In a season of weddings and baby showers, what can single people do to celebrate their lives?

Do you want a ritual defined by the absence of settling down, asks advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, or just one without its trappings?

I am a mid-20s (mostly) hetero woman. I am a happily single, independent person, and take pride in having an adventurous life, being a good friend, travelling extensively and keeping a fulfilling job. I’ve had some amazing romances, exciting sex and short-term relationships, but as yet I’ve not had the kind to “write home about”. Generally speaking, I am happy with this. However, when I do have lonely periods or feel down, society’s pressure to conform makes these feelings worse.

After a season of weddings, engagements, baby showers and such, I’m left wondering how I can affirm and celebrate my single lifestyle with family and friends. I wonder if having some customs or rituals I could participate in or look back on would be useful?

I would also like ways to bring my family (all coupled and married, almost all from a young age) closer. At the moment I find it difficult to talk to them about my emotional and romantic life – the good and the bad. So, I wonder if you have any practical ideas or hypotheses on what single people can do to affirm their lives?

Eleanor says: One of the great mysteries of marriage-and-babies pressure is that it seems at once to come from everyone and no one. Very few people would say their own choice to have children or get married indicates a belief that those who don’t are making a mistake. But in aggregate it’s hard to avoid that implication.

Those choices take on the force of What We Do Around Here: all the conjoined couples at a dinner party, every first name tessellated with another. (This is Jill-and-Mark, Tony-and-Mary.)

The challenge is resisting that implication. To find a way to avoid seeing the mass of other people’s choices as a behemoth that speaks on the worthiness of your own decisions, and to start seeing it as simply a sum of people you are not.

Under that guise, it’s a lot easier to deflate its authority. So Tony’s getting married. And? Tony also drank four cartons of milk on school camp once (substitute whichever choices your own friends made that you’d be content not to follow). If you can see “society” as just a bunch of Tonys, it matters less what it thinks.

I think you’re right that rituals can be a beautiful way to honour your own life. As you think about what those rituals might look like, you have a choice: do you want them to be rituals without the trappings of relationships, or rituals defined by their absence?

If what you want is to notice and celebrate the fact of being single, you could try to do that with someone else: pick a friend, a group, and set an interval to meet up and repeat an activity together, as sentimental as you like. It could be a cheerful hike with breakfast afterwards or a formal evening of narrating the joys that came with being single this year.

By contrast, if what you really want is space undefined by marriage or children, you might find that celebrating their absence has the opposite effect. To be defined in opposition to something is still to be defined by it. If the goal is to shrink something – to dethrone it from dominance – the attention required to reject it can still be too much.

If you just feel hungry to celebrate yourself as you are, perhaps you could cultivate some existing rituals. Go all in on your own birthday. Ask as many people as possible. Set a big elaborate table.

Become the friend who throws dinner parties. Remember Virginia Woolf’s line about the importance of good food? “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well if one has not dined well. The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes.”

You could try to light the lamp in the spine for as many of your friends as you can. Even the coupled ones: lots of married parents are chafing for the chance to socialise as something other than a married parent.

I bet if you could reliably give friends a break from their toddler or their marriage, these occasions might become truly special to them, too.


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