Katie Byrne: 'There's a difference between single and self-partnered'

You could almost hear the collective groan echoing around the Internet when Emma Watson opened up about her relationship status earlier this week.

The actress is currently unattached, but she doesn’t like to describe herself as single, she told British Vogue. She prefers to use the term “self-partnered” instead.

“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 said.

The UN Goodwill Ambassador added that she never used to believe in the “‘I’m happy single’ spiel”, as she put it, but now, as she approaches her 30th birthday, she’s beginning to embrace the single or, rather, the self-partnered life that she once dismissed.

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Much of what Watson said sounds perfectly reasonable – and relatable – but the terminology was a bridge too far for some people. The world – or at least the world of social media – wasn’t ready to take self-partnering seriously and it didn’t take long for critics to take aim.

There were inevitable comparisons to Gwyneth Paltrow, who helped popularise the term ‘conscious uncoupling’; jokes about self-partnering becoming a new euphemism for masturbation and a general consensus that Watson was trying to prove her woke credentials by way of linguistic gymnastics.

The actress – or at least the term she chose – was fair game. However, those who wrote off self-partnering as New Age-y psychobabble for the self-care generation weren’t so quick to scrutinise the semantics of the term that she was earnestly trying to replace. Let’s be honest, the term single is replete with connotations – and not all of them are positive. Like it or not, single is a byword for ‘available’ and ‘actively looking’. It’s like an open door that invites anyone to wander in with unsolicited advice, head tilts and queries about the strategies you’ve ‘tried’ – because clearly you’re trying very, very hard to overcome the plight of singledom.

On the other hand, describing yourself as self-partnered is a little like putting a do-not-disturb sign on the door. It semaphores independence and contentment and, at the very least, reminds people to knock before they come barging in to ask if you’ve tried Bumble/tell you that you’re much too picky/ arm-twist you into a date with their cousin who’s “a bit shy but great craic when he gets a few drinks into him”.

Truth be told, I didn’t do the reflex eye-roll or the routine snort of derision when I read Watson’s take on singlehood – and that’s because I also tried to come up with inventive ways to describe my relationship status when I was single for vast swathes of my 20s and 30s. Telling people I was single led to assumptions – and those assumptions opened up conversations I didn’t particularly want to have.

Well-meaning acquaintances recommended apps, clubs, social scenes, communities and countries – entire countries! – that I should comb in my hunt for a man. Others made subtle enquiries about what exactly it was I looking for (the subtext being it was clearly unrealistic).

My grandmother took it a step further when she offered up a novena on my behalf. I don’t know if she told the priest that her granddaughter was stricken down with a desperate dose of chronic singledom, but it felt like that at the time.

I tried to tell people I was “happily single” but it always sounded a touch defensive. On the other hand, telling people I was “unattached” made me feel like I was seeking out an invite to a swingers’ party. Eventually I settled on a line about “doing a strong line with myself”, which, let’s face it, is just a slightly less pretentious way of saying ‘self-partnered’.

Watson’s refusal to use the word single might seem like a semantic storm in a teacup, but it raises some important questions. Why do we assume all single people are desperately searching for a relationship? Why do we automatically offer advice to the unattached? And why, oh why, don’t we recognise singlehood as the single most important choice a person can make in their journey of self-discovery?

Some people like to take some time out to develop a relationship with themselves – and it’s time we settled on a term that affirms that decision.

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