It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in her 30s who seems to be least bothered about romantic relationships and getting married is a threat to social peace and harmony.
One of the first things you do as a single woman in her 30s is cut down on social appearances where the combination of your age and marital status will be the sole topic of conversation. But if you do end up going, there is a silent ritual you are likely to follow - enter venue, do a quick scan of the faces you recognise, lock eyes with the other "still single" woman in the room and give a brief nod of acknowledgement and camaraderie.
As it seems, at least anecdotally, that the number of women in their 30s who are single continues to rise, it has brought along some unique situations. Not too young and not entirely too old, this group somehow ends up being, at the same time, threatening and invisible to many around them. Threatening because a single woman in her 30s often represents a living, breathing rejection of either patriarchy or romantic culture (or both). Invisible because the inner lives of single women in their 30s are often deemed unidimensional, making it harder for them to communicate their issues.
"I wish there was a handbook for how to stay single and happy after a certain age", says Apurva who is single and in her early 30s and is studying outside India for a masters course. A handbook? It makes perfect sense. Single, woman, 30s - this is where all handbooks disappear. Suddenly, there is no template to follow. When you're in your 20s, it is imperative you date, explore, couple up - or so says the reigning template of the usual timeline. Get married by 25, have kids by 30.. so on and so forth.
Apurva is a friend who I’ve known as fierce, intelligent and talented but she confesses feeling like she's winging it one day at a time. She wishes people around were more empathetic towards her problems and choices. "People just assume I am a man-hater and that I don't have my own struggles. Just because I am single does not mean I don't have needs. I am glad I have more things to bank upon as compared to my 20s - like a solid bunch of friends and my career. But I wish people wouldn't assume I am hyper-independent and don't need any support", says Apurva.
This is a theme that comes up frequently in conversations with other single women in this age group - the assumption that they don't need help or community. The assumption that them being single means they have everything sorted, everything in order. It is an extremely isolating time for many women who find themselves drifting away from those who they could previously connect with. They may not have the same problems as their friends who are newly-married or who are new parents and what this means is they lose relatability. This is often accompanied with a generous dose of judgement.
"Everybody thinks being single is a negative thing,” says Debashri who is single and recently turned 30. The assumption, she says, is that being single is not a choice, but a compulsion because she could not find a guy. “No one asks me if it's a choice. I am happy. I don't want to be in a relationship", says adds. A features-writer with a supportive family that backs her every step, Debashri has often encountered judgement and undercurrents from her friends who are committed or married. "The undercurrent is always there, of people showing off their partners. They are subtle ways of making you feel lonely or alone because you are single", she says.
Debashri’s words get me thinking about why the general reaction towards women in their 30s is so demoralising. I think maybe there is one aspect we don't talk about much - pop culture. "Piku is a very relatable character,” says Apurva, talking about the eponymous Deepika Padukone-starrer. “Her struggle with her parent growing older and the guilt of moving on with your life was so well portrayed. At the other end of the spectrum was Fleabag - a single woman, alone in a big city.”
But beyond these two examples, it’s a struggle to recall pop culture representation of single women in their 30s. But why should it matter, you might think. Pop culture representation in media, be it film or TV or books often translates into recognition and awareness. Maybe if we had more leading ladies play roles of single women in their 30s, the world around us would wake up to our feelings and experiences? That remains to be seen.
But what is true is the single friend character trope is often a filler character - someone who serves only as a foil for conversations where the hero or heroine of the story reach a moment of self-realisation. Or someone who drives the protagonist of the story to the airport for a last-minute love confession. Beyond that, the general writing of such characters is rife with caricatures of someone who's desperate for a relationship or someone who is eternally sad.
Closer to real life, too, growing up, there were no women I knew who had remained single in their 30s. The problem of role models is acute in a country where being single is viewed almost as a disability. "It's not for everyone, it's not something you can "give a shot" to because the pressure of marriage is too high,” says Apurva. And I agree. Being single is a choice offered to far too few women and even for women who get the choice, going through with it remains challenging.
From friends being intrusive and making profiles on matrimonial and dating sites for you, to you slowly becoming a misfit in groups of married friends, a single woman in her 30s remains a question that people feel compelled to answer. What they don't realise is being single does not need a qualification or justification. Being single is as much a choice at any age as is being committed or being married.
Being single in their 30s has allowed hundreds of women to find themselves - a chance to work on themselves without traditional pressures. Though it may not be obvious, being single allows women to be there for people in their life without restriction. As the number of single women in their 30s increases, I hope it will give many more women the solace of knowing it is possible.
It is possible to guard yourself from pressures and expectations that will harm you. It might be lonely at times, but it will truly be one the most rewarding experiences of your life.
Sukhada Chaudhary works as a community and digital marketing professional and is an avid reader.