‘Self-partnered’ Emma Watson: the sudden rise of the single positivity movement
More and more people are casting off outdated stigmas and embracing a happy life on their own
Emma Watson: “I’m very happy. I call it being self-partnered.” Photograph: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images
Once upon a time we were brought up on fairytales. If we were lucky, they said, we would meet a prince or princess and live happily ever after. If not, we would tread a lonely road to the grave, with only cats to comfort us.
But an increasing number of “single-positive” people are rejecting the notion that true love is the only path to happiness. Just this week, the actor Emma Watson told Vogue how a “bloody influx of subliminal messaging” had left her “stressed and anxious” because she was heading into her 30s without a husband and baby. Now, however, she is “very happy” to be single.
“I never believed the whole ‘I’m happy single’ spiel,” she told the magazine, saying she had gradually changed her views. “It took me a long time, but I’m very happy. I call it being self-partnered.”
Watson (29) said “if you have not built a home, if you do not have a husband, if you do not have a baby, and you are turning 30, and you’re not in some incredibly secure, stable place in your career . . . There’s just this incredible amount of anxiety,” she said
The pop star Selena Gomez, meanwhile, whose single-positive songs include Lose You to Love Me and Look at Her Now, has been talking about the fun she has had as a “super, super single” woman since splitting up with Justin Bieber two years ago. On Twitter, fellow singer Ariana Grande called the time since her split with Pete Davidson “one hell of a productive, emotional, wild and yet ... happy! year”. And as for Lizzo, who is playing Dublin on November 10th, she is proud to say she puts the “sing in single”. As she put it in her 2017 hit Truth Hurts: “I will never, ever, ever, ever, ever be your side chick/ Ain’t worried ‘bout a ring on my finger.”
Some people seem to think going to the cinema or having dinner by yourself is weird, but it’s brilliant
Abi Jackson (37) fell in love with the single life in 2015 after the end of a five-year engagement. “Focusing on what you can gain from being single rather than what you’re missing is extremely empowering,” says the London-based writer. “I took up cycling as a hobby and absolutely loved it, which I might not have discovered if I hadn’t been single and pushing myself to try new things.” She has more time to focus on relationships with friends and family, as well as community activities such as volunteering. “We need to start saying: ‘You are enough as a single person’, otherwise it can start to define you.”
Like a growing number of single women, Jackson says she takes herself out on dates. “Some people seem to think going to the cinema or having dinner by yourself is weird, but it’s brilliant. I dress up and really make the most of my night. I won’t hide away in the corner or apologise for being on my own.”
Although she hasn’t ruled out being in a relationship, Jackson says dating turned her into a caricature. “It felt like I was being reduced to funny anecdotes about bad dates and failed flings. It’s easy to become hyperaware of that fairytale narrative, especially for women, but I don’t think being single should be framed around looking for love. It’s about developing a positive relationship with yourself.”
Having dabbled with dating apps since 2017, it’s a feeling with which I’m familiar. While it’s easy to meet people online, I’ve always found it hard to make a real connection. There are only so many times I can swipe left on men called Zed who pose topless in their nan’s living room.
Instead of sitting through another mediocre round of drinks with a teetotal accountant preparing for his next Tough Mudder, I would rather spend time doing the things I love. Whether that’s going to the theatre, visiting the farmers’ market or creating new recipes with my pretentious, overpriced vegetables, it feels more empowering to invest in your own passions. No one wants to end up like Bridget Jones, that vodka-slurping poster child for miserable spinsters.
In 2018, the author Catherine Gray published a book about how her search for happiness had led her to take a year off dating. And what did she call it? The Unexpected Joy of Being Single.
I wouldn’t have been able to have a lot of the experiences I have had if I was in a relationship
Danielle Wrate (43), an editor and publisher, is also happy on her own. “Once you’ve found a way to enjoy your own company and go out alone, it’s liberating,” she says. “The stigma of being out alone is dying out. I see lots of people doing things by themselves now. I travel alone and get the best of both worlds, because I can always join day trips when I want some company.”
This is indeed a trend that is largely led by women. But Rob Smith (36), who runs a property development business on the south coast of England, points out that maintaining a happy relationship with yourself is just as important for men.
“I’ve been single for five years and I’m very comfortable with it. I had a job that required me to travel frequently and I value my independence, freedom and flexibility,” he says. “I wouldn’t have been able to have a lot of the experiences I have had if I was in a relationship.” However, when his family started making jokes about his single status and pressuring him to settle down, he began to internalise their negativity. “I ended up going on a dating spree to try and find someone, which made me really unhappy.”
Look at how Jennifer Aniston was portrayed for years. She was on the cover of every magazine as the woman who couldn’t get a man
After some soul-searching, he came to the conclusion that he was happier alone than trying to force a romance out of thin air. “I deleted all the apps and decided to go back to enjoying my single life.” He confronted his relatives about the comments they had been making, and asked them to respect his decision to be single. “I don’t think there’s as much pressure on men to settle down as there is for women, but it definitely exists. I’m very happy with my life and I needed my family to understand that.”
Although he is open to the idea of having his own family in future, he says it will not affect his happiness. “Men are lucky because they have the option of having children much later,” he says. “I suppose that might be an added challenge for women.”
According to Paul Dolan, a behavioural scientist from the London School of Economics, traditional benchmarks of adulthood such as marriage and children don’t always correlate with increased happiness. In fact, research included in his latest book, Happy Ever After, shows that women who remain single and child-free actually live longer, happier and healthier lives. Yet negative stereotypes about single women in particular can be pernicious. “Look at how Jennifer Aniston was portrayed for years,” says Jackson. “She was on the cover of every magazine as the woman who couldn’t get a man. The reality is she’s beautiful, successful and has an incredible life. She never needed our pity - and nor do other single women.”
Kate Bolick (47), author of Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, couldn’t agree more. Part memoir, part social history, the book follows the lives of five single women at the turn of the last century, including the social reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman and poet Edna St Vincent Millay. “Throughout history, whenever women have been allowed more educational, vocational and economic opportunities, they have delayed marriage or rejected it altogether,” Bolick says. “Many single women are fine the way they are,” says Bolick. “It is important that we show this reality so that singles can be seen accurately.”
For others, a positive approach to singledom involves more than travelling alone or taking themselves out on dates. In 2015, Sophie Tanner, a digital consultant from Brighton, decided to embrace “sologamy”, the act of marrying oneself. “It was a slightly tongue-in-cheek statement against the stigma of being single. But people were incredibly supportive and took it seriously.” Tanner’s spiritual ceremony, which was presided over by a friend, was followed by a reception with her friends and family. By prioritising her relationship with herself, she says, she has developed as a person and found greater self-acceptance and happiness. “It was great to celebrate, because unless you marry or have children, there are no opportunities to celebrate your own happiness in adult life.”
As a society we are obsessed with finding the One
This year Tanner released her novel Reader, I Married Me, loosely based on her experiences of sologamy. “It’s an anti-romcom, where the character embraces the power of being on her own,” she says. Although she believes romantic love can bring happiness, Tanner maintains that having a positive relationship with yourself is more important. “It feels like there are more couples who are settling than those who are truly compatible. People could surprise themselves by realising how happy they could be on their own.”
In a world geared up for couples, it’s easy to subscribe to the sad-single-female rhetoric that society thrusts in our direction. I was heartbroken when I split up with my last boyfriend after 16 months, but I quickly realised it saved me from the type of mediocre relationship that Tanner describes. Except for the days where I’m waging a one-woman war against a fitted sheet, I’m now much happier on my own.
“As a society we are obsessed with finding the One,” Tanner says. “We tend to believe we can’t be fully happy unless we have that, which is just not true. It’s not the norm for people to find their soulmate, but because we put so much pressure on the importance of being with someone, people lower their expectations or put up with average or even toxic relationships.” Now 40, Tanner loves having time for her hobbies. “I enjoy solitude; I love reading, writing and walking my dog by the sea.” She doesn’t get lonely. “Loneliness is an emotional response to feeling unloved and unseen, which can happen in or out of a relationship. It’s about feeling misunderstood or lacking connection. Happy solitude means you are comfortable in your own skin.”
She says she is not bothered by the thought that she may never have children. “You don’t have to have children to complete you, in the same way that you don’t need a partner.”
All you need, in fact, is self-belief. “I don’t see the point in apologising for existing as a single woman or sitting around feeling like I am waiting for my life to start,” says Slawson. “I just want to get out there and live it.” – Guardian