by Denise Reich
I was talking with my mom – who, aside from this issue, is a hip and cool sort of parent – when I mentioned that I was taking walks with my pets around my neighborhood. She said, very hopefully, “maybe you will meet another animal lover!”
This is situation normal, unfortunately. Over the years well-meaning relatives have optimistically wished that I would “meet someone nice” or “find a life mate” at sporting events, concerts, the library, Disneyland, and parties. Mom has repeatedly reassured me that she doesn’t care about the gender of the “nice person,” as if my reluctance to partner up with a man must mean that I’m closeted and afraid to tell her (it doesn’t; I’m actually straight.).
The problem with all of this is that I don’t want to meet anyone in a romantic context. I have no plans to ever date, have a long-term relationship; cohabitate, or marry. It’s not something to which I’m morally opposed; it’s simply something in which I have absolutely zero interest. It’s not compatible with my life or my goals. I’ve always felt that way, too; even at 10 I rolled my eyes when other people gushed about brides. That doesn’t mean I intend to be celibate 100% of the time; it does mean that I greatly prefer to surround myself with good platonic friends, immerse myself in my interests and work on my career. I will never, ever identify as anyone’s girlfriend, much less significant other or spouse.
Why? We’re a society that still defines and validates women by their connections to others. News stories routinely identify women by their relationships, describing them first and foremost as wives, mothers or grandmothers, instead of, say, rocket scientists. Even Hillary Clinton was recently subjected to such treatment: a recent campaign banner put together by a fan page put her status as a wife before her professional achievements. In contrast, it’s rare to find an article that describes a man primarily as a father or husband, unless he happens to have a famous spouse, parent or child.
Expectations and emphasis on marriage and long-term relationships pervade every aspect of our lives. Whenever you fill out a form, whether it’s a medical history or an application for a supermarket loyalty program, you’re usually asked for your marital status. Why does your dentist need to know if you’re divorced before she cleans your teeth? She really doesn’t, does she? Consider for a moment that paperwork also routinely asks you to provide your “mother’s maiden name” – it’s a heteronormative, culturally biased expectation that a) everyone has heterosexual parents who were married; b) everyone’s mothers gave up their names; c) all children have their fathers’ surnames; and d) everyone comes from a culture that uses those particular naming conventions.
The relentless focus on coupling shows up in leisure activities, too. People speculate on friendships, whether they’re same or opposite gender, without ever considering for a moment that the friends in question might actually enjoy each other’s company on a strictly platonic level. If you’re into comics, films or television shows and want to peruse websites about them, it can be hard to find ones that don’t focus around characters’ OTPs – “one true pairing” – either in or out of canon. Many magazines geared toward women focus on celebrity couples. Marketers send women ads about weddings, children and relationships. “Chick flicks” are invariably love stories. And so on.
Our society doesn’t like people who prefer to be alone. The word “alone” itself is loaded with negative connotations. Women who choose not to marry or engage in long-term relationships are seen as being pathetic instead of independent; unattractive and unlovable instead of strong. Single folks are sometimes warned that they will “die alone” if they don’t have a spouse, as though matrimony is the only available support system out there. Having a strong and supportive circle of friends is seen as frivolous; getting married – and perhaps discarding those friends - is seen as a sign of maturity and “settling down.” It carries over to the job market, too: single employees sometimes face workplace discrimination, such as being expected to take on less favorable or longer working hours and heavier workloads than their married colleagues, or being excluded from social events. Unmarried workers also may be offered fewer opportunities for professional advancement. Not every country offers protections against workplace discrimination based on marital status, either. The Canadian Human Rights Act specifically prohibits it, but the American Federal Equal Employment Opportunity laws do not.
Even outside of romantic relationships, we’re not supposed to go out in public without an entourage, it seems. Those who go to concerts, movies or restaurants solo are alternately pitied and reviled. Nobody stops to admire them for striking out on their own and enjoying themselves; they’re just stigmatized because they don’t have a friend or partner along for the ride. Woe be to those who identify as introverts and need time alone to recharge from the world: they are perceived as being unfriendly, inscrutable and difficult to interact with.
When I was growing up, I only found two things that refuted these misconceptions, expectations and stereotypes. One was a passage in a book about puberty – found in the local library; title unfortunately forgotten, and apparently MIA even on Google Books. It included a section called “The Importance of Being Alone.” The line drawing accompanying the text depicted a boy sitting against a tree, all by himself, and totally blissed out. Years later, when I was in high school, I read an article in Seventeen magazine called something along the lines of “Who Says I Have to Have a Boyfriend?” It was a very matter-of-fact essay by a young woman who opted not to have romantic relationships in high school, and it was a revelation for me. Everyone else around me seemed to think that being in a partnership was a universal goal.
That hasn’t changed much since I was in high school. We spend a lot of time telling young women that they have the freedom to date, marry, form a partnership or have sex when they want – but we don’t add an if to that. We don’t tell them that if they don’t want sexual or romantic relationships at all – now, in ten years, or ever - it’s an absolutely valid choice. We never reassure them that they’re not weird if they don’t have a crush on anyone. We don’t remind them that they’re not validated by their relationships, and that they don’t have to find a boyfriend or girlfriend to appease their families, friends or acquaintances. We never let them know that if they are asexual, celibate, or just don’t want a significant other, they are fine just the way they are.
Many people consider marriage, cohabitation or significant others to be necessary for their lives, and that’s totally okay. I’d never question anyone else’s decisions on that account. Everyone is entitled to pursue their relationships as they please. It’s high time, though, that society realized that such relationships are optional.
Denise Reich is an Italian-born, USA-raised freelance writer. She regularly writes reviews for Shameless and contributed an essay, “The Other Side,” to the She’s Shameless anthology. Her writing has appeared in publications in America, Canada, South Africa and Bermuda. Denise is a gold-medal winning racewalker, a classically trained dancer, a frequent 5K race participant and an aerialist. She performs in various media events and was a featured dancer on the TV show Mobbed.