The Singles Debate: Men vs Women
You can tell you’re middle-aged when you run into people you haven’t seen for years and they ask, “Are you still with…” and then supply the name of your spouse.
Among my parents’ generation, such a question would have been the height of impudence. But in an age when almost 40 per cent of marriages will probably end in divorce, it’s an understandable – if disheartening – inquiry.
Figures released by the Office for National Statistics last year show there are nearly two million lone parent families in the UK, and 7.6 million households that consist “of only one person”. That’s an awful lot of people who have no one to fetch them a hot Lemsip when they’re sniffling.
I reflected on these chastening statistics on Saturday evening, when I sat on a discussion panel entitled “How to be a Single Woman in 2013”. There were 200 or so women in the audience and perhaps seven blokes, who looked like they’d stumbled into a Zumba class by accident and couldn’t find the exit.
There’s still a widespread presumption that solo status for a male is something enviable and effortless – to be exploited rather than bemoaned.
Yet I wonder whether that’s the whole story. The single women I know, especially those in their forties, fifties and sixties, often seem better equipped than their male peers to lead a fulfilling solo life. They take up tennis and tap-dancing and learn to speak Spanish. They have facials and chic hair-dos and channel their inner rock chick. One fellow panellist described a busy roster of work, tango classes, foreign travel and rehearsals for a production of King Lear. At the age of 63, she looked a good decade younger.
It’s an increasingly common phenomenon, which might help explain why many of the single women I know have flings with younger men. Just last week, I had an email from a single friend that read: “I thought you should know that, on the eve of my 50th birthday, I am having passionate sex with a man 18 years my junior. It won’t last, but it’s wonderful while it does.”
Meanwhile, single middle-aged men often seem to lack the va-va-voom of female peers. I told Saturday’s audience that, as far as I could see, the main reason so many middle-aged women remained solo was that they’d rather be on their own than bed down with males so unkempt their jumpers had their own ecosystems. I also recounted how a beautiful, talented friend of mine – then in her late fifties – once had a date with a man who bought a sandwich from Boots for lunch and offered her half.
I thought (and rather hoped) that the men in the audience would stage a rebellion and protest. Instead, they all nodded. A chap in his late forties said that at his lonely hearts dining society the women were sexy and savvy, while the men lacked social graces and were inclined to be “a bit odd”. Bridget Jones’s famous fear of dying alone and being found three weeks later, “half-eaten by an Alsatian”, has begun to seem more applicable to male singletons.
One major reason for this disparity between the genders is that – with the exception of life’s rare metrosexuals – it’s women who tend to keep men groomed. Both as mothers, and as girlfriends and wives, women coax the less kempt sex into changing their socks, shaving, plucking nasal hairs, trimming eyebrows and investing in new shirts.
Even daughters are at it: when last Saturday’s Telegraph Weekend section highlighted the lonesome plight of 66-year-old Nigel Pullman, it was his grown-up child Laura who had pushed him, brushed and spruced, into the photoshoot.
Sadly, many men lack the kind offices of a fussing female relative. It’s clear to me that what we really need in the 21st century is a panel of aunts-by-proxy running classes on How to Stop Being a Single Male.