Living single can be such a vastly different experience for different people. At one end are the people who are distraught to be single and often invest heavily in becoming coupled. At the other end are the "single at heart"—people for whom single life is their best life—their most authentic, meaningful, fulfilling, and psychologically rich life. The single at heart are not settling for being single—they are embracing it. In single life, they flourish.
In a recent article, Yuthika U. Girme, associate professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University, and two colleagues reviewed some of the relevant research and theorizing to try to understand what it is about some single people and the context of their singlehood that seems to result in a happy and successful singlehood experience, and what it is that, instead, leaves other single people struggling. (Their review did not include the single at heart.) “Coping or thriving? Reviewing intrapersonal, interpersonal, and societal factors associated with well-being in singlehood from a with-in group perspective” was published online at Perspectives on Psychological Science.
Who Thrives When Single?
Girme and her colleagues mentioned many factors associated with happy and successful singlehood, including:
- Embracing values such as freedom, creativity, and trying new things.
- Not being all that interested in having a romantic partner.
- Staying single or having no romantic relationship experience.
- Having good social support.
- Having quality friendships.
- Having a secure attachment style.
- Having lower sexual desire or higher desire combined with frequent partnered sexual experiences.
- Getting older. (Some research suggests that after about the age of 40, single people become happier and happier with their single lives. Starting at even younger ages, single people who are not pining for a romantic partner are especially likely to become happier and happier.)
Who Has a Harder Time With Single Life?
According to the researchers:
- People who buy into ideologies that insist that being married or coupled is the normal, natural, and superior way to be.
- People who believe in traditional norms about gender and parenting.
- People who are afraid of being single.
- People who really want to be romantically partnered.
- People who are divorced.
- People who don’t have much social support.
- People who have an anxious attachment style.
- People who have a high desire for sex but few partnered sexual experiences.
- People who feel pressured to couple or marry by family members.
- People who experience even more than the usual dose of singlism—the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and marginalization of single people, and the discrimination against them.
Deficit Narratives or Affirming Narratives?
The social scientists wanted to get beyond deficit narratives of single life. In some ways, they do. For example, they suggest to their fellow romantic relationship scholars that when people say that they are not all that satisfied with their romantic relationship, that “might indicate not that there is a relationship that needs to be 'fixed' but that there is a healthy desire for a life outside of that relationship or possibly any relationship.”
In a discussion that is all too rare in social science writings about singlehood, the authors acknowledge some of the problems in comparing currently married people to single people and declaring the couples the winners (e.g., happier). Ultimately, though, they seem to want to endorse those claims, as they repeat them throughout the article.
What I missed most in the article was a full-fledged acknowledgment of a truly positive embrace of single life. I wanted people such as the single at heart to be recognized, people who love single life for all it has to offer, and who are not just uninterested in romantic relationships or avoiding those relationships.
Instead, we are told, for example, that long-term singles may be people who start out wanting a partner, and they pursue that goal, but that doesn’t happen, so they adjust to “what is perceived as an unchangeable situation.” That’s a deficit narrative. They didn’t get what they wanted, so they settled for their single life. I don’t doubt that this process is characteristic of some singles, but it is not a great example of thriving.
Here’s another example:
“Of course, a number of individuals may never desire a romantic partner at any point across the lifespan (DePaulo, 2017; Kislev, 2019). Thus, one pathway associated with well-being in singlehood may be a long-term, stable lack of a desire for a partner.”
That’s true enough but does not recognize that loving single life is about far more than just not being interested in a romantic partner.
The Single at Heart: The Single People Most Likely to Be Thriving
What does it mean to truly embrace single life? Some examples come from people who are single at heart, who:
- Love the freedom to curate their own lives, deciding (within the constraints of their resources and opportunities) everything from the structure of their day-to-day lives to the great, big life-changing choices.
- Use their freedom to live joyful, meaningful, fulfilling, and psychologically rich lives. They pursue their interests and passions and live authentic lives that honor their values and who they really are.
- Savor their solitude. Because they love the time they have to themselves rather than fearing it, they are highly unlikely to feel lonely. Instead, they find their solitude psychologically enriching.
- Appreciate the opportunity to decide who is going to matter to them, rather than defaulting to the usual position of putting a romantic partner at the center of their lives. People who are single at heart often have “The Ones” rather than “The One.” Being single at heart is about living your best single life, whatever that may be, and for some people, other people may not have that prominent a role.
- Invest in their friends and the other people who matter to them; they are not looking past them toward the romantic partner who may be on the horizon or waiting for them at home.
- Define intimacy on their own terms. They honor bigger, broader notions of family than just nuclear family, and more expansive and open-hearted understandings of love beyond just romantic love.
- Invest in their single lives. They often pursue meaningful work. They buy homes if that’s what they want and if they can afford it, and, as they age, they sometimes renovate those spaces so they can stay in them as long as possible. Whereas couples split the tasks of everyday life, single people who live alone figure out how to cover all of them, or find other people to hire or help. Later in life, when newly divorced or widowed people are struggling to figure out how to do the things their spouse used to do for them, lifelong single people have long mastered those tasks.
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