The single thing
He has had positive experiences of internet dating and met “some really nice people”. But as he, too, would like children, he is searching for a woman in her mid-30s, because he doesn’t want to meet someone and head to Mothercare with them straight away. “There are a lot of girls on there because they want to have a baby and they think, Will this man do?” he says.
Smyrl attributes his singleness partly to his move to Ireland, which reduced his immediate social circle, and partly to a period after a relationship breakdown in his 30s when he couldn’t even contemplate dating. “I think I was scared as well: I was scared of getting hurt.”
Although no one looks at him as if he has two heads, they do make assumptions. “People often think that because I’m single, I’ve been married before and I have kids, and that I’m lying when I say I don’t.”
This, too, is a reaction to real trends. Irish people are becoming more used to the idea that we might become single again. If the 2011 census showed anything, it was an increase in marital breakdown, with the number of separated and divorced people rising by 22.3 per cent. Separated and divorced women outnumber their male counterparts, who are more likely to remarry, and between the ages of 50 and 63 they are also a larger group than never-married women.
I tick the box marked single, but it seems like an amorphous status, hardly an identity or a fate. Singlehood, it seems to me, is a spectrum. There’s happy to be single, and happy despite being single. Permasingle. Single again. Single and looking. Single and incomplete. Single and free. Single by day. Single, but it’s complicated. Single and heartbroken. Single, and the sight of couples holding hands makes you want to puke up a heart-shaped vomit tribute to their clammy-palmed love.
Single, but you have had more sex this decade than half of your married friends. Single, but your lover might not call you that. Single, but ask me again later. Single and getting a full night’s sleep, thanks. Single, but not available for unpaid overtime. Single, but when did I get so old that “single” became the primary way in which other people define me?
A single person’s identity may oscillate wildly between half a dozen of these, and then it might be time for lunch.
Everybody knows the stereotypes. Single women may be seen as sad, mad, bad or embittered old maids, left alone on a shelf of pain; single childless women may be regarded as somehow subversive or, more annoyingly, as children themselves.
One episode of Sex and the City addresses the selfish-and-superficial trope when Carrie is forced by her married-with-kids friend Kyra to remove her expensive Manolo Blahnik shoes at a baby shower. The shoes go missing, and the hostess reluctantly, after much prompting, offers to pay for replacements, only to feign shock and disgust at the price tag.
“You know how much Manolos are: you used to wear them,” Carrie reminds her friend. “Sure, before I had a real life,” replies Kyra. “Shoe-shamed”, Carrie mutters defensively that she too has “a real life”.
Meanwhile, single heterosexual men are casually given psychological labels like “commitment-phobic”, or it is implied that without a woman to keep him clean, he will go to seed.
There are two broad myths about single men, DePaulo writes. “You are horny, slovenly and irresponsible, and you are the scary criminals. Or, you are sexy, fastidious, frivolous and gay.”
In 2007, before he met his wife, the Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker wrote that strangers kept advising him to get one.
“Clearly I’ve been shuffling around emanating tragic waves of wife-needing energy. It shows up on their internal radar as a flashing alert: clueless bachelor at 10 o’clock.”
Single people are still resisting. The playwright Una McKevitt hit on some surprisingly undiscovered country in Singlehood, a documentary-style piece of theatre that sold out at the Fringe festival in Dublin last September. It’s now back on stage, with performances at the Axis theatre in Ballymun on February 22nd and at Vicar Street on March 1st and 2nd. All but one of the cast are single, and they have been for between four and seven years. “They like all the early stuff in relationships, it’s just that later on they want to bail.”
McKevitt, who is 38 and gay, has been single for two years. “Before that I was in a series of relationships for about 10 years with very little gaps. I’ve done a 180-degree turn from feeling that I need to be in a relationship,” she says.
The break got her thinking about the single experience. “Most entertainment is about people starting off single and ending up in relationships, or sometimes it’s about a relationship breaking down.”
In creating Singlehood, the idea was to avoid this journey narrative. “Relationships have so much status in society and have so many rituals attached to them and being single doesn’t: it’s seen as a waiting room, a purgatory. We thought, What if we focus is on the single experience, not the looking-for-love experience? “Now it turns out you can’t talk about one without talking about the other.”
Single people don’t always get to discuss their lives in a forum as supportive as a play with the tagline “Because any dope can be in a relationship”.
Ger McFadden has a “very attractive” single sister, who was fed up of being asked by friends and relatives, “Well, have you met anybody yet?” or, “Any news?” Laid off from her job as a bank accountant, McFadden opened a bottle of wine one night and by the end of it had promised her sister to set up FirstDate.ie, which runs singles nights such as speed-dating, wine-tasting events and supper clubs. The latter are limited between 12 and 16 people, because there has to be a 50:50 ratio of men and women.
“I could sell 30-50 female tickets for a supper club, but I wouldn’t sell as many male tickets,” she says. Still, there are “lots of single, eligible men” out there, she is sure. “I can vouch for it.”
Indeed, whatever the anecdotal evidence of a “man shortage”, the demographics do not overwhelmingly point to a dearth in single men versus their female equivalents. There may be 42,854 more women than men in the State, but up to the age of 80, single men outnumber single women in every age group. (After 80, the men have started to die off.) That’s the national picture.
Dublin has the lowest ratio of men to women, with only 949 men for every 1,000 women. Although the capital has fewer single men in their 20s than single women, between the ages of 30 and 44 there are more single men in the city than single women.
Again, this definition of “single” is broad, and certainly not equivalent to availability for a coffee and maybe more. But however scarce eligible heterosexual men seem, single women are hardly the confused survivors of some catastrophic event that has wiped out anyone with a Y chromosome.
You don’t have to write a science-fiction novel to imagine such a scenario, though: you have to go back to only the 20th century. In 1921, a census found that there were 1.7 million more women than men in Britain. Even before the first World War, the quantity of “spinsters” had been swelling. Afterwards, middle- and upper-class girls born between 1895 and 1905 became known, charmingly, as the Surplus Women: the prospects of marriage and children, so inextricably bound with their identities as women, had faded with each wartime slaughter. The Daily Mail, as the historian Virginia Nicholson has documented, caught the mood of the time by asserting that “the superfluous women are a disaster to the human race”.
That generation’s single woes will be familiar to viewers of Downton Abbey, where they are represented by Lady Edith “am I to be the maiden aunt?” Crawley. Edith has her flirtations, and my guess is that the writer of the series, Julian Fellowes, will be tempted to marry her off eventually. By rights, he shouldn’t.
It may not be of much solace to people who are single and looking, but at that time the odds were stacked against women like Edith far more than they are against single people today. We should have more hope for ourselves than we do for her.
And for both the single-and-looking and single-at-heart, there may be some satisfaction in watching Irish culture transform into something less singlist – and remembering, as Bridget Jones’s friend Shazzer rants so impressively, “There’s more than one bloody way to live.”
All by myself Five accounts of the single life
Single in your . . . 20s
Tony Sheridan , PhD student and teaching assistant, 25
If online dating isn’t going your way, you could consider going on a reality television show. That worked, sort of, for 25-year-old Cavan man – and Bachelor of the Year 2012 nominee – Tony Sheridan. After a two-and-a-half-year relationship ended, Sheridan set up a profile on the dating site plentyoffish.com. Nobody viewed it.
But when he appeared on ‘Come Dine with Me Ireland’ he got more than 400 friend requests on Facebook. “This one girl popped up on chat after the first night of the show. I looked at her profile, and she was a very attractive girl. After five minutes of chat she said she could come over to mine if I didn’t mind her staying the night. I blocked her,” he says. “I’m not a one-night-stand kind of guy. I’m actually a bit of a prude.”
Sheridan is now cautious about chatting to strangers online. “I had watched the documentary ‘Catfish’, about people lying about themselves online. One girl popped up on chat a few times after the show ended . . . I got talking to her. She had a very attractive profile,” he says.
“On Facebook one night I divulged some information to her that I probably shouldn’t have. Soon after, she added a friend of mine and poked him. My friend found five profiles on Facebook and Bebo with the same pictures” of the woman.
Despite this, he is well disposed to dating through social media. “I don’t think I’ve had a relationship over the past seven years that hasn’t stemmed at least a little from social media. Meeting people on Facebook and Twitter is becoming normal.”
Sheridan agreed with a friend that, if they were still single at 28, they would marry each other. They’ve since raised that to 38. His Plenty of Fish account still has no views. JASON KENNEDY