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The Emotional Life of Single People

The emotional calculus of single life is not what you think.

Source: pecaphoto77/Shutterstock

Do you understand the emotional life of single people? Do you think that single people experience more than their share of sadness, depression, and loneliness, while people with romantic partners, especially married people, enjoy a full measure of happiness?

I’ve been debunking those notions for quite some time. But that’s not what I want to talk about today. Instead, I want to challenge the focus on emotions such as happiness, sadness, and loneliness—a focus that has dominated both popular culture and scientific research. When we get preoccupied with those emotions alone, we miss out on the wider range of emotions that give single life its special texture.

The Emotional Life of Single People: Examples of the Bad Stuff

I’m someone who loves living single, but even so, I see the emotional minefields lurking all around me. The largely unacknowledged negative emotions of single life are the ones that may get triggered by:

  • The looks of pity you get when you say you are not married.
  • The singles-shamingwhy you are single” lists.
  • Getting excluded from social events because you are single.
  • Getting asked about your romantic prospects, to the exclusion of everything else, even when there are all sorts of people and pursuits in your life that you are excited about.
  • The expectation that you will shower couples with enthusiasm, congratulations, and gifts when they wed, even if they never acknowledge the meaningful milestones in your life.
  • The deluge of media headlines proclaiming that married people are better than you are, and that science says so. (It doesn’t.)
  • The marriage proposals—and now even prom proposals—and wedding celebrations that become ever more elaborate and showy (while single people continue to be wrongly tagged as self-centered).
  • Popular culture, in all its manifestations, continuing to romanticize couples and coupling, while stigmatizing and stereotyping single people.
  • Big-time, serious discrimination against people who are single.

You can probably generate other examples of your own.

The emotions that follow from such experiences are not going to be the same for everyone. Maybe they won’t even be negative all the time. For example, learning that there are more than 1,000 laws that benefit and protect only people who are legally married, or that the costs of financial discrimination against single people over the course of a lifetime can be enormous, could motivate some people to do something about it, and that very fact of commitment and the actions that follow from it can be positive experiences.

The big things, like discrimination, rile me and then motivate me. As for the smaller stuff, not all the examples bother me. I find some to be curiosities or reflections of other people’s cluelessness. I have some hope that we will all look back someday and feel kind of embarrassed that such mindsets were still common in the early 21st century. In the meantime, though, they do complicate the emotional lives of many people who are single.

The Emotional Life of Single People: Examples of the Good Stuff

More heartening are the kinds of unacknowledged positive emotional experiences that can characterize single life. They include feelings associated with:

  • Getting to create the life that is most meaningful for you.
  • Deciding for yourself what matters most.
  • Deciding for yourself who matters most—and knowing it does not have to be just one person, or only someone you are (presumed to be) having sex with.
  • Making your own decisions—with as much or as little input from others as you desire.
  • Developing the skills you need to navigate all sorts of life tasks (rather than counting on someone else to cover half of them).
  • Arranging your life to have the right combination, for you, of time alone and time with other people.
  • Savoring your solitude.
  • Getting to grow and develop over the course of your life.

Happiness is too small a word to describe the emotions associated with these life-expanding and empowering experiences.

I’m not saying that all single people get to enjoy all these possibilities; some require significant resources or opportunities that not everyone has. I’m also not saying that only single people have access to these kinds of positive emotional experiences. Research does show, though, that many of them are more likely to be enjoyed by single people than by people who marry.

It’s Complicated

The bottom line is that no matter how you feel about living single, your emotional life can be complicated. I love living single, but do not appreciate all the singlism and matrimania. Even when certain cultural attitudes and practices don’t trouble me personally, it bothers me a lot that other single people feel burdened by them.

It is complicated for people who really don’t want to be single, too. They probably experience more of the negative emotions of single life. But even they often realize what single life has to offer, and many do what they can to get the most out of it for as long as it lasts. I can think of an emotion that goes with that: Pride.

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