Selfish Spinsters or Thoughtful Thornbacks?

In my first introductory blog post, I touched on something that I hear a lot when I explain to people that I am single by choice– that this makes me selfish. I can of course completely understand this point of view, because by most peoples’ standards anyone who focuses on themselves over other people generally would be considered a selfish person.

However, what I would like to ask today is is it really such a bad thing for a woman, or indeed anyone, to devote time to pursuing a career, peace of mind or just loving yourself rather than to devote time to a relationship?

Let us begin with the career or education of the Single Lady, and as a lead-in I’d like to take a look at the words we use to describe single men and women because you will find that the difference is quite astounding. We have a nice, civilised, esteemed word for a single man in the English language– a ‘bachelor’. Interestingly (or perhaps not so much when you look at how much of the English language is dominated by masculinity), we also use this word to describe educational degrees– a bachelor of arts or sciences is a learned person. ‘Bachelor’ denotes knowledge, a wider view of the world and therefore someone who thinks of more than themselves.

Then we come to words for single women. Spinster, thornback, old maid– they are all evocative of something spikey, grumpy, closed to the world. Something inward-looking with no wider knowledge. In fact, a thornback is a type of ray, as in a species of fish. You heard me, single women are linguistically on the same level as a fish. Yes, the word ‘bachelorette’ exists in American English but I can’t help but think that this was someone’s too-late idea of political correctness… thanks, but no thanks.

But here’s a fun fact for you– according to Kate Bolick, the word ‘spinster’ actually used to describe unmarried women in fifteenth century Europe who spun thread, which at the time was one of the few more respected roles a woman could have (whereas a ‘bachelor’ was a man of inferior status in 14th century France… interesting!) Isn’t it bizarre that a word originally meaning someone dedicated to a career has now become something of a slur against unmarried women?

I am sure the spinsters of old were really quite focused on the task in hand for the most part and while I’m sure their parents may have had other ideas the word ‘spinster’ makes me think of a woman quite happily focusing on her careers and ambitions first instead of searching for someone to come into the picture. There is absolutely nothing wrong with choosing to focus on careers, or education above a relationship and, in fact, many is a romance that falls apart when lovers go to different universities or start new jobs. We all have to make compromises in order to advance our lives towards happiness, hopes and dreams and so choosing to forgo a relationship, especially among younger Single Ladies hoping to get ahead in a predominantly patriarchal world, is just one of the sacrifices we make to try to keep up with the vast number of expectations heaped upon us. Looking to to set yourself up for life as well as you possibly can isn’t so much selfish as an investment in the future.

I also believe that there is nothing selfish about making a decision to be single for the sake of your own wellbeing. As I mentioned in previous posts, I am not here to say that relationships are terrible. Of course they are not– they are beautiful things that should be treasured and nurtured but they can also be toxic things that tear families apart and can, in the worst case scenario, leave people dead. To the men and other women who call the Single Lady selfish for being single– perhaps you should stop to think why she might be wanting to avoid a relationship at this time. Was her last one abusive and frightening? Was she threatened or assaulted? She might have very good reason for wanting not to open herself so vulnerably to anybody else for the time being. That doesn’t make her selfish, that makes her wounded from someone else’s selfishness.

The same argument can be applied to more common ends to romance. Sometimes, choosing to leave someone or not to have a relationship with someone at all is perhaps the kinder thing to do. That doesn’t mean to say that you like ending something that could otherwise be lovely, but there are times when it needs to be done. Case in point, I currently live in Japan, and I knew that my move here was coming and I gave fair warning to anybody I was seeing during my final few months in the UK. If I had gone in too deep, I knew I would have had to face the Final Battle– Them vs. Moving Abroad.

I never felt that it was fair to ask people to drop their lives and come with me to the other side of the world– that sort of demand for someone who doesn’t know what they’re getting themselves into can lead to much unhappiness, and I was not prepared to make someone potentially throw their lives away for nothing. Equally, however, I was never going to decide that I wasn’t going to go to Japan because of a romantic relationship, because going to Japan was my dream. In that event, I in turn would be the one who would have ended up miserable. Long distance relationships are an option in this day and age thanks to the miracle of Skype and aeroplanes, but sadly my finances and work hours wouldn’t have allowed for me to make that work. I do know, as do most people, that relationships are built on give and take. However, when it’s quite clear that there isn’t a fair middle ground for either party, isn’t it far less selfish to let someone you’ve come to love go on their way than it is to try to cling to them and make them unhappy? I’m not saying it doesn’t hurt to do so, but sometimes it’s necessary to decide on the lesser of two evils. While it’s a hard decision, it’s not necessarily a selfish one.

Finally, loving yourself is  just as important as loving anyone you know, whether you are romantically involved with them or not. My mother once gave me a very good piece of advice after a teenage heartbreak, during which I recall I said something incredibly melodramatic and hysterical along the lines of “NOBODY WILL EVER LOVE ME AGAIN AWAAAAWAAUUGHH”. My mother, who had divorced my father when I was fourteen and spent several years as a Single Lady herself before she found her current partner, explained that in order for someone to love you, you first have to know who you are so that you can love yourself and then be yourself. If you find yourself focusing too much on others, you will never know who you are.

Nobody should ever be called selfish for taking time out to love and be kind themselves. That sort of attitude is far from conducive to a world where mental illnesses don’t plague the dark corners of everybody’s lives. There is nothing wrong with spending some time to focus on yourself, your passions, your hobbies, your life, to better your wellbeing. Women and men are bombarded on all sides with images of who we should be and it’s so stressful– we never really get a chance to find out who we are. I’ll be honest, I still don’t know who I am. I might know by now if not for the shadows that whisper that to love yourself is wrong.

But it’s not wrong, it’s fine. So, while I am still young, while I can still see the world and explore and learn, I want to go on finding out who I am. I want to look after myself and be happy and healthy and keep learning more about this Single Lady every day. I need to spend more time loving me before I can have a chance to love someone else, and quite frankly I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.

So, are women single by choice selfish? Well, if you still think so, then I guess I’m not going to change your mind. But to quote the glorious sage that is Ru Paul, “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else?”


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