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.”
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
Single in your . . . 30s
Catherine Noone, Senator and solicitor, 35
“I’ve had a few significant relationships. I suppose I don’t really get involved with people unless I’m pretty interested in them.
“I’m busy living my life. I don’t feel a massive urgency to trot up the aisle with the first person that comes along. A lot of people fall into that, and I’m really glad I have the self-confidence to be on my own.
“I was in the Four Courts some time ago, settling a High Court case. An eminent senior counsel took my left hand and paused and said: ‘Can you tell me how some man hasn’t put a ring on that finger?’ You could take it as a compliment, but a male colleague would never have that said to them.
“My personality comes across as quite confident, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m not just another girl who wants somebody to love me.
“The single scene is quite hard, especially if you are in your 30s, because there is a perception when a woman is single in her 30s that somehow she is desperate. Personally I don’t feel in any way desperate.
“I think the Celtic Tiger had an effect on people who are in their early to mid 30s. For a good few years, both men and women were out having a good time, the conversation was about property and money, and priorities shifted a little bit. The booze culture also makes it a little bit difficult.
“Sure, I go out and relax, but when you get into your 30s, you are less likely to meet your life partner fuelled with booze in a pub.
“I’d love to have children. In a way it’s what life’s about. I’ll see what time brings.
“I think a lot of people feel they need someone else to make them happy, but nobody can make anyone happy. You have to be happy in yourself and then you bring something positive to a relationship.” JOANNE HUNT
Single in your . . . 40s
Rachel Henderson, Psychotherapist and hypnotherapist, 42
“I don’t feel that I’m desperate to meet somebody. What’s most important to get right for me at the moment is to have a good sense of who I am.
“I really like the phrase ‘healthy love is a matter of being the right partner, not finding the right person.’ I have been in long-term relationships – but with men who were emotionally unavailable.
“What I’ve discovered since my last long-term relationship is that in order to stop attracting emotionally unavailable men into my life, I have to learn to appreciate myself more. Once you’re in a good space yourself, life seems to take care of itself, and the right opportunities tend to present themselves when you are least looking for them.”
She says that she is one of the last in her group of friends who isn’t a parent. “ I don’t feel any pressure, but when I was in my 20s I would have thought that I’d have had a clatter of children by now.
“I have to appreciate that this is the way my life has panned out. There are a lot of women who settle for a less-than-ideal person because of their biological clocks.
“I live on my own, but I have a lot of friends, a sister and neighbours, and I am involved in the lives of other children: I am very close to two-year-old twin girls of one of my oldest friends.
“There are people who are self-sufficient and don’t want to have a partner, but I am not one of them. I do believe that good intimate relationships are life-enhancing, but as a single person I have learned to develop a healthy balance between time at work and time with myself, my friends and my family. And I try not to neglect any particular area.” SYLVIA THOMPSON
Single in your . . . 50s
John Kavanagh, Self-employed, 53
It is 12 years since John Kavanagh, who lives in Dublin, split up with his wife. “I was 13 years married, and it wasn’t my choice to separate. To be honest, it took me years to get over it. The whole thing about trusting people is a nightmare of massive proportions from an individual point of view.”
Kavanagh, who has had several long-term relationships since he separated, says the readjustment to single life took several years. “I got great advice from a psychologist. He told me to join groups and do something where there are people. I did, and I met people whom I wouldn’t have met only that I’m separated.
“I now have a good few close friends, all separated, and therefore I’m never stuck for someone to go to the theatre or a wedding. We all help each other out.”
Kavanagh says life can get lonely as a single man. He has met half a dozen women through online dating. “I tried it a few years ago, with other friends, and 90 per cent of those I met were grand. There were a few people that were from a different planet.”
Kavanagh believes the downturn has made being single more socially acceptable. “Some people are working away from Ireland and their families, while others have separated because of the financial pressure, so it has gone full circle. Before, sometimes people wouldn’t be invited to dinner parties because they had separated.”
He also says being single is easier because men have become more open about their emotions and their personal circumstance.
“A lot of guys are now just saying it the way it is. They have brothers, sisters and cousins separated, so it’s not so much of a stigma. Being single is not the disease people are afraid they’ll catch any more.” BRIAN O'CONNELL
Single in your . . . 60s
Sheila Brady, Age Action Ireland volunteer, 66
“I have been a widow for 21 years, and there’s nothing good about it. I live alone in my own apartment, and I haven’t had any relationships since my husband died.
“At this stage in my life, I’d love a ‘walker’ – someone to escort me to the theatre, to meet for dinner and to share a book I’ve read with – not necessarily someone to fall in love with or have a sexual relationship with.
“I don’t know any other way than living alone. Mentally and emotionally, I don’t see myself as being able to live with someone else even though it’s pretty miserable on my own. I’m on a limited income, which makes life extraordinary difficult. I try not to look into the future, because there’s no point. For instance, I enjoy my cigarettes even though everyone tells me I shouldn’t be smoking.
“When I was first widowed, I had a job as a fundraiser that I put a lot of energy into. That came falling down around my ears in 2006. Around that time I also had a nervous breakdown, and with that comes isolation, because people don’t feel comfortable around people who’ve had a breakdown.”
She says that she feels well again now. “There are lots of thing I’ve done for myself in recent years. I volunteer for Age Action Ireland, and I’m a member of the United Arts Club and attend a lot of events there. I also volunteer in the Little Museum, because I’ve a great interest in history.
“It’s a new life that I’ve had to find for myself. The only thing is that it all takes effort to keep going. I’ve one daughter who I talk to about three times a day. She has a daughter now, and I’m delighting in being a grandmother. It is one of the biggest things that has happened in my life.” SYLVIA THOMPSON