The single file
INTERVIEW:Being single is often defined by what you don’t have – a relationship. In her new play, Una McKevitt gathers a gang of singles to share their stories, writes UNA MULLALLY
NEVER THOUGHT of myself as single, even when I was. I was just ‘between relationships’.” Playwright Una McKevitt is talking about the personal part of the inspiration for her play, Singlehood, which premieres at the Absolut Fringe, having evolved from a 20-minute piece to a full-length performance.
McKevitt, a critically acclaimed writer and director who specialises in documentary theatre, admits addressing the state of being single isn’t exactly an original idea, but there is something compelling about watching the “actors” sharing their personal stories of singlehood and swapping lines in rehearsals. Themes emerge: sex, loneliness, marriage, kids, dating, baggage.
Every time McKevitt broke up with someone, she found herself in another relationship a few weeks later. “It was, like, maybe all those single people, maybe they’re actually selective!”
A personal revelation about what she calls “serial monogamy” and a tendency towards codependent scenarios meant she felt she was always “leaving a relationship already interested in somebody. Or becoming interested in somebody to leave a relationship. It couldn’t just be, ‘Oh, I want to be on my own.’ This was all unconscious; I didn’t realise there was something wrong with this, because there is something wrong with it.”
McKevitt also realised the play couldn’t be personal, because “if you plant yourself into something, you’re doomed, nobody cares”, so she looked at the stories of others. She approached people she knew as single, talking to friends and family and interviewing people individually. Starting with six or seven initial conversations, she eventually compiled 50 interviews.
And while Singlehood is about personal stories, it’s also about something much bigger. “We’re told that there’s this big shift in the world, so I’m aware that it’s kind of a cultural reality that’s becoming more prevalent, but at the same time it’s an unoriginal idea. Everything is about relationships, really: plays, films, TV. But actually, those films about looking for relationships, they are about ‘single’ – it’s just that that’s not really the focus. The focus is always about getting them away from that [singleness].”
Singlehood is generally viewed as one of two things: a period of adventure, a state symbolising freedom, independence, excitement and sexual exploration with the patron saint of George Clooney winking at your every move; or a lonely, Pot Noodle-eating, couch-bound “you have No. New. Messages” state of being left on the shelf, and with patron saint of Bridget Jones handing you a Kleenex after another viewing of The Notebook.
When researching this piece I rang a male (attached) friend in his 30s and asked if he knew any single men his age. “I think finding them is a problem a load of birds have, isn’t it?” Touché.
We rarely really hear the voices of single men, but McKevitt found that when talking to men, they were just as willing to share information about their single lives, most of them bringing up the same insecurities women have: primarily, a fear of loneliness, and confidence issues.
Conor Behan, a 24-year-old from Carlow, is a member of the Singlehood cast. “It’s weird because the best thing is I have this independence. I go wherever I want, I do what I want, I don’t have to leave the nightclub at a certain time. But it can be lonely. Even to have someone to cuddle while you watch crap television, someone to curl up with. You do feel a little bit when you’re on your own you’re out of step. No matter what age or sexuality you are, you are expected to settle down. The expectations of other people are hard to deal with.”
Behan, who has never had a long-term relationship, feels that singlehood is universal. “Everyone’s experience is unique, but at the same time, everyone is kind of in the same boat. Whether you’re in your 30s and have a kid or are 21 and have just broken up with your first boyfriend.”
He jokes that he has been single for 24 years. “If you’ve never been in a relationship, technically are you even single? Are you defined by what you don’t have?”
Relationships – past ones and potential ones – shroud singlehood. In her interviews, McKevitt found one of the most common stories of singlehood was people “recovering from relationships”.
There’s little difference in how her 50 interviewees spoke about singlehood, regardless of age, gender or sexuality, aside from gay men.
“Straight people talk about ‘sober sex’ a lot, as a thing, not having any, ever,” McKevitt says. “We did a ‘single symposium’ one time and we were asking people about it, and there was a gay man there at the end who was like, ‘I’d just like to say, I feel so sorry for all these straight people.’ But it’s true. Men and women, and probably lesbians, let’s face it, probably have more drink-fuelled evenings, whereas gay men have easier ways of negotiating sex. I guess that’s more about being single and finding sex in a more strategic kind of way.”
When it comes to dating, sex is obviously always hanging around in the background. “Guys seem to be more into playing the field, and guys now are very forward when it comes to expecting you’ll sleep with them. They’re very presumptuous,” says Helen Francis (34), from Donegal, reflecting on her online dating experiences.
“I think the [dating] situations I’ve been in, eight times out of 10 they think if you’re putting yourself out there to meet someone, you’re obviously putting yourself out there to sleep with them. But it’s different from meeting someone in a bar, right? I would want to have a more emotional connection with someone.”
When you think about it historically, pairing up only changed in the last century. Women are slightly more liberated than they were in the times of hanging around caves; they can choose not to have children, and in countries with more gender equality, the age of marriage is rising. Occasionally, through circumstance or necessity, the woman, not the man, will be the provider. In recent years and in a minority of countries, gay people have received some opportunities to have their relationships legally recognised. People can access sex more freely than they used to without having to sign up to a relationship.
But the big change in escaping singlehood in recent years is how technology has become a facilitator. The idea of online dating as taboo now seems old-fashioned, although many people still keep their online behaviour close to their chests in a world where online and offline worlds have merged.
The tapestry of society, as a heteronormative one where there are two sets of people – those who are married and those who are waiting to get married – has been resewn.
For many gay men – the original social networkers with gaydar.com– their hook-up opportunities are presented in Grindr, a geolocation app that allows users to see where gay men are in their area and chat with them. Grindr has been celebrated as a tool of sexual revolution in conservative countries and places where being gay is illegal or dangerous, and also demonised as something that has made cruising an isolationist activity.
The makers of Grindr started Blendr, an app they hoped would cross over to straight people. But its popularity has paled in comparison to the numerous, more formal, dating websites, rather than a simple hook-up app catching on.
Issues of safety and a difference in how straight people and lesbians negotiate sex in comparison to gay men, means Grindr and its ilk are only really successful on the more level playing field of the male gay community. So far.
Either way, technology has enabled us to meet people we might never have come across in the supermarket, at a friend’s barbecue or in a bar. Facebook allows for casual background checks and the discovery of mutual friends. Common opinions can be tapped into on Twitter. Interests and goals can be surveyed on the multitude of dating sites and apps.
Helen Francis signed up to OkCupid, an online dating site, for the convenience of finding dates from home and to meet a larger number of people. “Two years ago, I would have never even thought of going online,” she says. “I would have turned my nose up at it, actually, and thought people were weirdos for doing it. But now, being part of it, I can see it’s totally normal. With Facebook and Twitter it’s in people’s lives already.”
Francis is pausing dating for the moment. “I was on one a week for about two months. I’ve kind of stepped away from it now because I felt I was in an avalanche of dating. There were no more first-date jitters and it becomes more formulaic than organic. I think anybody I’ve met, I’ve been matched up to because we like the same music or have the same spiritual beliefs. You can tick all these boxes, but it doesn’t matter unless you’re sitting down with them.”
Michele Egan (32), from Meath, isn’t into online dating. “I’d be allergic to dating online. It’s a kind of personal thing. I suppose I would be of the school of thought that when you’re looking for it, you won’t see it. I’m by nature pretty organised, so I wouldn’t want to be like that with my love life. I don’t want to be sizing everyone up who comes into my life: ‘Do you have good sperm?’ Stupid things girls can get into, like going to a party and automatically scanning everyone to see who’s single or not single – I don’t like doing that when it comes to guys. I just like knowing if there’s a connection there or not, not because I know five points of information. Equally, I wouldn’t look sideways at anyone in work. It’s my only rule with work. If I’m automatically blocking X amount of men, I’m fine with that!”
Two years ago, she went travelling, returning last April. The period straddled the end of her 20s, a time she describes as “fairly footloose and fancy free”. Before, she would have seen a relationship as a strain. “I didn’t want to go near an aisle or babies.” Now, it’s something she might like to be in. “There’s a part of me that feels a bit nesty,” she says, and she’s begun to see dates as more than a time-filler or something to do “instead of watching Coronation Street”.
Urbanisation created an urban “family” of friends that offers company and a social life without a partner. The ascent of renting culture and shared-housing situations means accommodation options aren’t limited to family or a partner. Globally, more people live on their own. There’s been a staggering 80 per cent increase, between 1996 and 2011, of people living on their own, according to Euromonitor International. In the UK, 34 per cent of households have one occupant. The fastest-growing demographic in sole living is in the 18-34 age bracket. At the dawn of the 1980s in Ireland, there was a dramatic shift in what our households looked like. Between 1966 and 1979, one-person households grew from 88,989 to 142,193, becoming the largest household type next to two-person households.
The trend is growing. According to the 2011 census, 392,000 people living in Ireland now live alone. The issue of independence comes up again with Egan. “It’s really easy to be selfish. It’s kind of the freedom of it, the freedom of your time, freedom of if you’ve got an amazing job offer from wherever, or if you want to go off to Burning Man – it’s a freedom thing. But my opinion of the advantages of being single have lessened over the past four years. When I was travelling on my own, I really missed sharing something beautiful with somebody.”
“Singlehood is pretty shit when everyone else is talking about their kids or their cats. Unless I’m in the picture I don’t like looking at pictures!” says Helen Francis, laughing. “I think when you’re single, you can be very selfish. I went through a stage where my whole life was centred around the person I was going out with, but now it’s all centred around me. The things I’ve learned from that, bringing it into the future, it’s more about sharing than it is about devotion. Maybe I’m just meant to be single. I want to share my Sunday afternoon with someone, but I also like my space. I have a huge amount of love in my life because I get on very well with my family; we’d be very close.
“I’m not lacking in that love, I’m lacking a specific type of relationship, but I feel whole when I think about myself and the people I love in my life.”
Singlehood runs from September 17th–22nd at Project Arts Centre, as part of the Absolut Fringe festival in Dublin; fringefest.com
'It's easier when you're older'
Adie Clarke, 48-year-old behaviour management consultant and Dublin 3 resident, talks to Patrick Freyne about being single
It wouldn’t be my first choice, but I’ve been single on and off for most of my adult life so I’ve developed quite a good life for myself.
I would say it’s easier to be single now than it would have been in my mother’s time. But it’s still different from the norm. The norm is that people link up and have children. There’s a general consensus that that’s what you do, and life is a bit different if you don’t do that.
It’s probably a bit harder to be single in Ireland than in some other countries. I travel to Canada quite a lot and being single when you’re older is a lot easier there.
I’ve always maintained my own interests and my own friendships, whether I’m with a guy or not.
I’ve had three significant relationships and I have been very loved and that’s lovely. I’ve recently come out of something that’s been on-and-off for five and a half years and I would have considered him my soul-mate. I believe there’s somebody out there but I get on with my life.
I have single women friends who say ‘let’s go out and meet men. We’ll sit in Davey Byrnes’, but I never meet partners like that. I meet them in unusual places, when I’m not expecting it.
I’ve really good friends and a really good social life. I’ve taped all of Gok Cooks Chinese so I’m going to cook Chinese food for the winter. I quite like dressmaking. I’m writing a book on behaviour management. I like to write. I did tango for two years. I like to try different things. I love swimming.
I remember when I was about 32 and I was single and I didn’t want to be, I decided that I would spend time doing things I’d never done before. It was very simple things like going into a bar and having a drink on my own. That can be a very hard thing to do if you’re a woman. It was a real education. I learned that you can do whatever you want, really.
Living alone: a measure of social change
Eric Klinenberg, author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, explains why more people are choosing single life and living alone.
Did you expect to be painting such a positive picture of this phenomenon? No. When I started work on the book, I thought it was going to be called Alone in America which obviously conveys something different than Going Solo. I thought it was going to be a book about how disconnected and isolated we had become. I learned that for some people living alone and being single can be isolating, but for the majority that’s just not the case.
You see it largely as a matter of choice: more people in the western world live alone nowadays because they can? Very much so. It used to be the case that living alone was most common in rural areas among migrant working men. Today it’s most common in affluent cities with booming markets and generous welfare states. It’s our interdependence that makes our independence possible. And women are more likely to live alone than men. If you ask experts why so many people are alone today, they tell you it’s because they can. It is increasing in part because people do it wherever they have the economic conditions and cultural independence to do so. There are developing nations, places like China, India and Brazil, where living alone is increasing rapidly.
You find that singletons are much more likely to be engaged with their communities. There’s an idea out there that people who are single are selfish. The truth is that people who live alone in the US are not only more likely to go out and spend time with friends and neighbours than people who’re married, but they’re also more likely to volunteer for civic organisations. And that makes sense if you think about it because families are greedy. Marriages are greedy. They consume our time and energy. Women in particular are more likely to participate in civil organisations if they’re single rather than married.
Why are singletons traditionally seen so negatively? This is a completely new way of living. For the entire history of our species you can’t find a single society that sustains large numbers living alone for long periods of time. It’s unusual in the context of human culture. It takes a long time to adjust to this kind of change.
There are other writers who see the growth of solitary living as evidence of an atomised society. I have enormous respect for the tradition of social science that warns of the danger of self-involvement and the decline of community. But I’m urging people to break away from this nostalgic lament for a golden age where marriages were supposedly stronger and communities were tighter and children were happier and nobody felt lonely. It’s my view that that golden age never existed. I don’t look at the social world and see decline and atomisation. We’re in the middle of this enormous social experiment. It’s not just the rise of living alone. It’s also living with social media and living in an urban world and one where women have more economic and cultural independence than ever before. Social life is being remade in all kinds of interesting ways. There’s far less stigma about living alone than there used to be, but we still treat it as a strange, undesirable condition. We probably need to respect the choices people make more than we do.