Some people lead their best, most authentic, most fulfilling, and meaningful lives by living single. I call these people “single at heart.” They embrace singlehood, and live their single lives fully, joyfully, and unapologetically. There may also be people who do not quite make it into the “single at heart” category but who, all things considered, would still live a better life by living single than getting married.
Bella DePaulo Ph.D. is a social psychologist and the author of Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After (link is external) (St. Martin's Press) and How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century (link is external) (Atria), and other books (link is external). Atlantic magazine described Dr. DePaulo as “America’s foremost thinker and writer on the single experience.” In Singled Out and in her other work on people who are single, DePaulo has drawn from social science data to challenge the stereotypes of people who are single.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
Deciding whether to stay single is no small thing: Getting married is no royal road to health and happiness, despite all the claims you may have heard to the contrary. And there are important ways in which single people fare better than married people, personally and interpersonally. But legal marriage does grant automatic access to an array of more than 1,000 federal benefits and protections. It also offers instant status, credibility, privilege, and respect. Even though more people than ever are living single, and Americans spend more years of their adult lives not married than married, we are still a nation of matrimaniacs.
But marriage is also risky. A substantial number of people who get married end up getting divorced, often at great emotional and financial cost. People who divorce also end up, on the average, less happy than they were when they were single. And staying married is no guarantee of emotional or financial well-being either.
So how can you know if you are one of those individuals who would live a better life as a single person than a married person? There is not nearly enough research on this question, so what I offer here is the best I can provide with what is available. None of it is definitive.
Here are seven questions to ask yourself that can help you figure out whether single life is the best life for you.
1. How do you feel about looking for a long-term romantic partner?
Do you like dating or do you hate it? If you hate it, is it the process you can’t stand, or are you just reluctant to leave your single life and end up coupled? Are you telling other people, and yourself, that you really want to find The One, but when it comes time to doing what it takes to find said person, other things always take priority…even things like deleting old emails or cleaning out your sock drawer?
2. How do you envision your life with your spouse?
Do you see you and your potential spouse sharing laughs, adventures, and even heartaches, just like you see in the movies? Or do you have a different vision of what a fulfilling married life would look like?
In a wonderful guest post for this blog, Joan DelFattore shared this conversation she had with her therapist:
"If you do decide to get married," she asked me one day, "what kind of man would you look for?"
"One with a challenging job and lots of outside interests. Does volunteer work. Plays sports. Like that."
"So you'd want someone who's well-rounded and intellectually stimulating?"
"No. I'd want someone who's never home."
If you, too, want someone who’s never home, maybe you really don’t want a spouse at all. Maybe you are the kind of person who will live your most fulfilling life by living single.
3. If you have been in a committed romantic relationship in the past, how did that feel?
If you were in a serious relationship with a jerk and hated it, that is indicative of nothing. What is more telling is how you experienced your good relationships.
Consider this excerpt from a letter a woman wrote to an advice columnist. She was in a long-term relationship with a person she described as “an amazing, wonderful man."
"We have a fantastic relationship…When he kisses me, I still get goose bumps. When he walks into the room, I am always mesmerized by him. So why, at times, do I feel that I should just be alone? I have always been kind of a free spirit, independent, spur-of-the moment kind of woman…”
Many romantic relationships include more conflict than the letter-writer described in hers. Some people really hate conflict. Research shows that those who are conflict-averse are no happier if they try to stick it out in romantic relationships than if they stay single. Looking just at single people, those who dislike conflict are happier with their single lives than those who don’t have such strong feelings about disagreements.
Even more compelling than negative reasons for avoiding romantic relationships are the positive reasons for embracing single life. When you were in a decent romantic relationship, did you still find yourself daydreaming about your single life? Did you long to go back to your own rhythm of reading, working, surfing the web, playing sports, walking your dog, watching TV, helping someone, taking care of someone, cooking, not cooking, sleeping in, staying up until all hours because you were so absorbed in what you were doing, socializing, not socializing, or even cleaning out your sock drawer? Did you miss whatever it was that made your single life feel like the right life for you?
4. If you tried romantic relationships in the past, how did you feel when they ended?
Many people feel sadness, distress, and even grief when a romantic relationship ends. Sometimes they feel that way even when they are the one who ended it. People who are single at heart are different. In my preliminary research, I found that they more often experience relief. I’m not just talking about the relief that comes from ending a truly bad relationship. People who are single at heart might feel relieved even if the relationship wasn't bad at all. They just missed their single life. Something about being in a committed coupled relationship felt constricting or just wrong. It wasn’t who they really are.
5. You've said yes to getting married; now how do you feel?
Suppose you have gotten to the point of saying yes to getting married. How do you feel? Do you feel uncertain? Hesitant? When 464 heterosexual newlyweds were asked if they ever felt uncertain or hesitant about getting married, a substantial proportion said yes—47 percent of the men and 38 percent of the women. Those cold feet mattered, at least for the women. Four years later, the women who had doubts were about 2.5 times more likely to end up divorced than the women who did not have doubts. Among those who were still married four years later, those who had cold feet were less satisfied with their marriages from the outset than those who did not, and they stayed less satisfied over the course of their relationships. (Again, the results were clearer for the women than for the men.)
6. When your friends and family members get married, how does that make you feel?
If you feel badly, what’s that about? Are you concerned that you will become marginalized as your friend or family member enters the married club? That can happen—it is a legitimate concern. But it is not all that relevant to whether you are suited to single life: You can wish that couples were not so insular or so likely to socialize only with other couples, and still like what single life has to offer you.
It is different if you look at the newly engaged or married people in your life and wish you had what they had. If you realize that the new couple may be headed toward times when they barely speak to each other, or embarrass each other in public, or argue over dumb things, and you still yearn for what they have, single life may not be for you.
On the other hand, if you can look at newlyweds you know and love, and feel genuine happiness for them, even if you think they are going to have a particularly wonderful relationship, congratulations! You are single at heart. You can love your single life and also feel genuine pleasure for those who choose a different life, one that is far more likely to be celebrated and admired than yours.
7. Setting aside how you think you should feel, how do you really feel about your day-to-day life as a single person?
There is so much romanticizing and mythologizing of coupled and married life, and so much denigration of single life, that it can be hard to acknowledge that single life really is the best life for you. But if you pay attention to how you feel about your everyday life, you might get some telling clues as to whether the single life is right for you.
My preliminary research on people who are and are not single at heart, as well as other research, suggests that the following questions may be important:
- When you think about spending time alone, are you more likely to look forward to that experience or worry that you might feel lonely?
- When you think about going to social events, do you like to decide each time who you want to go with, or whether you want to go at all? Or are you the kind of person who likes the idea of having a significant other who is always your plus-one?
- Is it important to you to do meaningful work, even if that means that external rewards such as pay and opportunities for advancement are not as great as you might like? Single people tend to care more about this than married people do.
- When you are thinking about making a big change in your life, do you want to make the decision that feels right to you instead of trying to figure out something that works for you and a partner?
- Do you judge yourself by what you think is important, even if that’s different from what other people find important? Lifelong single people are more likely than married people to say yes to this question.
- Do you want your life to be a continuous process of learning, change, and growth? Lifelong single people describe their lives that way more often than married people do.
The bottom line is that for some people, single life just feels right. It is comfortable, authentic, meaningful, and fulfilling.