More of us are choosing to stay single and live alone than ever before. So why does couple culture still dominate?
This is the question Michael Cobb, an English professor at the University of Toronto, has set out to answer with his new book Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled. And it's a good one, when you consider the numbers. Statscan reports that between the 1950s and mid-2000s, the percentage of single Canadian households quadrupled. And those numbers don't even begin to reflect the growing ranks of single people who choose not to live alone.
So why, then, do most people believe that coupledom is the key to long-term happiness?
The answer, according to Cobb, has as much to do with pop culture as it does with reality. His book is a critical examination of the way contemporary novels, movies, TV shows and pop songs choose to ignore, reject or grossly oversimplify the experience of singleness in favour of the couple, making singletons "one of the most despised sexual minorities one can be."
Now, before you roll your eyes and accuse Cobb of being melodramatic, consider the way in which our culture upholds the search for romantic love and "the One" as the Holy Grail of human experience. Even in cultural narratives that are ostensibly empowering to singles – from Sex and the City, Bridesmaids and Girls to Beyoncé's All The Single Ladies – the overall message (usually aimed at women) is clear: Go ahead and be yourself, but if you want real happiness, make sure someone puts a ring on it.
This is not to say there aren't unhappy marrieds out there – just think of all the bickering couples in any recent Judd Apatow vehicle. But in the end, these couples tend to work it out. Either that or they leave, and wind up coupled to someone else. Because singledom, in pop culture, is not a way to live but a way to get from one partner to the next.
Cobb, who currently lives alone and has spent much of his adult life single, is irked by this. He decided to write the book after noticing that "there are no narratives we're accustomed to about the single, apart from being pre- or post-coupled – widows, bachelors or spinsters." Even Candace Bushnell, formerly unmarried creator of the world's most famous serial dater, Carrie Bradshaw, conceded a pro-couple bias when she said in an interview, "Most of all, Sex and the City sets out to answer one burning question – why are we still single?"
According to Cobb, the qualifier "still" says it all. "Singles are encouraged to improve their lives, and couples are encouraged not to," he told me in an animated phone interview this week. "The couple narrative is supposed to save us from unhappiness; the problem is it doesn't always work. It seems to be a narrative loop we can't escape and as a result we don't know much about the experience of the single in pop culture except as a miserable person trying to escape their fate." In pop culture, singles are viewed as shallow, emotionally stunted "kidults" whereas (happy) couples are comprised of fully evolved adults living meaningful, responsible lives.
Once I began to look at pop culture through Cobb's lens, the primacy of coupledom was everywhere. I know dozens of happy single people in real life, but why is their experience ignored in books and movies? Why, despite study after study establishing that marriage and children don't make people any happier, do we persist in craving (and creating) narratives that assure us they will? Even complex drama fails to avoid the trap of assuming that conventional coupledom conquers all. The great Byronic hero of our TV age – Don Draper – is reflected mainly through the women he falls for, and struggles to stay faithful to. And the same was true of Tony Soprano before him.
In Cobb's (admittedly rather jaundiced) view, the reason for this is not the unerring human belief in the power of romantic love despite all evidence to the contrary, but something much darker: cultural totalitarianism. "It's about coercion and control. If you can get people anxious and persuade them all to have the same fears and desires, you can market a way of living," he insists. Singles, he believes, are stigmatized because their happiness flies in the face of what people are supposed to want. "Being in a couple can be a very lonely experience. So what do we do with all those inexpressible weird, bad feelings about coupledom? We project them on single people."
Perhaps the point in all this (which Charlotte Bronte instinctively understood) is that we shouldn't define ourselves by relationship status, but by our relationships to the world. As the late great Nora Ephron observed in one of her final essays, "For a long time, the fact that I was divorced was the most important thing about me. And now it's not."
It might not be catchy enough for Beyoncé, but ladies, it's the truth.