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How Singles Find a Place That Feels Like Home

"There was a feeling of being judged...that they somehow did not belong."

Key points

  • Single people face unique challenges in finding a place that feels like home.
  • Parents often fret that their single adult children will be lonely living alone, but the reverse is often true.
  • Builders, architects, and policymakers haven't yet caught up to these new visions of home for those who are happily single.

In the U.S., fewer than 20 percent of all households are nuclear family homes comprised of a mom, dad, and children. Yet nuclear families have an outsized influence on how we think about homes, how homes are designed, and the kinds of laws and policies that are implemented.

People who are single and have no children sometimes return to nuclear family homes, either to visit or to stay. Then, the contrast between sentimentalized notions of home and how it actually feels to be in a nuclear family home can be striking.

In “Single People’s Geographies of Home: Intimacy and Friendship beyond ‘the Family,’” researcher Eleanor Wilkinson interviewed 20 single people who had no romantic partner, no children, and no desire to become coupled or have a conventional family of their own. When visiting their family home, she found:

“…there was an underlying feeling among several of my respondents of being judged for not being part of a couple… there was a feeling that they somehow did not belong, that they were not really ‘at home.’”

One woman told Wilkinson, “I went home last Christmas, and suddenly the house was full of photos of my cousin’s new baby… Sometimes I feel like my parents are pretty unhappy that I’ve not settled down, and perhaps more so that I’ve not had children.”

Many single people are invested in creating places that feel like home to them, especially if they are single people who want to stay single, such as the Single at Heart, who love being single. As I learned in my research for How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, home, to them, could be a place that is all their own, such as an apartment or house. Or it could be a place they share with others. Whatever their choice, they face special challenges.

The rise of people who want to live alone is one of the most significant demographic trends of recent decades. But most societies have not kept up. Often, there are not enough residences for people who want a place of their own, or not enough affordable ones.

Parents sometimes fret that their grown children who live alone will be isolated and lonely, but research shows that often the opposite is true. People who live alone tend to take the initiative to stay in touch with others. If they live in a city or other walkable community, that can facilitate easy sociability. Living in a cohousing community, where they can have a place of their own as well as lots of opportunities for social interaction is another increasingly popular option. Many cohousing communities are intergenerational, which can be appealing to single people who do not have kids but like having kids around.

Some single people create their own communities. Wilkinson described a group of five single people, all of whom had known each other for more than a decade, who settled in a small town where they could all live within walking distance of one another.

Another group of four friends bought a home together. These single people, Wilkinson noted, were creating their own version of home, one with the kind of commitment and stability stereotypically associated with people who are married with children.

In my research, too, I found plenty of single people who would love to settle into a home that they could share with friends. Everyone I talked to wanted a space of their own within those homes. Here again, builders, architects, and policymakers have not kept up.

Most houses on the market are still designed with the nuclear family in mind. They often feature one primary bedroom and then smaller bedrooms for the kids. But in a group of friends, each will want their own grown-up room or suite. Separate entrances might be nice, too. Even if they were to find a suitable, affordable place, they could still face other impediments, such as restrictive zoning laws.

One of my conclusions was similar to Wilkinson’s. She said:

“…although many respondents had created new forms of home, intimacy, and belonging, this does not mean that these new intimate attachments were validated or supported by law or policy.”

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