Ask people what they think of single people and you will often hear a long list of stereotypes. These assumptions litter our daily conversations and are pervasive in popular culture.
But as social scientists slowly begin to study single life and not just perceptions of it, striking findings are emerging—and they all tell the same story: Our stereotypes are wrong. As far as I can tell, every last one is a distortion or an outright falsification of what single people and single life are really like. Following are 11 of the most common myths about single people—and the reality.
1. "Single people are miserable. If they want to be happy, they need to get married."
Reality: People who get married and stay married end up no happier than they were when they were single. At best, they enjoy a brief increase in happiness around the time of their wedding, then they go back to being as happy or as unhappy as they were when they were single. People who get married and then divorce do not even get that brief honeymoon of happiness, and they end up less happy than they were when they were single. In study after study, single people, on the average, always end up squarely on the happy end of any rating scale.
2. "If you are single, there is nothing you care about more than finding a partner."
Reality: In the U.S., more people are living single than ever before. In fact, of those 16 and older, more are unmarried than married. Some single people—again, probably more than ever before—are choosing to live single. They are not marking time until they find The One. They are embracing their single lives, living those lives fully, joyfully, and unapologetically.
3. "If you are single, your life is superficial and meaningless. Only married people live rich, meaningful lives."
Reality: In some ways, the opposite is true. Single people care more about meaningful work than married people do. They also contribute to their communities in important ways, and they do more of the work of caring for others, such as aging parents, who need a lot of help. And lifelong single people experience more personal growth and development than married people do.
4. "Single people are isolated, lonely, and alone."
Reality: Research shows that single people have more friends than married people, and they do more to maintain their ties with friends, siblings, parents, neighbors, and co-workers. Once people marry, they become more insular. That’s true even if they don’t have kids. People who like spending time alone are not the weirdo isolates who populate our stereotypes. Instead, they are less neurotic and more open-minded than people who are afraid to spend time alone. People who are single at heart—those people for whom living single is the way they live their best, most authentic, most meaningful and fulfilling lives—are especially likely to savor their solitude and especially unlikely to worry about being lonely.
5. "Single people are self-centered and selfish. They live lives of unfettered pleasure-seeking. They don’t have any real responsibilities."
Reality: Single people contribute a great deal to society.They do more than their share of volunteer work. When aging parents are in need of help, they are more likely to get it from their grown kids who are single than from the married ones. And when other people—not just relatives—need sustained help for three months or more, they are more likely to get that help from single people than married people.
6. "Single people are unhealthy. If they want to be healthy, they need to get married."
Reality: Studies that follow the same people over time show that people who get married, on average, end up no healthier than they were when they were single. Studies that seem to show that married people are healthier are often based on biased methodologies and comparisons that make married people look better than they really are and single people worse. Even with those big, unfair advantages given to married people, in some studies it is the lifelong single people who are healthier than everyone else.
7. "Living single is an early death sentence. Married people live longer."
Reality: That’s another claim that rates as grossly exaggerated or just plain false. In some studies, no group of people live longer than people who have been single their whole lives.
8. "If you are single, you have no investment in the next generation."
Reality: Marital status is different from parental status. Many married people do not have kids and many single people do. In research measuring concern with the next generation (what Erik Erickson called “generativity”), people who were married expressed no more concern than lifelong single people. People do not need to have children of their own to be concerned about future generations. And many people who do not have kids are doing their part in guiding the next generation as teachers, coaches, counselors, aunts and uncles, and role models.
9. "If you are a single parent, your kids are doomed."
Reality: Look closely at the results of the research. In any given study, the majority—often the vast majority—of children of single parents are doing just fine. Sometimes, when it appears that the children of married parents are doing better, it is not by much. And sometimes, when the children of divorced parents have problems, those are problems that started when their parents were still married. There are studies that show ways in which the children of single parents do better than the children of married parents. For example, compared to the children of married parents, the children of never-married parents living in multigenerational households are less likely to smoke or drink and more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college.
10. "You will grow old alone."
Reality: This is especially unlikely to be true of lifelong single women who have no children. In a study of six nations, those women had support networks that included friends, kin, neighbors, or people from the wider community.
11. "You will die alone. If you don’t want that to happen, get married."
Reality: This does not even pass the most fundamental test of logic. Unless both people in a married couple die at exactly the same time, one of them is going to be left “alone.” That’s one way of looking at it. Another is that single people are not alone; you don’t need to be married to have important people in your life. In fact, single people do more than married people to maintain their ties to a variety of friends and family members. And finally, regardless of whether or not you are married, and regardless of how many important people you may have in your life, there is no guarantee that anyone else will be at your side at the moment you die. People die in accidents, they die at unexpected times, and they die when their spouse or the other people they care about are off living their lives.