Single or self-partnered: Which term does justice to those who reject partnerships?
The internet may be divided on the term Harry potter actress Emma Watson has popularised, but its real triumph lies in putting the spotlight on single positivity
In an ideal world, turning 30 wouldn't be a big deal. Not if you were Emma Watson. Nor if you weren't her. The real world, however, has a rulebook, and much of our adult lives are spent finding our place inside - or outside - it. It may not be vastly different for celebrities either, as was evident earlier this week when the Harry Potter actress told British Vogue that she had her own fears and apprehensions about turning 30 and being single. "I never believed the whole 'I'm happy being single' spiel. I was like, 'This is totally spiel.' It took me a long time, but I am very happy. I call it being self-partnered."
The interview went viral, making self-partnered the coolest addition to urban dictionary. That, however, doesn't imply that the term is any less debated. While critics have pointed out that it reinforces the idea of partnership, some have argued that it expands the scope of the word 'single' to define those who wilfully reject romantic relationships. In that sense, self-partnered is to singles what conscious uncoupling is to the divorced - a more liberating term to define a way of life that may not be seen as being enabling.
Finding a partner is not always an antidote to loneliness; it is also a part of social conditioning - the need to have a witness to one's life. As Sophie Tanner, who has written the novel Reader, I Married Me, tells The Guardian, "As a society, we are obsessed with finding the ONE. We tend to believe we cannot be fully happy unless we have that, which is just not true. It's not the norm for people to find their soulmate, but because we put so much pressure on the importance of being with someone, people lower their expectations or put up with average or even toxic relationships."
In that sense, Watson's term puts the spotlight on those who are happy unchecking that box. What does it mean to be a self-partnered woman? And is it any different for a man? Is it better to be lonely alone than to be lonely with someone else? We look at the prospect of being 'self-partnered' from different vantage points.
THE WORLD IS HER OYSTER
Ever since she turned 17 - at a time when words like 'self-partnered', 'partnerless' or 'sologamy' were unheard of - Anjaly Thomas has been travelling around the globe alone . But right before she turned 25, her family - like so many others - drew a roadmap for her future. "Marry at 25, give birth by 26. That way, by the time I turned 50, I would have grown-up children who'd support me through old age."
Being single after a certain age rings a social alarm bell after a certain point. When Anjaly rejected her family's math, she knew the questions and skepticism that would come her way. Several years and challenges later, if it is a topic of discussion in her life today, it is only because of the world of opportunities being single has opened up for her. "From going to job interviews to travelling, you will always need a man, I was told. But hey, I am now looking to travel to100 countries soon - and solo. I survived social oppression. That said, I am not discarding the benefits of being in a relationship - whatever works," says Anjaly, a travel writer and published author based in Dubai.
Being single, however, never meant being lonely. "Alone yes - because that's what I wanted to be. Alone. Single. I could travel far and fast. It was not as though when I turned 40 that I realised I had no relationship and resigned myself to a long, lonely and failed life. I wanted to be single when I touched 40, because I knew it'd take me that long - or longer - to get where I wanted to be. And since I am not where I want to be just yet, I am happy to continue on that path. I am not bothered that I do not have children or even a husband, but I am not looking for an old-age home to retire just yet! I am looking at places I haven't visited," she says.
There are aspects of a single life that are hugely underrated. "Why is happiness not a life goal?" Anjaly wonders, before joking, "When I travel, my empty ring finger ensures I get asked out on dates - and who can say no to that? So yeah, being single gives you the freedom to choose your dates and destination."
Although she likes the sound of 'self-partnered' ("it almost makes being single sound fashionable"), she doesn't quite identify with the term. "I am single till I decide I want to be, and I'd hate for a fancy term to define my future or present. For me, being single is about convenience. About space. And about freedom. I tend to get bored easily, especially with familiarity, therefore I keep my options open about everything - people, places or experiences."
THE MALE PERSPECTIVE
An expat life often, if not always, thrives on nostalgia. In the UAE, radio is a medium that often provides a sense of familiarity and reassurance to its listenership. From attending the first day of your child's school with them to celebrating festivals, an RJ is often seen as a participant in a listener's life, which, in turn, also makes the latter believe they can participate in the former's. As a popular RJ with City 1016 in Dubai, Lokesh Dharmani often finds himself answering questions on his marital status. "No, I am not married" might be his standard response, but it is often undercut by the follow-up "Why?". Over the years, he may have mastered the fine art of evading the why, but he also jokes about spotting that look of regret among married couples reaching out to him, who, he believes, "are almost cheering me on my single status".
Which is why he is not exactly excited about self-partnered substituting single in urban lexicon. Lokesh points to an obvious ambiguity. As someone with varied interests - he's been a film reviewer, blogger, chef - he may enjoy watching a movie, dining and cooking alone, but admits that he feels the need to share his thoughts with someone - a feeling that cannot be compartmentalised into the simplistic happily-single-or-happily-committed binary. "We might want undivided attention while watching our favourite film or relishing our favourite dish, but we may also want to talk about them to someone. I believe we want an audience to our day-to-day life, a single person audience would do too. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why social media platforms are so successful where we display our filtered masterpieces in a self-curated exhibition. And when it comes from someone you hold in high regard, who you love, it becomes doubly special. And then self-partnered doesn't quite add up."
Like Anjaly, Lokesh is an avid traveller, but he admits to missing having a companion during his travels. "Travelling alone has made me realise the importance of having someone special in your life. Imagine, I wouldn't have to stop random strangers in a foreign land to take my pictures. A personal photographer at my beck-and-call, what a luxury would that be! Jokes aside, one does long for a romantic stroll in the park, or holding hands while exploring new places. But, for me, those moments are fleeting, few and far in between."
Even so, the fear of being lonely, he says, isn't any less in a man as compared to a woman; it is legit. "The best way to deal with fear of loneliness is to live with it. The thought of being lonely, while being with someone, is even scarier. That understanding prevents me from jumping into a relationship, because I see that it's not a guaranteed solution to loneliness."
BEING ALONE VERSUS BEING LONELY
If you're single, there's a good chance you may have been asked 'Would you rather be lonely?' at some point in life. What is often omitted from that question is a simple fact that you can also be lonely and unfulfilled in a relationship. Author of the bestselling Status Single and columnist Sreemoyee Piu Kundu says that, as opposed to the West, women in the subcontinent are rarely taught to be alone. "We have made being alone less aspirational," she says. But in order to wholly understand what being lonely alone means, it is also important to understand what it means to be lonely with someone else. "Every individual feels lonely. Women in unfulfilled marriages can be extremely lonely. Loneliness is an outcome of how modern societies function. Indian marriages, in particular, are based on time-bound deliverables. Once those boxes are ticked, couples often struggle to connect on a common ground," says Kundu.
She is also careful in defining what single actually means. "Single can also refer to the divorced or abandoned. Why do we have only one image of single, that is unmarried? Women who belong to my mother's generation are all widowed because of the age difference that used to be there between them and their husbands or their children have moved out. So, women at a certain age do become single. Single is actually a whole umbrella."
A number of factors have contributed to single positivity being on the rise, she says. For one, education has enabled economic empowerment, which has opened a world of opportunities for women. Dating apps, on the other hand, have created alternatives that weren't available before. Digital streaming platforms have made the content more radical. "When we were in college, we would watch Sex and the City, which seemed like an alien world to us. But now streaming platforms have more radical content. For instance, there's Four More Shots Please! on Amazon Prime, which is about four urban, single women."
Things are not easy either for a man who chooses to be 'self-partnered'. "If a man is not married, it's perceived that his manhood stands emasculated. He has to have a bloodline. And a woman has to fit into his plan somehow. With those conventional roles changing and many men opting to be stay-at-home dads, choices have widened for men too."
In the light of these changes taking place in society, she says it becomes important to have a new language that accurately represents people who make these choices. Self-partnered then is an empowering concept. "Companionship can also mean enjoying one's own company, finding his or her identity in one's work, being a caregiver, etc. In that sense, being self-partnered is similar to how we say self-employed."