Partnership means different things to different people, but the researchers who study...
15th November 2010
It’s a freezing Monday evening and I am in a softly lit room in Bloomsbury, London, working on my “love map”. Before you start thinking that this is anything remotely kinky (chance would be a fine thing), I am fully dressed and sitting in a semicircle with about 20 other people, all scribbling away at their love maps, too.
This exercise — using felt-tip pens to create a visual depiction of what we’d like our future love-lives to look like — is all part of a workshop run at The School of Life, a social enterprise centre, called How Necessary is a Relationship?
My name is Katy and I am single. I am part of a growing number of other single people attending workshops like this, which provide an environment for The Great Unattached to come together for group discussion, catharsis and support.
Whereas five years ago it was all about couples therapy (Relate being the famous provider) and single people had to make do with soul-destroying speed-dating nights and moaning to their friends à la Bridget Jones; now there is not just individual therapy for people wanting an answer to why they are single, but group therapy in the manner of AA, too.
I have done both. Last year I embarked on a course of individual counselling with Andrew G. Marshall, author of The Single Trap, who specialises in getting single people like me, well ... out of the trap. After a very long relationship in my late teens and twenties, plus an on-off relationship with my best friend that resulted in our son, who is now five, I have been single for six years and had begun to wonder what was wrong with me. It felt as if I was the only single person existing in a sea of loved-up couples.
However, this was just a myth. In fact, if we look at the latest statistics, singletons make up 31 per cent of all homes. Government figures predict that soon this statistic will rise to 40 per cent.
Marshall, who in addition to his individual therapy runs group therapy for single people, says, “If I could see only single people from morning till night, it would still not be enough.
There is a huge need to work out where they’re going wrong and it’s much better for them to take six months of therapy to do that than to carry on going round in circles for years on end, becoming more depressed and fed up.”
This is certainly how I felt. My singleness had reached a point where it was affecting every area of my life and my general happiness. Through several techniques such as talking about the relationship I had with my parents and drawing a relationship tree (me as the trunk, my exes as the different branches), Marshall helped me to see the patterns I was repeating, how these were contributing to my perpetual single state and how, with work, I could break them.
These techniques form the basis of his group work, too, so what would I get out of a group session that I couldn’t in a one-to-one? “Group work is so much better because it gets rid of the stigma,” says Marshall. “Single people are so ashamed of their status. They think, I haven’t been chosen, what’s wrong with me? They come expecting to find a group of weird losers, only to find everyone is normal just like themselves.”
Rebecca Palmer, 34, who attended one of Marshall’s Single Trap group workshops, is a convert: “We did an exercise called The Empty Chair where we had to talk to an empty chair, imagining it was someone in our lives who we felt we had unresolved issues with, and who had therefore contributed to our singleness.
“I chose my mother and asked her why she had always said ‘I love you but I don’t like you’ — something which really affected my self-esteem. Sharing something painful like that in front of a circle of strangers and getting the group’s affirmation and support was such an emotional, healing experience.”
Gina Hardy of Conscious Union, who runs “experience workshops” for single people in Brighton and Hove, which has the biggest single community in the country, has seen a 40 per cent rise in demand: “Successful relationships are about doing the work necessary for self-knowledge, but if you’re single you can’t do that because you don’t have that other person to act as a mirror. Group therapy addresses that.”
Still, even to me, a long-time single person who has tried every dating solution under the sun, it seems amazing that so many single people are prepared openly to share their innermost thoughts to a group of strangers. Is this just an extension of our growing need to overshare, as seen in our obsession with Twitter and constant Facebook updates?
Cathy McDermott, a psychotherapist trained in Imago relationship therapy — a psychological and spiritual approach to counselling — runs group sessions for single people.
She says, “I don’t just think it’s single people, I think there’s a general shift in consciousness in our society that means it’s more OK to look inwards. There comes a time when we have to stop blaming other people for the failure or lack of relationships in our lives and look at our part in it. More people are becoming aware of doing this — especially middle-class people.”
Unsurprisingly for a school founded by the philosopher Alain de Botton, the demographic of the How Necessary is a Relationship? workshop is largely middle-class, university-educated — more than your average number of trendy glasses and cardigan-wearers. However, I am surprised by the huge age range (20-70) and even more so by the fact that around half the participants are men. “More men than ever are seeking help for their relationship issues,” says course leader Gaylene Gould — encouraging indeed!
Using a mixture of cultural, biological and social references including classical Greek philosophy as a starting-point, Gaylene gets the group to discuss the pros and cons of singledom and coupledom and how we can take the necessaries of both (solitude and space/a sense of belonging and love) and bring them into our lives.
It’s a very classy affair, with sourdough rolls and wine laid on before the group work begins, but one does wonder why participants don’t save themselves the enrolment fee of £30 and just go and chat to their mates over dinner.
Certainly, I have found the older I get the less I talk to my friends about being single. Everyone has busy lives and their own, bigger problems and we have become more private as a group. On the other hand, there are certain individual single friends with whom our lack of partner is all we talk about.
Although I am lucky enough to have a child — the single and childless thing for many women above 30 becomes, understandably, the biggest issue in their lives and something it helps enormously to share.
However, as 30-year-old graphic designer Liz Verde (attending How Necessary is a Relationship) says, “You can exhaust your peer group. There’s only so long you can moan to friends. They can be quite judgmental, too, so there’s something liberating about talking to strangers.”
Anya Nixon, 25, a trainee solicitor who has come with her flatmate and has been single for five months after her four-year relationship ended, was attracted to the “shared opinions” aspect of the group set-up: “I felt on the fence about splitting up with my boyfriend. It was so interesting to hear what other people bring to the table and really helped me to order my thoughts.”
For me, therapy — both in a group and one-to-one — has helped enormously. I am still single, but the self-knowledge I have gained from attending these sessions means I feel genuinely more ready for a relationship than ever before.
I am hopeful.
A friend of mine, Jenny, attended a love workshop at the School of Life and has now been in a relationship for two years. “I met my boyfriend a month afterwards. I had spent some time having therapy, working out what love and a relationship really meant to me and I was ready.”
And as Cathy McDermott says, “Even if you don’t find a partner by doing therapy, you will grow as an individual so it’s a win-win situation. Only when we are happy, balanced individuals, taking responsibility for ourselves in our relationships, do we make the right choices. Only when we love ourselves can we truly love another.”
Katy Regan’s novel The One Before the One is published by HarperCollins on November 25
For more on Gina Hardy’s workshops in the Brighton area, go to consciousunion.co.uk