In The Unexpected Joy of Being Single, author Catherine Gray is single and happy at the end of her story. She even realizes that she would still be happy if she stayed single for the rest of her life. For someone with her inauspicious beginnings, that joyful perspective on singlehood was totally unexpected.
Gray, who lives in London, spent most of her adult years as a self-described love addict. She was that person who obsessively checked for messages from her boyfriend, who was devastated by each break-up but quickly lunged into the next romantic relationship, who kept a photo album of her exes and devoured self-help articles on finding and keeping “the one.” She unironically said shmaltzy things about her boyfriend such as “he is my everything.” She “bought into the idea that coupledom is a cure for loneliness.” In college, she was so obsessed with the way she looked that if she was having a bad hair day, she just didn’t go to class. She really believed that “single means I’m broken, I’m worthless.”
The similarly titled book, The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, was Gray’s previous book, and it was a bestseller. Gray takes seriously the parallels between alcohol addiction and love addiction: “…pouring a glass of wine and clicking on a dating app are the exact same process. They’re a restlessness, an emotional void, that we attempt to fill by grabbing a substance/person outside of ourselves.”
The heart of The Unexpected Joy of Being Single is Gray’s story of how she got from being a love addict and romantic cliché to feeling proud of her single life and confident that hers will be a happy life no matter how long her singlehood lasts.
The message that single life is inferior is all around us, so Gray spent a lot of her time examining that. She takes a close and critical look at the romantic fantasies peddled in movies, TV shows, books, and fairy tales.
She explores the role of capitalism in selling marriage (eg, “The fear of being single, and the desire to couple, is a powerful advertising tool”). She considers the ill-fated contributions of well-intended friends and relatives who try to usher us out of our single lives and into exalted coupledom. She finds stunning examples of singlism, which is the stereotyping, stigmatizing and discrimination against single people.
Learning what we already know about single life was also a big part of Gray’s journey. She discovered the changing demographics, in which single living is on the rise in many places around the world. She dove into the research on love, marriage, happiness, and single life, and found out what the experts have to say. Unlike so many others who make claims about the science of single and married life, Gray actually gets it right: she understands that getting married does not make people happier than they were when they were single.
Catherine Gray also turned the mirror on herself. Unexpected Joy is dotted with diary entries from her love-addict days and beyond. Gray also undergoes a brief stint in psychotherapy. She learns how to rewrite the story of her own life.
In a true challenge to a love addict and hopeless romantic, Gray takes an entire year off from dating. Unexpected Joy is chock full of before and after insights, engagingly written. Cross-cutting all the specific lessons she learned was one revelation: Coupled life wasn’t what she wanted to believe it was, and single life was a whole lot better.
She came to understand, for example, that coupling was not the cure to her loneliness. Rereading her old diaries, she found entries such as, “I share a bed, yet I am the loneliest I have ever been.” Gazing at a couple together on Valentine’s Day while she is on her own, she realizes something: “I have never not been disappointed on Valentine’s Day, even when I was in a relationship and received all of the heart-shaped, rose-scented, red-sparkly hoopla.”
During her time spent single, she discovers that friends and relatives can be soulmates. She pursues her passions, such as traveling, and recognizes that she would not have done all those things if she had been coupled. She generates a list of reasons why she probably shouldn’t get married and one of them is, “I love being alone.” She concludes that the years she spent single and mostly not dating were the best years of her life.
Gray knows that the lessons she has learned are not just about her. “If you’re completely secure without [a romantic partner],” she tells us, “a partner becomes a choice rather than a necessity.” A chapter, “Why are so many of us single?”, would probably have been filled with blaming and shaming of single people if Gray had written it during her love addict days, but instead this enlightened version includes section headings such as “Single is a supremely modern privilege” and “The single revolution is a sign of progress.”
Interspersed throughout the book are brief highlighted sections. For example, there is a collection of affirming quotes from famous single people, a list of famous women who married late (I’d prefer a list of those who stayed single), and an annotated assortment of talks, podcasts, songs, and books that offer “single joy inspiration.”
I have very few misgivings about The Unexpected Joy of Being Single, but there was one disappointing issue that popped up again and again. Catherine Gray makes sweeping claims that write out of existence many very real people. For example: “Finding a mate and having a good hard shag is hardwired into us.” (No, it’s not.) About waiting around for boyfriend to call or show up: “I mean, we’ve all been there, right?” (Wrong.) About couples at Valentine’s Day dinners feeling like players on a stage: “Everyone’s done it.” (No, they haven’t.)
Social scientists have not learned nearly as much as they should have about people who are single. They have been too busy focusing on married people. But some of the things they have discovered are that (1) for some people, single life is their best life, and not because there is anything wrong with them — I call these people “single at heart”; (2) some people are uninterested in sex; their asexuality is an orientation, not a dysfunction; and (3) some people are aromantic; they are uninterested in romance, and many of them are doing just fine, apart from the perplexed reactions of others.
The Unexpected Joy of Being Single is in the tradition of books like Glynnis MacNicol’s No One Tells You This and Christina Patterson’s The Art of Not Falling Apart, in which the author is reluctantly single at the start of the book and happily single at the end. It is an excellent book. Read it if you need encouragement, research-based insights, and sound advice on learning to savor single life — or if you want to understand what it is like to need all that. As for me, I’m still waiting for books that recognize and celebrate those of us who love our single life and never needed to be taught how — it came naturally. The Self-Evident Joy of Being Single, anyone?
The Unexpected Joy of Being Single
Aster, January 2019
Paperback, 272 pages