I have a friend who is perpetually single.
She lives overseas, and we catch up almost daily via voice notes we send to each other. Lately, she’s been experiencing some of the worst dates I’ve ever heard of. This friend is heterosexual, in her late 30s and is what some would call ‘conventionally attractive’. She has a well-paid job, owns her own home, is clever and, personally, I consider her a catch.
And yet, she’s constantly being disappointed by the men she dates, who ghost her, say offensive things, or send her outright gross messages after one date. After her most recent message to me, where she wondered out loud if it was time for her to ‘lower her standards’, I sent an impassioned response explaining how I think she shouldn’t have to accept behaviour she finds unacceptable.
In the course of this rant, I said that although I’ve been in a relationship for the majority of my adult life, I feel confident that if I wasn’t with my partner, I’d rather be alone than with someone who didn’t meet my expectations in terms of how they treated me.
I genuinely believed that too.
I often say that being in a relationship is a choice both partners make daily, and I am hyper-alert to the potential of ‘settling’ in a relationship even when it isn’t making you happy. I like to think that I would rather be single than settle.
But my friend’s response, gently but firmly, challenged this notion by suggesting that I couldn’t realistically say whether I would be as happy alone as I am in a relationship because I haven’t been alone in a long time.
“It’s actually very lonely, especially when the majority of your networks are coupled up,” she told me.
“You might not realise it, but you have a lot of privilege being in a relationship.”
Something in me balked at this. I didn’t like the implication that by virtue of being coupled up, I’m somehow part of the oppression of single people, or that being in a relationship is inherently easier than not.
Relationships are hard work. They involve constant compromise, a lot of emotional labour, and don’t automatically equal happiness. But when I paused to consider my friend’s point of view more deeply, I found myself realising that actually, maybe there is a level of ‘couple privilege’ that I haven’t been entirely aware of before.
For a start, having a dual-income for our household means that day-to-day expenses are much easier to manage, and we can gather savings and budget with greater ease. Given the average rent for a single-bedroom dwelling in Canberra is so high (it’s hard to find a listing for less than $300 per week), if I were living alone, I’d probably be forced to live in a sharehouse, which I wouldn’t choose for myself otherwise.
There is also a level of social privilege to being in a relationship. Our choices and lifestyle are automatically considered valid because being in a couple at our age is the assumed norm.
By virtue of having a long-term partner, I’m seen as having achieved a critical milestone for people my age. I can see the veiled judgment and often pity that my single friends receive in contrast, based on nothing other than their single status. There’s a sense of their lives as being incomplete, and the questions they get about dating are relentless. If they aren’t actively seeking to find a partner, people are perplexed, as though they couldn’t possibly have a full and meaningful life without one.
My friend was recently renovating and she had to deal with numerous contractors in the process. Having to manage the renovations while working full time and having no one else to share the load or even just run decisions past was exhausting for her.
If I were in the same situation, I know that both my partner and I would share the responsibility of managing the process, and I wouldn’t have to carry that burden alone. It was a good reminder of the fact that, actually, I do have a certain amount of privilege being in a happy and long-term relationship, which I may be taking for granted.
Obviously, that isn’t to say that any relationship is better than being single – or that being single is undesirable. All experiences are relative.
But it’s true that society is geared towards couples in some fundamental ways, and while I’d like to think I’d have no issues being on my own, I don’t have a very accurate idea of what that would look like in practice. It feels uncomfortable to think of myself as benefiting from an unequal system, especially when finding a partner is something that few of us have any control over. But I’m going to take on my friend’s gentle rebuke and acknowledge that I have ‘couple privilege’. Is anyone else with me?