The single thing
More people are separating in Ireland. More live alone. Dating is changing, as are definitions of singlehood. A new 'Irish Times' series explores the sometimes lonely, sometimes liberating reality of single life
Are you single at heart? You can take an online test. It’s not a magazine questionnaire trying to fix your unattached soul. No pharmaceutical company or self-help ego is trying to sell you a path to thrilling yet mature coupledom.
The creator of this test is Bella DePaulo, an American social scientist who believes singlehood is a sweet pleasure soured only by a type of interpersonal discrimination she calls “singlism”. I can see immediately how the sentence “That’s very singlist of you” has great potential to be deployed in everyday conversation.
“Humph. Incensed by patronising article in the paper by smug married journalist. It was headlined, with subtle-as-a-Frankie-Howerd-sexual-innuendo-style irony: ‘The Joy of Single Life’,” grumbles Bridget Jones in her eponymous diary. “They’re young, ambitious and rich but their lives hide an aching loneliness,” she quotes, disgusted.
The aching-loneliness genre is part of what DePaulo calls “the dark aura of singlehood”, in which single people are perceived as miserable, regardless of whether they feel that way. Single-at-heart people are not single because they have “issues” or just haven’t found a partner yet, DePaulo says. “Living single is a way for you to lead your most meaningful and authentic life.”
By her reckoning, when asked how they feel about searching for a long-term romantic partner, single-at-hearts will answer, “Maybe it feels like something you ‘should’ do, but you are not really all that interested.”
There are just two small problems. The first is that single-at-hearts may still be obliged to tolerate the prejudice of a culture that thinks, yes, finding a long-term partner is precisely what single people should do.
The second is that not everyone who is single considers themselves to be single at heart at all. Circumstance has conspired with choices we have made. Yes, we would, on balance, quite like a long-term partner but not at any cost. Perhaps not even at much cost. In the meantime, “matrimania”, DePaulo’s term for the perceived overhyping of marriage, seems more counterproductive than helpful.
“We’re still matrimonially focused,” says Dr Anne Byrne, a sociologist at NUI Galway. In a way, how could we not be, with the Constitution describing a marital family as “the natural primary and fundamental unit group of society”? Inevitably, this has affected the status granted to other types of relationships: the ones enjoyed by single people. Back in the days of large families and land transfer to one son or daughter, Ireland was awash with single siblings, yet there was “little cultural preparation for living singly”, Byrne says. Emigration was deemed an appropriate response.
In the late 1990s, Byrne conducted research with “always single” Irish women and found that they reported “extensive stigma” from family, friends and strangers. “The clear message was that to be single was not an acceptable identity, nor was it to be condoned as a long-term living arrangement.” Her interviewees were made to feel personally responsible and deficient for their “failure to marry”.
Marriage has proven to be a resilient institution. In the 2011 census, the share of the 15-plus population that was married was found to have increased over the previous five years from 46.4 per cent to 47.3 per cent; single people’s share fell from 43.1 per cent to 41.7 per cent.
This is a crude baseline. The census is less inquisitive than Facebook: it wants to know only if you are single, by which the Central Statistics Office (CSO) means never married, married, remarried, separated, divorced or widowed. If you are a single-person household, the census is uninterested in your dating record. And if you’re half of an unmarried couple, cohabiting or otherwise, and you’ve never had a ring on your finger, you’re part of the single 41.7 per cent, even though you’re not (officially) available for dates.
But by another measure, the proportion of single-person households, Ireland is becoming a more singleton society. In his book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, the American author Eric Klinenberg defines “singleton” as anyone who lives alone. In Ireland, single-person households account for almost one in four households (23.7 per cent).
The rate has nudged up quietly in recent years, assisted no doubt by the bubble-era construction of so many shoebox apartments. It’s only when you look back a few decades that starker evidence of what Klinenberg approvingly concludes is a “dramatic rise in solo living” emerges.
In 1979, 16.4 per cent of Irish households were single-person. Go back to 1926 and this share was just 8.3 per cent.
Janet Buckley is a 38-year-old civil servant, aunt and yoga teacher, who is just back from a holiday in Norway. Her single-person household is the home she owns in Celbridge, Co Kildare. She has an “if it happens, it happens” attitude to finding a long-term partner and says she is not especially broody. “I go through phases where I’m like, ‘Oh, I’d really like to be with someone.’ But I’m of the view that you give up a lot in a relationship. They would have to be special.”
There is one time when not having a boyfriend gets to her. “I’m never happy being single between Christmas and New Year. I get what I call ‘the Christmas lonelies’.”
The rest of the year it’s a different story. “I’ve got such a charmed life,” she says. Societal attitudes to single people “move in swings and roundabouts”, she says. “I don’t think marketing people get it, that there’s this large cohort of people they could target. And politics is still very much about the family.”
Most “singlism” washes over her. In the past, she has encountered versions of “the Bridget Jones dinner-table scenario, the ‘what’s wrong with you? Why are you single?’ ”, but not of late. “I don’t know if it’s just me not noticing it any more, or if everybody else has changed.”
No longer a stigma
It is 18 years since Helen Fielding wrote her first Bridget Jones columns for the London Independent and a similar length of time since Byrne’s research found that single Irish women were discouraged from talking about their singleness, unless they were being called to account for it.
Byrne believes Irish society might be approaching a tipping point. “There is sufficient openness now. Being single is no longer as harshly stigmatised as it was before,” she says.
All those confessional columnists help. Irish people feel more able to combine independence with intimacy in ways that suit them; ways that might not involve a shared bathroom, never mind a gold band.
“Nonetheless, when people talk about the expectations of friends, colleagues and family, the implicit expectation is that women and men are actively seeking a partner.” Old presumptions linger. “Yes, there have been significant legislative gains and small victories, but single women are still asked by strangers and friends, ‘When are you giving us the big day out?’ ”
Claire Doherty, a 39-year-old professional from Co Tyrone, would like marriage and kids but believes it is “important not to settle”. Her friends do sometimes try to match-make. “But at the age I am, most of my friends’ friends are married as well. And any single guys, I’ve met them, and I’m not interested in them. There’s nothing worse than someone saying, ‘Oh, there’s this single guy,’ as if it was okay for them to have their choice of everyone and choose someone, but now, because I’m single and they have one single guy they know, suddenly that will be enough for me.”
She dislikes the career-woman tag. “I would hate someone to think that I had chosen this, that I had chosen my career over a relationship. It’s not that at all. I just don’t want to meet the wrong person.”
Being single is “definitely good for the rest of your relationships”, facilitating deeper friendships and family ties, she believes. “But I’d still rather be a bad friend than not have kids.”
Doherty recently started seeing a man who lives abroad. She suspects some of her single friends have lost hope. “I have two friends who read some article about Lisa Snowdon, who used to go out with George Clooney, and she was 39, and saying that was that. She was never going to meet someone. And the two of them were hysterical about it, crying about it, thinking that’s it now.”
Such resignation is an understandable response to the statistics. At the age of 32, married women overtake single women; the same phenomenon happens to men at 34. Census data also tell us that the number of single people decreases rapidly with increasing age up to the early 40s, after which the number declines more slowly.
Single and gutted
If you’re single in your 40s, the CSO deems you unlikely ever to marry. Rural counties such as Sligo, Leitrim and Kerry have relatively high rates of fortysomething singles – between 22 and 24 per cent – but it is in the cities, where more than a quarter of people in their 40s are single, where the never-married are most likely to be found.
“I’m single and I’m gutted about it,” says Kit Smyrl, who is 45, runs a successful genealogy-services company in Dublin and lives with his dog. Originally from the Scottish Highlands, he finds the social scene in Dublin to be stratified and closed off and believes this is more of “a city thing” than an Irish one. “It’s very difficult to ingratiate yourself into a circle of people, and the friends I do have here are married with kids.”