Liberating rather than lonely . . . the truth about life as a single?
Published 30/08/2015 | 02:30
Last Thursday I had a really promising date. Of course it wasn't really a date at all, but rather a coffee to see if we wanted to meet for another coffee. At best, online dating is a form of genteel audition.
The rendezvous was at a London railway station so he could avoid catching the dreaded "vomit train" home. I arrived late and flustered, having bolted from a film screening, but for three hours solid, we talked and laughed.
Kissing my cheek at the end of the evening, he said warmly: "We will do this again."
I wafted home fuelled by several glasses of red wine (think blowsy, mid-period Liz Taylor) and began making a frenzied to-do list: book Pilates classes, clean flat, learn to blow-dry hair properly (cf tutorials on YouTube). After being single for 18 months, there's clearly plenty to do.
Of course I don't technically have another free night until November (like most singles, the diary's a bit mad). But hope springs eternal.
And then radio silence. No follow-up text or email. I could see he'd logged back on to the dating site.
Possibly the lovely man had met an even lovelier girl, with more Thursdays in prospect.
A week on, I've allowed myself a brief moment of disappointment. Followed by, well, could that be relief? The to-do list can go back on hold. Ditto the body maintenance.
It seems I'm not the only one to flirt with ambivalence. Last week, a new survey by researchers at the University of Auckland found that - contrary to the perception of Bridget Jones types, weeping into their chardonnay - many single people are actually happier on their own than being coupled up.
And according to the UK's Office for National Statistics, the number of single people in Britain is up three million in a decade.
Of course, past research has also shown that good relationships bring stability, happiness and better health. Not to mention a significant other to help with zips and applying suncream.
But if you shy away from hurt and drama, or have what psychologists call "avoidance social goals" (i.e. you try at all costs to avoid conflict), then a single life is likely to bring more contentment, according to the survey of 4,000 people, who ranged in age from 18 to 94, and who varied from being single to married for decades.
I can see the advantages in staying single - it's a form of emotional armour. Not only is it safer, it automatically removes the anxiety associated with relationships. Is he bored? Is she angry? Am I stifled?
When did we start talking about the cat so much?
Because emotional intimacy takes work. And many of us who travel with baggage are too scared of losing our unique selves, of letting other people see us as we really are (complex, flawed). In that sense, life spent alone - as opposed to being lonely - can be liberating. "This is actually the first evidence that being single doesn't necessarily undermine life satisfaction or well-being, and in fact may offer benefits including protection against being hurt or rejected by relationship partners," says Yuthika Girme, who led the Auckland study.
I've always considered myself a positive single. A late starter on the social scene, I threw myself into work and travel in my 20s and 30s. Occasionally I longed for a night in with beans on toast with a significant other. But an ability to attract commitment-phobic men meant that fantasy was rarely tested.
So I can see how remaining single long-term must, whether at a conscious or unconscious level, involves an element of choice. When I did finally settle into a grown-up relationship in my forties, it felt thrilling. But gradually I realised no one person can answer all your needs. And if you're proud, it's hard to ask for help. You can crave intimacy without being able to articulate it.
When my boyfriend and I broke up after two years, I felt real pain but also some peace. Life is calmer after the hurly-burly of a relationship that is only just enduring. You can now plan things, book holidays, not feel guilty that you're enjoying yourself or want to go to that last-minute party. And obviously the gnawing worry about exactly when it's going to end is over.
"Rejection is the beginning of being free," as Germaine Greer once put it.
Plus, I can't say it loudly enough: friends are the joyous, freely chosen part of our lives. I don't really believe in The One (yes, he clearly doesn't believe in me, either).
But it is my love affair with my friends that has formed the cornerstone of my life. This month, for my birthday, four of us celebrated at a gorgeous historic house hotel. It was unapologetically glam, with a high thread count (the waiters were utterly mystified by who was dating whom) and nobody argued. Even in the car.
No wonder that researchers at the London School of Economics, who spent three years recording the ebb and flow of 50,000 people's moods, discovered that most were far happier when with their friends than with their partners.
I have friendships I have nurtured for 35 years. They take work and care to bloom. I'm slightly irritated when people say: "You're lucky to have so many friends." Luck has little to do with it: it's all about the admin.
Remembering birthdays, people's parents, new jobs. Friends are the new para family. We just happen to live separately.
Are we happier that way? Ostensibly so. I love my flat - bought when it was the tiniest, cheapest flat in London. Every single woman needs a maisonette; somewhere the cats can hold their heads up high. But I do appreciate that living alone for decades, in a clutter-less room of one's own (apologies to Virginia Woolf) can be problematic, too, and leave you a bit set in your ways.
One day I plan to live communally again in a riotous halfway-to-hell house (top of the current wish-list is an Edwin Lutyens house outside Eastbourne) with my friend Helen, her husband and fellow ageing waifs and strays. We just need a pool and a cinema and a stairlift and some bendy assistants.
So have I given up on love? You might think... I sympathise so much with the singles identified by this survey who prefer to avoid the drama of relationships.
But however much I adore my friends, I persist (perhaps foolishly) in hoping something more will "take" one day. Ideally when I'm not even looking.
I wonder if the real lesson in this research is that learning to handle a fear of hurt and rejection might be an even better strategy than opting out.
Admittedly, my life might be easier and kinder if I was happy to retire altogether from the romantic arena. I really do envy people who know they prefer their own company to anything else; who would actively choose a great boxset or baking over a B-list night out, content in their own skins.
It's a gift.
Me, I'm always hiring. The potential of connecting with another human being, however risky, is too exciting - I'd hate to give up on the project.