No matter the reason – whether it’s because you were too picky, too preoccupied climbing up the corporate ladder, your biological clock ran out on you or simply unlucky in love – staying single is never easy. In fact, few women make a conscious choice to remain single. Nevertheless, if you’re over 35 it’s safe to prepare for, what most Sri Lankan aunties consider the worst case scenario for a woman; singledom. God forbid, you might end up a bag lady or an old cat lady!
But with the Sri Lankan female population now making up 52 per cent of the total population, a certain percentage of the female population would invariably have to remain unmarried for the simple reason that there aren’t enough men to be had. But, singledom is not as catastrophic as old aunties make it to be.
Single by circumstance
Thulasi Muttulingam didn’t plan it. She is single by circumstance. She is of the Jaffna conservative middle class, strictly brought up by her mother not to even think of ‘love’. “Arranging our partners was going to be her business. Except when we came of age, the arranged marriage business in our community was completely out of whack,” explains Thulasi. Demands for the dowry included a house in Colombo, a house in Jaffna, kilograms of jewellery and millions in currency notes.
“Not happening. Firstly, I don’t believe in paying a dowry to get a partner, especially as in this cultural system, I would essentially be paying to become someone else’s bond servant. Secondly, I don’t have all that money anyway, and if I did, my first priority would be taking an around the world trip – not paying to get a patriarchal, entitled, obnoxious male to marry me,” vents Thulasi.
However circumstantial her singledom, Thulasi strongly believes that in the absence of an understanding, compatible partner who loves you and whom you can love back, you are better off alone. And this is exactly why Chintha chose singledom.
“I was in love with a guy. Of course it was unrequited. And long story short he eventually became unavailable,” says Chintha Gamage. Being the strong independent woman Chintha is, she made a conscious choice to remain single. Though her reasons for remaining so maybe considered less than ideal, three years later she still has no regrets. “People may judge me for my decision to die an old maid. In fact, even most of my friends think me naïve and are certain that I will regret my choice later in life. But, I just didn’t want to settle for less. Besides, I don’t think a man is essential for my happiness. As long as I have a good book and a large mug of tea I’m as snug as a bug in a rug,” chuckles Chintha. To avoid singledom bitterness Chintha highly recommends cultivating healthy interests.
Chintha believes that cultivating interests, having hobbies and maintaining a healthy social life may help cope with singledom. “The problem with most people is that they think of being single as this godawful state of affairs. Well it’s not,” clarifies Chintha. “It can actually be a lot of fun.” Chintha explains that once she made up her mind, things got quite easy. “I was never happy with my exes anyway. They kept me from embracing life.” But once she stopped pinning all her hopes on guys, Chintha was able to pursue her educational and career interests.
Get yourself a masters, she suggests, because even education can be fun. “But pick a subject stream that challenges you by pushing your boundaries.” Chintha explains that education has the potential to widen one’s horizons. It’s said that if you are right handed and you use your left to do mundane stuff like brushing your teeth, it trains the brain to think out of the box. “Picking a challenging subject outside your comfort zone can prepare you for life’s challenges, even if the challenges are completely unrelated to what you study.”
Watching movies hones creativity and if your job requires on-your-feet-creativity this is an ideal pastime. “I’m not the kind of person who’d go out often. Not because I don’t have a beau, but it’s just not in my nature. But if you are, then I suggest you go out with friends now and then.” Indeed, we all know the therapeutic effects of going out to dinner, movies or even just window shopping with a bunch of raucous girl friends.
Reading is another very healthy distraction. “It’s also a great stress buster,” points out Chintha. So make sure you have a book on you at all times. It’s your best defense against those aunties when they broach the subject of lifetime spinsterhood.
The critical factor that prevents most Sri Lankan women from making independent choices is financial instability. This was exactly what rudely snapped Chintha back to reality. She had a dream job. “The kind of job that makes you wonder why the hell they are paying you for doing something you love so much,” says Chintha. But everything started to fall apart right around the time the company she worked for hit a financial rough patch. “I had to go for over three months without pay! And the bills were piling up.”
It helps to have a bank balance of at least Rs 500,000, especially if you are a single woman, in case of emergencies. Easier said than done when your housing and education loan instalments alone are over Rs 40,000. But the road to successful singledom is not easy. It goes without saying that it would be best not to have huge loans that could financially cripple you, especially if you are single.
“Thank god for my parents. They really came through for me,” says Chintha with an audible sigh of relief. Luckily, Chintha lived with her parents, who were both pensioners. Speaking of pension, a retirement plan would go a long way towards making one financially stable in the long term.
Thulasi says that she saves about Rs. 10, 000 per month in an insurance savings scheme which she cannot touch till retirement. “I tend to blow my savings on travel and as a freelancer I will not have EPF, ETF or pension, so I felt the need to put aside a certain amount in a manner I cannot easily withdraw.”
“Quite frankly I think we are financially more secure as individuals in this current economic climate in Sri Lanka. Can you imagine affording to have children in this current economy? I can’t. I earn enough to survive but not much else.” Thulasi confesses that most of her friends married with children are struggling to cope. She points out that the country does not incentivise having families. “It’s incentivises staying single, or at best having one child. I look around me at married friends struggling and think I have it better.”
Thulasi opines that there is a lot of social stigma attached to being single in South Asia in general. “Divorcees and widows are the most oppressed, for which reason there are certain organisations catering to their needs, but none that I know of operate here to address never-married women’s problems and social stigma.” Being a freelancer herself, Thulasi has come across such an organisation in Nepal. “We badly need one here too. Everything from our sexuality, sexual activities to our completely innocent movements out and about keep haunting us. A woman isn’t seen with men? She must be a lesbian. And if you are seen with a man they say, ‘look at her carrying on with that man without marrying him!’ Never mind even if both are mature, consenting, single adults. And about our perfectly innocent behaviour they say, ‘Why is she going out after 7.00 pm? Disgraceful!’”
Not that there is anything wrong with LGBT. But Thulasi points out that this conservative crowd police even heterosexual activities, never mind LGBT activities. A woman who subscribes to their cultural conservatism by not being seen with men cannot thereby evade censure. “She is automatically dubbed thereby a lesbian, which is somehow considered worse. This really happened to me. You can’t win with this crowd so I stopped caring about what they were saying about me a long time ago.”
Thulasi strongly believes that people should not marry and have children just to ensure someone is there to look after you later in life. However, she admits that it’s scary to think of old age. “Many of us single girlfriends often talk about how we might live together in a commune later in life.” Hopefully by the time she is old, the state would have better care for the single aged.
(Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.)