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The Power of Being Single

If we're living through a new golden age of the single person, why does pop culture make us feel so unhappy about it?

If the  trend pieces and studies are to be believed, we’re living through a new golden age of the single person. Fewer Americans than ever are getting married, and they’re waiting longer and longer to do so. Many are  living by themselves, often by choice. And yet, according to pop culture, a lot of them are awfully unhappy about it. In everything from  “Girls” to Carly Rae Jepsen singles, our culture is obsessed with the prospect and possibility of finding a partner and escaping the lonely purgatory of singledom. Singleness, the message seems to be, is merely an unfulfilling wind-up for the far greater thrill of a real romantic relationship. But what would happen if we stopped hating on singledom, and started loving it?

In his new book,  “Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled,” Michael Cobb, a professor of English at the University of Toronto, argues that our negative attitudes toward single people aren’t just hurting singles — they’re hurting our relationships and our culture. An academic work about music, film and literature, it claims that singles in North America have become a hated sexual minority, victims of our culture’s misplaced and out-of-step priorities. Cobb believes that single life can be as fulfilling, interesting and legitimate as any romantic arrangement, and that it’s high time we gave it more respect.

Salon spoke to Cobb over the phone from Toronto about the possibility of an unmarried president, “Girls” and what it’s like to be the spokesperson for singleness.

You argue that our current culture considers singleness to be a “conundrum.” What do you mean by that?

I don’t think we even know what being single is. We live in such a couples-obsessed society that there really are no “singles” out there — everyone is pre- or post-coupled. They’re either in the wings waiting or they’re past their prime and are no longer allowed to be part of this central way people not only organize their intimate lives but attain social legitimacy. People use relationships to bind themselves to social, political and cultural realities.

I’ve been in lots of relationships and those relationships have their own interesting moments. They are fulfilling in all sorts of ways and distressing in all sorts of ways. But the loneliest I have ever felt is with this other person I am with. And that’s not supposed to be the case.

Intimacies are always kind of like that. You think, “This is supposed to alleviate me from all this sadness and loneliness, and yet it’s just intensifying these feelings — but the single must have it much worse.” I feel like a lot of that bad effect is just projected onto single people, and that condition is rendered pathetic and sad and depressing. This is why it doesn’t have a language of its own because the language of singleness is really the language of couples who are pitying single people.

Funny, I never thought of that. It’s true. We really do use the word “single” really just as a shorthand for someone who’s looking to date someone.

Exactly, or they’re tragic and sad, like old maids or widows. They’re people who just couldn’t make it into that very special status. Part of why that narrative persists is that there’s this overarching disquiet about how you create a narrative for yourself [if you're not in a relationship]. And there’s this sense that this anxiety can be alleviated if you just fall in love.

Right. That’s sort of like your experience with your grandmother, whom you write about in the book.

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