Love is great, but not if you exclude single people for it

It’s time to break up with the primacy of romantic love

I pour love into all of my relationships. But as I’ve written before, I don’t think love is divorced from society’s ills. After years — plural — of being single, I’ve learned firsthand the painful inattention to single people’s plight from a world that almost exclusively valourizes romantic love.

Being single amid incessant anniversaries, engagement photo dumps and Valentine’s Day gushing is a bit like being asked to stand outside someone’s window and peer dolefully through it while someone opens an infinite stream of birthday presents. At what point are you invited inside to celebrate and be celebrated?

Sociologists Natalia Sarkisian and Naomi Gerstel found that single people are generally more involved in their communities than their married peers, socializing with their families, friends and neighbours more often. According to Bella DePaulo, single people even volunteer more often in all sectors of society – except in religious organizations. Married couples have us beat there.

Gerstel argues marriage specifically undermines other relationships and community connections because couples prioritize each other to the exclusion of other members of their social networks.

Like oil and water, single people are more likely to give parts of themselves to their communities while their counterparts in relationships recede into their bubbles. These behaviours don’t mix, and yet for single people, what’s to be done besides cutting out all people in relationships?

There’s an argument to be made that single people face discrimination around the world. In India, single parents face similar bans on accessing surrogate parents as queer and trans couples. In the U.S., single people pay more in taxes than married couples, while in Canada married couples can file for special tax benefits. The Brussels Times reported just last month that “single people in Belgium are among the most heavily taxed in the industrialized world.”

We are punished for being single. Restrictions like the one in India hint too that the stigma around singleness is a symptom of a queerphobic aversion to couples or social paradigms that don’t lead to producing children. If we gravitate to these couple formations, it seems that there’s at least some evidence to suggest it’s a heteronormative impulse, not one borne purely out of true love.

But the rub is the way single people are treated in our non-romantic relationships after we’ve been taxed to high heaven.

I’ve told friends about a restaurant I like, started watching a show with them or suggested that we take a trip together, only for those friends to say almost absent-mindedly the next time we meet that they went ahead and did those things or planned those activities with their partners after our time together. It feels like being mined for fuel for other romantic relationships while your friendship — which you value as much as anything when you’re single — is left to sputter out on fumes.

Never mind the times when your friends disclose all of your secrets to their partners or invite their partner to tag along when you’ve planned quality time together — people in relationships don’t respect single people. For good reason, we should never accept if a romantic partner blows us off this way. Why should it be any different in platonic relationships?

We’re not in a place collectively where we’re ready to talk about that. I’ve spoken with people in relationships who scoff that another friend expressed hurt or frustration to them that they were spending increasingly more time with their partner at the cost of time with the friend. The onus is always on single people to be understanding and make room for their coupled friend’s romance in their lives.

Actually, the only people who seem to be talking about singleness in general are incels, and as I’ve written in the past, their formulations about love and sex are neither accurate nor helpful.

Even if single people find other single friends who are willing to prioritize them, singleness is viewed as a temporary state rather than something we commit to. Your single friends could drop out of your ecosystem the moment they find a romantic partner, demoting you in their rota and leaving you scrambling to fill the void they left.

People in relationships get defensive when I describe my experiences, either accusing me of bitterness or unfairness for suggesting platonic love deserves the same import as romantic love. At face, these responses promote the idea that one form of love is more important than the other, which isn’t true.

The truth is, it’s fair to feel hurt and let down when even your closest friends have shown you there are times when they’re not willing to consider even small plans for the future with you if it impinges on anything from a cute date night to a vacation in Tokyo with their boyfriend or girlfriend.

Because it’s easier to imagine changing single people than changing the way we approach love, people have jumped to reassure me when I’ve talked about this, “you’ll find someone!” But finding romantic love isn’t a sure thing, so that offers about as much comfort as a clairvoyant animatronic at a carnival.

Then they rally, “well, you can still be happy!” which is entirely un-empathetic. What single people need is an acknowledgement that things are harder without another person who has pledged to put you first, not a reminder that our lives aren’t dull, dispirited grey worlds.

Advice like this is at its worst when it turns into criticism of the single person, “Focus on self-improvement, and you’ll find love when you least expect it!”

And that is a cruel thing to say. Philosopher Erich Fromm points out that the notion that love is conferred upon those who have earned it, who deserve it, implies that “one is loved only because one pleases.” People giving advice about how to find love might not realize it, but they’re effectively saying you’re not worthy of love as you are. You mustn’t expect it so hard, and you mustn’t be as flawed as you are, that’s what’s keeping you alone.

Ultimately, offering advice is a convenient way for people in relationships to absolve themselves of any responsibility toward other human beings who fill their lives and communities with love.

We can’t all be in happy romantic relationships. Some of us will fall through the cracks. But a diversity of loving arrangements ought to be a good thing, or at least a matter of course. Humanity can’t possibly organize its entirety into blissful little romantic dyads.

Loving friendship is more than supportive phone calls and catching up over coffee. It’s planning your life so that, when your single friends think about the decades ahead, they don’t have to imagine themselves facing the future alone.