Single-at-Heart in Holland

How many people are single at heart?

Posted Dec 19, 2011

In the Netherlands last week, I gave a talk titled "The study of singles and single life: How it can contribute to an even more expansive and exciting social psychology" to the annual meeting of Dutch social psychologists. It was a whole new audience - and new country! - for me, so I didn't know what to expect. I don't know what the psychologists said to one another, but they were very gracious in what they said to me afterwards.

Two points in particular came up repeatedly in subsequent discussions. One person after another raised the point that prejudice does not end once a person marries. Then, the expectations and invasive questions simply change a bit. Instead of asking, "When are you going to get married," the clueless ones ask, "So when are you going to have kids?" That's potentially awkward when the answer is: "Never. And that's by choice." It is painful when the answer is that you want them and can't have them.

In the big picture, my perspective on prejudice and discrimination against single people is not just about single people. It is part of a life-span perspective. In adult life, there is an expected timetable - a social clock. By a certain age, we are all "supposed to" get married, and not too long after that, we are "supposed to" start having children. Whenever we violate those expectations, we are at risk for getting stereotyped and stigmatized.

I mentioned the life course perspective briefly in Singled Out, and there's a whole section of Singlism titled "Singlism's Cousin: Stereotyping and Stigmatizing of Adults with No Children." I didn't mention it in my talk, but I should have.

The second theme that came up in discussions of my talk was even more intriguing. In the talk, I described the concept of "Single at Heart" and showed 10 sample items. (You can find more than a dozen questions relevant to assessing whether you are single-at-heart here.) The most common response from the Dutch social psychologists? "That's me."

There was more. More than half of the people who said they scored as "single at heart" noted that they were actually coupled. One noted specifically that she was single at heart, and so was her partner. She thought it worked out well that both of them valued time with people other than each other, and that they both enjoyed solitude.

Of course, the psychologists at my talk were not a representative sample of Dutch adults, and the people who approached me to discuss the "single at heart" concept were probably not representative of any group. Still, their reactions fascinated me. First, they raise the possibility that there may be more people who share single-at-heart sentiments than I anticipated. Second, perhaps all of the matrimaniacs out there, who encourage the "you are my everything" attitude toward coupling, need to reconsider. Maybe there are plenty of couples who would do well to incorporate a bit of the "single at heart" attitude into their relationships and their lives.

Sometime in the next day or so, I'll share more personal reflections from my trip at my "All Things Single (and More)" blog. [Here it is: Going Dutch.] (I hope I'll even catch up with my emails before Christmas.)  Elsewhere, I wrote about the latest quarter-of-a-million-dollar differential in the valuing of single vs. married soldiers in Canada. You can catch up with other singles bloggers at Single with Attitude.

By the way, the print version of the January issue of Psychology Today will include an article by me titled, "Are You Single at Heart?" Let me know if you see it on the newsstands. It should be out in the next week or so.