In my most recent article published somewhere other than my blogs, I wrote about the secrets of successful single people. (The references and a few other choice nuggets that were left out of the article are here.) I love writing articles like that, where I turn the tables on the stereotypes of the supposedly sad and lonely single people and underscore the ways in which real single people are living their lives happily and successfully.
I can do so because the data are on my side. Studies in which people are followed for years show that people who marry do not become lastingly happier or healthier than they were when they were single, and they do not enjoy any higher self-esteem. In fact, on the average, they actually become more insular.
It is also important to acknowledge, though, that those results are based on the averages across many people – sometimes thousands of people participate in a given study. Not every single person is resilient in the face of all of the singlism (the stereotyping, stigmatizing, discrimination, and acts of social exclusion) that so many single people experience.
So maybe it is useful to think about two different categories of single people:
Vulnerable singles: Some single people are really hurt by the all the stereotyping and discrimination. They know other people judge them harshly for being single, and that makes them feel badly about themselves. Getting left out of social events by their coupled friends makes them feel isolated and lonely. The important question about these single people is: What can we do for them?
Resilient singles: Some single people are resilient. Despite all of the stereotyping and the stigmatizing, they lead full, productive, happy and healthy lives. It is because of them that studies comparing all single people to all married people often show no differences, or only small differences that disappear over time. The important question about resilient single people is: What can we learn from them? How is it possible for some single people to be stereotyped, stigmatized, discriminated against, and ignored, and still live happily ever after?
Conceptualizing these singles as two different categories is a heuristic device. More likely, single people fall on a continuum from vulnerable to resilient, or they have distinct sets of vulnerabilities and strengths.
Another important question is: How can vulnerable singles become resilient? Or, how can specific vulnerabilities be overcome or transformed into strengths?