On “single”

[This post has been crossposted to Pillowfort.]

In the midst of other inter/intracommunity discussions going on, here’s something I want to put back on the radar: There’s some unspoken assumptions underlying some of how the ace and aro communities discuss “relationships,” and I think that needs to be addressed. For the purposes of making this point, though, I’ve decided to come at the issue by discussing the word “single,” specifically in relation to recent developments in my own life.

This is a post which has been exceptionally difficult to write.

But for now, here is where it starts. The word “single,” for describing a state of not participating in a romantic relationship, has certain limitations — limitations which have been addressed by aromantics before. In short, they would say, the word “single” implies too much. Those observations have weight, but personally, my problem with the word is the opposite: that it doesn’t convey nearly enough.

Here are the existing criticisms (or rather, I should say, reasons-for-placing-distance-from) that I’ve seen about the word “single,” addressing connotations of impermanence:

Part of the reason for this is that I want to keep a clear distinction between being “nonamorous,” and merely being “single”—in many contexts, saying you’re “single” has the connotation that you are open to dating, or want to find a partner. This causes problems for people who are “single” and who want to stay that way.

–Anagnori, on nonamorous vs. single

The word “single” doesn’t feel right. Single has connotations of temporary or for now. “Perpetually single,” a more permanent alternative, is considered distinctly negative. “Single by choice” implies you could be in a relationship, but don’t want to be. Or, worse, don’t want to be right now.

Knowing you don’t want a relationship at 19: why I don’t like the word “single”

…And I see why people are saying these things; they’re certainly raising something I hadn’t even thought about before I had it pointed out to me.

What I want is to push that a step farther, because if I had my ‘druthers, “single” wouldn’t just mean less than that, but also more. Because when I search for a word to express the logistical-social situation I’ve gotten myself into lately, “single” is the most evocative thing to come to mind. To work my way up to talking about that, I’ve thought about what else I could possibly quote here. And, for the purposes of this post, there is precious little I’ve come across that even comes close to expressing this kind of idea.

With that said, I would be remiss not to quote a certain article by Caleb Luna, which describes a social or societal process of “singling” in the sense of “singled out”:

I have never felt incomplete or alone without a romantic partner, but I am beginning to feel particularly singled. When I think about the benefits of romantic partnerships as exhibited both in popular culture and my own observations via my friends’ romances, I recognize that these benefits are not purely financial or physical. They are about daily and mundane interpersonal interactions of reciprocity. In short: investment, and care. The practice of investing in and caring enough for someone to incorporate them into your life in such significant ways that their presence begins to feel necessary, if not compulsive.

When I say singled, I mean the position of being denied intimacy and care from those in my life, who reserve it for others.

–Caleb Luna, Romantic Love is Killing Us: Who Takes Care of Us When We Are Single?

Luna makes a powerful (if also polemical) case for a view of singlehood as an imposed status, salient because of how amatonormativity undermines broader community. I can’t endorse everything they’re saying or exactly how they say it, because even an extremist like me is unsettled by framing others’ prioritization-of-others as a kind of deliberate neglect, but it stands out to me as one of few pieces I’ve encountered to makes the connection between romance, capitalism, and daily survival.

On that, though, there’s another piece of writing that resonates, for how the author expresses the anticipation of others moving on without you — and that’s Rowan’s post On Dependence.

I have what people would call ‘fears of abandonment’; I’m usually pretty convinced that I don’t rank very highly in people’s priorities, and that they will all disappear sooner or later (and that asking for help will heavily tilt it towards ‘sooner’, or rather ‘right the fuck now bye’).

–Rowan, On Dependence

But this isn’t just yet another lament about the devaluation of certain kinds of people or certain kinds of relationships. As Rowan’s post explains, the impermanence of relationships has bigger consequences when you do actually need people for direct physical reasons, such as a disability or chronic illness.

And what do you do then? What if you can’t just say “okay, I can’t depend on anyone, so I’ll get used to it”? What about when you actually, inescapably are dependent?

What do you do if you need help, but you’re convinced you’re never going to be able to get it, and you have a decent chance of being right?

–Rowan, On Dependence

Singleness, to me, doesn’t feel like just an absence of romantic relationships. It’s not just an uncomfortable romantic-vs-nonromantic disjuncture, and it’s not just an unmet desire for peer emotional fulfillment. Singleness may be those things, but also what feels like the best name for the predicament that got me writing and rewriting this post, again and again, since February.

As of this year, I’m at a crossroads: I can’t stay in this town, and I have nowhere in particular to go. My life plan is going on hold and I have hardly any idea what to do in the meantime. It’s hard to explain what disrupted my plans here without divulging too much and getting off track, and I don’t want to really get into it here, but suffice to say, I’ve been coasting on school (all the way up to a MA program) to give me direction in life, and now that I can’t continue in academia anymore, that lifeline has run out. My classmates are all moving onto PhD programs, moving in with partners, or moving (with partners) onto jobs. I have none of those things. The economic prospects in the town I live in now are… not good, for someone like me, and I really don’t want to live here if not for grad school. So I need to get out. I need to find someplace I can get a job and not starve.

Most people, in this situation, I think, would consult their parents on this. Maybe even move back where they came from or move to be closer to family. That’s the traditional go-to when all other leads run out: turn to your family.

I don’t have a family anymore.

This is something hard to express in a few words. I’ve been practicing, you know, how to explain this to people. I can’t even remember how much I’ve talked about this on here, but for the newcomers, here it is: As of a few years ago, I’ve deliberately cut contact with the majority of my relatives and haven’t looked back since. I ran away from home, you could say. Except I was already living away from “home” in that I had already moved out, so that’s not quite it. It’s more like… I just ended the relationships. It’s not that we’re “estranged.” It’s that I gave up, the same way you’d give up on a diseased limb that needs to be amputated because if you don’t it’s going to kill you.

I left. I quit. I broke up with them.

I am single.

Do you want to know something? I started relating to break up songs in a whole new way after I left my family. That sounds kind of gross and weird even to me, but it’s true. And where I’m at, that feels even more socially unacceptable than my perpetual non-participation in romance.

Leaving your blood family means ending the one relationship in life that you’re never supposed to end. It’s the covenant you’re never supposed to break. As much as people talk up the importance of romantic relationships, at least they understand the concept that those can have an end. I’m surrounded by touchstone narratives of romantic breakups. For narratives of quitting family… I have next to nothing.

You know what Rowan and I have commiserated over before? Those “emergency contact” boxes on official paperwork. There’s supposed to be someone in your life who would be your emergency contact. You’re not supposed to leave that blank. Living as a unit of one, being truly “single” in a far-reaching logistical sense, is unfathomable.

And perhaps it’s unfathomable in part because, in our countries, it feels untenable. It feels like I can’t be expected to live this way. Ever since I left my family, I’ve been intensely aware of how, if I were to go for too long between jobs, or if I were to get severely sick, there’s practically no one close at hand to intervene or take care of me. And that weighs on me. That makes my life feel tenuous and unstable in a way that’s more far-reaching for me than simply not having a romantic partner. It would be different if I had solid career prospects and enough savings to coast on indefinitely, but I don’t.

The point of this post, if there is one, is to place this consideration on the table, as a suggestion for community priorities. And by “this consideration” I don’t mean arguing over the most correct definition of “single.” I mean the logistical consequences of living in domestic-units-of-one, without a family, without an intimate network, without social resources that so many people take for granted. This is far more consequential to me than arguing over whatever neologism minutiae. And don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely going to continue arguing over the minutiae. I live for the minutiae.

This is just to say, my investment in community isn’t just an investment in language, but an investment in survival — in “dying alone” not necessarily meaning dying because I am alone.


17 responses to “On “single”

  • demiandproud

    One concept I actually found very helpful in picturing what family, or really any tight-knit community, can mean in day-to-day life is the gift economy (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gift_economy). Within relationships you help each other enormously with freely given goods, services, company etc. If you don’t have that, you literally pay to receive the same from professionals.

    • Coyote

      This concept is something that I’ve thought about before with regard to my grad cohort, because the way we treat each other… well, the principle is similar. If one of us needs a ride somewhere, we help each other out. If one of us is moving or assembling furniture, troubleshooting a problem, or even setting up home internet, it’s the same. I’ve had my cohortmates offer to pay for gas when I’ve driven them places and offer to bring me food and medicine when I’m sick. Some of it’s generic “being nice” types of things but there’s also been situations (especially early on, when we first moved here) where it’s felt like we’ve been very dependent on each other. And there was immediately just this unspoken agreement that we would look after each other, simply on account of being in the same boat. It’s not the same as having a family, but… when we disband at the end of the school year, I’m really going to miss that. As someone who’s slow to meet people, let alone make friends, that kind of social network is really something I cannot take for granted.

      • demiandproud

        Yeah, that’s an amazing example. It sounds very similar to the rebuilding I had to do in moving… except with bonus strain on relationships from people entering new life stages.

  • Vesper

    …ahhhh, i feel this on multiple levels, even if our situations are different. as someone who has recently left a life and country behind for a new one– and who has a lot of experience with starting from scratch without anyone to be there for you short-term or long-term (in Japan, not America, but eh? same difference?), i can imagine what lies ahead of you and how that migh feel.

    right about now is when people often chime in with “but friends!” and “but chosen family!”, which for me has always been like “what chosen family?” while holding back a “what friends?” because i know that “friend” to me and “friends” to them mean different things (which reminds me, i had feelz about that friendship post of yours, mmm) and i dont want to hurt feelings and SIGH.

    all that to say that i wont presume to know what friendship means to you, nor will i stick my nose where it doesn’t belong, but *waves* i consider you to have a friend (who’s more accessible than ever now, but still not all that accessible for practical things i suppose! *jazzhands*) in Washington who is happy to help in any way they can.

    networking beyond academia and community building. 👍🏿plus, you know. other stuff.

  • luvtheheaven

    Do you want to know something? I started relating to break up songs in a whole new way after I left my family. That sounds kind of gross and weird even to me, but it’s true. And where I’m at, that feels even more socially unacceptable than my perpetual non-participation in romance.
    Leaving your blood family means ending the one relationship in life that you’re never supposed to end. It’s the covenant you’re never supposed to break. As much as people talk up the importance of romantic relationships, at least they understand the concept that those can have an end. I’m surrounded by touchstone narratives of romantic breakups. For narratives of quitting family… I have next to nothing.

    Yeah I know on one of my posts Queenie commented on that both she and I relate a lot to the breakup songs because separating from your family that raised you doesn’t exactly have other things to relate to as much in, say, songs, but there are so many parallels when it comes to how I feel toward my mom – trying to make it work, knowing it’s her fault not mine it had to end, knowing she didn’t want it to end but i had to leave anyway, not knowing what she’s thinking or doing or what her life became in the decade-plus of her not being in my life, feeling bitter or angry or sad or at peace with it all being over and moving on are all represented well by these songs and for such a long time in my life, about a decade, I really only related to them in terms of my mom.

    I’m immensely lucky to have family still. To have people to put down as Emergency Contacts. To have a fair handful of family members who would do anything for me and love me and feel obligated to me because we’re family so it probably wouldn’t even feel that much like overstepping to beg for their help. I mean. I cut off my mom but almost everyone else is left and it should be impossible that I’d lose everyone because it’s a big enough network. I’m not network-less/support-system-less. I have my dad and brother whom I live with and if my dad were to die and my brother were unable to support me, I could turn to about 3 of my aunts or maybe ask a cousin or two. I could go through a list and find someone there.

    It is harder in “friendships” to feel like I could find a place to live if I ran out of money or a person to be my caretaker if I got very ill or injured. I have been developing some fairly good friendships over the past 5 years via the local asexual meetup especially and maybe also via philosophical and atheist meetups but I’m not sure I’m close “enough” to any of them that it could possibly really work that I could rely on them for anything that huge. However, I’m not sure it’s not. I’ve kinda been building deep enough bonds that a part of me thinks maybe. Maybe i would be able to ask them. It would be unusual and yet most of the people in those circles understand that usual isn’t in the cards for all of us. I’m not sure where the lines are and what I would or wouldn’t do for any of them, either. I’d imagine I’d really heavily consider doing everything in my power to help a fair number of people in my network of (mainly local) friendships if it seemed they were desperate. Especially if I’d have hoped they’d do the same for me if the roles were reversed.

    When my friend became suicidal after finding out his wife wanted to leave him, i thought about how his parents were dead and the had no siblings and only ever talked about his wife’s family as kinda his own family he would see at holidays or whatever. He was losing a lot more than a spouse or the chance to see his kids every single day, and I didn’t know what to say or how to help someone like that through a divorce. Many people in marriages rely so much on the marriage dynamic and the new family they get from it that if divorce were to happen they lose their entire support network and are just as bad off as people who have been in situations like you describe above in this post – utterly, unsustainably, alone and without necessary support.

    Our society is not structured in a way I like when it comes to how fragile a lot of this is and how easily people end up homeless or “dying because they’re alone”.

    • Coyote

      I have been developing some fairly good friendships over the past 5 years via the local asexual meetup especially and maybe also via philosophical and atheist meetups but I’m not sure I’m close “enough” to any of them that it could possibly really work that I could rely on them for anything that huge.

      Yeah, there’s a big leap in between “good enough friends to ask for small favors” and “good enough friends to turn to them and say ‘Hey, I got kicked out, can I move in with you?'” And in my experience, it’s hard to really know what the answer to that will be until you ask.

      • luvtheheaven

        Very true. I guess you could pose hypotheticals to try to guage out for the future what that might theoretically say but you’d have to not be too transparent that the question might be too based in reality. It’s all such a minefield…

      • luvtheheaven

        I just thought of another thing based on what you said – maybe a good way to jump to belong able to ask the huge things like to move in with someone is to make sure you have already established a history of asking each other for smaller favors. The way to get to the bigger “favors” being by already having taken the smaller steps??

  • Live (for) free

    Hi, this is my first post on your wordpress and I would like to thank you for all your valuable work here (for me at least).

    I’m a french (sorry for my english btw) lithro wtfsexual and I’m a part of the anarchist/autonomous/squatter community in my town. What you say about your cohortmates is something I can relate too, because a lot of us in my community is totally or partially dependent on some group like that. As an anarchist I decided to not take part of the (not so wonderful) employment world after my chemistry master. And it have been rather succesful (in a survival, relationship, usefullness for society or happiness sense) for now.

    What I wanted to say is that (maybe) you don’t need a job (or a permanent job) to not starve and (maybe) you can find some good friends/affinity group/community in other worlds than schools or workplaces. And maybe, it is even more effective in other places, as for me, it was very hard to get some genuine close friends in both ;). Good luck.

    • Coyote

      Maybe. I don’t have high hopes of finding an anarchist community that I can go live with, but I’m glad to hear that others are finding a way!

      • Live (for) free

        Sorry I think I misexplained, I was not talking of a structured community like a gatted cult compound were everybody live together.
        It’s more like a solidarity network, like when I opened the squat were I live with two friends and that other crews I didn’t even knew very well provided support for that (I borrowed a crowbar for instance). And naturally, if I have the energy, I help if they need anything like defending their own squat or organize a punk concert. You don’t need to find a whole community, just to find a few friends with whom you share the same goals and can organize as you like (like 3 to 8 persons) a few easy to find contact (like in public events) and the rest of us (that possibly you don’t like much or even don’t know until you meet them), would help because that’s how we think world should work (at least in theory).

        I’m pretty sure there is a lot of “same-mindset” solidarity networks like that you can be part of without even noticing before you get deep into it. My parent have the same kind of network (but weaker of course, its not purposedly meant to be) with their christian church. Ex-boyscouts contacts, or aristocrats networks or anonymous alcoholics, etc. works the same way.

  • Blue Ice-Tea

    “Do you want to know something? I started relating to break up songs in a whole new way after I left my family. That sounds kind of gross and weird even to me, but it’s true.”

    I don’t think it sounds gross or weird at all!

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