Women, more often than not, bear the brunt of the separation – socially, emotionally, personally, writes Kate Demolder. Here, she unpacks the single woman's position in society.

"What do you call a woman who is single?", an auto-suggest Google question under the guise of 'questions people also ask' recently proffered at me. It felt like a joke – rhetorical at best, critical at worst – and one resplendent with unsatisfying answers.

The single woman, by way of a high profile relationship fallout, is something we as media consumers, are familiar with. We’re also familiar with the fact that women, more often than not, bear the brunt of the separation – socially, emotionally, personally.

When former actress Eva Longoria and basketball player Tony Parker divorced in 2010, she explained, tearfully, in a televised interview how the split instilled an intimate self crisis. "I had such an identity being Mrs. Parker," she told Piers Morgan, later commenting, "I didn't realise it at the time with Tony, but I had become my own version of a desperate housewife."

Eva Longoria and Tony Parker, 2010. Photo: Getty

Longoria, at the time, was a Golden Globe and SAG Award nominee, working model, ranked fourth on Forbes’ Prime Time's 10 Top-Earning Women, named Philanthropist of the Year and arguably one of the world’s most beautiful women, yet, amazingly, still fostered the identity of ‘wife to a husband.’

Women constructing their identity from the rubble of a man is not new. Historically, it’s systemic. A woman’s salutation – Miss, Ms or Mrs – hinged on her social standing, her surname was that of the family she became property and, in Ireland, until 1999, a woman’s PPS number was once her husband’s – with a ‘W’ at the end to signify ‘wife’.

For the female-presenting, singledom is oft considered an identity rather than a choice. Traditionally an identity shrouded in deviance, connotations of single women link themselves with personal flaw or eccentricity. However, high divorce rates, ample career opportunities and an increasing preference for living alone have made singlehood increasingly common across societies in the West.

Large bodies of research report on the health benefits that come with non-single status, yet little research has focused on the heterogeneity among single individuals as a growing cohort, and on the ways that singlehood both shapes identity, and influences health and well-being.

For women in particular, singleness has long been considered abnormal: "typical" femininity was confined within marriage and motherhood. This has meant that single women have been categorised, by way of traditional media, into three easily digestible groupings: the immoral harlot, the eccentric spinster and the tragic never-married.

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Joining rank of late is also one Kim Kardashian (West?) whose recent divorce proceedings have coloured her social media presence with a sort of liberated jus. Gone is the prim rigidity and, in its place, a provocative nonchalance. String bikinis! Whipped cream photoshoots! Silky lingerie!

But what does this mean for the average single woman – do our romantic relationships guide our self-identity so much that a noticeable change in behaviour follows? And if they do, have these changes been adopted for ourselves or to keep up appearances in front of an audience?

"The vista of a single woman surrounded by other single women is often scrutinised as man-hating."

A single woman’s observers will commonly assume that anything she does is charged by way of the male gaze. Be it going to the gym or drinking with friends, the ‘show him what he’s missing’ narrative rarely fades. Which is why the vista of a single woman surrounded by other single women is often scrutinised as man-hating, as the simple idea of congenial relationships doesn’t neatly play into the aforementioned categories.

It’s been said before that relationships are the landscapes in which identities exist. Inherently, this is true, and the basis behind the ‘nature vs nurture’ debate. Children and adolescents become the people they are because of the people around them. For romantic relationships, the influence is astoundingly similar.

According to psychologists B. A. Mattingly, G. W. Lewandowski, and K. P. McIntyre, our relationships can change our "self-concepts" (an idea of the self, constructed from the beliefs one holds about oneself and the responses of others) in two ways:

First, the size of your self-concept can change. It can expand, to include new traits or to make existing traits more prominent. For example, a man may discover a passion for gourmet cuisine after dates involving the preparation of elaborate meals. Alternatively, the size of your self-concept could shrink because the relationship has caused certain aspects of the self to be lost. For example, a woman may no longer feel beautiful because her husband is critical of her appearance.

Secondly, the valence of your self-concept can change—that is, the extent to which you perceive these changes to yourself as positive or negative. The examples above include both positive and negative changes. And in fact, even negative relationship events could still bring about positive self-concept changes. For example, a man discovering his own mental strength after a breakup or a woman feeling lonely without a partner.

Kim with Kanye West, who she is now divorcing

One US study found that women who’d become single through divorce showed signs of ‘increased extraversion and openness to experience’, which the researchers put down to a liberating effect of the break-up. But, for a woman whose career has been helmed around the idea of openness and sexuality (Kardashian West) the reclamation of one’s singledom may come across fraught with insensitivity.

What one must remember, however, is that KKW is a business – and crucially, a business identity – in and of itself. Kim’s social media presence is tied to her personal identity and, thus, will always be a representation of herself – while also showcasing marketable aspects of her life along the way (relationships, weddings and family ties).

So now, despite the dramatic uptick in sexually explicit, carefree and youthful photos, the lesson of her seemingly newly-minted presence is that ‘marriages end, but branding is forever.’

"The identity of an ideal woman is something that has been instructed to us since childhood. We see it as early as fairy tales – women must be feminine, agreeable, smiling and beautiful at every moment."

For women like Longoria, whose identity was less established with marketability, personal confusion linked with identity following a change is normal. Lest we forget, the identity of an ideal woman is something that has been instructed to us since childhood. We see it as early as fairy tales – women must be feminine, agreeable, smiling and beautiful at every moment.

It intensifies as we get older and comes to a head, by way of marketing triggers, if the possibility of marriage beckons. When the title of wife arrives, you have reached your identity peak – within merchandising structures, at least – meaning that when it’s taken away, a sense of the security we’ve found in securing ‘ideal woman’ status is lost with it.

Mercifully, there are ways to be an ideal woman that don’t involve IPL or pilates. Take out the gendered specificity, and being a good person is essentially all that’s being asked of you – not slimness, sex appeal or spouse-appropriate behaviour. And you’ve already made a dent in that – go figure.

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So, what do you call a woman who is single? "Single women are sometimes called bachelorettes," Google parroted back via a drop down slide, "especially in festive contexts in American English. However, the historic term for unwed women is spinster."

History or not, surely the most prudent way of categorising women is, simply, by not categorising at all. Relationship status is rarely on a need-to-know basis – unless you’re enamoured or their accountant – and to foster updated, boxy parlance would be to travel back to a time when unmarried women were considered a drain on national resources.

The identity of a single woman is, mercifully, forever changing, no longer meaning ‘out of options’ but ‘whole to begin with’. As poet Warsan Shire wrote in Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, "I belong deeply to myself." Celebrate that however you so wish. Whipped cream optional.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.