Michael Cobb is a professor of English at the University of Toronto and author of “Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled” (NYU Press).
You are single. Everyone is. Perhaps you have a husband, wife, boyfriend or girlfriend and you think you’re not. You might be feeling smug that you aren’t forced to spend your free time endlessly swiping left or right on Tinder, or messaging back and forth hoping that all the endless “small text” will finally summon that perfect partner. But in some fundamental ways, you’re mistaken. When it comes to the romance business, it’s always open season and everyone is fair game.
Consider a few statistics: People in the United States spent around $18.9 billion last year on candies, flowers, meals and gifts for their loved ones for Valentine’s Day. China’s wildly popular National Singles’ Day last year generated a record $14.3 billion in online sales. Tinder is worth $1.6 billion and projects 58 million monthly active users by the end of 2016, even as a study estimates that 42 percent of its users already have partners.
[Other perspectives: Being single shouldn’t mean being alone]
Romantic worry is a boon for the businesses that traffic in mating, dating and their attendant spending. When was the last time you went on a good date? Is there someone else who would appreciate you more? It is vital for this sector’s economic growth to keep people in a constant state of anxiety and desire, willing to keep “playing the field” and swiping left or right. If people aren’t unhappy about being single, the businesses that rely on matchmaking fail.
Unfortunately for these marketers, having a uniform understanding of singlehood around the world is tricky and perhaps impossible. People of different genders, sexualities, ethnicities, religions and classes have varied romantic habits and concerns, even though many of those considerations overlap or intersect.
We could say, for instance, that gay cisgender men and straight cisgender women rightly share similar worries about aging and dating, since men of all sexualities are frequently youth-and-looks-obsessed. Conversely, straight cisgender men can put off long-term romantic coupling for much longer, if they are wealthy, powerful or successful enough to be attractive for reasons that outlast their waning physical appeal. Religious faith traditions that promote abstinence before marriage obviously shift how religious singles view the dating game. And those singles — from whatever race, class, gender, sexuality — who would like to remain single are even more enigmatic.
Yet all of these quite varied cultures are eclipsed by pervasive and perhaps purposeful misunderstandings of what being unpartnered might mean. Discussions about singlehood are frequently not about actual people’s single lives. Portrayals of the singledom are more often advertising that conjures up life’s unsettling and existential questions about being alone in the world, which then tie us to the industries that make us believe that dating, romance and marriage will offer the answers.
Being single, we’re told in film, television, music, advertising and even the Supreme Court, is a state of existence that is lonely, pathetic, hopefully temporary and meaningless. Being single is a life that is more expensive. Being single is a life lived wrongly. There is no adequate art, culture, politics or law that understands singleness on its own (often satisfied) terms as something other than a bitter life of being unlucky in love.
I’m convinced that most discussions of singlehood should primarily be understood as the perpetual marketing and branding of the deep fears of our lives: Why do I often feel lonely? What is valuable about me? Is my life meaningful? Will I be remembered? Can I rely on anyone? Who will kiss me goodnight? Who loves me?
Thus, the negative branding of singlehood lurks in everyone’s anxious heart, especially when we’re feeling depressed, unsettled, unsatisfied and bored. And the Big Romance Business certainly profits from keeping everyone single in this way at least some of every day.
But we’re being “singlehood-winked” here.
Any romantic loving relationship is largely a matter of chance. Each relationship has its odd, unruly and unpredictable dynamics that cannot be understood in advance. A relationship, like a person, is not an appliance. It’s not a thing to be acquired. If you do find that special someone, you’re not guaranteed relief from all of life’s lonely, disturbing concerns. And people who are single — more than half of the U.S. population — aren’t just desperate, pathetic creatures hoping for better luck. They can’t all be living tragic lives.
Any life — single or not — can have similarly deep rewards and sorrows, but somehow single life is thought to be worse even when it is not. The problem with being single is that being single has been branded in such a way to make us all crave a kind of coupledom that can’t last. Let’s stop taking the bait. It’s time to ruin that brand.
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