People Talk About Being ‘Chronically Single’

“Maybe not everyone is destined to find someone romantic to spend their life with, and perhaps that’s OK.”
People Talk About Being “Chronically Single”
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“Most of my friends turned 30 this year, which made us think about where we are in life,” Sabrina tells VICE, “particularly our respective singledoms or lack of singledoms.” Despite romantic dates and the odd situationship, Sabrina’s been single since her only relationship ended six years ago. “One 30th birthday party really sums it up,” she says. Party guests received supposedly inspirational books the host had picked out for them. “Mine was The Art of Alonement.” At first, Sabrina misread the title. “I was like, ‘I love allotments!’ And they were like, ‘No. It's to help you be alone’.”


Although she can now see the funny side, Sabrina’s well-intentioned gift does sum up how the “chronically single” are often treated: as pet projects needing help. Even that phrase – “chronically single” – conjures notions of incurable illnesses. During the Bridget Jones era, the self-help industry was populated by “dating bibles” like The Rules and He’s Just Not That Into You. But today’s empowerment bibles don’t seem much better. After being instructed for years to fix themselves, now single people are encouraged to embrace solitude and be “single on purpose”. It’s a Catch-22 between social shaming and the impossible pressure to Just Be Happy. There’s no room for nuance or mixed feelings.

Of course, that’s not the only way of talking about it. In her recent memoir Arrangements in Blue, Amy Key explored the realities of a life lived without romantic love, making space for both grief and joy. “I explicitly didn't want to write a 'how to be single' book or become a poster girl for the single life,” Key tells VICE. “I loathe people being identified by their romantic status in general.” And while Key acknowledges the self-help genre has helped many people feel validated, she finds that “the pressure to embrace an empowered single life is unwittingly repressive”.

“Allowing the conversation around this to be more complex, more real, is what I hope for,” Key says, “not just for people 'like me' but for people who are in romantic relationships or are reluctant to be without them but don't scrutinise why.” Key says the reaction to her book has been “pretty overwhelming but also beautiful” because it struck such a chord. “I don't think I understood just how many people have found themselves, for reasons they cannot explain or fathom, without a romantic partner for significant periods, or ever.”


So much of this is down to the way society still shames people for long-term “singledom”, making people who have found themselves without a romantic partner for a long time feel like it’s something to hide. To try and counter this, VICE spoke to people who have been single for years about their experience, and how society regards the “chronically single”. Some names in this piece have been changed to protect the interviewees’ privacy.

“I’ve been single all my adult life, which makes me feel like an outlier”

Most people Celine knows are married or “settled” with kids, as she puts it. At 34, her long-term singleness feels like “a fact about myself that needs explanation, especially with new dates.”

“I’ve had men question my past relationship history or even wonder what might be amiss with me that I haven't experienced something serious,” she adds. “It’s something I find hard to explain to myself, really, apart from the fact it’s the way things have panned out.”

Celine feels caught in a bind. She tries “not to see [herself] as 'lacking' even if others might,” but also does want to “settle down”. “I would love to be a parent,” she says. “I would also like to know what it feels like to build a life with someone, to share in-jokes, to adapt to their humour, and to learn from one another.” Having had flings in the past, “including an ill-judged situationship,” she says the parts she enjoyed most “were where they did simulate a real relationship, when we stayed in or watched television or made up silly jokes”. She realised casual set-ups like these were not for her, though, and after a nasty experience with abusive messages, she is now “off the apps”.


“Maybe not everyone is destined to find someone romantic to spend their life with, and perhaps that’s OK,” Celine says, finally. “And frankly, I am not unhappy – it’s almost as though others feel I should be.”

“I genuinely don’t feel distress at being single”

Sarah is 27 and has never had a relationship. “It's very frustrating that when I say ‘I'm emotionally fulfilled by my friends, and my life doesn't feel empty,’ people feel I'm talking brave,” she says. “The older you get still being single, there is a social mortification attached to it, but what's annoying is the fact this exists in the first place.”

Romantic relationships are put on a pedestal, Sarah suggests, while other forms of connection go overlooked. “I’m very fiercely loved by my group of friends,” she says. “They know I've always been single and don't view me as weird for it.” As a PhD researcher, occasionally she worries she’s prioritised her academic career over dating, “but I also get frustrated society makes me think that,” she says. “I'm allowed to want a career in the field I want, even if it takes up a lot of my time”.

Mostly, Sarah blames the dating scene, which she describes as “diabolical”. “I find myself between a rock and a hard place these days,” she says. “When I say I'm ‘too old’ for nonsense, I don't mean I think 27 is ancient. I just can't be bothered with investing time and effort into a situation, messing around ‘just because’,'” Sarah says. “I reject that game entirely.”


Sarah also scorns the self-help industry. Alongside her PhD, she works as a bookseller, and is often stationed near the self-help section. “I feel these books are not only marketed towards insecurity, but they fully exploit and exacerbate insecurity,” she says. “Every time I put one through the till for a woman who’s around 19 or 20, it makes me sad. There’s nothing wrong with being single, and I hate that these books make such young women feel they need fixing.”

“Imagine the pigeon lady from Home Alone 2 – that's how it feels”

The majority of the multi-million self-help industry might target women, but that doesn’t mean men don’t have relationship insecurities. Indeed, with fewer socially sanctioned outlets for their emotions, many men are suffering in silence.

Richard is 27 and has been single for four years. “Four years ago, I had my very first and also my last relationship,” he tells VICE. “Before that, I wasn’t lucky enough to find someone who had requited love for me.”

“I often question what am I doing wrong whilst everyone else is having fun, has long-term partners or established families,” Richard says. “I feel like I can't really say. I think it’s because I keep choosing the wrong people or perhaps being shy to speak to people.” His friends often tell him he’s a catch and won’t be single forever, but Richard says he’s “lost faith” in that. “They tell me, ‘I'm sure someone is waiting out there for you,’ but trust me, someone that would love me unconditionally just won’t fall from heaven for me.”


He admits closing himself off “is not the best idea” but says he can't find any other way to cope with the situation. “I’m trying to treat myself like I'd treat my girlfriend,” Richard says, “taking myself on art gallery dates, gigs, getting coffees here and there – a standard thing you'd do in a couple with someone, except you’re on your own. It feels terrible and embarrassing in the beginning, but you will eventually get used to that.”

“I'm not a model, but I'm also not the monster from the blue lagoon”

Andrea turns 50 this year. She met her current partner at 43, after 15 years of being single. “I dated someone for four years in my twenties,” she says. “When I was 28, we broke up. And never did I think it would be another 15 years until I would actually have a boyfriend.”

“I remember when I hit 30,” Andrea says. “My mum said, ‘So I guess you're not going to get married then’.” Andrea was shocked, as this went against everything her mother had raised her to believe. “All of my life you've been training me to be hyper-independent, to have a job, and now you’re saying I was supposed to have been on this path towards marriage?”

In her early thirties, Andrea dated people, but never for longer than a month or two. “I was like, I love my life. I love my friends. I love my career.” Then, when she was 33, Andrea climbed a hill in Italy: “It was this perfect view, but it was a moment of like: Here I am at the top of the world, and it's really lonely – doing this thing alone, what meaning does it have?”

Andrea says it was a “wake-up call”. She wanted to work out what was happening but knew “none of those self-help books were helping.” Back then, you could go to couples counselling, “but there wasn't any counselling for single people,” Andrea says. Eventually, she took a tantra course, which helped her reframe her sexuality. “It was a whole new way of looking at myself as a woman,” Andrea explains. “A woman who could be sexual, who could be attractive, and that could be safe and healthy and good.” This was a gradual process, “but what became less important was actually finding someone,” she says. “I recognised, even if I never meet this person, this is a space where I can play and get to know myself more, and that's OK.”

Then one day, she met a guy on Tinder. On their first date, she was honest and upfront. “There was still a little shame,” Andrea says, “but by that point I just owned it. I was like, I haven't had much experience, but I know I would make an excellent partner. I just know it.” They’ve now been together for seven years. “I was right!” Andrea exclaims. “I am a great girlfriend.”

Now, Andrea’s re-trained as a sex, relationships and love coach, because she wants to support other people who haven’t had romantic relationships – without offering judgement or skipping over challenging emotions. “I just remember feeling immense solitude,” Andrea says. “It was deeper than loneliness. It's full of so much sadness and grief for what you feel could be but isn't materialising.” It might sound like a cliche, but Andrea wants people to know they’re not alone. “What I do now to guide people is first let them know I was there,” she says finally. “Because that's really helpful.”