Single shame is a real thing. It is also bullsh*t.
Why do we hate this? Why do we hate being single? I mean the collective “we,” the broader single set, the collective currently swiping into infinity, hiring matchmakers, and hunting for a partner no matter the emotional or mental toll required. We get ignored, we get dick pics, we get insulted, we get ghosted. We’re willing to go through anything if it means there’s even a chance we’ll find someone. If we didn’t hate being single, we wouldn’t do this shit. So I’ll ask again: Why do we hate being single?
The instinctual reaction is that we want companionship. We don’t want to be alone. There’s comfort, fun, joy, sex, someone to split an appetizer with, plenty of check boxes in the “pro” column. I don’t need to sell anyone on the idea of partnership, it’s had great PR so far, despite everything from the current divorce rates all the way back to “take my wife, please” jokes. Honestly in what other area of life do we push people to do something while simultaneously complaining to them about all the negative parts about the thing once it’s done? “Hey…hey you, buy this thing that I’m going to talk you out of buying!”
Alone isn’t sold as a good thing, it’s sold as the thing you never, ever want to be. Alone is sad. Alone is wrong. If you’re alone, then you’re like…lonely. Or pathetic. Or sad. And that’s not good! Nobody should be alone. I’d love this to be an essay on the benefits of separating “alone” and “lonely,” because we’ve all watched the Netflix documentaries and read enough Glennon Doyle to know that it’s possible to be lonely in a relationship, and alone while being in the best company ever. And anyway, this isn’t about being alone. This is about being embarrassed.
I think the real reason nobody, especially not a single woman, wants to be single, is that it’s embarrassing. I think we’re ashamed of being single. I think we’ll put ourselves through anything if it means we can find someone, attach to someone, post the picture, and stop feeling ashamed, wrong, and lacking. I also think that the shedding of single shame is why weddings are so goddamned extravagant, because it’s the first chance we’ve had to be publicly proud without coming across as conceited, but that’s for another time, I don’t care about marrieds right now.
Single shame is different. It’s subtle and passive, acquired over time, and if you identify as female, you start acquiring it from day one. We collect our single shame like a sponge wiping the top of a counter that never, ever gets clean. When a “happy ending” means a marriage. When “this is why I’m single” memes are funny. When ex girlfriends are “crazy.” When stories about single women are either sad, or focused solely on sex or the pursuit of partnership. When “are you seeing anybody” is the first question at dinner. When celebrations for single women are nonexistent, but they themselves have to attend countless showers and weddings…or they’re a bad friend.
We’ve absorbed single shame our entire lives, living life in a way that avoids the cautionary tale of the old maid spinster at every cost. You don’t want to end up like that, do you? But they never say when “end up” starts, so it doesn’t matter if you’re 44, 32, 26, if you’re single…ever, you can feel like you’re wrong, like you shouldn’t be single, like you should “fix” it. If you don’t, everyone’s going to know you’re single, and they’ll think something is wrong with you. They’ll think you’re unlovable, unfuckable, high maintenance, physically undesirable, crazy, boring, a bitch, you name it, there are 50 more “reasons” just like it. And all of them carry a deep shame.
The word single itself is off-putting, if that’s any indication to you that I’m fucking right. The word evokes a negative gut reaction. Say it out loud to yourself right now. What did you feel? Why did you feel that? Go on Instagram and look at the difference in follower count and engagement between people who market themselves as serving the “single” audience, and those serving the “dating” audience. The word “single” implies something is wrong. The word “dating” implies that you’re fixing it.
This focus on the fix, as a way to end the shame of singlehood, is billed as this positive, fun, sexy thing. But many of us actively dating know that it’s anything but. It’s also a grind, a chore, and at times cruel and punishing. It’s something so taxing we have to take “breaks” from it. Like we’re allotted a certain amount of PTO from this garbage job every year. Why doesn’t it occur to us to just quit?
When relationships get so difficult that people can’t do them anymore, they end. It doesn’t mean the relationship was a failure, just that it had served its purpose in their lives and it was time to move on. But if you’re single, you’re never allowed to “break up” with dating. You have to keep going, keep trying, because you haven’t finished yet. You haven’t found someone yet. Do you really think you’re that fucking lonely? Or do you just not like what singlehood has come to represent? Do you just want to get out of singlehood because it’s embarrassing?
Being single means what you want it to mean, but for so long we’ve been trained to believe that it means what society thinks it means. We’ve been trained not to think for ourselves, not to even evaluate our own singlehood for ourselves. With so many messages about how bad and wrong being single is, it’s not surprising that we just go with the flow, just keep going, and going, and going, constantly searching for someone, no matter the rocks and rapids we slam into along the way. Y’all: We’re allowed to get out of the fucking river.
I’m not going to sell you on the merits of single life, because I’m insulted by the fact that our own individual validity was ever hidden from us. I’m not going to list for you all the “fun parts,” because it’s your job to identify what they are for you. I myself am very possessive of my Netflix queue and I starfish. Naturally, you’ll have your own ideas. I don’t think I should have to convince anyone that their solo existence is valid. I assume validity. We weren’t born in romantic pairs. We were born as individuals, and as such are individually valid. We’re not “missing something” or somehow incomplete until there are two names on our mail. I find it insulting, a childhood of “you can be anything you want to be!” and an adulthood of “why aren’t you married yet?” They should have said what they meant: You can be anything you want to be, as long as you’re married. Otherwise, we won’t celebrate you, no matter what you accomplish. We’ll always focus on what you don’t have. Think I’m bullshitting? Google every time Jennifer Aniston has been on the cover of anything since her divorce from Brad Pitt. The world makes it clear: If you’re alone, something is missing from you, you should be ashamed of yourself.
I’m not shying away from the word “single,” because I’m not ashamed of it. I’m not embarrassed by my single life, and I’m not ashamed that I create content specifically for those in the single space. I see nothing shameful about being single, and I’ve made it my job to help you feel the same way. I do this because I see a great joy in my time alone, and a great wrong in the fact that I was ever taught to hate it. There are countless freedoms and possibilities in my life that would otherwise require the work of compromise if I was in a couple. And while I do look forward to being in a partnership someday, I’m not going to view partnership as the only valid, shame-free way to live. I came here as me, I am valid as me, and any single shaming is just another excuse to get me to swipe away my money.
Loneliness and embarrassment are two different things, with two different solutions. Loneliness can be soothed with friendship, family, pets, hobbies, penpals, community groups, etc.. Embarrassment can be addressed by coming to understand that we’re relying too heavily on what the world thinks of our singlehood, without ever really considering what we could enjoy about our singlehood. We can also come to understand that what society thinks of single people doesn’t have to mean a damn thing to those of us actually living single. Society isn’t offering us real solutions, it’s just telling us that we’re wrong. Fuck society! While I’m at it, neither loneliness or embarrassment have to be cured by finding a partner. In fact I’d say it’s probably best to address them before you do.
It’s okay to want to be in a relationship. It’s not okay to ignore how valid and worthy your single life is in the meantime. Why do we hate this? Why don’t we ask ourselves this question more often? I think maybe it’s time to start, because we’re not alone, and even when we are, there is nothing embarrassing about it. Anyone who tells you otherwise doesn’t know their ass from their ring finger.
Shani Silver is a humor essayist and podcaster based in Brooklyn who writes on Medium, pretty frequently actually.