Letters From Esther #24: What Does “Single” Mean For You?

Esther Perel

Shall We Begin?

When I was growing up, “single” meant “not married.” It was a narrow definition that came with rules and rumors. A single woman, it was thought, couldn’t take care of herself or have children. She couldn’t be invited to parties, lest her sex appeal cause another woman’s man to stray. She was too sexy to have around, and yet, sexless enough to be told by society that she belonged in a convent. Single men had their own rules and rumors, but they still had the economic freedom to survive in society on their own. My own mother whole-heartedly believed that a woman without a partner was incomplete. She was ready to marry me off at eighteen. By the time I was twenty, she was burning with impatience and tried to set me up on a blind date. He came with his parents for dinner. I was so mad that I left after dessert to go be with my friends. Poor guy, he must have been as mortified as me.

We know that things are different now, at least in the West. You can have a full life as a single person, with economic independence, your own home, a job outside of the house, kids or no kids, multiple partners or no partners, and so on. And yet, we’re all still confronted with the same narrow definitions of “married” or “single” at the doctor’s office and on the census. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a long term domestic partnership, in a poly relationship, dating, widowed, or happily on your own. If you’re not married, check the box that says “single.” Likewise, if you’re separated or in the process of divorce, even if you feel single, you better check the box that says “married.” It’s a legal binary that reflects outdated options and a one-size-fits-all idea. 

The myth of romantic love in which two halves meet each other to become one whole carries the belief that we need to be married to be complete and to be happy. Marriage can be rich and fulfilling, of course, but it is not a privilege above all others, and it isn’t as clear cut as it used to be. 

These days, we live with a multiplicity of relational identifiers: committed but non-monogamous, polyamorous, single and co-parenting, married, divorced, dating for fun, looking for a soul mate, making space to heal, or simply prioritizing ourself. And within each label, there is a story about where we’ve been, who we’ve loved, what we’re looking for now, or what we’re looking to avoid. 

Talking about our relationship status conveys a complex set of priorities, beliefs, hopes, and dreams. The concept of singledom has expanded. We tend to think of being single as a matter of being alone rather than a matter of choosing the types of relationships we want to be in—including the relationship we have with ourselves. The relational world is no longer divided between “who is in a relationship” and “who is not.” The better question now is “What is your state of relatedness?” It may feel like an awkward phrase to ask, but the answers are much richer, depthful, and informative than any box we could check on a form. 

Let’s Turn the Lens on You 

  • What do you associate with the word single? 
  • How might you like to change that definition? 
  • What are your own biases about being single in regard to yourself or others? 
  • Have you ever been treated differently by friends or family based on your relationship status? How so?
  • How does gender and sexuality influence our concept of relatedness?
  • What’s the best part of being single?

More From Esther

“Why Eroticism Should Be Part of Your Self-Care Plan” / an article

Tune into your body and let it teach you what you like, don’t like, and what you don’t know yet.

“The Myth of Self-Love” / a newsletter

It can be wonderful to be alone, to give our body a massage, to cook ourselves a delicious meal for one, but this isn’t self-love; it’s self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Learn more about Self-Love here.

“How Our Sense of Touch Keeps Us Radically Connected to Ourselves” / an article

We can live without sex, but we can't live without touch.

Conversation Starters

A compendium of highly recommended sources of inspiration and information       

On My To Read List:

I’m Watching/Listening: 

Sign up for letters from Esther, a monthly newsletter + Youtube workshop and conversation where we sharpen our relational intelligence.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.