Until I found myself single at 33 I'd never really stopped to think about how the world viewed my relationship status. Now, after a couple of years of repeatedly having to explain to inquisitive and confused colleagues/relatives/strangers that I'm not dating because I don't want to be dating, it's become all too clear.
Right from the earliest days of our lives, as young girls and then grown women, we are conditioned by society, the media and our peers towards the belief that a happy relationship should be the ultimate goal. Notwithstanding all of our other achievements in life, our worth will somehow be judged by the partnership that we should constantly seek.
From the fairy tales where Prince Charming sweeps in to provide the happily ever after, through teen gossip magazines focused largely on snaring that sixth form stud, to the well-meant reassurance from elderly relatives that 'you'll find that special someone soon'.
Whilst this not so subliminal message is drip-fed through our youth, turn 35 without a significant other on your arm and it becomes more of a raging torrent than a trickle. Panic must surely be setting in by now, the hypothetical yet all important clock is ticking, and pretty soon we'll be heading for stereotype territory, adopting a clowder of cats and letting the spiky hairs on our chin grow wild and free.
Single women in their late 30s and beyond are, or so popular culture would have us believe, bordering on desperate, perhaps a little sad, or just downright crazy. We're presented with Bridget Jones, Miranda, and Father Ted's loyal yet unhinged housekeeper Mrs Doyle as examples to learn from, or to fear. The very word 'spinster' conjures up images of Miss Havisham, wasting away in her wedding dress, letting all of life slip away as she waits for a groom who's not coming.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the coin, a single man approaching middle age experiences no such societal coercion to seek a permanent mate at his earliest convenience. Buoyed up by the suave, handsome bachelor’s we see regularly on our screens, the world is their oyster. From Christian Grey to the Fonz, and much-loved Joey Tribbiani, these guys aren't lonely or missing out on something; they're choosing not to be tied down, and they're applauded for it.
I've quizzed a few single male friends about this imbalance in perception and as I'd imagined, few claim to have experienced the same pressure to find a partner and settle down as I have (at least not from outside their own families - aspiring grannies don't seem to discriminate when it comes to achieving their aim). Whilst some are single by choice and others through circumstance, none admit to being made to feel like they're any less of a person for being alone.
But then these men grew up under different influences. I don't recall Batman or Superman ever hopelessly awaiting rescue, nor do I believe that Action Man came with optional extra play sets containing a girlfriend and a spacious family home. Whilst the girls in the playground were ripping apart daisies to see if 'he loves me' or not, the boys were too absorbed with conker fights and football to notice.
"...these guys aren't lonely or missing out on something; they're choosing not to be tied down, and they're applauded for it."
So why does this seem to be the one area in which we're making little to no headway in equality? Compared to a few generations ago nobody thinks twice now about women running global companies, heading up governments or conquering almighty physical challenges, yet remain single past 40 and we're still widely considered lonely and a little odd, at best. Why are we still putting pressure on ourselves, and each other, to succumb to the outdated idea that we can't function properly alone?
Studies have proved that single women often rate themselves as happier than their loved up counterparts, and my own experience bears witness to that. I know a lot of smart, independent and glamorous women who don't have a partner. For some it's a long term decision, for others it’s a simply chapter in their life, a pause to reassess things before they feel ready for another relationship. They have successful careers and full, busy lives. Absolutely none of them are sitting at home collecting cats and lamenting their lot. As marriage rates drop and the average age at which we decide to settle down (if indeed we ever do) is steadily rising, it's going to become more and more common for women to throw off the shackles of convention and decide to go it alone.
So isn't it time that we start a revolution? Let’s throw out the suggestion that women need a relationship in order to be truly content, reject the insulting stereotypes and politely decline the unnecessary sympathy. Let’s stop judging those that have taken a different path from our own. More importantly, let's teach our daughters (and our sons) that having a loving and healthy relationship is wonderful, but that it's not the only path to a happy and fulfilled life.