Paul Cockayne – 07791 970406 – firstname.lastname@example.org
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How do you regard people who are single? By this I mean people who are not in a long-term relationship. Generally, I think society tends to regard it as a sign of failure. Single people are “left on the shelf”, “sad and lonely”. The assumption can be that people are single because they can’t find – or can’t keep – a partner. There is an implication that there’s something wrong with them.
Looking at things a different way, I’m sure that we all know people who are “stuck” in unhappy relationships – and they can also be “sad and lonely”. We could refer to such people as being “fallen off the shelf” – but we don’t – and I can’t think of an equivalent expression for their situation.
So I think there is a sweeping assumption – a societal expectation – that being in a relationship is preferable to not being in one. Any relationship, it might seem, is better than no relationship at all. But clearly that’s not the case, and yet some people choose to stay in desperately unhappy relationships, sometimes for fear of being on their own, of being “left on the shelf”.
Being single can be a choice that people make – and a legitimate and sensible choice. Having another person sharing your home and your life is complicated. You can clash, because inevitably there will be times when you have different needs. This means that to help the relationship run smoothly you will need, at times, to make compromises, to do things that you don’t particularly want to do. And relationships are emotionally complicated things – you trust someone and that makes you vulnerable, you can get hurt.
For many of us, these complications are worthwhile. Indeed, the unpredictability of our partner can be rather exciting. But many people prefer to keep things simple, they don’t want surprises, they want to have control of their lives and their emotions. And so for them to be single is sensible and logical – it is not that they are not “left on the shelf”, it is a valid life choice that they are making.
Boundaries are important, and those who choose to be single are maintaining their boundaries in a different way to those who choose to be in a long-term relationship. Within a relationship, we still have need to maintain boundaries in a way that works for us. Suppose that your partner is struggling emotionally. That affects you – it can drag you down – your world can be turned upside down. You will want to support them but beyond a certain point you may have to protect yourself by asking them to get the support they need from a professional – the strain on you may be too great.
We tend to see the question of being single or not as being binary – you’re one or the other. It doesn’t have to be like this. I worked with a couple recently who saw it differently. They had children together, they had been together over ten years, they had great times together, they had a good sex life. But they struggled to live with each other, they had different values, different standards, they both admitted to being stubborn, and they clashed with each other a lot. So they agreed to live separately. They were still a couple, but they had two homes. For them, this was the best of both worlds.