Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

Family Talk and the Dissing of Friends and Community: Part 3 of Singles with No Kids

How words can hide humans

[Bella’s intro: So much going on these days! I need to catch up with that study supposedly claiming that single women pursue careers because they cannot land men. Seriously. Then there’s that new Atlantic cover story claiming that we’ve never been lonelier, with Eric Klinenberg, of course, disagreeing. I hope to get to all that, and the books people have been sending me, and more, eventually – either here at PT or over at this blog. There’s this, too. In the meantime, here’s Part 3 of the 4-part series on the implications of being single with no children.]

Part 1 is here.

Part 2 is here.

 Now for Part 3:

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 In a similar study in which 60 people from Great Britain (ages 18 to 75) described the people who were important to them, Spencer and Pahl (2006) documented partner-based, neighbor-based, and professional-based personal communities in addition to friend-based and family-based communities. Neighbor-based communities differ from others in that neighbors are included in the innermost circles. In professional-based personal communities, professional helpers such as therapists or social workers are in the inner circle and friends and family are either missing or regarded as more peripheral.

 The partner-based personal communities were particularly interesting in that they correspond to the kinds of intensive coupling that is so often romanticized in popular culture, as in such lyrics as “You’re my everything” and “I just want to be your everything” (DePaulo, 2006). Not all married people had partner-based personal communities, but among those who did, the spouse was “the focal point of the person’s social world, acting as confidant, provider of emotional and practical support, and constant companion.” Often, people with partner-based personal communities included no one else in their inner circle.

 Two of the types of personal communities were linked to a greater vulnerability to depression. One, unsurprisingly, was the professional-based community. The other was the partner-based community.

 Taylor and Turner’s (2001) construal of susceptibility to depression is also interpersonal, but in a different way. What matters, they suggest, is whether you believe that you matter to other people. A sense of mattering was based on answers to questions such as, “How important are you to others?” and “How much do others pay attention to you?” The authors posed those questions to about 1300 Canadians one year, and then again a year later. They found that for the women especially, those who believed that they mattered more to others were less depressed when they were first asked and then again a year later.

 The authors also asked participants about the support they experienced from friends, family, co-workers, and a spouse. Perceived support from all four categories predicted feelings of mattering to others; none predicted those feelings more strongly than support from friends.

 In contemporary American society, the important people in the lives of adults – other than nuclear family members – are often invisible. Friends and extended family, for example, are not as often recognized, valued, or celebrated as are children or partners in marriage. I prefer the term “single” to “unmarried” (and “always-single” to “never-married”) because words with “married” in them define singles in terms of what they are not. But “single” can be problematic, too, conjuring a notion of one person, alone and unconnected.

 The “single” nomenclature can also hide important personal communities when used to refer to single parents. Those who have studied single parents most intensively (e.g., Hertz & Ferguson, 1997) have found that such parents are often embedded in enduring interdependent networks of friends, neighbors and relatives.

 In politics, the rise of the Marriage Movement and the Christian Right has ushered in many public pronouncements about the importance of marrying, especially for poor people (Coltrane, 2001). The historian Stephanie Coontz (2000), however, cautions that for poor women,

 “…getting married can be risky, cutting the woman off from other support networks and linking her fate to a man who may be economically or emotionally unstable.  In the absence of a rock-solid marriage and a husband with a job, a poor woman may have more access to support if she remains enmeshed in kin and friendship networks… (p. 287).”

 Research has not yet caught up with what may be one of the greatest rewards of living single with no children – the opportunity to pursue the mix of solitude and sociability, autonomy and connectedness, that each individual finds most fitting and desirable. Surely, people who are married and who are parents can try to fine tune their ratio of time-with-others to time-to-themselves, but the expectations and obligations of spending time with a spouse and children are greater than any pressures on single people with no children to spend time with other relatives and friends.

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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