By Jillian Straus, published on May 1, 2006 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
For 23 years—her whole career—Bella DePaulo built a stellar reputation as the go-to expert on the subject of deception, the lying and lie detecting we do in our everyday social life. She published dozens of papers, wrote scores of chapters and found a tenured professional home at the University of Virginia. At the same time, she was building a wide web of friendships, a vibrant intellectual life, traveling extensively and generally enjoying life as a single, unattached human being. Research psychologist that she is, she also began collecting data on attitudes about singles in America.
Then she went out West on sabbatical. She liked it so much she chose to stay. Moreover, she was ready to put aside her work on deception for a while. "I decided to take a chance on writing a book about singles and not look for a full-time job," she reports. She signed on as a visiting professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Sacrificing her status, following her passion and taking a huge personal and professional leap into the unknown—"I never could have considered that if I were part of a couple," says DePaulo. "Even now I'm not sure it will pay off. But in a marriage, I would have felt that I was not pulling my weight."
DePaulo's own path exemplifies a seismic shift in the place of singles in American culture—in the lives they lead, in the way others see them and, more profoundly, in the way they see themselves. Not only are singles the fastest-growing population group in the country, most of us will spend more of our adult lives single than married. That hard demographic fact is rapidly turning singlehood into a satisfying destination rather than an anxiety-ridden way station, a sign of independence rather than a mark of shame, an opportunity to develop a variety of relationships rather than a demand to stuff all one's emotional eggs into one basket.
"Singlehood is no longer a state to be overcome as soon as possible," says social historian Stephanie Coontz. "It has its own rewards. Marriage is not the gateway to adulthood anymore. For most people it's the dessert—desirable, but no longer the main course." People may still be eager to meet a long-term partner, but they are a lot less desperate, she adds. Increasingly, individuals are finding singlehood preferable to being in an unsatisfactory relationship. In fact, the possibility of singlehood as a viable life path throws into high relief a finding that is slowly emerging from mountains of social science data—that neither the coupled nor uncoupled life is an automatic ticket to bliss; much depends on the achievement of meaningful life goals and quality of the relationships you create.
While polls show that men are warming to the idea of marriage, women are increasingly in a financial, emotional and professional position to weigh carefully all the trappings that come with the institution. Because they are more conscious of the tradeoffs—women still do more of the housework and childcare—they are increasingly unwilling, Coontz finds, "to put up with something that violates their sense of fairness."
Married-couple households have dominated America's demographic landscape since the country's founding. In the 1950s, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, they comprised 80 percent of all households. But married couples make up only 50.7 percent of households in 2006. Single adults are starting to define the new majority, some by design and some by default. While many are actively looking for Ms. or Mr. Right, most are also busy leading full lives, including having children. Today, unmarried Americans make up 42 percent of the workforce, 40 percent of home buyers, 35 percent of voters. There is even an official holiday dubbed "National Singles Week."
DePaulo believes the growing number of singles is the hidden force behind what she calls "matrimania," the glorification of marriage and, especially, the cultural obsession with weddings. "Americans feel insecure about the place of marriage," she observes. "It no longer appears to be the only path to happiness."
Even as singlehood is becoming the de facto norm, people who choose to go through life solo are deliberately kept in a state of confusion about their own motives by a culture that clings to the marriage standard. Typically, says DePaulo, singles are told that they are selfish for pursuing their own life goals. If you're single and you have a great job to which you devote energy, you're typically told your job won't love you back. Of course, singles are always suspect as tragic losers in the game of love. But most of all they are told through commercials, images and endless articles that they will never be truly happy and deeply fulfilled unless they are married.
"The battlefield is now psychological," says DePaulo. Single women today have work opportunities, economic independence and reproductive freedom. "The things that can be legislated are all done," she notes. "The last great way to keep women in their place is to remind them that they are incomplete. Even if you think you're happy, the messages go, you don't know real happiness." There's a hunger out there for a new view of singles.
Still, we've come a long way since the 19th century, when unmarried women were labeled spinsters or old maids and relegated to an inferior status. In the 1970s, a single Mary Tyler Moore bounced into America's heart with her professional ambition, dream of independence—and an endearing faux-family of coworkers and neighbors. Today television singles like Carrie Bradshaw lead such full, active lives that, like their real-life counterparts, they are sometimes ambivalent about marriage. As a 26-year-old account executive puts it, "I don't need a man in my life. I don't need or want a relationship because I am lacking anything. I want it only to add or enrich."
The notion that singles are uniformly lonely and miserable is a myth, one that is dying hard—nowhere harder than in the psyche of singles themselves. There are countless singles living lives of "secret contentment," DePaulo insists. "They like their lives—they have friends, they travel and yet what they see and hear all around them is that you don't have a happy life unless you are matched up. I think it is hard for single people to fully recognize or say to other people 'I am happy. I like my life.' It is not even a part of our cultural imagination that you could embrace being single and want to be single."
The reality today is that being single is manageable and brings freedom, says Ellen McGrath, a clinical psychologist who is president of Bridge Coaching Institute in New York. "It could be the better choice." By staying single, you may be more likely to develop into your best self, says DePaulo, author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored and Still Live Happily Ever After (St. Martin's 2007). "I feel very emotionally empowered by pursuing what is meaningful to me, even if it is risky. When you are single, you have more opportunities to do what seems right to you without looking to another person for approval."
Many singles may be so satisfied on their own that they claim they have no desire to look for a mate. In a survey by the Pew Research Center, 55 percent of 3,000 singles reported that they were not in a committed relationship and had no active interest in seeking a romantic partner. It is hard to know if these singles will someday want a special someone in their lives, or if they are hesitant to admit they want a partner or if indeed they are satisfied with being forever unpartnered; but being single today is no longer necessarily a default position, as most were socialized to believe.
In her extensive counseling of single men and women, McGrath finds that a necessary first step for them to embrace their status is to reconfigure their own mindset. "Tradition tells us you have to be part of a pair. There was a time when that might have been necessary for survival, but it is no longer the case. Singles must actively update their mental files to see that being unmarried is just as valuable a choice as being in a couple."
Today, women especially have all they need to lead an independent life. There's no shame in having sex out of marriage. They can have sex without kids and kids without sex. They can be financially self-sufficient and purchase homes. Not very long ago, the "American dream" was all wound up in the marital ball. Banks, for example, happily accepted deposits from women but drew the line at lending them money for mortgages.
Yet sociologist E. Kay Trimberger has found that having a real home is critical for the single psyche. "Owning your own home is a strong cultural value," says Trimberger, professor emeritus at Sonoma (California) State University, who followed 27 single women over a 10-year period. Home ownership makes singles feel independent and secure, she reports in her 2005 book The New Single Woman.
As one real estate agent puts it, "Single women are delaying marriage but not real estate." After married couples, they now make up the largest segment of home buyers—21 percent in 2005, up from 18 percent the year before. By contrast, single men make up 9 percent of home buyers, according to a survey by the National Association of Realtors. Forgoing marriage doesn't mean abandoning nesting: The concept of home profoundly matters to women, less as a place to do laundry, more as a sacred space for personal happiness. Just as important, it is a safe way to plan for the future.
So many women are buying homes without waiting for Mr. Right that the building industry is adding design features specifically to appeal to them (secure courtyards, more street lights, extra closet space), offering maintenance services to make upkeep easy and—reversing decades of financial discrimination—teaming with mortgage lenders to help women qualify for loans. Signing a check for hundreds of thousands of dollars can be emotionally daunting. But there's an immediate return on investment: an immeasurable boost in sense of self-worth.
Builders find it takes a lot less to satisfy single men: A flat-screen TV will often do it. "Men still see marriage as a way they settle down," observes Coontz. Women settle down on their own. In fact, they are often willing to go all the way and independently invest in parenthood if no suitable marriage partner appears.
The psychological benefits of having a home are not limited to purchasers, says Trimberger, "Whether you rent or own, decorating and making a home helps you feel psychologically rooted." It's making a place that is not temporary. What's more, creating a home helps singles build relationships. Reina, a 37-year-old single woman, explains, "Once I invested time and money in my home, I saw my family and friends more often because I was excited to host dinner parties."
Satisfying work is another component of a psychologically fulfilling life, and it's especially important for singles, Trimberger finds. "If you love what you're doing, it gives you a sense of self-worth and autonomy. It makes you feel good about yourself that you are engaged in something important." Work has countless other benefits. A sense of identity is chief among them, particularly for singles. "In our society, we value work, self creation and autonomy," says the Sonoma sociologist. "Satisfying work provides a sense that you have achieved something worthwhile."
Work also tends to supply important social networks, people of similar educational background and, often enough, values and interests. A single woman in her late thirties found herself much happier when she went back to work after time off: "I had a sense of purpose and a place to be. It gave me a reason to get out of bed in the morning and people to do things with in the evening."
Although work may be just as rewarding for women as for men, women still can't always reap all the benefits, DePaulo says. Single men who are highly dedicated to their careers and spend lots of time at work are generally viewed very positively in the culture. But single women are sometimes seen as "compensating" for not having a spouse. "Women can be blamed for being too hard-driving to be good in relationships," she notes.
Men and women alike suggest that the main reason they are fulfilled as singles today is that they have lots of company. "Most of my friends are single. I have plenty of people to go out with, travel with and spend time with," says 29-year-old Tom. Sasha Cagan, author of Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics, agrees. "There is an elevated importance of friendship for my generation. It has a vastly larger place in our lives because there isn't a wholesale rush to get married. You maintain a level of intimacy with many significant others. It makes singledom a lot more viable and satisfying."
The soulmate culture insists that one person can satisfy all your emotional needs, says DePaulo. "But that's like putting all of your money in one stock and hoping it's not Enron." Marriage today forces many people to put their friendships on the back burner. Singles, on the other hand, are free to develop deeper relationships with their friends without fear that they are betraying closeness. The flip side is that singles have to be more proactive about building their social lives; it takes an effort.
"Single people are more likely to have a good relationship investment strategy. They tend to have a diversified portfolio of relationships—friends, siblings, colleagues—and to value a number of them," says DePaulo. "They have not invested their entire emotional capital in one person." Having a broad social network is physiologically as well as emotionally protective, although society perceives singles as psychologically vulnerable precisely because they lack the built-in support system of a spouse.
A broad array of friendships also appears to be a developmental plus. "Having a number of relationships allows you to develop different parts of yourself and a more complex, autonomous self," Trimberger finds. Among women, Coontz points out, this development is more a return to 19th-century patterns, before "heterosexual pressures made close same-sex friendships seem suspect and even deviant." Beyond friendships, a broad social network contributes a sense of community. Many singles without children feel the need to create connections to the next generation. "You feel valued as a single person when a younger person respects the life you have created, " says Trimberger.
Where are singles more likely to build their social networks? In 2006, the happy news is that it can happen almost anywhere. Some observers find that cities are easiest for unmarrieds to live in and form "urban tribes." Trimberger contends the suburbs are actually an ideal place to settle into life—single or married.
Comprehensive sex studies show that married couples have more and better sex than singles, but the unattached may actually have more exciting sex lives. Psychologist McGrath finds that single men and women are often more sexually adventurous. "They get more variety and learning from others. Because they are not emotionally invested, they can cut their losses faster and leave when sex is not desirable." In interviews with single men and women, I found that singles almost unanimously viewed their sex lives as more exciting than those of their married friends. "I don't think my married friends even have sex anymore," sighed Nick, a 30-year-old legal recruiter. DePaulo concurs. "It's erroneous to assume that just because someone has a permanent partner, his or her sexual needs are automatically being met. If you are single, you have to go out and find someone. But if you are in a serious relationship, you can still have issues with sex."
More and more, that someone singles find is likely to be a friend. "They're not even looking for another person to be their everything," says DePaulo. Coontz agrees, citing broad new socialization patterns emerging in the culture, particularly a greater degree of nonromantic friendship across genders in which people are physically affectionate, though not necessarily sexual. It's most visible among the young. "There has been lots of negative talk about casual sex for teenagers, who are emotionally immature," says Coontz. "But some casual sex is actually between friends—'friends with benefits,' in the parlance of the young—and that's probably healthy, especially among older individuals. Male-female relations don't have to be based on the excitement of insecurity."
While it has disadvantages among the young, an increasingly casual attitude about sex enables older singles to disentangle their sexual needs from other needs, Coontz observes. "You don't have to talk yourself into falling in love to have sex." That frees people to more thoughtfully explore other passions and drives. "People accept a wide range of passions in life—from food to gardening to the need to feel competent—and they don't all reduce to sex."
That may explain why middle-aged singles are especially likely to enjoy their solo status. What's more, there are more of them—28.6 percent of adults age 45 to 59 in 2003, versus 18.8 percent in 1980—and they are often financially and emotionally independent. "A really interesting renaissance happens for people in their 50s," Trimberger explains. "There is more social support for settling into a single life." There are internal changes as well, DePaulo points out. "There is a perspective that comes with age. You may know the reality of coupling. You probably know other people who are living their lives rather than waiting for someone to transform theirs."
So the next time your mother points to a table of five beautiful women dining out without dates and wonders why they're single, smile and tell her the truth: "Mom, they are having the time of their lives." And you can add that the tables have been turned. It's marriage, not singlehood, that's now the transitional state.