Chally is a former Feministe staffer. She writes at Zero at the Bone.
I’m really quite troubled by the centring of romantic/sexual relationships at the expense of all other ways of organising lives. Right now, I’m going to explore this in terms of single women being seen as deficient.
I’ve seen so many divorced and older single women pushed out of their social worlds. They’ve been encouraged to build social lives around “couple friends,” and once or if there’s no partner, well. Single men, as far as I’ve seen, don’t seem to face the same freezing out. Wives, after all, are taught to fear the stealing of their husbands, and that they ought to do everything they can to keep them. This is an intensely heteronormative story, too, obviously.
What’s a single lady to do? Get fixed up quickly, of course – although there’ll still be something wrong with you if you are only settling down with someone later in life, or maybe this is a pale shadow of the real life you had with your first husband, because first is always best, or there’s something wrong with you if your presumed previous relationship failed, because ending always represents failure. You really can’t win, so you’d better keep out of social sight and mind.
Singleness is treated as something to be fixed. It’s treated as a state one would surely want to change as quickly as possible. If you’re single, you’re automatically miserable, and everyone’s going to try and figure out what’s wrong with you – there’s nothing wrong with your former gentleman callers, of course. There’s no room for you to be single and happy or indifferent. The romantic narrative of the West has no way to deal with women who aren’t seeking a man, or holding on to one. It definitely doesn’t know how to deal with women who don’t experience romantic or sexual desire. Single womanhood as a sustained and satisfying state just doesn’t compute for a lot of people.
Part of overcoming the shoving aside and suspicion of single women would be, well, to first stop devaluing singleness, and also to look at alternative ways of organising ourselves.
What would society look like if little girls weren’t expected to organise their lives around finding a sole and central heteronormative relationship around which everything else in their lives must then revolve? We could explore different living arrangements. As it is, many wealthy couples keep two homes and stay together on the weekends or at night, simply because they have the monetary and social capital to go with that desire. Maybe it’d be nice to live with friends, or alone, or switch everything around once in a while. We could explore not just a different social structure for living spaces, but explode the normative linearity of life. Maybe you want to have kids before you find love, and we’d shifted enough that the resources to do that comfortably without a dual income would be available to you. Maybe you experience happiness in other bits of life and don’t feel deficient if your life isn’t centred around sex or romance. Maybe all this could also open people up to sexuality and love we’re taught to repress: if you’re not told you have to find a nice fellow to marry, it’s easier to realise you actually want to settle down with the girl next door.
There’s nothing deficient about finding yourself single, or pursuing the kind of life you want. I know that much of my personal unhappiness comes from not fitting various norms, and feeling like I ought to be more normal in order to have a happy life. That’s not an unwarranted fear as there’s real social marginalisation attached to being non-normative. If we expand our ideas of the kinds of lives that are acceptable, older divorced women; young ladies like me who are starting to build their lives; queer, asexual, and poly people; hey, even happily married straight people – all kinds of people! – will be better served.