No partner? No problem: you don't need a relationship to live a meaningful life, says writer

New York-based writer Briallen Hopper was always taught that romantic relationships were the most important of all. In her new collection of essays Hard to Love, she challenges that old narrative and imagines a full rich life where friendships come first.
Briallen Hopper (submitted by Briallen Hopper)

Spinster. Co-dependent. Single.

For many people, those words conjure up images of isolation, loneliness and unhealthy relationships.

But according to New York-based writer Briallen Hopper, they really shouldn't. 

In her new book Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions, Hopper makes the case that we need to invest more in the important platonic relationships in our lives.

For her, the first problem is that we put way too much focus on our romantic relationships.

"There's this idea that friendships are something that prepare you for romantic love or support you on your way to getting there. And then once that comes into the picture, they become kind of sidekick characters."

And, as Hopper points out, friendships simply aren't honoured in the same way that familial or romantic relationships are. 

"Many single people feel like they don't have the [same] rituals of adulthood... the moments of gathering or celebration or affirmation, and this obviously leads to this feeling that their relationships are lesser."

Hopper argues we need to redefine the way we think about what it means to be single.

"[It's] getting rid of this idea that people who are single, must be either lonely or waiting or looking for someone," Hopper said.

Single, but not alone

As someone who herself felt the pressure to be "coupled," Hopper knows that stereotype all too well.

Growing up in a traditional evangelical family, there was pressure for Hopper to fulfil certain traditional gender norms. 

"There was just an assumption that this was what women were for: to go to college or work for a few years, but ultimately to marry and have kids."

And even after leaving that community, she still found a lot of the same pressures in the secular world as well. 

There was always a sense that women were supposed to spend a lot of their 20s and 30s devoted to a quest for a life partner. 

But after ending two long term relationships in her twenties, Hopper decided to abandon the quest for a partner and embrace a different life path.

"I realized that I needed to start leaning on and trusting and taking seriously the other relationships in my life that had been with me throughout."

And she saw the power of those friendships in action a few years ago, when a close friend of hers was diagnosed with stage four esophageal cancer, an experience that she writes about in the book. 

"A bunch of friends just kind of got together to care for her because she didn't have a partner or family who are able to do that at that time," Hopper recalls.

She said the experience not only brought them closer together, but enabled them to care for a friend who otherwise wouldn't have had the same support.

So how much is too much to ask of someone who is "just a friend?"

Hopper answers this question in an essay in the book entitled Lean On, a chapter that she described as a "resistance to individualism." 

"The idea of dependence is just very stigmatized in ways that make no sense. I think people are very uncomfortable with the idea of leaning on friends and and the term 'needy' is seen as a kind of problem. And in fact, people have needs."

In the book, she also writes about how words like codependent (which really just means mutual dependence) are also made to seem like dirty words in the context of interpersonal relationships. 

Some relationships, such as those with romantic partners and family members, come with built-in allowances for 'leaning on'; you know that a 3am call is fair game.

And while friendships don't necessarily come with that guarantee, Hopper says they have a "helpful fluidity" that allows you to customize exactly how you rely on each other

"Because it isn't prescriptive, there's a kind of flexibility and openness that you get to define and redefine the relationship," she said.

What does ideal spinsterhood look like?

An ideal life is really about meaning and connection, Hopper says. It's about having a life that's full of people you love, who also love you.

"I think that the best lives are the fullest lives and the most connected lives."

And for people who want to make the most of their singleness, she has a few suggestions.

"Learning to prioritise friendship over other things in your life, unapologetically sometimes, is really important."

Also, because there aren't any existing structures or guidelines for what friendships should look like, Hopper says it's up to us to create them.

Whether it's a group text, a weekly dinner or an annual vacation, Hopper said, "I think that there needs to be something built in that will make sure that you keep coming back together. I think it needs to be cultivated and nurtured like any other relationship."