When British Vogue asked Emma Watson about her relationship status ahead of her upcoming 30th birthday, she described herself as “self-partnered”[i]. The term sparked a furore on social media, with hundreds of people asking why she couldn’t just use the word “single” and scorning her for being…well, let’s talk about who she is.
Emma Watson is an actor, a model, a Brown University graduate, and a UN ambassador. I have to admit to a personal admiration for her. I am also a feminist, I love literature (including Harry Potter) and it’ll be my 30th birthday nine days after hers. I am also self-partnered.
I’m not an actor, though. I have two occupations, one of which is studying an MA in Translation. One of the first things I learned when I first started studying translation, before I started the MA, was that even if two words are classified as synonyms, they don’t, in practice, mean the same thing. They have different connotations, and different associations. “Amiable” and “charming” both mean “an attractive manner”, but “Prince Amiable” just doesn’t sound romantic.
I don’t think Emma Watson was just looking for a novel way to say “single”. “Self-partnered”, as I interpret it, does not exactly mean what “single” means – that you don’t have a romantic partner. It means that you are your own partner; that you look after yourself as another partner would. You are the person beside you on your journey through life. You are the person who knows you best. You are the person you turn to when you are tired, insecure, or sad. I think this will be familiar to many of us on the autistic spectrum. From our earliest childhoods, we find ourselves at an inexplicable distance from other people. I remember being totally disorientated when I found that words and gestures that made people laugh in one context somehow made them angry when I used them in another. And there are things neurotypical people don’t see and feel that autistic people do, things we can’t ignore – the textures of clothes on our bodies, the hum of computers, the touch of a brush on our hair.
This isn’t intended to be a summary description of how it feels to be autistic; that needs novels, not paragraphs. If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person: each of us has a unique lifetime’s worth of influences on how we perceive ourselves and others. To give another perspective, my good friend Paul Isaacs has blogged[ii] about how his perception of self and other throughout his life, and how autism, borderline personality disorder and other conditions have influenced his physical and psychological being.
The “aut” in “autism” is the same “same” in “autobiography” and “auto-pilot”, and suffice to say, when you are autistic, you have to be an ally to yourself.
[TW: self-criticism talk]
My self is not a good ally to me (Let’s call her “she”). I have a lot of rules to maintain my self-confidence day to day and whenever I break them, which is often, she calls me hurtful words, like “freak”. When I question this, she reminds me of the many times I have been excluded and put down, as proof that I don’t even realise how weird I am. I don’t want to marry her, like the solo weddings organised by Cerca Travel, Japan[iii]. Some days I wouldn’t even give her a piece of cake after work, though I might wish someone else would.
Even so, I can’t leave her. I’ll be spending Valentine’s Day with her. No one will sweep into my life like a rom-com hero and even if they did, I still couldn’t forget about her. I want to make things work with her, because at the end of the day she’s everything to me.
“Self-partnered” is an empowering term in a world where even when you are a beautiful, talented actor and UN ambassador, society is waiting with a “Yes, but…what about your relationship status?”. These attitudes make it really hard to talk about being single actually feels like; if we are sad or angry we get pity, if we are happy it is assumed we must be sad and angry really – just look at the comments on this solo wedding article[iv]. It is difficult enough to build your self-esteem without an inner (or outer voice) telling you “That’s right, you are worthless”.
This isn’t an advice blog. I’m not going to tell you how to fix that inner voice because I’m still figuring that out for myself, and I’ve never been able to do the “what would someone else do in your situation” thing because, well, other people are not me.
But I know that sometimes it is very hard to keep being there for yourself when the world is overwhelming, especially when you and your self have been through a lot, and for a long time. And admitting this doesn’t say anything about how happy or sad, successful or unsuccessful your life is. Our relationships with ourselves – in other words, our lives, are more powerful and more precious than any word or phrase can describe.
This Valentine’s Day, be a good partner to yourself.
I am going to give myself that cake.
[i] Emma Watson: “I’m Very Happy Being Single. I Call It Being Self-Partnered”. Available at: https://www.vogue.co.uk/news/article/emma-watson-on-fame-activism-little-women (Accessed: Feb 13, 2020)
[ii] Isaacs, P. (2014) ‘Autism, Mirroring and The “Sense Of Self”’, Paul Isaacs’ Blog, -12-01T07:57:27+00:00. Available at: https://theisaacs22.wordpress.com/2014/12/01/autism-mirroring-and-the-sense-of-self/ (Accessed: Feb 13, 2020).
[iii] Kaneko, M. (2014) ‘Single, sad? Solo weddings pamper both wives and unmarried ladies’, The Japan Times Online, Dec 25, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/12/25/national/single-sad-solo-weddings-pamper-both-wives-and-unmarried-ladies/#.XkWcb2ieQ2w (Accessed: Feb 13, 2020)
[iv] Harris, N. (2016) “Everything but the groom: why I faked my own wedding”, The Guardian, March 5, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/mar/05/everything-but-the-groom-faked-own-wedding-naomi-harris (Accessed: Feb 13, 2020)