This week, Emma Watson got a lot of flack for calling herself “self-partnered” in a recent interview with British Vogue.
During a conversation about her hopes and goals as she approaches her 30th birthday, Watson described pressures often hoisted upon women: “I was like, ‘Why does everyone make such a big fuss about turning 30? This is not a big deal…’” she said. “Cut to 29, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I feel so stressed and anxious. And I realize it’s because there is suddenly this bloody influx of subliminal messaging around. If you have not built a home, if you do not have a husband, if you do not have a baby, and you are turning 30, and you’re not in some incredibly secure, stable place in your career, or you’re still figuring things out… There’s just this incredible amount of anxiety.”
She mentioned that she used to not really buy into the idea that people could be happy being independent. “I never believed the whole ‘I’m happy single' spiel,” she said. “It took me a long time, but I’m very happy [being single]. I call it being self-partnered.”
Okay, okay, let’s pause for a second and talk about single women.
Whatever your feelings may be about Watson’s preferred label, there’s something to be said about the fact that a person who is a globally renowned award-winning actress and United Nations ambassador still feels inadequate just because she’s a single woman. Watson’s feelings of anxiety around her relationship status show just how overwhelming gendered social expectations can be. Our culture still views getting married and having a family as the most important marker of a successful life — otherwise you are incomplete or unfulfilled.
Women, in particular, face the brunt of these expectations, with the roles of wife and mother widely idealized as the highest form of self-actualization for women. Even as we move toward a more feminist, progressive society, master certified life coach and former women’s rights lawyer Kara Loewentheil, J.D., tells O.school that the lingering fear of the old “spinster” narrative can be incredibly hard to shake. Loewentheil specializes in working with women who identify as feminist but struggle to break free of oppressive norms.
“Women are socialized to define their value based on their romantic relationships,” Loewentheil says. “Even women who reject that concept intellectually often find they feel insecure about being single as they get older.”
As journalist Rebecca Traister reports in All The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, single women have outnumbered married women in the last two decades, and only about 20% of Americans in their twenties are married — compared to nearly 60% in 1960. Some research has found single folks are happier than married people, particularly because they’re more likely to spend time with their friends, family, and community. They are also more likely to draw happiness out of their time spent socializing, their values, and their work. Traister likewise points out that never-married women are also active social change agents, as they are more likely to be politically active, attend rallies, and organize their community when compared to the marrieds. So, singles are happy and creating good in the world.
Although relationship satisfaction is often linked to overall life satisfaction in the research, who says a satisfied relationship can’t mean a great relationship with yourself? “Your relationship with yourself is the longest and most meaningful relationship of your life; intellectually, emotionally, and even sexually,” Loewentheil says “You will spend more time with yourself than anyone else and you are the constant in your own life.”
Do words matter?
Even though single women are clearly doing great, language does matter. Many people still associate the word “single” with being alone, incomplete, or searching. Many women who are not in a romantic relationship with another person frequently get questioned about their dating lives. In that way, perhaps this new language about self-partnership can change perceptions and help offset some of the frustrating assumptions women get about their single status. Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., a sociologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has coined the term “single at heart” as a way to describe single folks who are happy, fulfilled, and committed to a life romantically untethered.
The word “self-partnered” might actually be a pretty solid contender as well, since it directly conveys your intentional focus on your relationship to yourself.
“I'm absolutely in love with it,” Loewentheil says about the term. “Thinking of yourself as self-partnered is a brilliant way to ground yourself in your own experience of the world and to create a life that you love the way it is. That way any romantic relationship is only attractive as the addition to an already happy life, not as a desperately needed fix to feel good enough or ‘normal.'”
At the end of the day, labels are really just tools for making it easy to convey something to others in a digestible way — and how they feel about your lifestyle choices is infinitesimal compared to how you feel about your lifestyle choices. So power to all the self-partnered ladies out here. You do you.