Trigger warning: death, dying
About two months ago, I watched the trailer for a new Netflix movie, The Holidate. It’s one of those films that has an entirely predictable storyline; Independent woman who is “unlucky in love” meets a guy who she at first either hates or is indifferent to. This continues for most of the plot until around two thirds of the way through when she realises she is actually in love with him, but it seems to be too late. Then right at the end, it turns out he does actually feel the same and of course they then live happily ever after. What particularly irked me about the trailer was a line from the main character’s mother who, when talking of her own sister who is a single older woman who enjoys dating and sex, said ‘she’s going to die alone.’
I filmed myself ranting about this phrase and posted it to my Instagram Stories and then soon after decided to delete it. I had watched it back and was worried that I sounded bitter. I decided to park the thought and come back to it. Then the other day I was alerted to a new dating book on the market, which was being promoted by Gretchen Rubin. It’s by behavioural scientist turned dating coach Logan Ury and the title is – and I wish I was joking – How to not die alone. Here’s a picture of it to prove it:
Now, I haven’t read the book so this is not a critique of its contents. I’m sure she has interesting things to say on the topic given her science background but I cannot get over that she would choose to release a book with this title. The again, if she really does have some interesting insights into finding love, why would she use such a scare-mongering phrase on the front cover of her book? I can only assume she and her publishers want to scare people enough at thought of dying alone that they decide to part with their money and buy the book. This is a book that is shouting to us “You should be very very afraid of being single, give me money and I will tell you how to solve this awful problem of yours”. I find it particularly galling given we are going through a global pandemic where a lot of people are in fact dying alone, but I’ll come back to that.
First things first. What does this phrase actually mean? I think given the topic is dating we can assume it actually means ‘How not to die single’. or ‘How to find a man to marry before you die’ (I am assuming her target audience is straight women who want to find a husband.) Firstly, we are back to the idea that being single is only a really bad thing and if you are single you should do everything in your power to try not to be as soon as possible lest you die alone before you sort it out. This question, so loud and proud on the front cover of the book, makes clear that dying as a single person is by far the most terrible thing that can happen to a person. Never mind the fact you have lost your life, but it’s worse because you haven’t even got a ring on your finger. How tragic? How unthinkable?
I hate to break it to Logan but most couples don’t actually die at exactly the same time. Life is not like that scene in The Notebook. Unless you both die in terrible accident, the chances are that one of you will die first – and if you are a straight couple, it’s the man who is more likely to be the first to go (given the statistics on life expectancy) so even if you have been married all your life, by the time you die you will probably be widowed and therefore – shock horror – essentially single. Even if you did die at the same time as your partner, it’s not like you can hold hands after death and go together towards the bright light together. And even if you believe in heaven, I think it’s still commonly accepted that you rock up at the pearly gates on your own. Death, by its nature, is a very individual thing.
Another interpretation of this phrase is that she thinks we should be worried about actually dying on our own without someone by our side. Firstly there are also a million ways to die that would mean either being alone or being surrounded by bunch of strangers (e.g. car accident, operating table etc). This just isn’t in everyone’s control. Having said that there are lots of situations where it would be possible such as if we were to have a long-term fatal illness. If this is the kind of dying alone she means then why does she discount all the other people that can love you such as your parents, your siblings, your best friends? If I were to die before my time and while “still” single and I was lucky enough to be able to decide who was with me at the time, I would count myself very lucky to have so many amazing people in my life to choose from for the moment. Why would it be so terrible that I didn’t have a partner among them? Also why do some people think that marriage is the only way to solve loneliness? In reality single women are more likely to have larger networks of friends and have better social lives, but sure we are the ones everyone should be feeling sorry for! I guess none of that matters when you have the only person that matters – a spouse – by your side.
It’s also worth pointing out that many people who are in such a situation as to have a choice, actually do choose to be alone when they die. People choose this for various reasons. According to hospice staff who care for dying people, some don’t want their loved ones to have the burden of watching them die, or they don’t want to have to worry about their family members reactions as they die. Others just simply want to be on their own because it feels like something private. This doesn’t make these people losers or whatever Logan’s question implies.
Finally, and this is my biggest problem with this book being released right now, the title itself could be very triggering for people as the global pandemic continues to take lives every single second. I think it’s crass in the extreme to promote a book with this title when hundreds of thousands of people are dying and many of them are doing so without their loved ones being allowed to come in to hospitals due to coronavirus restrictions. If I had lost a loved one in these circumstances and I saw this book, I would be furious – and I’m really sorry to anyone who is in this position who reads this and is triggered. It could also be upsetting for those who are single and do want to find someone and yet can’t right now because of the pandemic. Many people are feeling anxious about getting Covid and what will happen. The last thing those people need is a book shouting at them about their worst fear.
I am sure if I were to directly ask Logan what she was thinking with this book title, she would say it’s called that simply because it’s what a lot of single women say, which is true to be fair but that doesn’t make it anymore right. This phrase is part of the lexicon about being single and there are plenty of examples in pop culture. It’s not just Holidate, it’s also a line in Bridget Jones (“I suddenly realised that unless something changed soon .… I'd finally die fat and alone and be found three weeks later half-eaten by Alsatians.”). In Sex and the City, Miranda worries about a very similar thing in the episode where she starts to choke when she buys her first apartment and worries her cat will eat her face after a conversation with her new neighbour.
Thinking about it, I have probably even uttered this phrase myself at one time or another before I stopped to actually consider what I was saying. Nevertheless, it’s time we put this ridiculous phrase to bed and stop using it. It’s offensive and perpetuates the stereotype of single women being sad, lonely figures who should be pitied. Fuck that! And as I have pointed out, it doesn’t even make any sense anyway.
Side note, writing this reminded me that when I was 17, me and my first love made a pact that when we got to a certain age, we would jump off the Grand Canyon holding hands so that we could die at the same time and not have to suffer being alone for a single second. I have no idea why it had to be the Grand Canyon but I love how supremely confident we were at 17 that we had found The One. How wrong we were. Clearly we also still needed an education on the meaning of co-dependency, and how problematic it is to think we couldn’t have survived without the other. (For those wondering, we both managed just fine when we broke up just a few short years later).
The other point I wanted to make is that I wish I had left my initial rant up on Instagram. I hate that I censored myself for fear of looking “bitter”. In the Facebook group for this newsletter, which was where a member first posted about this book (Thanks Anne!), fellow member Kay said this: “It’s interesting that when women talk passionately about something that we think is wrong, it’s often defined as a rant and perceived to be a negative thing. I think it’s important we’re voicing disagreement or calling out things that we think are wrong, without fear of being accused of bitterness.” Yes! Thank Kay for articulating this so well and for giving me permission to quote in this newsletter.
By the way, in case you need to hear this, you are not any less of a person or somehow inherently tragic if you are single. You are loved and you are needed and you are not less than anyone else.
Have a good week,
What caught my attention
This is a few weeks old but I only just realised I hadn’t shared. It’s about my favourite topic and is a really interesting read. I don’t agree with everything Emma writes but it definitely got me thinking. She says of the word Spinster: “There are many reasons we no longer use that term: its misogynist undertones of sour dessication, or bumbling hopelessness, to start with … But it hasn’t gone. Nor has it been replaced by anything better. So what else are we formerly-known-as-spinsters supposed to call ourselves: free women? Rather insulting to everyone else, I imagine. Lifelong singles? Sounds like a packet of cheese slices that’ll last for ever in the back of your fridge.”
I am so glad this article was written in the New York Times. I hope that it stopped and made a few people think. It includes quotes from single people but also experts so definitely give it a read. It’s not really anything new but sometimes it’s nice to have your own feelings validated! This is spot on: “The coronavirus pandemic has been rough on virtually everyone. But those who have been single through the isolation, fear and upheaval say they’ve been confronted with a distinct set of challenges — not necessarily more or less severe than those who are coupled up, but different. Some who said they were content with being single before the pandemic have nonetheless struggled with what they’re missing in emotional support and even routine physical touch.”
For anyone dating or attempting to date during These Times, you might relate to this article and I think you will regardless of your sexual orientation. This made me laugh as it’s certainly true for me (although the app I use is Bumble not Grindr): “Before Covid, people didn’t divulge their digits (phone numbers that is) unless meeting up was a certainty, but that has changed. In fact, getting off Grindr to chat on WhatsApp or iChat has become a kind of “second base”. Almost like “going steady”. As the restrictions on our freedom have stopped us from meeting for casual sex, moving the chat onto an alternative platform is the alternative.”
So sorry this has gone out a day late. I had a terrible night’s sleep and then woke up with a bad headache yesterday morning that made looking at a screen difficult. My dad then came over to help me with some house stuff and then when I was on my own again, I was too exhausted to make any sense and the screen was swimming before my eyes so I decided to get an early night. Apologies for disappointing you. I don’t like to let you all down! Hopefully it will come as a nice surprise today though.
I am collating a list of fiction books that feature strong single characters. Let me know if you have any good ideas!
Thanks so much for all the lovely emails and messages about last week’s guest piece. I knew you would all love it as much as me. I would love to commission more guest writers to write new fresh pieces of writing. To do that, this newsletter needs to be making more money so I can pay writers fairly for their work. Please consider supporting this by signing up to subscribe!
For those who don’t know, I’m Nicola Slawson, a freelance journalist who lives in Shropshire, UK. If you loved this edition of the newsletter in particular, you can buy me a coffee, here’s the link to my Ko-Fi page. Follow me on Instagram and Twitter.
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