Stigmatised for being single: More women are choosing to live alone but they”re becoming irritated at being pitied and patronised by their married friends
Don”t judge me: Happily single mother Charlotte with her daughter Deya, seven
At the end of a long night, during one of those in vino veritas moments that sneak up on us now and again, a male friend turned to me and said: ‘Your biggest problem is that you’ve never picked a proper man to marry.’
It was only the next morning, when I digested his remark fully, that I realised how angry it made me.
Apart from financial anxiety — which I’m suffering along with most of the population in this grim economic climate — I am, otherwise, very content with my life.
I live in London with my seven-year-old daughter Deya, whom I love beyond reason.
I have a close-knit group of supportive friends, a rich and busy social life, and a varied career in film-making and journalism that I enjoy hugely and which has taken me all over the world.
I’ve never considered my status as a single woman to be a ‘problem’.
No, I have never had a husband, but I’m closer than ever to Deya’s father, who lives a couple of minutes away from us.
More than half of my closest friends are divorced or single, so I’m hardly a beleaguered minority — and we appear to be part of a growing phenomenon.
New figures released by the Office for National Statistics show that over half of British adults are unmarried.
Today, nearly a third of women are living alone by the time they reach retirement age, and more than half of women under 50 have never been married — double the figure recorded 30 years ago.
Why, then, do I sometimes feel people are judging me, even pitying me, for not being one half of a couple There’s even a new word for this phenomenon: singlism.
That’s the term coined by American social psychologist Professor Bella DePaulo in this month’s Atlantic magazine to describe the prejudice against those, like me, who are not in a committed relationship.
Professor DePaulo says singlism ‘serves to maintain cultural beliefs about marriage by derogating those whose lives challenge those beliefs’.
Reading such a clear definition made me realise just how much I’ve come across singlism in my own life — in the way, for example, that married friends put their head to one side, bite their lip in a concerned way and ask in a whisper: ‘How are you coping’
My friend Emma Collins, 51, knows exactly how it feels to be patronised and pitied for being without a man.
‘The worst part of being single is those pitying looks you get from married people who just can’t believe that you’re better off on your own, however strong the evidence is that you look and feel better,’ she says.
Famous singletons: Bridget Jones (played on screen by Renee Zellweger) plays a single woman in her 30s looking for love in the hit film and books
When Emma married for the second time in 1989, she moved to Gloucestershire with her husband and had four children.
Two years ago, much to her friends’ surprise, she and her husband separated and are now divorced.
While her husband has found another partner, Emma remains happily single — and has no intention of remarrying.
Her children, aged between 21 and 14, visit their father, but spend most of their time with their mother.
The reasons for her divorce are many and complex, but since she has been living alone, Emma, a jewellery designer, has discovered she loves her independent life in a way she’d never imagined possible.
‘I didn’t expect to be so happy,’ she says. ‘But I relish and enjoy being able to do what I want. I have an incredibly supportive community of like-minded single friends and I’m really loving my life.’
Another friend, Catherine Mansel-Lewis, divorced more than 20 years ago and has since worked hard as a freelance public relations consultant and raised her son, too busy getting on with life to fret about whether she’s perceived as a sad singleton.
‘I enjoy my life too much to worry about a partner or husband,’ she says. ‘I don’t need either.’
She points out that while we tend to think of the single life as being a modern phenomenon, it’s hardly unprecedented.
Support network of friends: The four best friends from Sex and the City played the roles of single women enjoying independent lives on the hit TV show and films
‘Between the wars, when there weren’t many men around, there were lots of single women enjoying life on their own.
Being single is nothing new.’ I ask Catherine, who is 54, if she would ever remarry. ‘I certainly wouldn’t rule it out, but a good man is a rare breed,’ she says.
‘There are some very good relationships out there, but even Mr Right has his drawbacks. In a committed relationship both sides have to accept and even cherish each other’s faults. So we pick on each other’s weaknesses and undermine our partner instead of supporting them.
‘To my mind the perfect man and marriage is a fantasy, but the trouble is we’re all sold on that fantasy.’
Bella Wauchope, 48, lived that fantasy for 24 years as a wife and mother ensconced in the Wiltshire countryside until her marriage collapsed under the strain of work, money and raising a family.
‘The other day I realised I’d spent over half my life being married. My husband and I created six children and I was a dedicated wife,’ she says.
‘I respected my marriage, but I also respect my divorce. When we split up three years ago, I felt fear, shame and a loss of identity.
… BUT THERE”S GOOD NEWS FOR THE WORLD”S MOST FAMOUS SINGLETON
Bridget Jones, the world’s most famous singleton, is about to embark on the next chapter of her life.
And it looks like she will be replacing her notorious big knickers for even bigger ones — and adding a maternity bra.
For details of the plot to the third Bridget Jones film — due in cinemas in 2013 — have been released, and this time the eponymous heroine falls pregnant.
The twist She doesn’t know which of her long-term love interests — Mark Darcy, played by Colin Firth, or Daniel Cleaver, played by Hugh Grant — is the father.
The character of Ms Jones was originally created in 1995 by journalist Helen Fielding for a newspaper column about a single, London thirtysomething.
Fielding’s subsequent hugely successful novels Bridget Jones’s Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge Of Reason spawned the first two movies. But although Fielding herself has co-scripted the third movie, there is no actual book on which it’s been based.
Renee Zellweger suffered for her art in the previous cinema excursions by having to podge up from a Hollywood size zero to a British size 14.
Maybe this time the props department can just strap on a giant baby belly.
‘Reassembling my life seemed impossible because my marriage had defined me. But after six children the marriage had imploded and I needed to find a new path for myself.’
Yet rather than supporting her, Bella says her friends from her married days regarded her with suspicion and can’t identify with the single woman she now is.
‘Having been with my ex for so long, I realise the intensity involved when you share your life with another person, and it is a joy for me not to have marriage on my agenda,’ she says.
‘Four of the children are grown-up but I still have two boys at home and I enjoy being totally involved in their life. Having re-invented my own life, I’m enjoying the serendipity of every little thing around the next corner, and the freedom of choice I have now.
‘I’ve set up my own jewellery business, I’m a model for an art studio and a guide for a cultural tour company, and for the first time in my life I feel very “me”, not guilty about it and not half of someone else.’
There is a common theme here. If so many women like Bella, Catherine and Emma are discovering just how fulfilling life can be outside of a marriage, why then are single women like them — and me — subjected to singlism Shouldn’t we be admired rather than pitied for proving that a long-term relationship with a man is not the only route to personal happiness
Yes, I have read the statistics that marriage brings enormous benefits. Married people live longer than their single counterparts; single women have mortality rates 50 per cent higher than married women; married women are 30 per cent more likely to rate their health as excellent or very good compared to single women.
But with the practical and financial imperatives to marry consigned to the history books, the most compelling incentive for marriage is the emotional bond it can offer.
We may no longer need husbands for economic reasons, but instead women are persuaded that life’s holy grail is marital love.
We are conditioned from childhood into the profound belief that somewhere out there is our missing ‘other half’.
I only need to watch my seven-year-old daughter dancing around the room, misty-eyed, after watching Disney’s Cinderella to see she she has already absorbed the key message that ‘some day her prince will come’.
But historian Stephanie Coontz offers a note of caution to those living in the expectation of Mr Right sweeping them off their feet and leading them towards an eternal happy-ever-after.
Who”s the daddy Bridget Jones does not know which one of her love interests is her baby”s father in the upcoming fiilm
‘When a couple’s relationship is strong, a marriage can be more fulfilling than ever,’ she says.
‘But by overloading marriage with more demands than any one individual can possibly meet, we unduly strain it, and have fewer emotional systems to fall back on if the marriage falters.’
Susanna Abse, of the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships, believes it’s time for a reassessment of emotional expectations.
‘You’ll never get me saying that relationships are not important because they are. Relationships are extremely important and people need them, but some of today’s marriages, within the tight confines of a nuclear family and without lots of outside support are bound to implode,’ she says.
‘We’ve become very atomised, and the expectation that one person can sustain you entirely and meet all your needs is just too high.’
With that in mind, isn’t it time that singlism was deemed as unacceptable as all other forms of prejudice
Even if there is no malice behind it, we single women still find it unsettling to know that many of our married peers regard us with sympathy or suspicion.
My friend Claire Zambuni, who has never married and is bringing up her 15-year-old son alone, explains: ‘Married people always want me to perform or get wildly drunk with them.
‘They say: “You’re our token singleton so amuse us with tales from your outrageous world.”’
Claire, 40, is based in London, but for a while she lived in Berkshire where she says the prejudice was particularly acute. ‘In the countryside it’s much worse: people see you as a social pariah,’ she says.
‘You get the lunch slot: people don’t ask you to dinner because it’s all about place settings, and being single just doesn’t work.
‘Besides, they’re scared you’re after their husbands, even though you’re not in the slightest bit interested in them.
‘No one seems to get it into their head that I don’t want that kind of life. I’m having a wonderful time being independent.’
After all, as Professor Bella DePaolo points out: ‘We are far more than whom we are (or aren’t) married to: we are also mothers, daughters, sisters, aunt, friends, colleagues and so on.’
Single women do not lack for love. Our relationships, like our lives, are varied and fulfilling, neither compromised nor defined by coupledom. It’s time singlists saved their pity for those who deserve it.