I’m Happy Being Single, But…

Photographed by Ramona Jingru Wang.
How long have you, or your friends, been single? For at least one person in your circle, the answer is likely to be well over a year — if not years. (In my circle, it’s me). That’s no bad thing, obviously. Being single has plenty of benefits (and I’ve written about them extensively). But the data suggests that women today are remaining single for longer than they were before, which raises the question: Even if we are building happy lives without romantic partners, what does this mean for our desire for intimacy?
Kira Matthews, 29, is single, and grapples with this contrast of being at once fulfilled and also hoping for a partner to share experiences with. “Being single has given me so much permission to live life the way I want, like travelling frequently. But I often see people travelling with their partners and I think I really want that,” she says. She’s in no rush to settle down, loves the pleasures single life affords, and keeps learning more about herself uncompromised by another. However, sometimes she wishes she could share the experiences she’s having with a partner — like many of us do. “I remember having a friend who said ‘I’m not dating because I have a good life,’ but wanting to date or meet someone doesn’t mean you’re unhappy or dissatisfied with your life — yet this is the assumption that’s made,” she adds.
The experts believe this may be an increasingly common headspace. Elaine Hoan, a researcher specialising in relationships, says singlehood is on the rise. “While 28% of the US population was single in 1970, by 2010 this rate increased to nearly 44%. Data from 2020 also points to this trend continuing as marriage rates are significantly declining, but it isn’t just happening in the US — it’s global,” Hoan says. For a local lens, between 2006 and 2011, the number of single women in Australia under 45 increased from 1.8 million to 1.95 million, according to the census.
People are “staying single for longer periods of time”, and Hoan puts this down to the financial landscape we’re in, as well as the social studies that have concluded time and time again that women tend to fare better than men as single individuals.
“Staying true to a fulfilling single life doesn’t mean that singles can’t still go on dates and experience romance,” she continues, “but evidence does show that partnered individuals might get the upper hand still, such as through experiencing more satisfying and frequent sex.” On top of this data, the conversation women are tirelessly having around dating app fatigue doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. 
It can feel as though the odds are stacked against finding a partner, which is perhaps why women are doing such a good job of building lives without one. Matthews continues, “When those moments come up, I ask myself ‘What if I had everything I needed?’ I think the mind can get so stuck on what it thinks it doesn't have. I have to actively remind myself of all the brilliant people I’m connected to, the relationships I can nurture and the creative ways I find to solve challenges or problems.” In order to meet more women like herself, she’s joined a book club and hosted networking events — “social fulfilment” has been helpful, which Hoan says single women generally do better to cultivate than single men.
Even if building new social circles is intimidating, we only need to scroll on TikTok to see other women living their “best lives” to remember that we aren’t alone. When you type “single” into the search bar on the app, some of the top searches are “single in your 30s”, “single in your 20s”, and “single life humour”. One TikTok user, Heidi Clements, known for documenting her life as a single woman in her 60s, recently shared in a video: “I wish I could experience a true partnership with someone.” No one watching her videos would doubt how interesting the life she has built is, or how radically appreciative she is of her singlehood. Clements’ vulnerability goes to show that just because part of you is craving something else, it doesn’t mean that your single life is flat or failing. We can be so hard on ourselves when things don’t fall into absolutes. 
Conflicting thoughts around being happy single while longing for a partner can be tricky to process. Caroline Plumer, psychotherapist at CPPC London, sees clients “struggle to hold two ideas in tension, and accept that more than one thing can be true at the same time.” Thoughts and feelings, especially when it comes to the emotionally charged topics surrounding love, often can’t be boiled down to one thing. “Romance, sex and relationship can go hand in hand, but can also be very separate,” Plumer explains. “It’s possible to crave intimacy and romance whilst being very content with single life. You may miss physical touch, or the feeling of having someone compliment you and make you feel special. You may also miss the comfort and affirmation that comes with someone knowing you really well, and really seeing and understanding you.” Meanwhile, you’re happy being single and are in no rush to recruit someone as your partner. “All these feelings are perfectly normal.”
What might trigger moments of craving companionship varies, but loneliness is the obvious kicker. “It’s essential to acknowledge the coexistence of my desire for a romantic partnership and my contentment with being single,” says Domi Perek, 28. “Loneliness often makes me think that life would be better with someone. Companionship during challenging times would make life easier. But I’ve learned to distinguish between these passing desires and the life I’ve chosen for myself.” People have said in the past that she should “try dating apps”, as if to remedy her single status.
“Approaching 29, there’s a growing desire within me to find a life partner, but I’m not willing to rush into a partnership merely for the sake of being coupled up,” Perek adds. Sarah English, 30, feels the same. For her, events such as weddings and not having someone to celebrate successes with can feel confronting. “I’m not immune to moments of longing for a romantic connection, but this doesn’t negate the empowerment I feel in my independence,” English says. “I accept my feelings, then do activities that bring me peace and happiness. I gradually shift back into being content and remember that I have so many opportunities, like how I’ve been able to really focus on my professional goals.” 
Ultimately, the desire for intimacy is human. Smriti Joshi, psychologist for mental health platform Wysa, says “we are social beings with a universal need for connection”, and fulfilment can come from different things: a partner, friendship, family, community. “It’s important to recognise that these desires are not weaknesses or shortcomings. It’s okay to cherish your independence while also acknowledging that sometimes, the heart simply wants another heart to resonate with, and at these times, you can reach out to your network of friends and loved ones or immerse oneself in other things that help you feel supported.” Contrasts in our feelings speak to the complex spectrum of wants and needs we all have, that shift and change day to day. That contrast is a good thing, according to Joshi, as it suggests someone has “a multifaceted life and balanced perspective”.
On TikTok, a post by cartoonist Sarah Akinterinwa struck me. Sharing one of her comics, it details a conversation between friends, in which one says: “Self-love isn’t a substitute for romantic love. I embrace being single but today I feel tired of it. I love myself and crave romance at the same time.” The friend, who at the start of the comic struggles to see how the two states could be felt at once, ends by saying: “Oh. In that case… Me too.” The comment section is full of women who also know the feeling.
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