How to travel as a single woman in your late 20s and the stigma of being single
If you’re a fan of listening to podcasts, then you can also listen to this blog post about travelling as a single woman in this episode of The Well-Travelled Podcast.
By necessity, our travel style evolves as we go through the cycle of life. While as impoverished students we might have backpacked on a shoestring all summer long, by the time our careers get going, many of us favour splurging on more indulgent trips with our hard-earned but limited annual leave. As I progressed into my late twenties, I noticed that our range of travelling companions changes too. Family holidays tend to become rarer, and trips away with a big group of best friends get harder to organise as other commitments take over.
As my friendship group are for the most part pre-children, I’m thinking particularly of the shift in travel style as friends couple up with boyfriends and girlfriends. Where our younger selves’ requirements for a holiday centred around being cheap and fun or adventurous, our grown-up selves crave a little more luxury, refinement and romance in a destination. I’ve been lucky to experience both kinds of trips with various boyfriends over the years: from a 4-month-long backpacking trip around East Asia aged 18, to a surprise weekend city break to Vienna recently in December. Travelling in a couple can be absolutely brilliant, as you know each other well enough to be honest about your travel preferences; and you’re unlikely to get bored of each other’s company or run out of conversation. Travelling in a relationship allows you to create brilliant memories together, in turn making the relationship stronger and discovering more about each other, without the distractions of the daily routine at home.
But what if you’re not in a relationship? How do you travel as a single girl in your twenties?
In my early twenties I travelled equally as much with my friends and family as I did with various boyfriends, and there were always friends available to fly off on adventures with me. Come my late twenties, when I found myself on-and-off single, it was a different picture. I observed that friends in relationships tended to travel with their partners, and also in groups with other friends in couples. I’ve no doubt whatsoever that this shift takes place unconsciously and there’s no deliberate exclusion intended, but as a single girl this shift does limit your pool of travelling companions. Friends you previously travelled with often have less annual leave for girls’ trips, using it instead with their partners or on couples’ trips.
Noticing this, I also naturally started travelling more with my other single friends, and by extension socialising with other single people in London, more than with my friends in relationships. Single friends have become increasingly few and far between however, as I’ve edged towards 30. Luckily I’m also really close to my sister, so we travel well together too. Solo travel isn’t my preferred way to travel although I have done it a handful of times, and I managed to fill my sabbatical with courses and volunteering projects abroad that allowed me to meet other people there. But unless you’re 100% happy to travel solo, it gets increasingly hard to travel when you’re single in your late twenties. Endless other single friends have recounted the same thing, and I started wondering how and why couples’ trips became a “thing”, and why single people tend to not be included?
Why are single people treated differently?
As millennials living in developed countries, we undoubtedly have more freedom than our parents’ generation to live alone, travel alone, date whomever we like, be single if we prefer, never marry, or never start a family if we choose. There is so much more open acceptance nowadays of these lifestyles that buck the tradition of settling down with one person. Despite this, I started to wonder how much of this acceptance is actually more surface-level than we’d all like to admit, and how much stereotyping still exists deep-down… There is definitely still societal pressure for girls to follow a more traditional path, and there is very much still a stigma around being a single girl in your late twenties. People ask you disbelievingly why you’re “still” single, effectively questioning whether there’s something wrong with you!
Psychologist Dr Bella DePaulo has coined the terms “singlism” and “matrimania” to encapsulate this stigma: the idea that being single is an inferior state to being in a relationship, and that society negatively stereotypes and discriminates against single people. She gave this really interesting TED Talk below on the topic. I definitely felt this stigma when I was single, and it impacted the way I travel and with whom.
I can’t personally comment on any stigma around single men, but I have a hunch that this stigma may kick in later in men’s lives than women’s, since men don’t have a body clock or fertility to worry about.
How society treats single girls differently
This stigma around single girls in their late twenties manifests itself subtly and is most likely completely unconscious and unintended. From mildly patronising questions from coupled-up friends, straight out of a Bridget Jones novel, about how your love life is going or how dating apps work (often the first thing they ask, before asking about your career or other parts of life). To outright patronising advice from coupled-up friends on “finding the one when you least expect it”. From the couples’ dinner parties, weekends away and holidays missed because the couples didn’t think to invite any single friends along. To films, song lyrics, advertising and social media (#couplegoals) subliminally promoting the idea that we need to be loved in order to be happy. From friends who morph into an inseparable “we” with their partner and drift apart from their single friends, no longer needing close friendships as much. To the engagement photos, hen parties and weddings that celebrate people simply for being in a relationship. From the exclusive nature of many brides’ and hen party conversations revolving around wedding and honeymoon planning. To the stigma of attending a wedding without a +1, being exiled to the singles’ table, and the cost of effectively paying double for hotel rooms and taxis for one. Alongside the difficulty of finding travelling companions. All of which takes its toll on a single girl’s self-esteem.
The stigma of acknowledging the stigma
Despite realising the above a few years ago and discussing it with other single friends at the time, I didn’t feel I could actually write it down on this blog while I was single, for fear of looking bitter and being further judged or stigmatised. Given that I wanted to find a relationship, I had to carefully protect the image of myself that I portrayed on this blog and to the outside world, so it put me off honestly addressing and challenging the stigma I felt. I think my bravest and most public expression of this feeling was a rather soppy Facebook status I wrote on Valentine’s Day 2019:
Since I started my current relationship almost a year ago, however, I’ve been absolutely amazed to see how that stigma has fallen away, and how I’m treated differently by some people. I’m now invited to couples’ dinner parties and friends seem so excited for me and happy that I’ve “finally” met someone, as if that is a bigger achievement than any of the other milestones or career highs I’ve had to date. Of course not everyone acts this way, but the change in attitudes I’ve encountered since I started a relationship, really has confirmed to me that this stigma does exist. What’s more disappointing is that it exists even among millennials, and that it hasn’t disappeared with the previous generation who no doubt hoped it would! Part of my reason behind writing this blog post is to acknowledge that it’s still very much an issue, and to hopefully raise awareness and sensitivity among those people who are blissfully unaffected and unaware, who perhaps inadvertently perpetuate the stigma themselves.
How to avoid perpetuating the stigma around being single
Having noticed this stigma and hated it while I myself was single, I’m trying my very best to not perpetuate it. For example:
- I avoid asking about my single friends’ love-lives until they bring it up of their own accord. Instead I ask about their job, their hobbies, their travels, etc. recognising that a relationship is not automatically the most important thing in a girl’s life.
- I certainly don’t offer unsolicited advice on dating.
- If a friend announces they’re going travelling somewhere, I don’t automatically ask with whom they’re going.
- I celebrate my single friends’ birthdays, milestones and achievements with equal excitement as others’ engagements and weddings, ensuring there is no hierarchy of good news between the two.
- I pick my language very carefully and try to stay neutral on the topic of dating, avoiding loaded phrases like “still” single, or “finally” met someone, which imply a value judgement.
- When I’m around single people, I don’t talk about my current relationship unless specifically asked, and I still talk about myself as an individual person with my own life – mainly because I still am!
I confess that I do succumb to the odd cheesy couples’ photo on Instagram, although I really should know better… But hey, no one’s perfect, and I’ve endured enough of other people’s couples’ photos over the years, that I deserve to post a few myself!
I would love to hear other ideas on how to avoid perpetuating the stigma, either in the comments or you can message me privately on Instagram if you, like me, dislike discussing it in a public sphere, for fear of further stigma.
Do let me know if you agree or disagree, or if you have any other experiences or examples of this stigma? I’d love to know from men if this is something they too experience, and if so, in what ways?
PS. I should caveat a few things: firstly, I’m aware that not all relationships are happy ones, and that some people end up trapped in relationships they’d love to escape from. Similarly I don’t believe everyone in a relationship lives in romantic bliss 24/7. This article is not about the reality of relationships, it’s more about the societal pressure to be in one, almost regardless of its quality. Secondly, I realise that attitudes to love and relationships differ in cultures around the world, with single women in certain developing countries being much more vulnerable and powerless than millennial women in developed countries like the UK. See my article on women in Nepal for more information on this. I do not want to discount these women’s experiences and situations – this article instead focuses on the stigma within the British and Western cultures I personally live in.
PSS. If you liked this post, you might also enjoy reading about The Two Essential Questions I Ask on Every First Date