Emma Watson Is “Self-Partnered”; I’m Good with “Single”

Yesterday, I woke up to a series of emails from reporters marked as “urgent.” What could have happened while I was sleeping? Oh, Emma Watson, the actress who played Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter movies and is now playing Meg March in the new film adaptation of Little Women, had declared herself happily single. Only she doesn’t want to call herself single. Instead, she describes herself as “self-partnered.”

She coined that term in an interview in British Vogue. An excerpt was released and virality ensued. “Emma Watson” and #SelfPartnered started trending on Twitter and showing up in instant analyses and then more considered essays all across the media landscape.

I’m delighted that an A-list celebrity has come out as happily single. I’m not so smitten with the “self-partnered” appellation, though. It seems like an attempt to grab onto the coupled sheen, a way of saying, “hey, I’m partnered, too” – as if being partnered is something you should aspire to and feel proud of if you get there. It is a way for single people to define themselves in terms of partnering instead of going with a straightforward term all their own like “single.”

It is for similar reasons that I do not like the term “unmarried.” I don’t want to be defined in terms of what I am not.

Watson admitted that she “never believed the whole ‘I’m happy single’ spiel.” But now, as she approaches the age of 30, she has been feeling anxious about all the singlist messaging telling her that she should have a husband and baby by now. Yes, this wildly successful woman had been fretting because at 29, she is not married and does not have children. But now she realizes that single life is a happy life.

There is a whole genre of memoirs and other nonfiction contributions that describe the same trajectory. Typically, these books are written by single women approaching a milestone age (usually 40) with dread, only to recognize that living single is a fulfilling way to live. They include, for example, Glynnis MacNicol, in No One Tells You This; Catherine Gray, in The Unexpected Joy of Being Single; and Christina Patterson in The Art of Not Falling Apart. These are all people who bought the matrimaniacal narratives and fairy tales that the culture was selling. They really did believe, for almost all of their life, that in order to be truly happy and fulfilled, they needed to marry. It does not surprise me that Emma Watson, who thought like they did, would come up with a term like “self-partnered.”

You know who would not coin a term like that? I’m guessing Keturah Kendrick, who wrote the totally unapologetic No Thanks: Black, Female, and Living in the Martyr-Free Zone. Or anyone who is “single at heart.” They are the people who live their best, most authentic, most fulfilling, and most meaningful life by living single. It is the 21st century. Understanding that single life can be a good life should no longer count as a revelation.

I understand all too well the stigma that still clings to the term “single.” My colleagues and I, over the years, conducted a whole series of studies documenting the ways in which single people are judged more harshly than married people. I appreciate that some people do not want to identify themselves by a word that could taint them by association.

But I’m not shying away from single. I’m embracing it. I want to reclaim it, the way the word “queer” has been reclaimed, and to some extent, “spinster,” too. I have been using the word “single” over and over again during the 27 years I’ve been talking and thinking and writing about single people and single life. It is my happy word.

Other words and phrases have been proposed, too. There is a meme that includes “independently owned and operated” as a relationship-status option. I also like the sound of “solo.” At the Washington Post, Lisa Bonos has a blog called “Solo-ish.” She describes solo-ish “as a way of saying: My life is my own, but I share it with others, too: family, friends, co-workers. Sometimes there’s a special someone, but not always.”

That’s an important qualification — that single life is not completely solo but instead is usually shared. Single people are not just independent, but also interdependent. In fact, as I showed here in an overview of dozens of studies, compared to married people, single people are typically more connected to more different people, and get more out of their interpersonal ties with those people. In contrast, when couples move in together or get married, they often become more insular. They look to each other to fulfill their needs and marginalize everyone else. Research shows they do so even if they don’t have kids.

Single people’s relationships cannot be dismissed as merely superficial. Single people have genuine attachment relationships with people who are important to them.

And now, I think you will understand why I am adamantly opposed to two terms that are often used interchangeably with “single”: “alone” and “unattached.” They are wildly inaccurate. Everyone should just top using those words when they mean “single” – and that includes my fellow scholars.

Having thrown shade at “self-partnered,” I now want to step back a bit. Maybe calling yourself “self-partnered” is a step toward identifying as single or independent or solo or solo-ish. If so, I’m good with that.

“Self-partnered” sounds a bit envious of couples. I don’t identify with that.
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I’m happy that Emma Watson has declared herself happily single. She should have left it at that, instead of going with “self-partnered.”
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