A few nights ago I dreamt that I was single again. My fiancé had for some reason turned implacably against me and declared the wedding off. I woke up in a pounding, wild-eyed panic that wouldn't subside, even with the man himself beside me. The nub of the nightmare, I realised, had not been fear of losing him, but of losing the superior status that comes from being betrothed.
There may be more single people in Britain than ever before, but they don't command much respect. Suspicion, fear, blame and pity are more the order of the day. For spinsters, this is nothing new: they have been reviled for centuries, caricatured as everything from dried-up old maids to cat-suckling sorceresses.
Bachelors, historically, have got off lightly. Back when marriage was an almost inescapable duty, those men who contrived to slip through the net were regarded with something close to awe. Married men envied their sexual freedom; single women plotted to bring it to an end. "By persistently remaining single," observed Oscar Wilde, "a man converts himself into a permanent public temptation."
The cult of the bachelor still has its adherents. The new advertising campaign for Coke Zero - a calorie-free drink aimed at blokes who dare not order Diet Coke for fear of seeming gay - assumes that bachelorhood remains man's ideal state. Coke Zero, it suggests, offers pleasure with none of the usual drawbacks: like "girlfriends without the five-year plan", or "stag dos without getting married".
But Coca-Cola's biggest launch for 20 years feels outdated and ill-judged. A backlash has begun on the internet, with websites dedicated to mocking the Coke Zero ethos. Many men, it seems, detest the knowing, ingratiating tone of the adverts; they don't like having their feelings second-guessed by a giant corporation; and most of all, they reject the assumption that they must all be puerile, commitment-shy lads.
The perpetually single man, once a creature of mystery and veneration, is increasingly regarded in much the same way as his female equivalent: as an object of pity. It is assumed that there is something faulty about him. Perhaps he is a mummy's boy, or frightened of intimacy, or too picky, or just unlucky in love - in which case, there must be a reason why he keeps getting dumped.
His condition, far from being enviable, is now regarded as a threat both to his own wellbeing and to that of society at large. Bachelors, it was reported this week, are in grave peril of dying young. An American survey of 67,000 adults found that unmarried men were more than twice as likely to die between the ages of 19 and 44 than their connubially settled peers. This is partly because nagging wives are the only force strong enough to drive men to the doctors, and partly because matrimony seems to be good for us, making us happier, more "socially connected" and less stressed.
Feeling smug, all you married men? You should be. Not only have you saved yourself from certain death; you're saving the planet, too. In recent months, bachelors have copped the blame for a series of environmental problems, including housing shortages and global warming. Men aged 35 to 45 who live alone are apparently the single most ecologically unsound group, taking up more space, consuming more energy and producing more rubbish than anyone else.
I remember, during my long years of spinsterhood, reading endless reports like this about myself. As part of the so-called "Bridget Jones generation", I was doomed variously to childlessness, depression, penury, breast cancer and a lonely old age - all of which, it seemed, was fair punishment for the selfish and unnatural sin of not having found a nice man to settle down with.
At the time I thought it unjust, not to say downright misogynistic, that these surveys always concerned themselves with single women, not men. Yet now that society has swivelled its disapproving eye on to the bachelor class, it doesn't feel like a victory for feminism - merely an extension of the old tyranny.
It shouldn't be necessary to bully singletons, whatever their sex. Most men and women over a certain age already crave what Iris Murdoch called "the comfort supplied by the utterly taken-for-granted relationship". The benefits of being loved are obvious to everyone: there is really no need for scientists or newspapers to keep spelling it out.
Single people feel constantly scrutinised and reproached as it is - by their parents, their married friends, themselves. At a party the other day I met a man I hadn't seen for years. "How are you?" I asked, and he immediately shrank back, eyes darting, like a cornered criminal. "I still haven't got a girlfriend," he replied, pre-empting the inevitable question, "and no, I'm not happy about it."
The truth is, finding love is not a test of character but a matter of luck: of being in the right place, in the right mood, at the right time. Bachelors don't deserve our derision any more than spinsters do. Most are just biding their time, holding out for the full-fat Coke: the stag night that does end in marriage.Reuse content