Single life was once considered an imperfect life. Thankfully, that’s changing, as more and more people embrace this life choice.
When I was younger and watching so many of my friends and family couple up and get married, while I had no interest whatsoever in doing the same, I thought I was just slow. I figured that wanting to get married was like getting bitten by a bug, and I just hadn’t gotten bitten yet.
Single by choice
Eventually I realized that I was never going to get bitten, that “single” was who I was and who I always would be. Once that happened, everything else fell into place. In my personal life, I committed to the path that always felt right to me. I would live single—fully, joyfully, and unapologetically. My professional life took on a new focus and intensity. From that point on, I pursued my passion—researching and writing and speaking out about single life as a life well lived.
I said that I loved living single, but that wasn’t entirely true. Some people assumed that because I was single, I had no life, and therefore I could come in to work at the times no one else wanted. Some of my coupled friends went to dinners and movies with other couples on the weekends, while I was relegated to weekday lunches and children’s birthday parties. People I met for the first time, upon learning that I was single, sometimes offered to fix me up. But I never thought of myself as broken.
I wondered whether other single people had similar experiences, so I began asking them. The first time I did this, at a social event, I walked up to a woman I knew to be single, and asked whether she ever felt that she was viewed or treated differently because she was single. Did she ever! She regaled me with her stories.
Other people joined us, and shared their stories. This went on for quite some time. The next morning, I had email messages from several of the people at the event, who thought of still other experiences they wanted to mention. At another social gathering soon afterward, I did the same thing, and the whole sequence unfolded the same way again.
Clearly, I was touching a nerve.
Too many people saw those of us who are single as living a life that was second rate. I knew why they thought we deserved pity, rather than praise for living a good life. That’s what they had been hearing in the media and in their everyday lives.
According to the conventional wisdom, just about everyone wants to marry. What’s more, science has supposedly shown that people who get married become happier, healthier, more connected to other people, and better off in other ways, too.
What the research actually says
I’m a social scientist, so instead of accepting what I was hearing at face value, I read the original research reports in the scientific journals. I was stunned at what I found. Claims about the transformative power of marriage were often greatly exaggerated or just plain wrong.
Married = happier?
Take, for example, the claim that getting married makes people happier. The best studies follow people over the course of their adult lives to see whether people who get married become happier or more satisfied with their lives or with their relationships than they were when they were single. A review of 18 studies found that, most often, the answer was no.
At best, newlyweds experience a brief “honeymoon effect”: when they first marry, they feel a bit more satisfied with their lives. But then they go back to feeling as satisfied or dissatisfied as they were when they were single.
Married = healthier?
Marriage does not seem to make people healthier, either. In a 16-year study, more than 11,000 Swiss adults were asked every year about their overall health and their illnesses. People who married did not report any fewer illnesses than when they were single. They experienced slightly worse overall health when they first married, and over the course of their marriages, their health slipped a bit more.
Married = more connected?
Another claim about single people is that they are isolated and alone. If only they would marry, the story goes, they would be more connected with other people. Those beliefs are exactly wrong.
Compared to married people, single people are more likely to stay in touch with their friends, relatives, and neighbours, and to exchange help with them. When couples move in together or get married, they become more insular: they have less contact with their parents and spend less time with their friends than they had before.
Single people are a diverse lot. They include people like me who fully embrace single life, those who are happily single but open to a romantic relationship if it meets their high standards, and others who really do want to be coupled.
Research has shown that people who are unafraid of being single do better than those who worry about living single. They are more open-minded, less neurotic, less fearful of rejection, and less likely to get their feelings hurt. They are also less likely to feel lonely or depressed.
In Canada and around the world, millions of people are unmarried. What it means to live single varies enormously from one person to another. For me, it means spending long stretches of time reading and writing, walking along the bluffs of the Pacific Ocean, frequenting farmers’ markets, and getting together with friends. For others, it is different. Increasingly, though, what it does not mean is sulking about leading an imperfect life.
Modern sensibilities are changing. We’ve come a long way. We are all finding our own ways of living happily ever after.