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Interview: Choosing the Single Life

 

Bella DePaulo is the author of Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After


Bella DePaulo is a leading thinker on the single experience. She recently told the American Psychological Association, "It is time for a more accurate portrayal of single people and single life – one that recognizes the real strengths and resilience of people who are single, and what makes their lives meaningful."

To learn more, AHB reached Dr. DePaulo at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Ruth Dempsey: Your book Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, spawned an ongoing and important exploration of the single life. How do you think things have changed over the past decade?

Bella DePaulo: Among the biggest changes are the demographic ones. The number and percentage of single people keeps rising. There are now about 109 million unmarried people in the United States. That's 45 per cent of the adult population.

The rise of single people puts pressure on societies to change in ways that recognize the important place of single people.

For example, businesses start offering deals and products and services that single people want. Political candidates may start feeling the need to speak to them, rather than just talking about marriage this and family that. I think it is also harder for stereotypes to persist as the number of single people continue to grow.

But there are countervailing forces as well. The rise of single people, especially the rise of single people who are happily single and who choose to be single, is threatening to people who want to believe that married people are better than single people, and that the only way to be truly happy is to be married. So there is some backlash, as well.

In fact, I think that a lot of the "matrimania" (the over-the-top celebration and hyping of marriage, weddings and coupling) that we see is happening not because we are so secure about the place of marriage in our lives, but because we are so insecure.

RD: You have concerns about the way science portrays single people. What is the main issue?

BD: The vast majority of studies on marital status were designed to learn about marriage and married people. Single people are only included as a comparison group. So we don't really have a science of single life yet. We mostly just have a science of marriage.

Also, the kinds of claims that are made – getting married makes people happier and healthier for example – cannot be supported by the kinds of studies that are conducted. And, the results of even the best studies do not provide the kinds of support for the marriage benefits that we have been led to believe are there.

RD: In an address to the American Psychological Association's Annual Convention (Aug. 5, 2016), you cited research findings that challenged the idea that single people are less connected and generous than married people.

BD: Single people are more connected to parents, siblings, friends and coworkers than married people are. And when people marry, they become more insular.

For example, when other people need the kind of care that can go on for months, single people are there. A representative national sample of 9,000 British adults found that more single than married people had regularly looked after someone for at least there months who was sick, elderly or disabled.

Also single people are more engaged in the life of the cities and towns where they live than are married people. For example, they participate more in civic and public events and in the arts, and they are more involved in informal social activities.

The repeated claim that single people experience greater loneliness than married people lacks good evidence. In fact, studies show that it is hard to find a group of people less likely to be lonely in later life than women who have always been single.

Single men are more generous than married men. This is from research that included just men. In Singled Out, I looked at research that suggests single men contribute more to the workplace in ways that benefit more than just themselves.

Also, single people are just as concerned with guiding the next generation as married people are.
bookcover - singled out
RD: Another study suggests single people are likely to experience more personal growth than married people.

BD: That's right. In an analysis of data from the National Survey of Families and Households, more than 1,000 people, who had always been single, were compared to more than 3,000 people of comparable ages, who had been continuously married. There were two ways in which the lives of the people who stayed single changed over time, compared to those who stayed married.

First, single people experienced more personal growth.

Second, people who stayed single, rather than those who stayed married, also reported increases in autonomy and self-determination.

It strikes me that strong internal standards and the sense of continued personal growth over the course of our adult years are important dimension of a meaningful life. They are experiences that increase over time if you stay single, more so than if you stay married.

To be clear, this study does not show that staying single causes people to experience more autonomy or personal growth. It only establishes a link between the two.

RD: What about the benefits and protections that come with marriage?

BD: They are considerable. In the United States, the most important ones are probably the more than 1,000 benefits and protections written right into the federal laws.

To start, lifelong single people pay into social security throughout their working lives. Yet, they cannot designate a recipient of their benefits after they die. That money goes back into the system.

In contrast, married people can receive each other's benefits. Also, couples have access to tax breaks that single people do not.

Single people do not have the option of getting health coverage under a spouse's plan. They lose out on discounts on products and services that are available only to couples. When traveling, they may be required to pay the dreaded single supplement.

And in everyday life, married people are advantaged by the relentless celebration of marriage, while the lives of single people are marginalized.

RD: Writing in Psychological Inquiry (Vol.25. Issue 1,2014), you argue it's time for "single studies" similar to women's studies and other similar academic programs. Why so?

BD: First, we have so little cultural awareness of "singlism" – the stereotyping, stigmatizing and discrimination against single people. With no awareness, those prejudicial and unfair practices continue with no apology and no push-back.

Second, without a single studies program, it is hard for people to learn about the science and scholarship of single life. Studies and books and articles are dispersed across many disciplines. We need a way of bringing them together and sharing them with generations of students. If there were single studies programs, then there would also be faculty positions for scholars who want to focus on single life. As it is, there are marriage and family programs in many universities, but so far as I know, there is not even one single studies program anywhere in the world.

Perhaps most importantly, single studies programs would help us establish a rigorous science and scholarship of single life. It would be a way of learning about single people systematically, rather than relying on stereotype and opinions.

Single studies programs would also encourage the development of scholarship that takes the perspective of single people. As it is, what we know about single people too often comes from studies in which single people are the comparison group in studies that were designed to learn more about marriage.

RD: Final thoughts?

BD: Live your single life fully, joyfully and unapologetically!