I spent much of this past summer going to weddings. Since 2006, I counted (on my manicured fingers, in the downtime at one soiree while the happy couple were having their photos taken), I’ve attended 18 of the things, and only two of those with a partner. And though I think I’ve been invited to all of these weddings in part because I don’t have a partner -- it’s easier to maintain multiple close friendships when you’re single -- it’s difficult not to regard the well-meaning but undermining phrase ‘and guest’ on my invitation envelope with a frisson of embarrassment. Few things make singledom feel more poignant than the knowledge that a friend is pledging undying love and commitment to someone while you have yet to find someone who is committed enough to come along with you for a few hours to eat a plate of chicken in average sauce.
I’ve long outgrown the age (19 or so) when a boyfriend felt like an essential possession to add to my portfolio; I’m not looking for someone to gallop in on a white horse and rescue me from loneliness or drudgery, just for the sake of being with someone. But being unpartnered does mean that there are also ways in which I feel distinctly left behind, and, in particular, that I am slow to make decisions about certain things because it seems like they should be done with a companion, in tandem.
That my life hasn’t featured Mr And Guest on my right arm for much of it doesn’t trouble me too much on the day-to-day; in many respects, I’m relieved that I’ve had a great deal of space to develop my career and other relationships so far without having to make compromises for a partner. But as my contemporaries mark out their states of maturity with the markers of marriage and children and homeownership, I do wonder: why does being single make me feel hesitant; like something less than a proper adult?
Getting a mortgage, for example, is something that has not really ever been on my radar, because it seems like (is, in fact, for a writer) an unaffordable thing to do alone. But I’m also not sure I want the sole responsibility of dealing with a busted boiler. And as something of a perma-expat, I’m used to people asking me, when they hear my non-local accent, ‘why are you here?’, and then feeling their surprise when I respond ‘I like it here’ rather than ‘I moved here with my partner’. It’s a kind of surprise makes me wonder if it is reason enough. I like flexibility. But sometimes I wonder why I don’t stay in one place, or when I ever will: lacking commitment to anything much beyond where you’re going to have lunch on Thursday can begin to feel a bit stressful. But so can the fear that by making a decision that binds you to a place for more than a weekend is a sign that you’ve somehow accepted that yours will be a life of solitude, at least in the romantic sense.
‘We can’t,’ a single friend remarked recently, wisely, ‘make choices while taking into account something that doesn’t exist’. And she’s right. But the urge is still there to be batted away. I wonder, sometimes, if men in my position feel this as much as I do. It’s easy to assume that they feel less pressure. But it’s not just about a biological clock; regardless of whether you’re aiming to have eight children or none, it’s hard not to feel a bit left behind when you’re of an age when being tied to a partner feels like an expectation, not an exception. When people who once considered your love life to be a source of amusing anecdotes now seem to scared to ask whether you’re seeing anyone. When they also think it’s a good idea to offer you, unprompted, handy facts about IVF treatment that they heard about some years ago on an episode of Oprah.
The solution, I think, is to remember that this is their preoccupation, not mine. My future is actually no less uncertain than anyone else’s; that’s the nature of futures. Which is why I’ll continue to make choices that might not be the wisest ones, were I in a relationship, or were I to get into one tomorrow, but which feel like the right choices right now. Not having anyone to eat that second plate of average chicken, I’ve come to realise, can be lonely. But it can also be a great source of opportunity.