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The Benefit Young Men Get from Being Single

Life skills, self-confidence, and more.

After leaving the parental home, some young adults stay single for a while, whereas others immediately become romantically coupled. Suppose you look at everyone who eventually becomes romantically coupled – they are either married or cohabiting with their romantic partner – then see what happens after they split up. How hard is that? Does it matter whether you had spent some time being single when you first left home? Is it different for men than for women?

Those were the questions addressed by the Dutch social scientists Lonneke van den Berg and Ellen Verbakel in their just-published article in the Journal of Marriage and Family, “The link between singlehood in young adulthood and effects of romantic separation.” More than 1,000 German adults who were under the age of 25 when they left home, and who eventually became romantically partnered and then split up, were studied for a 5-year period: from 2 years before their separation or divorce until 3 years after. Every year, they were asked how satisfied they were with their lives.

The Benefit of Having Spent Time Single, Especially for Men

We already know from previous research that people who divorce typically are already becoming less satisfied with their lives even before their divorce is official. Then, on average, their satisfaction rebounds over time. In this study, too, life satisfaction generally declined as these romantically partnered young adults approached the year of their separation or divorce. Did it matter whether they already had experience being single?

Yes, it did – especially for the men. The men who stayed single for a while after leaving home were far less affected, emotionally, by their romantic break-up or divorce than the men who had gone straight from the parental home into a cohabiting romantic relationship or a marriage.

As the researchers put it, “Whereas immediately coupled men experienced a relatively steep decline in life satisfaction in the year of separation, the life satisfaction of initially single men was barely affected.” What’s more, the longer the men had stayed single before their romantic relationship, the less they were affected by the breakup.

The women, too, got some of the same benefit from being single for a while before entering a romantic relationship, but for them, the effect was not as powerful as it was for the men. The effect wasn’t statistically significant; it was just a trend.

Why It's Good to Live Single for a While, Even if You Want to Be Romantically Coupled

From the available data, van den Berg and Verbakel could not explain definitively why having experience being single could ease the pain of splitting from a romantic partner. They offered three possible explanations:

  • First, people with experience being single may have developed more skills as a single person – for example, learning to do household chores. Women may already know how to do those things even before they leave home, so having experience being single afterwards may matter less.
  • Second, while single, young adults may have developed more individual resources. For example, they may have invested more in their career, or they may have developed their own social circles – something single people are especially good at doing. In contrast, romantically coupled people often have many of the same shared friends. Again, women may have already been practiced at making friends and tending to them, both when single and when coupled (they are often in charge of the social calendar). Having experience being single and developing your own social network is therefore something that could benefit men more than women; unless they have spent some time being single, they are generally not as skilled at it.
  • Single people “could be more confident in their own abilities to be single.”

I’ll add a fourth possibility. Maybe some of the young adults who stayed single for a while after leaving home discovered that they loved being single. They were “single at heart” – happy and flourishing because they were single, not in spite of it. The cultural messaging that insists that everyone wants to be romantically coupled is relentless. As a result, many people who love being single will keep trying out romantic relationships, especially when they are young and trying to understand who they really are.

In my own survey data, I found that one of the experiences that separates people who are single at heart from those who are not is how they feel after a romantic relationship has ended. Although the single at heart, like others, may feel some pain, they are also more likely to feel relief. They are happy to go back to the single life that they savor. That’s at least as true of the men as it is for the women.

Facebook image: Mangostar/Shutterstock

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