Is She or Isn’t She? Who is Single at Heart and Why Does It Matter?

Single-at-heart is a novel concept; it shouldn’t be

Posted Aug 03, 2011

Readers really got into the topic of my last post, Single-at-heart readers, take a look at this! (It is very short, in case you want to (re)read it before continuing.) In it, a woman wrote to an advice columnist saying she had a fabulous relationship with a man she had been seeing for years, but she sees herself as a free spirit and sometimes wonders if she is "just not meant to be in a relationship." Now here's the part of her letter that took my breath away: Referring to her occasional sense of wanting to stay single, she asked the columnist, "Is what I am feeling normal?"

That's right. In the 21st century, when more than 100 million adults - just counting those in the United States - are single, when Americans spend more years of their adult lives unmarried than married, a fully grown and thoughtful adult can ask, in all seriousness, whether it is "normal" to have positive feelings about living single.

We are living in a time when people who have feelings for others of the same sex know that plenty of others have those feelings, too. They could learn, if they did not already know, that the standard reference for psychiatric disorders, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, no longer considers homosexuality as something "abnormal." True, there is still lots of stigmatizing and bullying of GLBT individuals, but there are also very prominent leaders and celebrities who will stand up for them and assure them that "It Gets Better."

The letter writer (who calls herself ILE) does not know if it is normal to feel good about living single. The columnist does not seem surprised by her question. After all these years of studying singlism, I shouldn't be surprised. Yet I'm astonished.

Here's something else that makes ILE's letter powerful: It cannot be dismissed as sour grapes. Practitioners of singlism like to claim that happy single people are just deluding themselves; they know they are actually losers who can't "find anyone" and so they deceive themselves into believing that they really want to be single, and then they try to persuade others, too. Can't say that about ILE. She adores the man she is thinking of marrying, even saying, "My heart still flutters when I am around him. It's perfect. Really." She has been in a serious romantic relationship with him for years.

On the radio show on the Boston NPR station, the advice columnist and I discussed the issues raised by ILE and fielded phone calls. The response was amazing. The phone lines lit up, and by the time the segment ended, many callers still did not get a chance to have their say - we ran out of time. I'm not sure what to make of the fact that of the callers who did get on the air (they are the ones who called in first, I think), all of them were men.

So is ILE single at heart? We did not discuss that directly, and actually, I don't think that's the most important issue. What I wanted to do was to get the idea of single at heart out there. Think of all the conversations we have in our media, in national debates and discussions, and in our everyday lives, about things like marriage and coupling and finding "The One." Where are our discussions of people who embrace single life? Where are the role models who get media attention? Mostly they are missing. No wonder ILE can think fondly about single life and wonder if there is something wrong with her.

I appreciated the readers of this blog who posted comments asking why we need to chose between savoring solitude and enjoying sociability. For me, one of the true joys of single life is pursuing just the right mix of solitude and sociability that is optimal for me. Theoretically, you should be able to do that if you are married (or in a serious romantic relationship), too. But, I think, it is harder if you are married. That's not because of the inherent nature of marriage - marriage practices change all the time. But in contemporary American society, many couples practice what I call "intensive coupling." Some of them (not all) really do want to be each other's everything. If one person wants to spend time alone or with friends or family, there is a risk that the other will take that as an affront. There is some evidence that coupling is now becoming a bit less intensive, but it is still a different experience than it was decades ago when each person expected to spend time away from the other.

It is complicated for ILE because she is already in a serious long-term romantic relationship, and she has never discussed her longing for alone-time with her partner. She worries that if she broaches the topic, her partner will take it the wrong way. (I love what "single1" said about this in the Comments section: If ILE did bring up the matter, maybe her partner would say that he feels the same way! It's a risk, of course.) Looking toward the future, I want the single-at-heart option to be one that gets known and discussed. I want it to be so familiar that discussing single-at-heart longings would be a totally natural thing to do early on in a romantic relationship. Mostly, I would like people who feel positively about living single to never, ever wonder if they are "normal"!