You may have noticed, if you’re the observant type, that it’s Saint Valentine’s Day. The full weight of commercial romance is resting heavily upon us. Love is in the air… and in the papers, in the shops, and all over the world wide web.
In south-west London this morning, a man was walking self-consciously along a major road, clutching a giant teddy bear which was itself clutching a bunch of red roses. I hope the intended recipient appreciated and deserved the gesture: it came at a cost, and not just the financial one.
At the florists, everything is red roses and high prices; restaurants are offering special deals for that special couple; even the visit of the Chinese vice-president to the US is seen as having Valentine’s Day potential.
And a church somewhere in Englandshire has organised a couples-only Valentine’s Party – apparently unaware of the delightful irony of holding a church event from which Jesus would have been excluded.
Love is of course a great thing. So is romance, so is coupledom.
But I’d like to big up singleness too, on this one day of the year where the rest of society seems to conspire to make singles feel like failures, outcasts or misfits.
Some of the loveliest, most together, wisest, smartest, funniest and funnest people I know are single. Some of them are happy with being single; some are not. All of them are getting on with their lives, living them positively. The ones who would have loved to be in a relationship are, to coin someone else’s brilliant phrase, living well in their second-choice world.
Others of the loveliest, most together, wisest, smartest, funniest and funnest people I know are in relationships. Some of them are happy with it; some are not. Many of them are also living in a second-choice world. Some are finding it a struggle. Some in both categories suffer depression.
In other words, the two groups are essentially indistinguishable in terms of who they are and their values and struggles through life.
So why does society broadly remain suspicious of single people, broadly feel sorry for them and broadly think they need looking after and, well, pairing off.
Do people think all singles must be secretly gay? Or are secretly after my wife/husband/me*? (*delete as applicable). Or secretly in a relationship? After all, they can’t possibly just be, well, HAPPY? Can they?
Being comfortable in your own skin and in your own company are gifts that we would all do well to discover, whether single or partnered-up. Singleness usually means more solitude, and solitude I firmly believe to be good for the soul. Aloneness and loneliness are very different things. You can be very lonely in a relationship. Aloneness – in the sense of separateness, of self-worth that does not depend on the affirmation of another person – is something to be nurtured, not feared.
And let’s face it, in the long run we’re all single, to misquote the economist John Maynard Keynes. In other words, most couples will end up with a single survivor.
Singleness can mean greater financial struggle, and practical problems when ill-health or problems strike. But there’s no need to compromise over who uses the bathroom first or gets the car or chooses the channel. It has its huge advantages as well as its down sides.
Coupledom brings both comfort and conflict. It can cost people their identity or make them too lazy to ever bother looking for it. It can make you cosy and insular, turn you into the Smug Marrieds of Bridget Jones’ Diary, or bring unimaginable pain if it breaks down. It can also bring lifelong joy and comfort. In its best form it probably beats being single – but being happily single definitely trumps being unhappily coupled.
I’m absolutely not arguing against coupledom: merely trying to redress society’s default position that singleness is inherently a worse state to be in. And in these days where the unclear family has replaced the nuclear family, singleness can also be a state that comes and goes more readily than once it did.
So Happy Valentine’s, whoever you are and whatever your state of attachment. Celebrate love if you have it, but either way celebrate life. Single or married, gay or straight, your value as a human being is equal, whatever society, the church and big business might try to tell you.