The fear of being single

Valentine’s Day is my least favorite holiday. No, it’s not because I’m single and bitter — only one of those is true, you can guess which. Sure, the blatant, unethical consumerism of cut flowers and foil balloons, sketchy additives in candy hearts, and general lack of recyclability of gift-wrapping materials are bad, but these problems aren’t unique to Feb. 14. My main issue lies in the societal fear-mongering and hetero- and mononormativity — the privileging of opposite-sex and monogamous relationships, respectively — of it all.

No matter how progressive we Duke students like to think ourselves, we are not immune to traditional ways of thinking that are ingrained in our societal consciousness, particularly as they pertain to romantic relationships. They deeply disadvantage and discriminate against people who are not romantically coupled, both financially and socially, particularly when seen through the lens of intersectionality.

Just take a look at things like The Marriage Pact. Even though we don’t really take it seriously — particularly as evidenced by The Fluke News’ spinoff — the underlying anxieties associated with it have real heft. The idea of a marriage pact is far from new, and we seem to have chosen the age of 30 as our absolute last chance to find a — let’s be real, first — husband or wife. Even my own mother was accused of succumbing to these fears by marrying my father at age 29.

Sure, none of us will ever marry our Marriage Pact matches, right? And certainly not our Fluke ones! But there’s enough curiosity in it that many people at least grab lunch, if not become one of a few who enter a long-term relationship with them. We surely take it more seriously than those random QR codes that showed up on campus a year or two ago in which you could put the emails of any fellow students with whom you would want to hook up. Even if you won’t admit it, you secretly hope you match with someone good in The Marriage Pact, because it could lead to something our society sees as desirable.

We can’t help but care about the overall goal of obtaining a mate because that’s just what we’re supposed to do, and anyone who thinks differently is choosing to go against the grain. But it shouldn’t have to be this way. Not when getting married is like a coin toss as to whether death will truly be the reason you do part, and divorces are common because one partner is doing something harmful to their spouse. I’ll spare you from enumerating my other grievances with the traditional marriage path.

Sure, romantic relationships can be good — sometimes, for some people. But we need to rethink the idea that all people want to have one right now and that all people even have an orientation allowing them to desire those sorts of connections — after all, the A in LGBTQIA+ is not just for ally. When we see all long-term romantic relationships as the ideal, a set of unhealthy assumptions is propagated throughout our world.

When we see finding a boyfriend or girlfriend as the monolithic ideal, those within long-term relationships are not forced to think critically about the efficacy of their partnerships — because at least they aren’t single. From my observations, most relationships between people of our age are net negative or neutral for one or both participants. Additionally, it’s unnervingly easy to make a not-great relationship look ideal. I can count on one hand how many people I’ve heard talk entirely positively about how an ex treated them once they’ve broken up. It’s kinda like how you can’t complain about, say, not getting paid enough for a summer internship to your friends who are still looking for one, because at least you have a job, even if there’s something bad about it.

But it truly is better to be single than to be in a bad relationship. Because being single doesn’t mean being alone unless you choose to make it that way. It’s no hot take that investing in platonic friendships is amazing, and I’ll even defend the ever-critiqued situationship. As long as both parties know what they’re in for and act ethically towards each other, we shouldn’t villainize someone for not wanting to date another person in the traditional sense. Dating-dating is a lot of work, and considering how busy we all perennially are, it can be healthier and more fulfilling to have something less easily definable. Sure, some people find labels useful, but they also come with a slew of external expectations.

I’ve found Duke students to be strangely hesitant towards non-traditional relationship formats, considering how ardently many of us support gay rights — well, at least the rights of queer people whose relationships mirror those of heteronormative ideals. Yes, things like non-monogamy or dating across racial lines are met with discomfort, but it’s the small stuff, too. For example, people just assume that if I spend a lot of time with a guy friend, regardless of his sexuality, that we’re boyfriend and girlfriend. Maybe something like that isn’t inherently harmful, but it just shows how blind we are to relationships that at all operate outside of our norms, however antiquated our standards may be.

If we questioned the efficacy of traditional monogamous relationships as much as we did with less serious ones of sexual and/or romantic varieties, I don’t think we would give them as much merit as we have been. Are we really afraid of being alone, or are we just afraid of being perceived as such? Are the artifices surrounding the concept of romantic love so ostentatious because people feel so strongly about their significant others or because they feel like they need to prove that they do? What would happen if we all thought a little more closely about why we see the act of being single as a bad thing?

Heidi Smith is a Trinity senior. Her column typically runs on alternate Mondays.


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