I was just asked a fascinating question: How do you know if you were meant to be single? Personally, I wouldn't use the phrase "meant to be," but I understand what the questioner is getting at, and I've been mulling it over ever since. I'll tell you first what I think, then I'd love to hear everyone else's ideas.
To some, concluding that you were "meant to be single" may sound like a bad thing. Not to me. I'd just change the wording - I think I'm single at heart. I love living single (except for the singlism) and never did have those reveries about some lavish wedding with the bridesmaids and the big white dress.
To be single at heart, I think, means that you see yourself as single. Your life may or may not include the occasional romantic relationship, and you may or may not live alone or want to live alone, but you don't aspire to live as part of a couple (married or otherwise) for the long term.
You can be single at heart regardless of your actual status as single or coupled. Similarly, you can be a coupled at heart regardless of whether you really are coupled at the moment.
So what are the criteria? I'll start with what we know from research, then offer you my best guess about the rest. I'll pose my questions as either/or, but I recognize that the alternatives I describe are not the only ones.
Single at Heart: Research-Based Criteria
- Do you have a sense of personal mastery - a can-do attitude, a sense that you can do just about anything you set your mind to? If so, score one for single at heart. For everyone, regardless of marital status, the greater their sense of personal mastery, the less likely they are to experience negative emotions. But for singles, the link between that personal mastery and freedom from bad feelings is even stronger than it is for married people.
- Now consider self-sufficiency, which you have if you LIKE to deal with things on your own. For people who have always been single, the more self-sufficient they are, the less likely they are to experience negative emotions. For people who are currently married, though, it's the opposite - the more they like dealing with things on their own, the more likely they are to have negative feelings.
Single at Heart: Criteria that Need to be Put to the Empirical Test
- When you are thinking about making a big change in your life - maybe embarking on a new career or furthering your education or moving across the country or pursuing your passion - do you wish you could make the decision that feels right to you, without worrying about whether a partner would approve, or whether it might stand in the way of a partner's goals? Or do you prefer to make big decisions along with a partner, even if that means that you may not end up following the path that you most prefer?
- If you were in a romantic relationship and it ended, how did you feel? Even if you did feel some pain, was there also a part of you that was relieved? Did the thought of being your own complete person light up your heart with joyful anticipation?
- When you see groups of couples socializing together, do you think: "I wish that were me"? Or do you think: "Hmm, I don't think I want friends-in-law (the people who come attached to the people you really do like). I'd rather choose my friends one at a time"?
- Think about the possibility that when you go to sleep at night, and when you get up in the morning (or in the middle of the night), there may or may not be anyone else in bed with you. Does that make you happy or sad?
- When you think about spending time alone, what comes to mind first: "Ah, sweet solitude!" or, "Oh, no, I might be lonely!"?
- When you want to eat something you shouldn't, watch bad TV or too much TV, are you delighted that you get to do exactly as you like, or do you wish that there were someone else around who would frown at you and nudge you into behaving - or join you in your transgressions?
- Now take that last question and flip it. When you want to eat right, get lots of exercise, read lofty books, and stay away from slime, are you happy to pursue those kinds of goals on your own or with friends? Or do you wish you had a romantic partner living right there with you (whether to help you stay in line or provide an excuse to jump off the wagon)?
- When you’ve just had a fender-bender (or some such), is your first thought, “thank God I don’t have to explain this at home” or do you wish you had a partner you could tell all about it? (Thanks to Psyngle for suggesting this addition to my original post!)
- Do you take comfort in having another person in your life who is more or less obligated to be your plus-one when you want to go somewhere or do something, even knowing that you will sometimes have to be their plus-one when you might prefer to be doing something else entirely?
Or are you someone who doesn't need to have that automatic companion? Maybe you actually like deciding each time: Who would be a fun person to do this with? Or do I want to go on my own? Or do I not want to do this at all?
- If you want to have kids, do you want to be the one in charge, with support from a network of friends and family? Or do you believe in your heart that children should be raised by two parents living together under the same roof?
- Do you recognize the potential joys of single life implied in all of the previous questions, and maybe others as well, and yet still feel that there is something about coupling that, to you, is so compelling that it is still worth it?
One thing to keep in mind about the "single at heart" option: The deck is stacked against you. Matrimania is against you. Scholars who supposedly study relationships still haven't made ample room for you. Your grandmother doesn't get it. Maybe your own friends don't get it. But that doesn't mean that you don't qualify. You just need to think harder about the "single at heart" option than the "coupled at heart" option, because the latter is just assumed. It's our mental and cultural default option.
Single at Heart or Coupled at Heart: Maybe You Don't Have to Pick Just One
I have a friend who is married with children, and who commented once that even though she is happily married, she also was (and could have continued to be) happily single. People like that are impressive. They are the flexible ones. I'm not among them. I have lots of people I love, but I don't want to live with any of them. I'm single at heart and have never been anything else.
You May Want Your Single Life, But Can You Take the Singlism?
Once you've determined (if you have) that the single life is right for you, there's still another big question to face: Do you have the strength and self-confidence to live your single life without explanation or apology?
As long as singlism continues unchallenged, and matrimania rules the land, people living single will continue to be put on the defensive. Others will still ask you why you are single. (Not everyone will do this, but the unenlightened and the clueless will.) Some will assume that if you have stayed single past a certain age, there's something wrong somewhere. You must have issues. The same practicing practitioners of singlism will often have no problem whatsoever with the serial remarries - those people who marry and divorce, marry and divorce, over and over again. They won't assume that the multiply-divorced have issues. Can you live with that?
In the workplace, bosses and coworkers will sometimes assume that because you are single, you don't have a life, and will expect you to stay late and take the travel no one else wants and be the last to choose your vacation time. Whatever or whomever is important to you in your life will be deemed insignificant. You can try to speak out and educate others, but be forewarned: You may well elicit a nasty response, even though you are right. Can you take that? Would you be okay with staying quiet and just going along with the unfair treatment?
The Last Question
Do you believe that fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you? Ha! That's a trick question. Your answer has nothing to do with whether you are single or coupled at heart. What matters is what your fairy tale is, and whether you are living it. Personally, my fairy tale has come true. I'm single at heart, and that's how I'm living.
Since this was first published, lots of interesting comments have been posted.
- I probably also should have mentioned that I’ve discussed other definitions of marital/coupled status elsewhere. For example, in the first chapter of Singled Out, I distinguish between the legally single and the socially single. Also check out this post: What does 'single' mean?
- Finally, I’ve made this point many times before, but it is worth repeating: Being single doesn’t necessarily mean being alone or being lonely. Most single people do not live alone, and even those who do live alone are often not lonely – they live alone because they want to, and have vibrant personal communities of family and friends. Of course, there are people for whom single life is not at all what they enjoy or desire. At heart, they are probably coupled. I don’t often discuss the downsides of single life on this blog because you can find that anywhere. It is the conventional wisdom that single people are miserable and lonely, and for most singles (based on scientific research), that wisdom is wrong.