How the traditional Christian feast day honouring a man who was beaten to death with clubs for his faith became the night you go to Pizza Express with your S.O and pay extra for a cheesy (in both ways) prix fixe menu is kind of hilarious, when you think about it.
I mean, at the time of writing, it is the feast day of Saint Agatha, but no one’s about to buy someone red lacy underwear for their beloved in her honour. But then, the ability of consumerism to co-opt and adapt things to its benefit knows no bounds.
What emotions are stirred in you by the words ‘Valentine’s Day’?
It’s a divisive festival. For businesses and marketeers, it’s a very important point in the dreary post-Christmas period when the shops can depend upon a spike in sales. For others, it inspires panic as, each year, they succeed in forgetting to buy a card for their partner or spouse until the day before and then have to wrestle through the crowds in Card Factory at 4.58pm to pick something up. Some find it makes them feel a sparsity of love in their lives, rather than the other way around. And for others again, it holds almost mystical possibilities for their romantic life – might the object of their affection finally ask them out – since it’s the season and all?
In the friend zone
The last time I really cared about St Valentine’s Day was when I was about ten and the boy I LOVED gave me a plastic heart-shaped necklace on a neon yellow string, inside which a glittery under-the-sea scene bobbed inside blue water. It became a talisman for me of our love – I used to hold it in my pocket as I stood and watched him play football in the playground (I chose to ignore the fact that he told me he was giving it to me ‘as a friend’). And since I’ve been in the same happy relationship for the last twelve years, I don’t suppose anyone would have a lot of interest in what I have to say about V Day.
But here I go anyway! Because it touches on something I’ve been reflecting upon a lot recently – the way we do community and society in the UK, and its relation to people who are not currently, or intend to become, coupled.
As a Londoner in my thirties, more and more of my social life is governed or arranged around the basic unit of marriages (and increasingly, families). It now is more common than not to go to a party or gathering which comprises mostly couples and married people. As a married person myself, who has cultivated some very valued relationships with other couples, this obviously doesn’t affect me, but I’ve been thinking about how that affects those who aren’t coupled. Some of my most cherished people are ‘single’ in their late twenties or early thirties. Of course I have no right to guess at how being a single person in London feels like, but it looks, and friends have told me: it’s hard. It’s hard to find a happy living arrangement, much less buy your own place. It’s hard turning up to parties and be the token single person. It’s hard shelling out for your fifth wedding of the year, and pay the single person supplement for another expensive hotel room.
In a weirdly 1950s way, our society is still organised around couples. Holidays are booked around the idea of two people sharing the costs. Tables for restaurants are also set for two. And while these may be minor things, all these signals tell single people that no matter the success, happiness, fulfillment they might experience in their life, they are not complete until they ‘find someone’. And single people are not expected to lean on others in the way most people in a relationship will lean on their S.O.
It takes courage to ask for what you need
How then does a single person reach out for the support, love, companionship they need and deserve? It takes courage to ask for what you need.
I’ve been inspired and challenged by some of my single friends recently, who have been brave and intentional in the way they have leant on and involved their support networks in their lives. Last year, a dear friend asked me to go with her to the Edinburgh Fringe to enjoy the festival and support her performing in her choir at the festival. Recently, another friend, on losing a beloved grandfather, called forth a small group of people he cared about, inviting them to attend the funeral and support him on this very difficult day. By inviting us, he gave us permission to be proud of him; to bear witness to his bravery in standing up and delivering an exceptional, heartfelt and honest eulogy; to stand with him and acknowledge this threshold moment in his life.
But it isn’t always easy. While someone in a relationship, if it is a loving one, will find it easy to ask for the help, support and back-up they need, many single people may feel they can’t ask their coupled friends to do the same for them.
The early Christian community, for all its faults, was modelled on a man who was a very intentional single person, and the early church fathers (and no doubt mothers, even if their contribution often didn’t make it down the years in the texts) called on the churches to live cheek by jowl, financially supporting the destitute among them.
This Valentine’s Day, I want to challenge all of us who happen to be in relationships to reflect on how we uphold and support our single friends. Do we celebrate with them in their successes? Challenge them to pursue their interests? To do those things which they have been putting off in the hope of doing them with someone else? Most importantly, in what ways do we, directly or indirectly, communicate to them that their work of being human is somehow incomplete because they don’t have a partner?
I’d love to get the perspective of an uncoupled or self-partnered person. If you’d like to Guest Blog on this topic, please get in touch.