Sucky Single Life? Not According to This Expert

Why celebrate your singleness? Here's an answer you haven’t heard before.

Posted Oct 28, 2020

How should we think about our single lives? How should we talk about them? How should we answer the annoying “why are you single” question? What about when coupled people ask us about our sex lives? Have churches failed single people? Have we focused too much on single people in cities and not enough on singles in rural areas? How should we think about different "isms," such as racism, sexism, and singlism?

I don’t think there is any question you could ask Kris Marsh about single life and not get an original and thoughtful answer in return. She has already made her mark as a scholar of single life, and I think she is going to continue to be one of the most powerful voices we have—especially once her book comes out—The Love Jones Cohort: Single and Living Alone in the Black Middle Class.

Marsh is a sociologist and demographer at the University of Maryland. She has been a Fulbright Fellow and a consultant for the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, among many other accolades. She has been challenging tired ways of thinking about single people since she demonstrated that staying single and living alone, and not just getting married, is a route to the Black middle class.

Marsh talked to Shani Silver for an episode of Shani’s podcast, “A Single Serving," entitled, “What do you mean by that?” She also talked to Peter McGraw for two episodes of his “Solo” podcast, “Meet the Love Jones Cohort,” and “The Rise of Single Living.” All three episodes are brimming with engaging and enlightening exchanges. Here are a few highlights.

How should you respond when someone asks you the annoying “Why are you single?” question?

“Every time someone says to you, ‘Why aren’t you married, or why don’t you have any children?’, ask them, ‘What do you mean by that?’ Say it politely. At some point, they’re going to realize the error in their thinking.

“[At first] people automatically are going to say, ‘You know.’

“'No. I don’t know. What do you mean by that? I have three degrees, three houses, three cars, and three businesses, but the only thing you want to know is whether or not I’m married and have children.'”

About the double standard in conversations about our sex lives:

"Single people get asked about their sex life all the time, but we don’t ask married people, ‘How many times are you getting it?’ We are too polite. But if we did turn those kinds of questions back at them, then they might realize what is wrong with them.”

How should we talk about our single lives?

“I’d much rather have the conversation of how are you celebrating your singleness as opposed to how are you surviving your singleness.

“A friend gave me a book called The Challenges of Being Single. The book was written in the early 1970s. The book nowadays should be called The Opportunities of Being Single.”

“How do you survive or prepare for singleness? How do you prepare or navigate? When you say words like navigate, prepare, survive, those could have negative connotations, but when you flip it and say, “Talk about how you celebrate it,” then you don’t have to worry about surviving it, navigating it, performing it, or whatever.”

Why should we celebrate our singleness?

“We should think of our singleness as a point where we are happy, healthy, and whole. Once we’re in a partnership, you’ve now had to share yourself, so you’re not whole. This is one space where you’re whole. Enjoy and celebrate that.”

What’s wrong with the stereotype of the selfish single person?

What’s selfish is if you are not happy and healthy and whole as a single person, and you try to use a romantic relationship or a marriage to try to make yourself happy or healthy or whole.”

Why scholars of singlehood need to challenge the deficit narrative of single life and write a more affirming story:

“The onus is on us as scholars because we can write stuff about, ‘Look at this sucky single life.’ If we’re starting to push that conversation in a different direction and talk about the positiveness of the single life and what are some of the advantages of it and what are some of the innovative things that you can do, we now start to give people hope, understanding, and a narrative to wrap their minds around. There’s not a lot of work that’s done out there because it’s a value judgment. Everything is a value judgment [and the people who have usually been valued are] married with children.”

“[The kinds of questions that don’t get asked when scholars write deficit narratives include, for example] How do single people think about their family? How do they accumulate wealth and leave a legacy?”

About the significance of different "isms," such as racism, sexism, and singlism:

“The way I have to answer this as a sociologist is that race is the master status. You’re probably going to see my race and/or my gender first. But it’s not that the other ones are not important. For the most part, when I walk into the room, you’re probably going to see a black woman.

“I do believe that singlism is real, and we need to talk about it more. We don’t talk about it enough. It almost becomes the oppression Olympics. It’s like, ‘We’ve got racism, sexism, and now you want to throw in singlism.’ I’m like, ‘It’s because it exists.’”

On being single in urban vs. rural America:

“It’s easy for urban dwellers to be single, but it’s problematic and troubling for people in rural parts of America where they’re choosing to be single, and they don’t have the resources and support system to be single. I want to make sure we acknowledge that. Hopefully, we can get to those spaces where it’s easy to be single wherever you want to live, whether it’s rural or urban, you’ll feel comfortable in those spaces.”

About how churches and religions fail single people:

“I’ll talk about the black church in particular, and it resonates with all religious organizations. They don’t have a ministry or an outreach for singles beyond telling you like, ‘Here’s how you remain single and you stay holy. You remain single, and you stay religious. You remain single, and you stayed saved in the eyes of God.’ They don’t talk about developing a single person. It’s about putting you in a holding pattern until you’re partnered. That is incredibly problematic, especially if we dovetail back to the earlier demographics you gave us about the rise of singles across the globe, but we’re still having this conversation about like, ‘Here’s what you do until you get partnered.’ The churches missed the mark on that one.”

On what COVID-19 could change:

"A lot of my friends are saying like, ‘We’re going to see an uptake in fertility after COVID.’ I was like, ‘Absolutely not. You’re going to see an uptake in divorce because people realize, “I don’t like the person that I’m in a relationship with.'" What I tell everybody is, “You have to be happy, healthy, and whole as your own person first before you get into a relationship.” Your relationship is not going to do that for you.

You can live your best life. You should be living your best life by yourself, and then if you decide to add somebody to that story, so be it, but you cannot let your relationship be the story that leads you into this wonderful life.

Her advice to single people:

“Stand in your singleness. There’s nothing you’re missing. Do not allow people to impose a deficit model on your life.”