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The Thrill of Going to Holiday Parties Alone

Showing up alone when others are coupled can be a source of joy and pride.

Key points

  • Many people worry that going out alone isn't as fun or that others will judge them.
  • However, their fears are unfounded, and they are often surprised by how much they enjoy themselves on their own.
  • There is no need to race to couple up just to meet social expectations that don't really exist in the first place.

I’ve been single all my life. I love spending a lot of time alone, but I also enjoy the occasional party—especially over the holidays. I realize this is a time of year when I am supposed to feel especially self-conscious about walking into a gathering on my own when so many people are coupled up. But I don’t. Instead, I feel happy and proud.

I feel happy because if I am going to the party, I’m going because I want to and not because someone else is nudging me into going when I don’t want to. At the event, I’m not tethered to anyone; I get to mingle freely. I also appreciate that I can leave anytime I want. And then I’m really happy because, unlike the coupled people, when I go home, I get to be alone and enjoy my sweet solitude, which is even sweeter after I’ve been out and about.

I’m also proud of going alone to holiday parties. To me, it means that I didn’t anxiously grab onto some romantic partner just to have someone at my side during a time of year when the pressures to be coupled sometimes seem relentless. And I’m proud that if I want to go to a holiday party, I do, instead of staying home out of any embarrassment about showing up alone. I love showing up alone.

Sometimes I play this holiday party game that I made up: Look around you and see if you can spot the couples who are just faking it. They are the ones who are together just so they can make it through the holiday season (or cuffing season) with a romantic partner by their side. Or they are married couples who are not going to stay married much longer.

Did you know that the week or two around Valentine’s Day is a prime time for couples to break up? Research shows that romantic relationships are more likely to end during that time than during other comparable times. Unsurprisingly, the people in relationships that were not so great were especially likely to break up. But even the people in the best relationships did not feel any better about their partners during Valentine’s season than any other time of year.

Alone in Public: Not as Rare, or as Daunting, as You May Think

On the first of December, the White House hosted an official state dinner for President Emmanuel Macron of France. I was delighted to learn that the complete guest list was publicly available. I wanted to know how many people, out of the 190 (by my count) who were invited, would show up alone.

If you have ever seen pictures or videos of people arriving for state dinners, you know what that looks like: you (or you and the person you are with) make a grand entrance, with cameras clicking. The spotlight is on you.

Scrutinizing the guest list, I was hoping to find a handful of guests attending on their own. I secretly hoped for 13, so I could say there were more than a dozen. That would sound pretty good. But no, there were 35. That’s 18 percent. Nearly 1 out of every 5 parties sashaying into this elegant, festive, prestigious event was a party of one.

Research on what it is like to be alone in public shows that people are often reluctant to dine alone or to go to places like movies or museums, but it also shows that their trepidation is unwarranted. A common fear is that they will be judged harshly for being on their own—they worry, for example, that other people will see them as losers who don’t have any friends. But in systematic research my colleagues and I did on people dining alone or with others, we found no evidence for that. Other people were no more judgmental about the solo diners than they were about the couples.

Another worry is that being out in public on your own just won’t be much fun. But that doesn’t hold up, either. In one of a series of studies conducted by Rebecca Ratner and Rebecca Hamilton, students who were either alone or with a friend were asked to predict how much they would enjoy going to an art gallery. The students who were on their own thought they would enjoy it less. But then, after they, and the students who were with a friend, actually did go to the gallery, it turned out that the students on their own enjoyed the experience just as much as the students who were with a friend. Other research, by the same team, showed that there are some experiences in public places that are more enjoyable on your own than with other people.

Not Against Coupling, but Against Compulsory Coupling and the Stigmatizing of Single People

I’m not making up a “spot the fake couples” party game or telling you that couples are especially likely to break up after holiday season is over because I’m against romantic coupling or rooting for romantic relationships to fail. I love being single. As someone who is single at heart, I’m secure in my single status. That means I can be genuinely happy for couples who are genuinely happy to be coupled. I’m not threated by them; I don’t want what they have.

I am, though, against compulsory coupling, all the pressures that can make it feel like you have to be coupled in order to be fully accepted and included and admired. Compulsory coupling is the belief system that insists that being romantically coupled is normal and natural and superior to being single. Left unchallenged, it is harmful to people who really do live their most meaningful and fulfilling lives by staying single. It can cause them to doubt themselves, to keep forcing themselves to try romantic relationships when they know in their hearts that it is single life that is deeply, authentically, their best life.

Compulsory coupling, left unchallenged, stigmatizes those who are not coupled, whether they are single by choice or by chance. One way to stop the stigma is to stop playing along with the game. If there is not someone you really want to be with over the holidays, then go to all those parties on your own (if you want to go at all). Even if you do wish you were coupled and it is hard to walk in uncoupled, do it and feel proud. Embrace and enjoy your inner smug singlehood.

Don't do it just for yourself. Every time you show up as your own complete person, rather than appearing in your couple costume, you make it easier for everyone else who is also single for the holidays or for good (and I do mean good). And though they probably won't admit it, you are probably also helping the coupled people who just can't wait for the holiday season to end, so they can return their rental partner. Maybe next year they'll show up on their own.

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