The news broke and minutes later my phone lit up with texts: ‘Are you OK?’ ‘How are you feeling? Devastated?’ ‘Are you really all right?’ No one had died – my best friend had got engaged. She was the last of our group – apart from me – who wasn’t married and, therefore, everyone seemed to think I was going to fall apart. In reality I was thrilled for my best friend; it was the messages of ‘concern’ that bothered me more.
Vicky and I have been inseparable since we were 11. We were part of a bigger friendship group, along with four other girls we grew up with in Belfast. But while the majority of them got married straight out of university, we went our own way in the world. Vicky moved to America and I to London; it was harder to keep in touch but we managed to remain just as close with regular sessions on Skype, talking through life dramas and dating disasters.
So I was happy seven years ago when Vicky told me she was moving to London. Living in the same place and both being single was brilliant and, perhaps naively, I never really considered it ending. Coinciding with the rise of dating apps, we both dated a lot, but still remained each other’s plus ones at the endless stream of weddings we seemed to attend. My previous relationship had been a volatile one, so for me dating was just something I did between parties and work events. But now, looking back, it was clear Vicky was hoping for something more serious.
When she first met Ruairi, I’ll admit part of me felt replaced, but Vicky went out of her way to make sure I knew our friendship was still really important to her. And six years on, I could see how happy he made her, so it wasn’t a huge surprise when she called, screaming, ‘I’m engaged!’
The proposal might not have been unexpected, but the reaction I received was. I got at least 10 texts from friends and family checking up on me in the days following the big news, as well as concerned phone calls – even from my brother, who would never usually think to pick up the phone.
I was baffled. After all, it’s hardly a rarity to be single these days. In fact, a study of England and Wales found 33.9% of people over 16 are single. In the US that rises to 45% (a huge 109 million people), while in Canada in 2016 one-person households overtook those living with partners for the first time in history.
And, contrary to what my friends and family might think, the majority of us are happy about our single status. Over 61% of single women in the UK say they are satisfied (as opposed to 49% of single men) – and 75% of single women have not actively looked for a relationship in the last year. But despite the statistics, society seems constantly to tell us that we shouldn’t be happy being alone – look at Love Island where the premise is literally couple up or be culled. The concept of ‘being left on the shelf ’ seems to linger in our thoughts. But not only is that reductive and misogynistic, it no longer applies in today’s society. Women are getting married, setting up home and having kids later in life – and also choosing not to do them at all, all the while being happy about it. The shelf is pretty full of great women, happy with exactly where they are.
Psychologist Emma Kenney says the thinking might be outdated, but is so pervasive it’s difficult to shake. ‘Social schemes are powerful systems of belief, and the idea that humans require a long-term mate has been the protocol,’ she says. ‘Until “recently”, women often stayed at home while men worked, this created a sense of “reliance” on couplings. While this is no longer the reality and women can stay happily single as long as they wish to, it will take time for that to become less embedded.’
If I’m honest, I’d have to say that – at times – that belief system is in me too, even if it’s deep down. Rationally, I know that happiness doesn’t lie in bagging a diamond on my left hand and that marriage is as much hard work as lifelong happiness. But for all the positives of being single – I don’t have to answer to anyone or fight for the remote, and many married friends have drunkenly confessed they sometimes envy my single life – there have been times since Vicky got engaged when I’ve been starkly aware of how different my life now is to the lives of my friendship group. It’s a range of things; from when everyone else slow dances at the end of the wedding, to going away as a group and the cost getting divided by room, not person, so I pay double.
I do eventually want to get married and have children, and there have been moments where I’ve drunkenly cried, ‘Why does everyone else get that and I don’t?’ after being ghosted by another guy. So yes, I suppose I can understand why those friends who’ve witnessed those ‘beer tears’ called me after Vicky’s news – rationally I know they’re trying to help. But sympathetic glances and ‘Don’t worry; it’ll be you next’ comments don’t make me feel better. They just make me think that everyone around me is whispering about how I’m about to fall apart – that I can’t cope with other people’s happiness. They feel like an attack on the life I’ve built. I’m old and wise enough to realise we’re all on different paths – and that’s OK with me. I just wish other people felt the same.