Who Is Your Family If You Are Single with No Kids? Part 2

Preview the conclusions of my chapter on singles with no kids

Posted Aug 21, 2011

Single, no children: Who's your family? Back in March of last year, I shared my initial thoughts about the answers to that question. I had just been invited to write a chapter on the topic for the 2nd edition of the Handbook of Family Communication. I usually enjoy my non-academic writing more than my academic writing (and this chapter is the latter), but this topic has been enormously engaging for me. I appreciated your comments on my first post on this topic, and am always open to hearing more.

I now have a complete draft of my chapter and wanted to share the Conclusions section, which is below. In the next week or so, the Census Bureau should be releasing new figures on the number of single people in the population. I'll be adding those new numbers and revising the chapter one more time before submitting it to the editor. If you would like to read the current draft before I revise and submit it, either for your own information or to offer feedback, just let me know. You can either use the "Email Blogger" link at the end of the post or email me at BellaDePaulo [at] gmail.com.


There is an implied question behind the question, "Single, no children: Who is your family?" That lurking query is, do you even have a family? The first answer is yes. Singles with no children, just like married people and parents, have families of origin. They may have nuclear family members - parents, brothers, and sisters - and extended family members such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings-in-law, nieces and nephews.

Once upon a time, "family" seemed to be comprised of sturdy and immovable parts. Scholars had a name for the family they most often studied and wrote about: "Standard North American Family."  Now, hardly anything about family seems standard or obligatory. According to a number of academic and bureaucratic (e.g., the Census Bureau) definitions, families do not need to include children (couples count); they do not need to include more than one adult and they do not need to include two people in a sexual relationship (single-parent families count); when they do include two adults, those adults do not need to be married (cohabiting couples count) and they do not need to include a man and a woman (same-sex couples count). To count as family, the members do not even need to live under the same roof (there are commuter marriages and "living apart together" arrangements, there are divorced families that extend across households, and immigrant families that reach across nations).

Setting aside families of origin, perhaps what distinguishes the families of singles with no children from other families is that typically just one person stands at the center. Other family forms begin with a couple, a parent-child dyad, or a nuclear family unit. Perhaps that difference is partly to blame for the popular misconception (DePaulo, 2006) that single people with no children "don't have anyone": They don't have a spouse or spouse-equivalent, and in later life, they will have no grown children. They don't have someone with the same sense of obligation to care for them as do people in the other family forms. Left unanalyzed, that conceptualization can foster fear among singles, and fuel the myths that many accept as truth. A fake person, Bridget Jones, probably said it best. Stereotypically, singles will end up "dying alone and found three weeks later half-eaten by an Alsatian" (Fielding, 1996).

I have argued that we should not set aside families of origin. Singles with no children who have living parents or siblings do have people in their lives who may love them, care about them, and feel obligated to be there for them.

What I have also done in this chapter is to ask not (just) who is obligated to help, but who really does help? Who does all of the things that families - in the ideal case -- typically do? What I showed by reviewing the literature is that singles with no children do family-type things. They care for those who cannot care for themselves; socialize the young; share experiences and create a sense of continuity and identity; and exchange emotional, practical, and material support.

In fact, in some ways, singles reliably do more than their share. When people who have always been single are compared to the previously married and the currently married in the extent to which they exchange social and instrumental support, provide care, and stay in touch with people such as parents, siblings, friends, and neighbors, it is the currently married people who are nearly always at the bottom of the list. That's why the contemporary institution is sometimes called "greedy marriage." In the United States, many married couples and nuclear families turn inward, expecting undivided commitment to one another.

That expectation and the accompanying feeling of obligation contribute to the sense that people who are married "have someone." When all is well, they do. What is less often considered is what happens when the relationship is in trouble, or when one partner is facing a grave challenge such as a serious illness. Who will step in to help then? The risks are that no one else will know that help is needed or will feel close enough to offer that help; or that others will regard the matters as private or will assume that because each member of the couple already "has someone," they do not need help from anyone else. Many of these kinds of dynamics are in need of further research attention.

People who have children sometimes feel confident that in later life, they will be in a better position than those who never did have children. Their grown children, they believe, will be there for them when needed. In fact, however, grown children may turn out to be emotionally or geographically distant, preoccupied with their own lives, or otherwise disengaged and unhelpful. Research on widowed parents and their grown children (Ha & Carr, 2005) has shown that when the widows live near or with their adult children, there can be benefits. For example, they experience less psychological distress than when their children are far away. However, that emotional comfort does not occur - and can even be undermined - when the widowed parents feel overly dependent on their grown children. When the parents live with their adult children and not just nearby, their own social world shrinks - they spend substantially less time with friends, relatives, and neighbors.

Another approach to studying family-type relationships in the lives of singles with no children is to drop the family terminology entirely and simply ask people to name the most important people in their lives or to map those people onto concentric circles. The personal communities that are described by this methodology are sometimes restricted ones, with perhaps just one person in the innermost circle. Such limited personal communities tend to leave people psychologically vulnerable, regardless of their marital or parental status. Among the personal communities that are not restricted, some are more family-oriented and others more friends-oriented. Communities in which friends are well-represented (even in the absence of family) are more protective of psychological well-being than are communities in which family is well-represented (in the absence of friends). Single women with no children are particularly likely to have friend-based personal communities.

For decades, Western societies have been changing in ways that are bringing single adults and adults with no children to the forefront. Yet there is little consideration of what family means to singles with no children. When participants in national surveys (such as the Pew surveys) are asked whether various sets of people count as family, the kinds of living arrangements relevant to singles with no children are not even represented.

That is likely to change. Scholars such as Barry Wellman who have studied changes in social networks over time and around the globe argue that "in some societies, there may be a turn away from the household to the individual as the basic personal networking unit" (Wellman, 2007). The phenomenon is called "networked individualism." Although singles living solo are especially likely to fit that description, others qualify too. To quote Wellman (2007) again, "The emerging picture is of 'networked individuals' operating somewhat autonomously out of 'networked households' (Wellman, 2001; Kennedy and Wellman, 2007)." Even in contemporary nuclear families, experiences are not shared as much as they once were. Instead, individual family members sit in front of their own computers surfing their own favorite sites, watching their own preferred shows, and communicating with their own friends. There are individual cell phones rather than a family phone, and individual cars in families who can afford them. For married couples, the evidence is not just anecdotal. A study comparing couples in the year 2000 to those from 20 years previously showed that the couples from 2000 were less likely than the ones from 1980 to work on projects around the house together, go out together, visit friends together, or even to eat together (Amato, Booth, Johnson, & Rogers, 2007).

In the opening years of the 21st century, we are still accustomed to asking people about their families. Maybe in the decades to come, it will not be just the phone companies who instead ask, "Who's in your network?"