Despite the many ways of defining sexuality and relationships that have emerged recently – from polyamory to pansexuality – it seems like women who remain alone forever, either out of choice or otherwise, are the last taboo. There are pretty much zero TV or film depictions of single women over 35, and the most enduring image of the ‘spinster’ is probably still Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham in her mouldy wedding dress. This despite the fact that more than half of the UK’s one-person households are now female-occupied. Have the centuries where there were few options for women other than marriage left such a mark that we’re scared to tell the stories of those who choose a different path?
Professor Bella DePaulo, 60, a social scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has spent the last 20 years focusing on what she calls “singles studies”: measuring the impact that singledom has on people as well as the way society treats them. “I was always really happy with my single life,” she explains. “I never imagined what my wedding dress would look like or anything like that. Yet for a long time I thought that maybe I was just slow at getting there, that I’d be bitten by the ‘marriage bug’ at some point. I can’t remember when it was I realised, no, I’m never going to want that. Single is who I am. It was so freeing.”
However, she found herself perturbed by the lack of writing on long-term singledom, or even any positive examples of it. “All the reports I read in the media were that marriage makes you happier, healthier and live longer, and it just wasn’t in line with my experiences,” she says.
After two years he started asking me where it was going. I was like, ‘Does it have to go somewhere?’
Marketing executive Helen Patterson, 44, has been single for 10 years and describes life as “simpler than ever”. “I was 8 years old when I first heard the word ‘spinster’,” she remembers. “I said to my mum, ‘That’s what I want to be when I grow up.’ And nothing’s changed!” However, she says this doesn’t mean she can’t enjoy romantic company. “My friend and I came up with the phrase ‘casual monogamy’,” she explains. “It’s like, I don’t want to meet your parents or move in with you, but I’m happy to hang out with you and have lots of hot sex with you and only you. Sadly, this concept seems to be rather exclusive to me and my friends!”
Although she still dabbles in dating, Helen says she finds men her age are either looking for casual sex or marriage. “I think there’s a lot of grey area in-between. I could quite happily date someone until the day I die and not want it to get any more serious than that. My last relationship was this set-up, but after two years he started asking me where it was going. I was like, ‘Does it have to go somewhere?’”
Not all single women are on their own out of choice, of course – some simply haven’t met someone they want to commit to. Melanie, 53, a lawyer at a publishing firm, always envisaged herself settling down with someone because – unlike Bella or Helen – she knew she wanted children. “The pressure was on me to find a relationship so that I could be a mother. However, I never found one that I felt was worth sticking with in order to have a child,” she recalls.
When I tell certain people I’m single they’ll say ‘Ahhhh’ in a really sympathetic way, as if I’ve just told them I’ve got breast cancer.
One assumption is that not meeting a partner equals a life of loneliness. But Bella says her studies show the opposite. “When you look at research that follows people over the course of their lives, you see that on average married people become more insular,” she says. “Single women are particularly good at maintaining friendships and social circles, and seeing family more often.” Both Helen and Melanie report having strong circles of friends, with a mixture of couples and other singles around them. “You can still develop meaningful friendships without a romantic relationship,” remarks Melanie, who’s even talking about moving into a communally owned house with friends as they reach retirement.
Of course, being an older single woman still brings some negative attention. “When I tell certain people I’m single they’ll say ‘Ahhhh’ in a really sympathetic way, as if I’ve just told them I’ve got breast cancer,” laughs Helen. Melanie adds: “I think the external pressure tends to come from other women, as if they’re trying to justify their own stories to themselves. Whereas men often say to me ‘You’re so lucky’ or ‘I’d love to be single again’.”
She also says that watching a number of friends divorce recently has made her even more thankful for her situation. “I think it’s incredibly difficult for women who’ve spent years bringing up children, borne the brunt of the domestic work, and now have to rediscover who they are on their own,” she explains. “You may take some risks as a single person, but you definitely avoid others.” Bella also explains that, while long-term single and married people have similar life expectancies, divorce is a big factor in dying earlier.
Single women are particularly good at maintaining friendships and social circles, and seeing family more often.
However, there’s an upside to not sharing your home, even if it’s pricier. “Having your own bedroom and bathroom!” laughs Melanie. “That’s definitely one of the best things about being single. It’s so weird how you’re expected to share your personal space with someone.”
Overall, though, the women are keen to stress that it’s not necessarily better to be single than coupled up – it’s down to what suits you. “It’s not being in a relationship or being single that will make you happy, it’s what you do within that space that counts,” advises Melanie. “Even if you don’t necessarily choose it, it doesn’t mean you’ve ended up with second-best.”