Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

Relationship Virgins

Perceptions of romantic relationship virgins are not all bad.

I just learned that there is a name for people who make it to their 20s or beyond without ever having had a romantic relationship. They are called “relationship virgins.” Relationship is a big, inclusive word. It encompasses friendships, family ties, bonds with neighbors and mentors and more, in addition to romantic links. So by my definition, there are no “relationship virgins.” But okay, let’s talk about “romantic relationship virgins.”

I don’t know for sure whether the number of such people is growing, but my guess is that it is. The number of single people increases with just about every new Census Bureau report, so that’s one hint, though not a definitive one, that the number of romantic relationship virgins may be increasing, too.

My colleagues Wendy Morris and Jeanine Hertel and I did some research on what other people think of adults who have no romantic relationship experience. We created pairs of brief biographical sketches of male and female 20-something year olds. For each pair, everything about the person in the sketches was identical (e.g., age, interests, hometown), except that in one version, they were described as having been in at least one romantic relationship in the past, and in the other, they were described as having had no experiences in romantic relationships.

We found that in some ways, the romantic relationship virgins are evaluated harshly. For example, they are viewed as less happy, less well-adjusted, and lonelier than adults of the same age who did have romantic relationship experience. Not all of the perceptions are more negative, though. For example, adults who have never been in a romantic relationship are not seen as any more self-centered or envious than those who do have experience in romantic relationships.

Personally, I have a very positive view of some of these people – the ones who have no romantic relationship experience because they just aren’t interested. Maybe they are asexual, maybe not. Maybe they are somewhat interested in romantic relationships, but lots of other life pursuits interest them even more. Some of the people with no romantic relationship experience would very much like to have such experiences -- and they should never be stigmatized.

I have been studying people I call “single at heart.” They are people who live their most meaningful and authentic lives as single people. Some people who are single-at-heart do have romantic relationship experience, but not all of them do. I really admire people who, in a matrimaniacal society, can set aside the very strong cultural expectations and even pressures to couple up, and live the lives that are best for them.

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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