‘Break up on social media too’: How to be happily single
Author Catherine Gray on taking a year off dating and finding happiness on her own
It was a seemingly innocent conversation, yet it provided one of the deepest cuts of all. After Catherine Gray visited relatives at 33, she was subjected to the sort of invasive grilling familiar to almost all single women about her unmarried status and all-round arrested development. Afterwards, she sat in the car with her late father, ruminating on how she had been treated by certain family members like some kind of spinster.
“Well, that’s because you are one,” came his reply.
Today, 38-year-old Gray looks back on the moment as a personal nadir.
“There was something in the way he said it – it was being used as a dagger, and I had a wound there anyway so I was particularly sensitive about it,” she admits.
At 27, and despite being single up to that point for no more than a few weeks at a time, Gray had started to panic that she hadn’t found a lasting significant other. By 31, full-blown terror had set in. She even signed up to a €40 online course: “Become Marriage Material”.
“I remember being very drunk and thinking “‘I’ll end up alone forever and why doesn’t anyone love me?’” she admits. “I felt I was failing as a woman as I hadn’t secured a man, and that time was running out.”
The 30s, Gray notes, are a critical and nervy time for single women who don’t want to be: “It’s ridiculous – 32 isn’t a spinster. In your 20s, you pretty much have the upper hand as a woman when you’re dating, but then it flips at about 33, which is when my personal crisis occurred,” she adds. “There’s a widespread notion that women depreciate like cars, while men appreciate like houses.”
At 38, Gray is still single. Received logic might ordinarily dictate that with the passing of time, her unattached status might be an even bigger wound than ever; her market value lower than a Lada car. Not so.
Being single isn’t better than the alternative, she stresses. Rather, it’s a different, equally nourishing and joyous status that has been seen as lesser for far too long
“Ironically, if my 28-year-old self could see 38-year-old me, she’d be devastated to still be single, yet I’m so much happier,” says Gray. “Anecdotally, my friends that are still single over the age of 35 are truly, truly depressed. One of my single friends has stayed in a job she hates because the maternity leave [package] is so good. I can’t wrap my head around it.”
Certainly, it has been an eventful last couple of years for the Derry-born, Carrickfergus-raised writer. Five or so years ago, Gray noticed that her bottle-of-wine a night habit was wreaking havoc with her career, relationships and general wellbeing. On quitting alcohol, she was astonished to note a complete turnabout in her personal, physical and psychological fortunes. Gray then parlayed the experience into one of 2017’s sleeper bestsellers, The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober.
The book title alone is a salve of sorts for the reader, but Gray was astonished at readers’ overwhelmingly positive response. Sensing she might have hit upon something timely, a second self-help/memoir hybrid – The Unexpected Joy Of Being Single – was born.
'People always say things like "love yourself more", or "when you stop looking, you’ll find someone". People are happy to put it back on me as though it’s something I’m doing wrong'
Part personal account of love addiction, part cultural call to arms, Gray extols the myriad benefits of being unattached, calling out instances of singlism and dating panic. Being single isn’t better than the alternative, she stresses. Rather, it’s a different, equally nourishing and joyous status that has been seen as lesser for far too long. It’s not a book designed to cure singledom; it’s a how-to manual about detaching oneself from overwhelming societal pressure to couple up.
“You do get treated like a kid, even though as a single person you’re more of an adult as you’re doing all of the adulting in your life,” Gray says. “People always say things like, ‘love yourself more’, or ‘when you stop looking, you’ll find someone’. People are happy to put it back on me as though it’s something I’m doing wrong. My favourite is, ‘you’re too career driven’. Yes, it’s true that I need to pay for my flat and I need to buy food by having a job. Others tell me that I need to stop travelling, but I’m not going to sit here in England and wait for someone to pick me like I’m in a pageant.”
This might otherwise sound like basic common sense, but a recent brush with below-the-line commenters proved to Gray that her central thesis didn’t necessarily sit well with all others: “I was savaged in the comments section of a recent newspaper piece by people who were married,” she recalls “There were men saying how ugly I was, how I was a one [out of 10]. People really don’t like it when you say things to smash the status quo.”
Hers is not the only title to put a stake in this territory – authors such as Kate Bolick, Bella DePaulo, Sara Eckel and Dolly Alderton got there before her. Yet Gray’s book is the first to be published at a curious social juncture: in 2019, statistics prove that over half of 25-44 year olds in the UK are now single. In the US, 45 per cent of all adults are single; 60 per cent of Stockholm’s householders live alone; and China’s marriage rate is declining at such a rate (down seven per cent in 2016) that the government is offering to subsidize wedding costs.
The conceit that physical beauty will land you a man, and that marriage, children and owning property are the only markers of adulthood that matter is like fluoride in tap water
Yet while single people are now the majority, they’re rarely made to feel that way. “I was really surprised when I saw those statistics, but it often feels more like a third or a quarter [of people aged 25-44 are single],” says Gray. “There are lots of reasons for this: we have higher expectations now and want a ‘soulmate’ marriage. In the 1960s in the US, 60 per cent of women would marry a man they weren’t in love with, and that has dropped to nine per cent. We want to marry someone we’re mad about. And of course, when it comes to dating, we have too much choice. Years ago, we didn’t have the luxury of too much choice.”
In the face of an iron-clad narrative surrounding other halves and incomplete, “kidult” singles, many women have a job on their hands unpacking their true feelings around motherhood and marriage from bone-deep cultural conditioning. Gray argues that such conditioning happens almost from birth by dint of Disney movies and happily-ever-after fairy tales. The conceit that physical beauty will land you a man, and that marriage, children and owning property are the only markers of adulthood that matter is like fluoride in tap water.
“I do question whether people really have kids simply because they’re been told [by society] that they want kids,” says Gray. “I think some people sleepwalk towards the decision. Some of my friends desperately want children, but there’s nothing about their personality or lifestyle that makes you think they’d want kids, or would be good parents.”
'I relied on my partners to power my self-esteem. I felt like a dark room waiting for someone to turn the light on and animate me'
Throughout her teens and 20s, Gray was a steady, enthusiastic dater. There had been some healthy relationships, but many bordered on the toxically haphazard. It was only later that she identified her experiences as the classic behaviours of a love addict. Love addicts, according to psychologists, cling to an idealised relationship, despite a different reality; return to abusive or damaging relationships; place responsibility for emotional wellbeing on others; and crave attention from many new sources.
“I thought my worth lay in the way I looked, though I was certainly no model,” Gray recalls. “I attracted men who thought the same thing as a result. I would just meld into whoever I happened to be with. If they liked cycling, or The Walking Dead, I would too. I relied on my partners to power my self-esteem. I felt like a dark room waiting for someone to turn the light on and animate me.”
It took a year-long “man ban” for Gray to reset her own system in that regard. The thrill of emancipation, she says, was immediate.
'By the end of the year, I didn’t want to go dating again, I found it too relaxing and lovely'
“Initially, I intended to take six months off dating, and it was really hard at first – I cracked at a wedding three months in,” Gray recalls. “By the end of the year, I didn’t want to go dating again, I found it too relaxing and lovely. I realised that I don’t like parties or karaoke – I like walking the dogs and going to art galleries. And I don’t like The Walking Dead.”
Speaking to neuropsychologists while writing the book, Gray uncovered startling scientific evidence that reveals that marriage or love doesn’t necessarily equate to a higher level of personal happiness: “Marriage does give a slight bump in a person’s happiness [score], but it often only lasts two years,” explains Gray. “It’s very simple; there are pros and cons to being single, and pros and cons to marriage. But you do even out with the same kind of happiness.”
The visibility around singles is growing by the day, in tandem with a gradual erosion of the careworn singleton clichés. In the meantime, Gray is enjoying the art of “moderate dating”. To combat what she calls “skin hunger”, a need for human physical contact arising out of a lack of touch, she has stopped saving physical affection for boyfriends.
“I’d never have cuddled with a friend while watching a film but now I’m really mindful to have more affection for everyone,” she smiles.
“The first thing that used to spring to mind when I went on a date was ‘this might be the one’, and I was so loaded with anticipation and pressure,” she recalls. “Now I see it as a chance to meet a potential friend.
“It used to be like playing high-stakes poker, now I throw one chip down, and you’re much less crushed when it ends. I’m glad to say there’s definitely more a sense of perspective there.”
Starting the new year as a singleton
Perhaps it has to do with a good old-fashioned life clear-out; maybe a new-year life inventory has thrown up the unpleasant truths in a relationship; relationship difficulties may have been put on hold for Christmas; or it could be that, after the festive season, new-found sobriety has brought with it some clarity. Whatever the cause, the month of the year with the most breakups is January. According to research conducted by Yahoo! twice as many relationship splits happen in January than any other month of the year.
“‘Forever-relationships’ are increasingly rare,” observes Gray. “Four in 10 marriages end in divorce now, but also, over half of 25-44 year olds are single or divorced, so only around a quarter of us are currently in a ‘forever-relationship’.”
So how best to wade into 2019 as a newly minted single person? Gray offers one simple, but hugely effective, break-up hack.
“For quick healing, break up with them on social media too,” advises Gray. “A break-up can feel like a bereavement, somebody who was part of your daily life suddenly vanishes, and keeping them on your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram can feel like keeping a piece of them. But a University of Miami study found that in the wake of a split, heavy Facebook users ruminated more on the split, and found it harder to move on. Hitting delete and then block seems harsh, but if you give them a heads up as to why you’re doing it (expect resistance) it’s less of a shock to them, and it is a gift to yourself.”
The Unexpected Joy of Being Single by Catherine Gray, published by Aster, £9.99 www.octopusbooks.co.uk