion. We need stories about how to be single, and how to be kept amazed and awake by a joy of our own manufacture.

Although I was born single, I never considered that this would continue to be my fate.

This piece is based on an edited version of James Friel's Four Thought on BBC Radio 4. Listen again via the Radio 4 website or Four Thought podcast.

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