[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.