They're pitied. They're judged. But it's time to give them more respect. An expert explains
If the trend pieces and studies are to be believed, we’re living through a new golden age of the single person. Fewer Americans than ever are getting married, and they’re waiting longer and longer to do so. Many are living by themselves, often by choice. And yet, according to pop culture, a lot of them are awfully unhappy about it. In everything from “Girls” to Carly Rae Jepsen singles, our culture is obsessed with the prospect and possibility of finding a partner and escaping the lonely purgatory of singledom. Singleness, the message seems to be, is merely an unfulfilling wind-up for the far greater thrill of a real romantic relationship. But what would happen if we stopped hating on singledom, and started loving it?
In his new book, “Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled,” Michael Cobb, a professor of English at the University of Toronto, argues that our negative attitudes toward single people aren’t just hurting singles — they’re hurting our relationships and our culture. An academic work about music, film and literature, it claims that singles in North America have become a hated sexual minority, victims of our culture’s misplaced and out-of-step priorities. Cobb believes that single life can be as fulfilling, interesting and legitimate as any romantic arrangement, and that it’s high time we gave it more respect.
Salon spoke to Cobb over the phone from Toronto about the possibility of an unmarried president, “Girls” and what it’s like to be the spokesperson for singleness.
You argue that our current culture considers singleness to be a “conundrum.” What do you mean by that?
I don’t think we even know what being single is. We live in such a couples-obsessed society that there really are no “singles” out there — everyone is pre- or post-coupled. They’re either in the wings waiting or they’re past their prime and are no longer allowed to be part of this central way people not only organize their intimate lives but attain social legitimacy. People use relationships to bind themselves to social, political and cultural realities.
I’ve been in lots of relationships and those relationships have their own interesting moments. They are fulfilling in all sorts of ways and distressing in all sorts of ways. But the loneliest I have ever felt is with this other person I am with. And that’s not supposed to be the case.
Intimacies are always kind of like that. You think, “This is supposed to alleviate me from all this sadness and loneliness, and yet it’s just intensifying these feelings — but the single must have it much worse.” I feel like a lot of that bad effect is just projected onto single people, and that condition is rendered pathetic and sad and depressing. This is why it doesn’t have a language of its own because the language of singleness is really the language of couples who are pitying single people.
Funny, I never thought of that. It’s true. We really do use the word “single” really just as a shorthand for someone who’s looking to date someone.
Exactly, or they’re tragic and sad, like old maids or widows. They’re people who just couldn’t make it into that very special status. Part of why that narrative persists is that there’s this overarching disquiet about how you create a narrative for yourself [if you're not in a relationship]. And there’s this sense that this anxiety can be alleviated if you just fall in love.
Right. That’s sort of like your experience with your grandmother, whom you write about in the book.
When my grandmother was dying, on her deathbed, I was talking to her and she put her hand onto mine and she said, “Michael I don’t want you to die alone.” It was part of an ongoing conversation we’d had about how important it was to have a partner. People talk about one of the reasons you do get involved with people is you want someone to take care of you because you don’t want to die alone. It scares you into being into a couple.
From my perspective, [my grandparents' relationship] was an excellent relationship. It was long. It was fruitful. They enjoyed each other’s company a great deal. And it was the way she mediated the whole world. She thought about her world as a shared experience with this other person, my grandfather Joe. There were all these moments throughout the 20th century that were narrated to me through her relationship, stories of WWII were really about my grandfather being on a boat in the South Pacific as a cook. A lot of people do this in their lives, think of people that are meaningful to them and attach the history that is swirling around them to that person. But nevertheless it starts to feel corseted, because there don’t appear to be that many instances in the world that allow you another way of organizing the world. How do people who are by themselves imagine themselves to belong to the world?
In the grand scheme of things, though, why is this an important issue?
If marriage and couples are supposed to be this magic bullet, and your relationship is the thing that is supposed to define and make the world for you, that’s putting an enormous amount of pressure on that relationship. This book is not against couples — it’s really against the primacy of the couple, the anxious over-importance of the couple that actually makes couples fail because you can’t by definition make a whole world out of one other person. If you try, you’re shrinking your world and your existence in the hope it’s going to cure everything. It creates a lot of distress and at the same time it’s invalidating your other experiences you had when you were by yourself, when you were dreaming up other kinds of associations you might have.
Can you imagine a presidential candidate being unmarried? The only people who can get into high political office while unmarried are basically Supreme Court justices and that creates an enormous amount of anxiety, gossip and innuendo.
Well, there were actually two single presidents, James Buchanan and Grover Cleveland, though he got married shortly after being elected. These days, though, I think you’re right — it’s almost impossible to imagine a single president. What do you think has changed?
Over time, love, marriage and romance just became less and less about property and the exchange of property and more of a personal choice. That had a lot to do with the industrial revolution and the rise of commodity culture and finance capital. And this is a hunch, but I think because it’s a personal choice and people are not moved to be married in the way they used to be, they have to be coerced. You have to convince people to be involved in this set of assumptions, traditions and rituals they think they most want to be involved in.
People get very angry when I say things like this. When I was in college most of my friends weren’t going to get married or take their partners’ names or have children; they weren’t going to take the typical route to mature adulthood that requires marriage and a baby. And all of them — all of them — have done that except for one, my friend Kate Bolick, who recently wrote this big piece on singleness for the Atlantic.
It does also seem like we’re entering a new golden age for singleness. People are waiting a lot longer to get married, and more and more people are living alone. Wouldn’t you consider this a hopeful development?
I think so. People are desperate to chime in. I had this Op-Ed in the Globe and Mail last week about my book and within two days there were 400 comments. People are thinking seriously about singleness [right now]. They’re thinking about what happens if they don’t ride off into the sunset with that special someone. What’s been so funny is that Kate and I have had a conversation about this for the last 20 years of our friendship.
When it comes to our attitudes toward singleness and dating, I think the touchstone for a generation of people, especially women, is still “Sex and the City.” What effect do you think it had on our culture?
It was very similar to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” It showed off that you can be single and interesting and buy expensive clothing and go to great parties in New York for a little while but eventually you are going to grow up. Eventually, you’re going to wisen up, put a ring on it and go forward and be coupled and move to Connecticut. We aren’t going to pathologize you for playing around for a protracted amount of time, but eventually you’re going to have to settle. And the marker of success, the end of the romantic story, is riding off into the sunset with that person. But you don’t get to see the next 30 years of boredom, or anxiety, or terror or concern.
“Girls,” which has been positioned as a new, updated “Sex and the City,” has a lot of the same concerns. All of the main characters are grappling with the idea of finding a boyfriend.
I’ve only seen the first episode, but the “Girls” age group is in a tricky place — they aren’t ready to grow up, but they’re thinking about the moment when they are going to. They’re dreaming of being in a couple but still dwelling in this unattached world. One character is involved with that boyfriend who is awful because he loves her too much. He’s awful because he’s potentially the future she’s going to have. The young are terrified of this thing they’re going to have to become.
We’re both queer, and, as such, I think, part of the one subgroup in North America where singleness is still fairly acceptable. Given the push for marriage, though, that may be changing.
Singles are more tolerated in the queer community, at least before there was this voluminous and understandable but overly focused push for marriage equality, but I think the [LGBT] narrative of singleness has been about the narrative of unlimited sexual partners — and I don’t think that’s produced a cherishing of singleness. It still hasn’t gotten to the point where we’re thinking what does it mean to have no sexual relations or to interrupt the inevitability of sexual relations. I have this moment in my book where I talk about how I started attaching “S” to “LGBTQ” partly because being single does feel like a sexual minority category.
Of course, from a practical standpoint, one of the advantages of being in a couple is that when we’re older we’ll have people around to help us do things like, I don’t know, move boxes across the floor. I feel that anxiety.
This is why I started the whole book with the anecdote about my grandma. I don’t think of singleness as an easy condition. It’s very very hard. “30 Rock” had a joke that Liz Lemon would be by herself in her apartment choking on some piece of food and have to self-administer the Heimlich. If I don’t have someone here to help me if I’m having a medical emergency, well then I’m dead. That’s awful and upsetting, but on the other hand, that’s you trying to predict the future, and you could be living with someone who’s blocking your happiness that’s not letting you flourish. People think, “I can endure an awful relationship for a number of years as long as they can help me move the box across the floor.” But think about how often do you really move boxes that require that much assistance.
I was in a six-year relationship that wasn’t the happiest relationship. There were great moments and then it stopped being great and it took me a long time to wrap my head around being by myself. Ending that relationship was better for both of us, and to get to that place is really hard because singleness is a scary place where you’re going to die or you’re not going to be able to move that box. But that fear is probably much greater than the actual experience of it. I was just with a friend who was helping his great-aunt go to his grandma’s house. She lived in this two-story house by herself, and she was able to move around and do stuff in her 90s and seemed happy.
Does it make you anxious that you’re becoming the spokesperson for singledom? That’s a lot of pressure.
I’m putting myself out there as fodder, partly because I do think arguments are more convincing if you personalize them and stand behind them. People attack me for being bitter or not being mature enough to truly commit or being an ivory tower elitist because I’m a professor. It’s incredibly antagonistic because people are fighting for the legitimacy of this thing that they see as so important and they see me critiquing them specifically. But what I’m actually doing is critiquing the institutions and the hierarchy and the prominence of it, not necessarily the actual experience of being someone who’s being involved or not involved.
I was in this relationship for most of the time I was writing this book and it drove people crazy because I was supposed to be this thing I was writing about. They wanted to invalidate me because I wasn’t practicing what I preach. And again, even since the book has been to press I’ve had heartbreaks and relationships and also long periods and long stretches of being on my own, and I’m finding neither condition to be the cure-all. But by asserting “I’m single right now and I’m happy and I have all sorts of fulfilling relationships, interests and activities” I’m creating a conversation about this thing, singleness, that has no official language or culture or history.
I was very happily single for most of the first five years I lived in New York, and almost all of my group of friends were single too. Now I’m in a relationship, which was a little awkward at first, mostly because it involved renegotiating my relationships with my happily single friends, and I was paranoid about creating resentments by, for example, talking too much about my boyfriend.
That probably comes from the fact that couples culture wins every time, so the resentment is that now you’ve become “legitimate.” So the perception is [that you're going to say], “I’m still going to be your friend and I’m going to try to be respectful that you’re in this damned condition even though you’re happy about it.” Hopefully you’ve determined that your relationship doesn’t invalidate the earlier [single] history you had, and they’re simply different moments in your life. You’re most likely the same person you were.
I think that’s very true.
What I’m saying is: You’re still a mess.