Romance Culture vs. The New American Reality

Illustration by Katherene Quiteno

With the increased economic independence of women and declining rates of religiosity, it comes as little surprise that as of 2014, America has become a nation of singles, making up the majority at 50.2%But while the lifestyles of Americans have changed, the oppressive presence of “romance culture” continues to undermine the validity of singlehood as an acceptable way of life.

Mainstream movies on a wide range of subjects invariably include romantic subplots. Advertisers use sexual desire to sell products while also manufacturing and magnifying feelings of inferiority in single individuals. Well-meaning friends and family often ask about one’s love-life before one’s career, hobbies, or health. Partnering up, or “settling down,” is treated as an inevitable milestone in adult life, while prolonged singlehood is treated as a sign of immaturity, or worse, failure. Those with the best intentions describe singlehood as an “opportunity,” where individuals can “get to know themselves” and “draw closer to friends and family.” This otherwise laudable advice is often misconstrued when bound to the subject of singlehood; many adherents treat these goals as mere pre-requisites to the ultimate goal of finding romance, rather than ends of their own.

Singlism, or “the stigmatizing of adults who are single,” affects people of all genders, but especially women. The male “Lone-Wolf” is an archetype whose “noble loneliness” is celebrated in Western culture, but there is no parallel for women. Women are traditionally celebrated as “mothers” and “nurturers,” titles that, while important, define women by their relation to others, not as individuals. When a woman is not seen to have a significant other, she is seen as incomplete, unbalanced, and therefore unhappy. Any assertions that a woman makes to the contrary are merely seen as overcompensation, hollow words meant to convince others and herself that everything is okay. Rom-com after rom-com center around a powerful, successful woman who would have a great life – if only she could find love. These depictions are the projections of a society that is deeply uncomfortable with the idea of a woman-at-large: a woman who is not defined by her attachments.

For those who desire a romantic relationship, singlehood can understandably be a source of pain – but how much of this pain is rooted in perceived societal disdain rather than unsatisfied romantic needs? Romantic partnership brings external validation, not just from one’s partner, but one’s larger social group. To be in a relationship communicates that one is found desirable by another, leaving many singles feeling exposed: not only is something wrong with them, everyone knows it.

The aforementioned cultivation of self-love plays an important role in combatting such erroneous feelings, but the burden of legitimizing singlehood must not lie solely on the shoulders of the individual. The makeup of American society is changing, and with it should change the attitudes toward the people who now constitute the majority. We have explored and idealized the aspects of coupling up for centuries; a greater exploration of different lifestyles and aspects of life in the media would go a long way toward changing perceptions toward singlehood, treating it as a valid lifestyle rather than an emotional purgatory for the strange, unhealthy, or broken.

Everybody is single sometimes, and some people are single for long stretches of time, occasionally for life. Some people prefer briefer dating relationships, some prefer solitude, some prefer to focus on other types of relationships, and some have prioritized other aspects of life. Some simply have no desire for such relationships. Many do, but have yet to meet the right person. Nobody should feel unworthy of romantic companionship, but likewise nobody should feel incomplete if they are without such companionship. Life and love are rich, complex, and multi-faceted, but the cultural overemphasis on romance comes at the cost of greater understanding and appreciation of what love can entail, of what life can be. Long-term romantic partnerships can be challenging and beautiful aspects of a full life, but they are by no means indispensable to the creation of happiness and fulfillment.

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