Living Single: Are the Early Adult Years the Hardest? Part I

Contrary to popular beliefs, single life gets better with age.

Posted Feb 01, 2009

As much as I love living single - and I do - I also recognize that not everyone is as smitten by the single state as I am. Sometimes other singles tell me so in their comments to this blog or in their e-mails to me. Fellow Psychology Today bloggers have had their say, too. Jenna Baddeley, for instance, has written about her single friends who are not in a romantic relationship and who wonder, "What's wrong with me?"

As long as there is singlism (stereotyping and stigmatizing of singles), there will be challenges to living single, and some - such as getting excluded from social events simply because you are not part of a couple - can be truly painful. I'll talk more about that in a later post. Today, though, I want to start a discussion of the question: What does age have to do with it?

Often (though not always), the singles who wish they were coupled, and wonder what is holding them back, are in their early adult years - 20s, maybe early 30s. Sometimes I discern an underlying fear that things are only going to get worse for them if they stay single as the years go by.

That belief is not unusual. Wendy Morris and I, in a series of experiments, have documented a widely shared presumption that single people, relative to married ones, become more dissatisfied with their lives as they grow older. Any loneliness or discontent experienced in their twenties, they assume, only intensifies with age.

My guess is that just the opposite is true. I think that as people move into their late 30s, 40s, and beyond, they become more sure of themselves, and less susceptible to being influenced or hurt by other people's opinions about how they should lead their lives. Also, they have often created full and satisfying lives by then - pursuing their passions, making their house into a home, finding rewarding work or fulfilling after-work interests, making a contribution to society, and developing and maintaining a network of friends and family.

In fact, compared to people who marry and then practice intensive coupling (looking to their spouse to be their everything, and moving everyone and everything else to the back burner), single people may end up less vulnerable than married people. They are not placing all of their life's eggs into the marital basket.

The type of study that would be needed to test my ideas has never been done. It would follow people throughout the course of their adult years, and ask many questions all along the way - questions, for example, about their life experiences, life satisfaction, feelings of autonomy and personal growth, about the difference they have made, and about the important people in their lives.

Short of that, what I have collected in support of my hunches are snippets of research from here and there. Here are a few examples.

• A study of well-being at midlife revealed some challenges to living single (such as lower household income) but also some signs of strength and resilience - for instance, women who were separated, divorced, or had always been single were more open to new experience than were married women.

• A MacArthur Foundation study of social well being in midlife also showed that singles had some difficulties (for example, they were less likely than married people to say that they had much in common with the people in their neighborhood) but also some points of pride - for example, they were more likely than married people to feel that they have something valuable to contribute to society. (See the chapter by Keyes and Shapiro.)

• A comparison of midlife adults who had always been single to similar younger adults found that the midlife single women reported fewer negative feelings (such as sadness, anxiety, worthlessness, or restlessness) than the younger single women. (See the chapter by Marks, Bumpass, & Jun. Note, though, that the midlife and younger singles were different people; the ideal study would track the same people as they made their way through all of the decades of their adult life.)

• Some studies of later life have shown that women who have always been single have extraordinarily low levels of loneliness (reviewed in Chapter 11 of Singled Out).

These empirical snippets have left me unsatisfied, so I was delighted to have the chance to discuss these ideas with Wendy Wasson. Wendy is a psychotherapist who has worked with many single clients of different ages, both in her practice and as a workshop leader. She is also one of the creators of the website MySingleSpace. She has a PhD in clinical psychology and works in a med school. She agreed to share her thoughts on the questions I've raised here. The next post in this series will begin my Q and A with Wendy Wasson.