Being unattached can be a source of anxiety for many people, whether they are 25 or 60. Here, experts give their tips on dating, sex and embracing single life to the full – at any age
Times have never been better for single women. Long gone are the days when we needed a man to pay the bills and protect us, and our social status was dependent on our spouse. Despite the recent return of Bridget Jones, there are single people of all ages out there going about their business and enjoying themselves, and the word spinster has pretty much been outlawed. And yet, says Zoe Strimpel, who is organising a discussion on the topic at this year’s Cambridge Festival of Ideas, being unattached and over 30 remains a source of anxiety for many. Concerns range from mass hysteria over biological clocks through to fear of coping alone in old age, via unhelpful stereotypes of cat ladies and cougars. “Sometimes it’s hard to know how to be a neutral single woman,” says Strimpel. Joining her in discussion will be relationship counsellor Susan Quilliam, psychologist Cecilia d’Felice and authority on sexual matters, Rowan Pelling. Here is a preview of key tips from the event, entitled How to be a Single Woman in 2013, Whether You’re 25 or 60, along with some thoughts from happily single women.
Don’t feel obliged to regale your coupled-up friends with wild tales from dating’s front line. There’s an immense pressure to be showily “single and loving it”, says Strimpel, whose book The Man Diet was published last year. “I have heard some distressing sexual things women have reluctantly done in the name of fun,” she adds, “such as going home with unfriendly randoms only to be secretly appalled by their callous and unattractive behaviour, the porn pop ups carelessly left flashing on their laptop.” People expect that their single friends will want to talk about men, whether it’s about sex, or deconstructing their behaviour per se, “but the more you talk about something, the more entrenched in your mind it becomes,” breeding unhealthy obsessions, says Strimpel.
Engage in lofty activities. When you’ve been burning the candle in search of romance, only to find yourself exhausted and so very tired of bad sex, try staying in to read War and Peace instead. That’s what Strimpel did, and it helped her gain some perspective. “I felt so smug,” she says, “I couldn’t believe that I had bothered with these losers when I was now too busy contemplating the battle of Borodino in 1812.”
Don’t feel like a failure; seize the opportunity to find yourself instead. “When you’re in a relationship it’s very hard to see yourself clearly because you’re constantly in response to your partner,” says d’Felice. Whereas when you’re single, you can take stock, learn from your mistakes and work out what you want for the future. “Particularly for women who have been conditioned to be givers rather than takers,” she adds, it’s an opportunity to put ourselves first. “This is not an act of selfishness,” she says. “It’s a very important act of selfhood.”
Contentment is key. Tina Andrews, who has been single for a decade, points out that there are happy and unhappy people in and out of relationships. “For me it’s about being content and, hopefully, that takes you on the right path. I see more pain and misery from women who think they should be in a relationship, who put themselves out there to be knocked back, and lose a sense of themselves. I think: you’ve wasted 10 years trying to find a man while I’ve enjoyed myself.”
Avoid women’s magazines. Patti Burton, a charity manager who has been single for more than 20 years, cites her disinterest in glossy articles “aimed at people who are part of couples”, as one of the reasons she has never felt any stigma about her relationship status.
Don’t be afraid of 40. Andrews felt in the run-up that her options were falling away, but then realised: “I actually don’t care. I don’t have the urge to have a family, and I don’t see 40 as the end of that anyway. As we grow up, our expectations of certain ages change. It’s the Friends generation turning into the Sex and the City generation, moving into the Golden Girls. Life continues at all these ages.”
Give thanks that you’re among the last generations who didn’t learn about sex from internet porn. “You know sex is a fun, amateur sport, and that’s a great blessing,” says Pelling.
Single mums can have fun, too. “Of my friends who wanted to be older mums,” says Pelling, “more of them had children than not, despite everyone saying their chances were about 2%.” And those who went for it on their own with sperm-donor dads are still dating. “The biggest change is internet dating, so you don’t have to join the amateur dramatics society and the tennis club any more to meet people.”
Women do not become invisible in middle age. Says Pelling: “some of the most attractive, lusted-after women I know are in their 50s. It’s up to you whether you think it’s time to withdraw.” You do, however, have to be robust in the face of those who want to knock women down. “But it’s not as if we’re dressing to attract people of 28. … Why should we have to not be a sexual person just because we’re on the wrong side of 45?”
Don’t be hemmed in by cliches. You can’t stop people using labels, such as cougar, says Pelling. “Culturally, we’re much worse than, say, the French about older people having sex. Everyone in France expects glamorous 60-year-olds will be, but we’re sort of still coping with the idea. There are a load of unpleasant terms out there but it’ll get you nowhere having any anxiety about those.”
Don’t take the decreasing numbers of men personally. “Be realistic,” says Quilliam, “and face the fact that there are fewer men than there once were and you’ll probably live longer than most of them.”
Enjoy not having to pick up anyone’s pants any more. When her marriage ended, Burton (now 65) assumed she’d eventually have another live-in relationship but what has largely been on offer is “lonely men who need looking after. I’ve got three children and six grandchildren – I do not need a middle-aged man to look after”.
Use a condom. Along with the increasing sexual activity in 50- to 90-year-olds (80% are sexually active), figures published in the British Medical Journal last year showed that STDS in this age group have doubled in a decade.
Be positive, says Quilliam, “if for no other reason than bitterness is not a good look – to attract a partner, for your friends to hang round and, most importantly, for you.” Don’t spend the rest of your life saying “… the bastard’s robbed me”. Do whatever it takes to move on: counselling, talking to friends, rethinking your life.
Be self-determining. It’s very easy to be passive, says Quilliam. If you want a partner, try internet dating, or taking other active steps to find one. And if you want to stay single, or have a string of casual affairs, go for it. You now have the freedom.
Connect in a way that’s right for you. Burton gets all the human warmth she needs from her family. Or gather friends around you, says Quilliam: “You can get most of what you want from people other than a partner.”
Finally, Quilliam quotes the words that poet Seamus Heaney texted to his wife last month when he was on the brink of death and she was facing widowhood: “nolle timere” (don’t be afraid). “The key thing about being single is don’t be frightened. In today’s world as a woman, you have huge status, you can manage on your own, you can chose to build your own life.”
• Some names have been changed. How to be a single woman in 2013, whether you’re 25 or 60 is at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas on Saturday 26 October at 5pm.
Read more →
Rob Ryan helped Harriet Vine when she was setting up Brick Lane jewellery business Tatty Devine. Now she’s helping him to stop worrying
Rob Ryan, artist, 50
Harriet and I met in 2001. I had my studio in east London and was a jobbing screen printer for other artists. Harriet and Rosie [Wolfenden, her business partner] had just started Tatty Devine and heard about me through friends. They asked me to do some work for them. I wasn’t very good at screenprinting – I think they put up with my splodgy thumb prints all over their work because we got on well. I’m a lot older than Harriet – my partying years happened a decade before we met and my two children were in their teens – but that didn’t stop us from becoming mates.
Harriet has always been 10 steps ahead of me. I admire her work ethic. I feel like I’m in a plane heading up to the clouds while she’s in a space rocket zooming past Saturn. It’s been wonderful to see her do so well. We both love what we do. Neither of us are overly precious about our work, so we always have a laugh.
Both our careers took off around the same time, so we often reminisce about those early stages. I’m a massive worrier and Harriet has taught me to chill out a bit. She’ll often say, “You know what, Rob, it’s not worth getting that stressed out” and, of course, she’s almost always right.
I don’t give her advice as she knows what she’s doing. Half the time I’m shaking my head in wonderment! Harriet is a real free spirit and the most brilliant, fun mum. It’s not unlike her to say, “Let’s make candy floss for dinner” to her daughter, or let her paint the bedroom floor. Everything is met with excitement and enchantment. Harriet has this attitude of “let’s just do it” whether it’s in work or life, and that’s infectious. I feel boring in comparison.
Harriet Vine, artistic director, 36
I’d just graduated from art school and like many 21 year olds, I had loads of confidence and no idea. We were looking for someone who could help us print on leather. Rob was so kind and lovely. We thought he was an expert and his studio was like a dream space – I’d never seen anything like it. He helped make our artworks right.
When we got our shop on Brick Lane, we decided it looked a bit like an art gallery so we started having private views there – it was an excuse to get all our friends together.
These days, Rob and I see each other as much as possible, but we’re both really busy with work and family. I will often drop into his studio for a catchup. It’s like this amazing exchange – he’ll show me some new work, and we’ll have a conversation from which creative ideas can flow. We spark off of each other and he’s always so keen to share – he doesn’t have that protective thing that a lot of artists have.
When I got married I asked my friends to make things for the wedding. Rob designed the bodice of my dress. I went to him with the idea of rock pools and some words my husband’s grandmother, a poet, had written and he drew me seaweed, starfish, treasure chests and anchors – it was perfect. Rob is the king of romance and he has real love in his heart, so when he worked on my wedding dress, which my mum made, I felt honoured.
Rob’s a big kid, really. He’s also incredibly reassuring: he’s very good at reminding me what it’s all about when I lose my way a bit – he reminds me that there’s a soul in everything. He really lives it. We’re kindred spirits. The jewellery collection by Tatty Devine and Rob Ryan is available exclusively in Selfridges from 25 October (tattydevine.com)
If you’d like to appear in this column, email email@example.com
Read more →
I kept my last name yet, like the vast majority of women, let my kids take my husband’s name. This should be a feminist issue
My children’s last name is the same as their father’s, but only because the first one was male. That was the deal my husband and I struck in the interest of fairness. If it was a boy: Tomkins. A girl: Apfel. I wanted a boy and he preferred a girl, so we offered each other the gift of lineage as compensation for the reality of mild gender disappointment. For practicality’s sake, we decided that baby number one would be determinative and all subsequent kids would bear its surname, whatever that turned out to be.
I never, not for a second, considered taking my husband’s last name myself. This puts me in a minority: the percentage of women who keep their name these days hovers around 18%. What puts me in an even smaller minority, however, is that I never assumed our children would take it either. Not by right, at least. According to one survey, only 4% of children have their mother’s last name, when that name is different from their father’s. This is a staggering statistic when viewed in the context of the strides feminism has made in other arenas.
Hanna Rosin has written recently, and with much fanfare, that the “patriarchy is dead”. While there are many holes to pick in this statement, one of the more fundamental is to do with the etymology of the word itself. “Patriarchy” means, quite literally, “the rule of the father” and it refers to the ancient tendency to establish lineage through the male side of the family. The fact that the vast majority of children in 2013 don’t have the last name their mothers were born with is proof that the concept of patriarchy is alive and kicking in at least one domain.
It could be argued that last names are not as symbolic of a woman’s place in the world as they once were. Our generation, after all, is the flag-bearer of a “kinder, gentler, and more traditionally minded” post-feminism, as Judith Warner has insightfully put it. We aren’t fighting the same fights our mothers did or, at any rate, we aren’t fighting them so hard. Rafts of otherwise “modern” women will tell you until the cows come home that keeping their identity, in the form of the name they held before marriage, is simply not important to them. By extension, they will tell you that passing that name on to their children is not important either.
But this argument falls flat for the 18% (or more) of women who have chosen to keep their surname on principle. For us, it is as if feminism can stretch only so far before it snaps. And what is worse is that we offer the same grab bag of excuses our maiden name-bearing counterparts did to justify their initial decision: my husband cared more than I did, his mother and/or father would be devastated, his name is prettier than mine, it was the “right” (read: traditional) thing to do. When a woman retains her last name but then fails to give it to her kids, there is always some story rehearsed, about a bargain made or a concession granted. There is always a story that involves anything other than admitting how, in the end, we also fell victim to the power of precedence.
Because precedence is, of course, powerful. And there is a compelling historical reason why a child should take his father’s last name: to prove the father’s identity as such. As the Jewish practice of matrilineal descent makes clear, the only way to assure a bloodline prior to the advent of DNA testing is through the mother. We bear the baby, we bond with it for nine long months before it is severed from our body, and then Dad has to take our word for it that it is his. All he has is this word on which to ground his support and protection (and maybe the baby will look like him a little too). From an evolutionary perspective, patrilineal inheritance makes good sense.
And yet, the whole point of feminism is to overturn the stones of history, the ones that aren’t fair and the ones that aren’t relevant any more. This is precisely my regret with my own children’s last name. It is that I let the claims of fairness in one particular house – our gender flip-of-the-coin – override the larger cultural significance of reversing a long-term pattern of inequality.
Read more →
From blissful young bride and groom to pottering grandparents, David Thomas traces the traditional phases couples go through – if they make it past the seven-year itchRead more →
The letter you always wanted to write
I know now that I should have chosen my friends more carefully but at the age of 12, friendships are rather arbitrary, aren’t they? In any case, I didn’t do the choosing, did I? You chose me. You were pretty, vivacious and charming and I, poor little fool, was flattered that you wanted me as a companion.
We were inseparable for six years, a typical pair of teenage girls, poking fun at the staff, giggling with the boys, sniggering and gossiping about the girls in our class who were not part of our charmed circle, and laughing, laughing, laughing. I was as much in thrall to you as the pimpled youths and young male teachers (and some of the old ones) whose eyes followed you and your developing bosom everywhere.
To my amazement, our class’s number one alpha male started dating shy, mousy little me instead of you. We went out together for several years. When we eventually married, were you jealous? It didn’t occur to me that you would be. I thought that you were immune to his good looks, charisma and his smart-arse humour – I suspected that they were competition for your own. You made disparaging remarks about his arrogance, his cockiness and the way he dominated social situations. I thought you didn’t like him.
Even now, after so many years, I still don’t understand what motivated you to have an affair with him. A latent, deep-seated dislike of me? Probably. Jealousy because my husband was more interesting, attractive and lovable than yours? Possibly, but you chose yours. Late-flowering love for a man you could have conquered with a flirtatious smile many years before? Seems unlikely, for your love seemed to evaporate pretty quickly later on. Or, and this seems most likely, just a mischievous desire to see if he was really immune to your charms? He wasn’t.
Why did you wait until I had two gorgeous little children before you started fluttering your eyelashes? The week you two went away together, “to decide what to do” was the worst in my life – full of shock, despair, humiliation and flesh-creeping jealousy. The dreadful realisation that I had been betrayed by the two people I loved most, that the happy memories of my schooldays had been contaminated for ever and that my life would never be the same again, kept me awake at night and distraught during the day. Only keeping up some semblance of normality for my children got me through the week, until you both came home and announced that it was all over.
Then, to my relief, you disappeared from my life. I still don’t really know what happened during that week to propel you back to your own husband. Mine never recovered and neither, sadly, did my marriage, although we staggered on until the children had grown up.
I found you very easily after a quick spur-of-the-moment trawl of the internet yesterday and felt the desire to contact you. I want you to know that despite what happened, maybe even because of it, my life has been extremely happy. Knowing that I might have to support the children and myself, I found an interesting job; my two lovely children, whom you selfishly disregarded, are happy and successful – I am extremely proud of them. I have three grandchildren whom I adore.
My darling second husband has been a wonderful companion, bringing me two stepsons and three step-grandchildren. I feel very, very lucky. I won’t say blessed because, unlike you, I don’t believe in any of that stuff.
Do you remember how much you loved spouting quotations? (Do you still?) Shakespeare, poetry, bits of Latin, the Bible – oh, it made you appear clever but I always thought it very show-offy. Well, I came across one of Oscar Wilde’s quotations the other day and it made me laugh out loud – I immediately thought of you. Good old Oscar! He said, “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.”
Read more →
There are no events to show at this time.
Powered by Lifestream.