So, What Does It Mean to Be “Single” These Days?

single woman

I REMEMBER THE DAYS before social media, when selecting your marital status was something you did on paperwork a few times each year. Beginning with my first MySpace profile at age 15, though, I’ve had to define myself with a little tick box. Married. Swinger. It’s Complicated.

But if you aren’t married, and you aren’t available, what are you?

My peers would say you’re dating or in a relationship. My mother would say you’re single. And I … am on the fence.

To a MySpace brat, single people are completely unattached. They’re between relationships. Anyone who is dating someone exclusively isn’t single.

However, as a divorcée who is in a long-term relationship, I know that single, not married and single, not in a relationship are worlds apart. The difference between being married and being in a committed relationship that could one day turn into marriage — as opposed to one that eschews the institution — is a chasm.

That’s not to discount any relationships that aren’t sealed with a clerk of court. But the fact remains that, if you aren’t legally married, and don’t have children to fight over, your breakup is a lot simpler than it is for any couple who has to navigate the court system. You say “It’s over,” and you leave. It might not be easy, but it’s clean.

If you aren’t divorced, and you aren’t together, what are you? Separated. We have a word for it. There’s even a quick, legal process for it, in some states. There’s a tick box.

I first encountered the generation gap surrounding singlehood when one of my mother’s co-workers, having overheard a conversation between two teenagers, remarked: “Y’all don’t play the field. You go to the movies, and then you’re going steady. Y’all need to date around.”

A sudden sense of superiority hit me. I was used to Bible Belt adults treating teenagers like godless heathens, and this woman had just suggested that we play the field, something I was convinced people stopped doing in the mid-’90s. Didn’t she know that we’d be sluts if we did that? She was out of touch, clearly.

I’ve come to realize that this mindset is almost universal for high school students in the U.S., but it tapers off in college, when options open up. It’s as if, thrust into contact with hundreds — or thousands — of potential paramours, and given more privacy than high school affords, young adults feel the need to sample them all.

College students might date around, but that’s where the changes end. As soon as they’re exclusive — the Gen-X-and-beyond turn of phrase for “going steady” — they’re no longer single. In today’s ultra-connected age, any semi-serious relationship is worth the time it takes to update your Facebook status and pronounce your removal from the market to the world.

That mindset hasn’t changed for post-university Millennials. I like the concept of myself as a single woman, but it’s difficult to put that identity across to my peers without sounding as if I’m dismissing or looking for a way out of my relationship. I’m also cautious about using the term, simply because some of my friends aren’t attached. Their singlehood and my singlehood aren’t the same, for obvious reasons. Does that make them more single than I am?

I’m not the only woman my age who deeply feels both her singlehood and her commitment to her partner. Young, professional women routinely face difficult conversations with men who feel left out of our career choices, particularly when they involve major life changes, such as relocation.

And yet, as a society, we don’t worry about whether unmarried, heterosexual men can attach themselves to a person and remain mobile for career advancement, because we assume their girlfriends will either move with them or understand that this is the end of their run.

Whether a woman chooses to involve her nonspousal partner in her career plans should be her decision to make, but just who qualifies for that allowance depends on your definition of single.

I said I’m on the fence, but really, I’m ambivalent. My partner and I spent more than a year being official, but not Facebook official, and it sucked. We were both confident in our relationship, but not being able to advertise it in the most public of ways made me irrationally bothered.

After my divorced finalized, I used the car ride home to take and share my “[f]irst single #selfie” on Instagram. Two fellow divorcées understood immediately what had happened, and congratulated me. One guy expressed some confusion. All three friends knew that my partner and I were together.

But even my partner thought it was confusing. “It’s a great picture,” he said, “but I don’t think the caption sends the right message.”

We updated our Facebook status less than a week later.