What If Staying Single Weren't Stigmatized?

Would you choose not to marry if you gave yourself permission?

Posted Jan 09, 2014

In the course of researching my book, Introverts in Loveabout introverts and relationships, I talked to a young, single, eligible lawyer. While he had dates, friends, and social life aplenty, he also told me, “I really, really don’t see myself living with anyone. I just really enjoy the quiet of being alone. It’s not like Monday through Friday I come home from work and never see anybody. But seeing somebody every night—just having somebody in the house, even if you’re not talking to them, even if you’re doing different things, there’s still that pinging going on….”

Ah, some people are thinking, he’ll change his mind when the right someone comes along.

Oh, some people are thinking, what a cold and selfish young man.

Hm, some people are thinking, what’s wrong with him?

Let’s all think again. Because, although he might not realize it, this guy is part of a growing segment of society: people who are single and/or live alone by choice.

In a 2012 essay in The New York Times, Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist and author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, points out that "five million people in the United States between ages 18 and 34 live alone, 10 times more than in 1950.” He goes on to say that the largest number of people living alone are between the ages of 35 and 64 and do it by choice.

I recently chatted with Bella DePaulo, social psychologist and author of Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized and Ignored and Still Manage to Live Happily Ever After, and who writes the Living Single blog here on Psychology Today. She is interested in this trend even beyond living alone; she says that some people are simply meant to be single—they are “single at heart” and live happier more fulfilling lives if they stay single than they would if they bought into society’s mandate to couple up.

While the data is still pretty skimpy, DePaulo says, there is some evidence suggesting that people who choose to stay single are more likely to be introverts than extroverts. And in a quest similar to the growing movement to destigmatize introversion, DePaulo seeks to debunk America’s misguided notions about what it means to choose to be single.

For one thing, that whole idea that singles are lonely and isolated? Hogwash.

“The evidence is really built up now that what’s really isolating isn’t singlehood, it’s getting married,” DePaulo says, pointing out that married people have less contact with friends, siblings, other relatives. And she says, “There are American longitudinal studies that show that once they go from being single to being married, they’re basically cutting people out of their lives and marginalizing them.”

DePaulo says that as a girl, she never thought about getting married, never had fantasies of who would be in her wedding party. “I always thought, ‘I’m just not bitten by the marriage bug yet,’” she says. But she eventually realized that the bug probably wasn’t ever going to bite her. "Marriage is not who I am," she says. "I’m single and I actually want to be and that’s not going to change.”

It’s kind of a revolutionary concept.

I frequently hear from people who discover this blog or my book and who are bowled over, relieved and grateful to learn that their introverted ways aren’t freakish or shameful. DePaulo has had the same reaction to her book and blog.

When I find research that “proves” that extroverts are happier or more successful than introverts, I like to take a closer look, to see if there are any holes. DePaulo gives the same sort of scrutiny to research purporting to prove that married people are happier and healthier and other good things. Check out this collection of her posts examining various claims.

Oh, and surprisingly, DePaulo finds that not all people who connect with the concept of being “single at heart” are, in fact, single. To some extent, she says, single is a state of mind (or heart). “I read Party of One: The Loner’s Manifesto," she says. "A substantial way into the book, you get to this two-word sentence: ‘I’m married,’ and it took my breath away.”

Some couples live in a way that allows them a lot of autonomy within the relationship, not subscribing to the joined-at-the-hip school of coupledom that many people assume is “normal.” Others go even further. “There’s this growing small development, but it’s there, of people who are committed to their relationship partners but live separately because that’s how they choose to live,” says DePaulo, whose book How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Centurylooks at this and other trends in the way Americans today live. “They call it living apart together or dual dwelling duos. Probably six or seven percent of American adults are living apart together. Some are doing it because of restraints, the more interesting examples to me are the ones who choose to do it because that’s what they want.

“Some of the people I’ve interviewed started out doing the traditional thing, then they realize ‘oh my gosh, this is really not for me.’ They still love the other person, they just don’t love living with the other person. They move apart into their separate spaces, not as a step towards divorcing but as towards saving the relationship.”

The best way to know if you’re single at heart, DePaulo says, is to examine your motives for wanting to stay single.

“People who really are single at heart are approaching their single life in a positive way. It’s an approach, it’s not an avoidance. It’s an approach to loving your solitude, loving your time alone, loving your self sufficiency, liking to pursue the kinds of things that are most meaningful to you. Maybe you’re an artist or a reader or even a sports enthusiast. There are all sorts of things that might make your own life meaningful that you might be able to pursue more. I think there’s even some evidence that social movements have been powered by people who are single. That’s what I listen for; not the running away from relationships but the grasping and embracing what makes their life feel authentic.”

It seems to me that the stigma of introversion and the stigma of staying single are kissing cousins, and that choosing to remain single is a lifestyle option we need to take another look at—or at least stop looking askance at. Sure, marriage is great for lots and lots of people. But for everyone?

If you could design your life any way you choose, without fitting into society’s sanctioned structure, what would you choose?


Check out my books, Introverts in Love: The Quiet Way to Happily Ever After; The Introverts Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World; and 100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go. Support your local independent bookstore; click here to find an indie near you.

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