With age comes the weight of expectation: societal pressures which tell us who we should be, what we should do, what we should possess. But perhaps the most oppressive of all these forces is the expectation to be in a stable, long-term relationship. As I march towards my forties, my own singleness haunts me. How did this happen? Why did those past relationships - usually short and infrequent - not work out? And, in my bleakest moments, the questions that threaten to crush me: What is wrong with me? Will I ever find the soul mate we’re told exists for all of us?
Then I take a deep breath and look at gay men around me. I know a number in long-term, happy partnerships. Some have good relationship histories, but are currently single. Others are in open relationships. And then there are those who have been single for prolonged periods. I wanted to speak to a range of gay men - from different generations and backgrounds - about what it means to be single today. Single in an age of instant hookups, but paradoxically at a time when gay men enjoy more rights than ever before, with the ultimate sign of 'commitment' - equal marriage.
Chris is 53 and lives in New York City. He came out at 17 and has been in relationships which have ranged from one to four years. As he got older the gaps between relationships increased. He is admirably open about the possible reasons for this.
"I've been hurt and wasn't ready to be available to get close to another person. There's been a lot of loss in my life, so I avoided involvement."
The pressures of living - and surviving - in a city have also had an impact on Chris's ability to find and sustain a relationship. Working nights meant that his free time was out of synch with many men and he is also now a carer for a relative. Does he believe that more gay men are single compared to when he came out?
"I'm not sure if there are more single men, but I do think there’s more pressure and scrutiny of single guys because of equal marriage. That's the dark side of those pushing the normative agenda. Ironic that there are so many married/partnered guys on apps, though," he laughs.
Rob, 41, has had a less successful relationship history that Chris: "Three months here, three there. It just hasn't happened (yet), despite 24 years. I don't want to sound desperate," he tells me, smiling warmly, but slightly nervously. When he came out in 1991 apps like Grindr didn't exist and gay men's social opportunities centred around bars. He believes this made it easier to meet people.
"Today, despite gay marriage, the ethic from my viewpoint seems to be one of shallow gratification or an increasing stratification and division in the community - between those fortunate (or to be brutally honest, good-looking enough) to have relationships, those looking for a quick encounter, and those of us - possibly a large number - who are caught between 'Mr Right Now', whilst still harbouring desires for a 'Mr Right'." Does he believe apps have had a detrimental effect on dating?
"Let's face it, Grindr is a visual business. Ironically, I think for me at least, it's probably reduced the value of the 'body beautiful', as they seem to be two-a-penny. I'm not saying though that I feel Grindr is encouraging a balanced view of potential partners - I still think in practice it embodies the visual and age and other biases of the wider LGBTQ+ communities that use it. It's also a marketplace - which means you may offer something, but if no one is buying it's really quite isolating and can reinforce low self-esteem."
Rob is eager to expand upon his comments about gay marriage. He believes it has had a major impact on the dating arena. "I used to wonder if gay marriage would change the dynamic towards a general emphasis on romantic long-term relationships. I though that might benefit all of us, particularly those dating. I'm not so sure now. I'm concerned a new conservatism has crept into gay relationships, that emphasises visible respectability. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's not for everyone. We need to acknowledge our diversity - and that includes what we want from dating - if we want to date or are happy being single, and how we date."
Jason, 39, echoes perhaps the most poignant thing Rob tells me about his experience of apps: that men seem to leave their critical intelligence at the door when interacting online. "I think the apps have killed the art of conversation. In my experience, we have lost much of the 'getting to know you' with the online world - and that’s really sad."
Jason has never had a long-term relationship. His two longest relationships have lasted a year in one case and three months in the other. Both were long distance. Over the years he has joined a variety of clubs in an effort to meet men and far from being despondent about being single, enjoys life through personal creativity and friends. He finds this more satisfying than some of the dubious behaviours of has encountered through dating: the cult of the 'straight-acting man' and what he calls the rise of the 'man-child': "emotionally unintelligent, Peter Pan-esque individuals who still want to act like they are in their early twenties when they’re 35+."
Despite dating setbacks Jason continues to put himself out there - both in the real world and on more traditional dating sites like Gays.com, rather than apps - but remains refreshingly pragmatic about encountering 'the one' we're all programmed to believe in. "I am not a failure in relationships. It's just the conditions have not presented themselves and this may not be my path," he concludes.
Tom, at 28, is the youngest man I speak to. He has had what he calls 'five proper relationships' since 2005 - the last one being in 2012. Unlike Chris and Rob, he doesn't believe that equal marriage has put more pressure on gay men to couple up.
"I think people are becoming more free to do whatever it is they want to do as opposed to being forced into making decisions that will impact their lives for better or worse. But I do think that if you're already in a same-sex relationship then there is probably now an expectation to get married with it now being legal."
Tom's generation is often accused of being addicted to the anonymous sex that apps have been said to encourage - but his experiences, and those of his peers, do not bear this out.
"Apps haven't changed my ability to date or form relationships, but I can imagine that some people may become dependent on them and, consequently, could find it harder to approach guys in real life situations. I know many gay friends who don't really have much casual sex or the desire to find a partner." Why does he think he is currently single?
"I generally don't date if I'm unhappy with the way I look at that moment in time and it's something I need to get over," he admits, alluding to the body fascism which bombards gay men in the digital age. And like Chris, the pressures of work have eaten into the time Tom has to meet new men. "But that's something I'm also looking to address. Yes, I'm really looking into getting back into the dating game now as I approach 30."
Have apps killed the art of conversation?
As I approach 40, I am also looking to do the same. Getting out there again takes courage and persistence. Yes, with advances in technology and the advent of equal marriage, the dating landscape is significantly different from when I came out 18 years ago, but the way we should treat one another as human beings should remain the same. I am bracing myself for what lies ahead, but at the same time, I've also decided to try and stop beating myself up for still being single. We should all feel free to choose our own relationship templates, giving us the opportunity to create something entirely new. Ultimately, whether single or in a relationship, it comes down to how we ascribe value to ourselves and others. Of all the men I've spoken to, the ever-optimistic Rob sums this this up the best:
"Value is a personal thing, but the most important thing is to realise that being in or out of a relationship is just one dimension in life. Being single makes it all the more important to be good to yourself, and to go ahead and achieve your own goals. We only get one chance in life so why wait for another?"
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