Is It Normal to Be Single?
5 meanings of normal, and the psychology of stigmatizing single people.
Posted Jan 19, 2021
“Is it normal to be single?” It’s a question I’ve been asked many times, sometimes directly and other times in roundabout ways. As a lifelong single person, I will admit that my first reaction is to bristle. Just asking that question seems like an insult. But I think there are people who really do wonder about it, so I’m going to take it seriously.
When someone asks whether it is normal to be single, what do they mean by “normal”? The therapist and researcher Leonore Tiefer, in her provocatively titled book, Sex Is Not a Natural Act, described five meanings of “normal.” Previously, I discussed those meanings as they apply to sex, since that’s what her book was about. Here I’ll explore their relevance to the matter of being single.
5 Meanings of Normal
1. Statistical. This is the most straightforward meaning of normal, and the easiest to measure. The question is, just how commonplace is the behavior of interest? If it is common, it is normal.
To be single is utterly ordinary, more so now than any time in recent history, not just in the U.S. but in many places around the world. In the U.S., for example, nearly as many adults 18 and older are unmarried as married.
Staying single for decades, or for life, is also becoming more commonplace. A Pew Report estimated that by the time today’s young adults reach the age of 50, one in four of them will have been single all their life. That’s a lot, but a United Nations report shows that North America and Europe are behind several other regions of the world in that regard. In Australia, New Zealand, Latin America, and the Caribbean, a greater percentage get to their late forties without ever having married.
2. Subjective. Tiefer believes that everyone’s secret favorite definition of normal is this one: “I am normal and so is anyone who is the same as me.” By this criterion, married people would be most likely to think that it just isn’t normal to be single.
3. Cultural. What is considered normal or deviant in your particular culture at your particular moment in time? In many cultures, even now, it is considered more normal to be married than single. That should change as more and more people are single, and more stay single well into midlife and beyond.
But powerful institutions such as religion and politics often prop up the perceived normality of marriage beyond what it has actually earned by its numbers. Even without assists from religion or ideology, perceptions don’t always keep up with the changes that have already occurred. Sociologists call this “cultural lag.”
4. Idealistic. By this criterion, normal means “perfect, an ideal to be striven for.” In matrimaniacal nations such as the U.S., marriage is respected, valued, and celebrated. It’s considered the ideal.
The idealization of marriage is so persistent, so pervasive, and so rarely questioned, it is hard to put a dent in it. My own challenge to it is my research on people who are single at heart, who live their best, most authentic, most meaningful, and most fulfilling life by being single. Being married would not be their ideal life.
Really, though, I don’t want to argue that single is better than married or coupled or non-monogamous relationships or anything else. I don’t think we should idealize any one way of living as better than all the others. What is most important is that each of us gets to live the life that we find most meaningful and fulfilling, free of stigma, stereotyping, or discrimination. To me, all sorts of life paths are perfectly normal.
5. Clinical. By this definition, abnormal doesn’t just mean unusual or less than ideal; it implicates disease or disability. I’ve spent decades debunking claims that the lives of single people are nasty, brutish, and short, and that the cure is to get married. I used to critique studies one by one, about health, mental health, longevity, and more. Now I like to refer people who are interested to my explanations of the typical problems with studies that claim to show that marriage makes people healthier or less diagnosable.
In an important way, though, it is remarkable that people who marry do not fare a lot better than they did when they were single. Marriage comes with a boatload of legal protections, financial advantages, and unearned recognition and esteem. Single people, in contrast, are targets of the stereotyping and stigmatizing that I call singlism. People who marry should do better. The truly interesting question is how single people do so well when they have so much stacked against them.
The Psychology of Believing That It Is Not Normal to Be Single
On Twitter, someone challenged my description of people who are single at heart as psychologically healthy, suggesting instead that they are insecurely, avoidantly attached. I did the Twitter snark thing of replying with, “I think you misspelled ‘securely attached.’”
My serious answers are in the posts “Commitment-phobic, or is single life a better life for you?” and “Single and securely attached.” The more important point, though, is that I hear those kinds of arguments all the time. When I show that single people are doing well in some way, someone often comes up with a way of explaining it away. Those kinds of discussions can be enlightening, but I’m skeptical. They seem to go in only one direction. I don’t hear the same kinds of attempts to undermine claims that married people are doing well. It is almost as if some people are invested in putting single people down and dismissing them as not really normal.
There are, in fact, documented psychological dynamics involved in the stigmatizing of single people. They include feelings of insecurity in the people doing the stigmatizing, as well as their self-concepts, their search for predictability and control, and their attempts to justify the prevailing social system. I explained each of those in the post “Why single people can’t catch a break.” I think we will continue to learn more about this in the future.