I remember the first time I got a “boyfriend” (expect a humorously loose application of the word). I was fourteen and confined to an all-girls Catholic school in the West of Ireland. I ‘got’ a boyfriend like one might ‘get’ a prize: it was an achievement. I’d won this boy’s affection and with that came a wide-reaching respect.
When I walked into school the morning after our Facebook status update, I was inundated (side note: surely if there’s an indication of an ill-fated relationship, it’s premature Facebook declarations, right?). The other girls wanted to hear about how we’d met (Snapchat); how he’d asked me to be his girlfriend (Snapchat); if I thought we would last (Lol no) and if I loved him (Fuck no!). I basked in the attention for a day or two, before the interest died down. I had been instated as a girl to be respected, as a girl good enough to get a boy’s attention – even from the confines of an all-girls school. Girls who had previously ignored me suddenly started to nod at me in the hallway. I was accepted into a higher social standing, by virtue of my new boyfriend.
The power of the heterosexual relationship is historical: it’s rooted in reproductive notions and the unbreakable idea that one hasn’t achieved much until they’re settled in a relationship. This dated mindset still seeps into our teenage impressions and it’s still dictating how young girls see themselves: through men. How can we ever achieve true happiness if the source isn’t ourselves? Society has set girls up to believe the path to contentment is being in a relationship. At fourteen, I guess I didn’t know any better. To know better, the individual must take it upon themselves to revaluate their societal ethics and perception. And that’s a lot to ask of a fourteen-year-old.
So, when tragedy struck (three weeks into our relationship and he broke up with me), I felt my worth crumbling around me. He said he just didn’t feel we knew each other well enough. I cried bullshit but I knew, instinctively, that I liked what he did for my social life more than I liked him. I’d only met him a handful of times, never for more than an afternoon, or the length of a full movie. But that didn’t matter at the time. He had elevated my worth and now he was robbing me of that. I knew that losing this boyfriend would plummet me from the heights of peer respect in an all-girls school. I knew these things because my surroundings (and society) put enormous value in the idea of a relationship. They implanted this idea, like a microchip, into our little brains before we could know any better. My urge to not be single started long before that boy started taking me to the movies.
If society is encultured in relationship status, how does one navigate the idea of being ‘happily single’? When a woman’s worth is defined by her ability to sustain a partner, how does she escape from this expectation unscathed? When you’re a teenager, you’re still trying to orientate yourself, let alone figure out the intricacies of a relationship. You’re still figuring out your sexuality, your future and who you want to be. In fact, the last thing you need is a relationship.
Singlehood in our teens and twenties is almost assumed to be involuntary. And this only worsens in our thirties and onwards when the pressure to ‘get hitched and on with it’ won’t leave us alone. It follows us to family reunions, to Christmas dinners and harasses us all of February. Don’t think I’m saying that ‘happy couples’ only remind singletons how lonely they really are. Don’t confuse disinterest for bitterness. Because that’s what being happily single is: it’s being uninterested in entering a relationship. It’s not always ‘waiting to meet someone’, it’s not ‘I’ve been alone so long!’; it’s ‘I’m fine being by myself for now’. It doesn’t mean you want to be single forever, it doesn’t mean you’re entirely closed to meeting someone or emotionally stunted – it just means you have enough agency to carry your life by yourself. It’s actually an empowerment; it takes you off the ‘find love’ treadmill society puts us on as soon as we reach puberty. There is no better way to prove your independence than being alone (not lonely).
Once you’ve achieved true happiness and accepted the idea of being single, then you know you can get into and out of a relationship whilst preserving this happiness. In my experience, once you have learnt how to be happily single, it’s impossible to unlearn it. It sticks for life: no matter what happens, you can be alone without feeling lonely. No relationship will rob you of this knowledge; you’ve graduated from the ‘learn to be single and happy’ school of thought.
I think a lot of the people who reinforce the idea that ‘happily single is just a façade’ just haven’t graduated yet. But we can’t tell people how to find this acceptance – learning how to be happy in your own company is a subjective art. There’s not a definite list of dos and don’ts. It’s a process; it took me years and several relationships to learn that I can be alone, and I still have as much worth as ever. The art of contented singlehood isn’t easily learnt; society puts up constant hurdles, telling women that they’re lesser without a partner, without someone to ‘protect’ them. But if a woman keeps fighting society’s conditioning, and sustains their worth, despite their relationship status, then I reckon they’re set for a lifetime of self-fulfilling happiness.
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