Sex toys, selfishness and why we don’t settle: life as a single woman through the generations

“We tend to view singleness as a stopover before starting a relationship”: Annie Lord, in her twenties

“We tend to view singleness as a stopover before starting a relationship”: Annie Lord, in her twenties

When my friend Moya and I got out of the taxi in my home town of Leeds, there was a stone path on the pavement, which set the tone for the night out we ended up having.

I wanted to meet someone, and I knew this would happen because I tend to have a lot more success in Leeds than in London – up there, boys and girls with fake eyelashes who ignore the rule:

‘If you have your legs outside you can’t show your cleavage to show. I thought I found him in the first bar when this man introduced himself to me. He had curtains and a cheeky smile, was tall and wide. Nice, I thought, here we go.

He gave me a tequila and told me about his tree surgery business, spinning me around under his arm. I liked that the music made him have to lean right into my ear to hear him talk.

It all went well, except for one thing. It was impossible to ignore the dirty looks of his friends as their eyes roamed over my body. It was so bad that Moya actually went up to them and asked if he had a girlfriend.

We didn’t want to have a confrontation, so we just moved to the other side of the dance floor.

At the next bar I thought I had met The One again, until it came to him bringing me a drink. He said he was skinny, so I assumed he would get me a beer or something, but after waiting in line for a while, he handed me a glass of tap water.

It was supposed to be funny, but it looked like he was trying to catch me. The last man was the worst; he seemed normal until out of the blue he asked if I “spit or swallowed?”

At the end of the evening there were no men left, but Moya and I sat on the sidewalk with garlic sauce dripping down our wrists from the overstuffed kebab we had bought.

We waited there, under the buttery glow of a street lamp, as Uber after Uber flagged us down and discussed which superpower we would have. And then we got into the taxi home, with our heads against the windows, watching the lights of the city flow into the almost black country roads.

The next morning I sat at the kitchen table with a paracetamol and bacon sandwich, ready to be in the mood all day. “It literally kept getting worse,” I complained. Mom sighed. “Imagine if it had worked out, you would just be with one of them.”

The simplicity of her comment hit me in the face. I spend so much time trying to get to the next stage, to someone kissing me, telling me he likes me and saying, ‘Yes, I do.’ But the point is:

it’s good here. Moya and I laughed so much that night – at the awfulness of the men, but also at the crazy things; a filler of chicken breast bras, shrunk on the floor of one of the bathrooms;

when one of the candies a DJ threw into the crowd hit me on the head. We laughed so hard I felt my stomach ache.

We tend to view singleness as a stopover before getting into a relationship. It is a time to heal, to take stock, to take up new hobbies – climbing walls or knitting.

To meet friends you’ve lost touch with, get things out of your system, wear less and go out more. It is a transition period that prepares you for something more stable and secure where ‘real life’ begins.

But it doesn’t have to be that way; it can be its own destination, like when people take a very long train journey just because the view from the window is beautiful. I now realize that things did not go wrong for these men, they went exactly as they should.

“Some great dates go nowhere because the guy wants to get married and have kids”: Megan Nolan, 30-something

There was a time—until recently, in fact—when I thought there was such a thing as a stable identity and that the meaning of life was to figure out what yours was and commit to it.

Until I was about 25, that identity was mainly being in love. I was a girlfriend, a relationship person, and if one broke up it was usually because another had caught my eye – and if not, it certainly wasn’t far behind.

After a childhood marked by romantic angst and not a lot of hard work, I decided that meaning lay in the other direction and that I would reject the premise of love and find meaning in my independence.

I was in relationships, I dated, but I stubbornly clung to self-sufficiency. I may not have been single all this time, but I felt like I was essentially alone, and I was determined to embrace that feeling.

I had to, I thought, to survive this world where nothing is guaranteed in a relationship except its eventual end, whether through divorce or death.

Now I’m in my 30s trying to accept how little I know and how everything is constantly changing, including the identities we feel so secure and protective of.

I was wrong to think that death and the end were the only certainties: change is the other. I am extremely happy that I chose to dedicate a few crucial years to my work and to cultivating an autonomous lifestyle that is hindered rather than helped by having a partner.

I’ve been single for about a year now, and while saying goodbye to my last beloved boyfriend led to the inevitable pang of “I’m going to die alone,” I’m enjoying being single so much that it’s hard to dwell on it for long. .

I’m actually a nightmare so far because I’m a great girlfriend – extremely fun, thoughtful and curious about the other party, tolerant and flexible – but also will do whatever I want at all times.

I lure the person in with my excellent girlfriend and then announce that I’m going abroad for eight of the next twelve months, or that I can only see him once a month while I finish this project, or whatever other absurd situation arises. has also arisen making it functionally impossible to have a relationship.

(There is definitely an unattractive part of me that enjoys this habit of mine, because it is so at odds with the desperation and need for romantic love that characterized my twenties.)

Being single in your early thirties feels different to being single in your twenties, not least because a lot of my best friends are now firmly entrenched in their relationships, married or own property with their partner.

I have the dating advantage of not wanting children – never have, not now, yes I might change my mind about that, no, I’m not going to organize my life around the possibility of that change.

I had a life-changing bad date in March this year, which I quickly turned into a short story, but if I had a strong feeling that I wanted to meet someone who I would have children with in the next 18 to 24 months, I think not that I could have laughed just as hard at that man and how small and insignificant he made me feel.

On the other hand, some great dates have gone nowhere because the guy has made it clear that he wants to get married and have kids, and I don’t see that as a realistic possibility right now.

If I could, I would try every kind of life there is, but I can’t. I can only have mine, trying with all my might to remain porous and open to the whims of the world as well as my own.

I think practicing that porousness will be helpful when I fall in love again, and it will be helpful even if I never do.

‘If strange and isolated are other words for single, then that’s also free’: Hephzibah Anderson, 40 years old

'If strange and isolated are other words for single, then that's also free': Hephzibah Anderson, 40 years old

I’ve never been one to list my goals or make five-year plans. Maybe that’s why I haven’t mastered the piano or pitched a podcast yet, and rarely manage to turn in my accounts on time.

What I do know is that, while I still long to acquire a garden and always plan to file my tax returns on the right side of midnight, marriage has never been an ambition, let alone one.

a priority. Do not you believe me? A lineup from some of my exes might convince you otherwise.

Now I’m in my forties and a single mother (by design) with a fulfilling career and a list (okay, a haphazard series of mental post-its) of dreams and fantasies whose pursuit more than fills any free time.

So it’s baffling to find that well-meaning friends, family and talkative taxi drivers still insist that I go out and do something to improve my single life.

Despite mounting evidence that relationship status is not the deciding factor it was once preached when it comes to health and happiness, the marriage plot is emphatically shaping our ideas of what happily ever after should look like. Disconnected, we are incomplete – or worse. Just look at some synonyms for ‘single’.

The constant need to justify yourself can be enough to make you wonder if you’re delusional, and as with so many things involving our deepest selves, it can be difficult to disentangle true desires from socially conditioned aspirations – especially if you’re a woman who wants children.

In college, I was one half of one of those couples who actually lived together and embraced a college student’s style of domesticity. I loved my boyfriend – he was smart and handsome, with a hint of wildness, by far the most marriageable man I’ve ever dated (and he’s been married twice).

But as adult life came into view, I longed for my single self, because if “strange” and “isolated” are other words for single, then so is “free.” I still remember the sensation of waking up alone with my own thoughts, and it helped me through some frankly melodramatic breakups.

Loneliness evolves. Although it felt dizzy in my twenties and fraught in my thirties, it’s different again in my forties. For one thing, I can count on a lot more understanding from the couples whose weddings I danced at a decade or two ago.

And yes, being single with a child is different, not least because the pity that comes with even the most unintentional single-shaming is diluted by “I don’t know how you do it” admiration.

There are also disadvantages to being single, of course. It’s more expensive, for starters. But other supposed negatives seem exaggerated – they are, or they are simply not something that coupling can insulate against.

Loneliness, for example: lying in bed next to the wrong person is lonely and gloomy. And while isolation is clearly harmful, it’s easy to forget that solitary time is important, too.

In middle age, when caring for growing children and aging parents leaves one trapped, there is an extravagant joy to be had in being alone – a romance, even.

And when you think of the generations of women for whom marriage was a desperate, non-negotiable necessity, there is an abiding pride in independence, a heady joy in the ability to pursue pleasures and possibilities without consulting anyone else.

The self-reliance it brings, both emotionally and practically, is far from selfishness; in fact, chances are you’ll have more time and motivation to maintain friendships and see family if you’re not tied to just one other person.

It would be disingenuous of me to say that this has always been the case, but if I had to choose just one word today to sum up how I feel about being single, I would say “very.” It makes those ripples of unexpected attraction—the feeling that you could talk forever to a man you’re placed next to at a work dinner, for example—all the more delightful.

‘What I wanted more than steamy sex with a stranger was steamy sex with myself’: Sangeeta Pillai, 40 years old

I was single. He was cute. Our eyes met across the polished oak dining tables in a country house hotel in the New Forest where I was staying.

I had booked a solo pampering weekend for myself at a fancy hotel, as I do a few times a year. Luxurious rural setting. Spa treatments. Extensive dinner for one in the restaurant.

I had just gotten out of a long-term relationship, which I ended, consciously choosing myself over a man who was full of empty promises. I thought of this weekend as a date with myself.

As I ate my cod and samphire dinner, I felt his eyes on me. He smiled. I smiled back. There was a distinct hiss of lust throughout the dining room. My first thought was:

a lavish hotel room was waiting for me upstairs. Egyptian cotton sheets and a soft hotel bathrobe. All I had to do was snap my fingers for a night of passion. But I didn’t. Because what I wanted more than steamy sex with a stranger in my hotel room, was steamy sex with myself.

YEP. I packed my favorite sex toys and my sexiest pajamas to come to this hotel. Because this break was all about me. Treating myself. Loving myself. So after dinner I went back to my hotel room alone. And (ahem!) I played with my fantastic toys.

Here’s what you need to know about single women in their 40s and 50s. We are not driven by our biological clock and settle for someone because we want babies.

We don’t need a partner to do things with. We like to go on vacation, go to the theater, eat out, all alone. We don’t need a man to make us ‘complete’ – we are complete within ourselves.

Most women my age have done a lot of painful and transformative inner work through therapy, bodywork, or spirituality. We really know who we are and what we want. Most men I meet haven’t done that work. I’m talking about men in their forties, fifties and sixties who flail around like fifteen-year-old boys.

My many friends say the same thing. The men they meet and date are still unsure of what they want, stuck in an endless merry-go-round of fleeting relationships and unable to choose any woman. I do feel sorry for them, because they have never learned to look within, which means they have no idea what they want and are stuck in permanent relationship chaos.

But here’s the beauty. Many women in their forties and fifties are coming into their own power. I am for sure. I feel intense. I feel strong. I feel like age has made me the most powerful version of myself. Someone I couldn’t even imagine in my twenties and thirties.

I would like to meet someone with whom I can share my life, but it won’t be just any man. I won’t settle for someone unless he is worth my time, my love, my energy, my body. So until I meet a man who knows his own power, I will remain single.