Why is it so hard for so many people to believe it’s possible for single people to live full, complete and satisfied lives?
Recently, an article I wrote for New York magazine was republished at CNN under the heading, “There’s never been a better time to be single.” It was a 2017 year-in-review overview, highlighting some very large, methodologically sophisticated studies of single and married people. Some of the studies followed the same people over years of their lives.
The research was a refreshing change from years of claims that single people lead inferior lives. The latest news from some of the best studies is quite good for single people. You can read all the examples at New York magazine, which includes links to the studies. The most compelling findings were about health, with three big, impressive studies showing that people who marry generally do not become any healthier than they were when they were single, and by some measures, they become less healthy.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, or if you have a good psychological sense of these kinds of things, you can probably predict two kinds of reactions to my article describing scientific findings that reflect positively on single people. Some reactions were very positive. Many single people are quite tired of all the singles-bashing, and it feels good to be validated by science.
Other people hate hearing that there is anything good about single people or single life. They get very upset. The psychology of this reaction is quite interesting, and often counterintuitive, as I described previously in this Single-at-Heart blog. People get most angry at singles who dare to say that they are happily single and that they chose to be single. They are less likely to derogate and stereotype single people who are unhappily single and want to be coupled.
I think some of these people are very invested in a certain view of the world. They like the mythology, the ideology, that proclaims single people are inferior beings with bad values and sad lives, and that they need to escape their single lives in order to become good human beings with fulfilling lives.
Does that sound extreme? Consider these excerpts from a lengthy email sent to me by a reader of my CNN article:
Sorry to say, but a lot of these happy single people you describe are generally selfish and not concerned with other people, the well-being of society, or making things better or improving other people’s lives at all. I’m not saying everybody, but there are thousands, if not millions of people like this. Also, why are so many people depressed, anxious, overmedicated, or just living carefree lives? Shouldn’t we care about something or someone other than ourselves?…
Go to any bar in a small struggling town anywhere in this country and you will see a lot of people who want more to look forward to than going home and being alone and who can’t simply go on a shopping spree or aspire to have the perfect beach body.
I actually think we’re getting to a very dangerous point where a lot of people are losing their humanity and are not able to connect even in the smallest ways with other people, which is absolutely not natural. Is that what you call progress or a healthy society.
There are mountains of research papers out there that describe the need for intimacy, attachment, and just being social with others on a daily basis that refute most or all of your claims, especially research concerning older individuals. Sure it’s fine to be single and nobody should judge that, but remember that we all need intimacy, even asexual people, believe it or not.
Oh yeah, and what about the children of all these happily divorced people you talk about? How are they doing? Why does our society, particularly our youth, have so many social problems, jailed individuals, single parent homes?
In my decades of studying and discussing singlism (the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against people who are single), I often hear from people who think that singlism doesn’t really exist. They think that there are no prejudices against single people, no stigmatizing of them, no discrimination against them. Maybe you have heard such claims, too. If you think you might run into them in the future, you may want to bookmark this blog post so you can show the excerpts (above) to the person who doubts that singlism is a thing.
Let me round up the claims that this person is making, all of which are both disparaging and false:
- Single people are selfish; they are not concerned with other people or society. (WRONG – many findings suggest that just the opposite is true.)
- Single people are depressed and anxious. Or wait, maybe they are carefree. (WRONG again)
- Single people have empty, meaningless lives. (They are in bars and wishing they had something else to do other than go home and be alone.) WRONG.
- Single people are materialistic and vain. What they really want to do is go on shopping sprees and “have the perfect beach body.” WRONG.
- Single people are “losing their humanity” and are unable to connect with other people “even in the smallest ways,” which “is absolutely not natural.” Do you see what he is saying? Single people lack even the most rudimentary social skills. What’s more, they hardly count as human beings. They are “losing their humanity” and their purported ways of relating to the world are “absolutely not natural.” Do I need to say WRONG or should I just say “wow”? This may be the ultimate denigration of other people – characterizing them as barely even human.
- This man says that we all need “intimacy, attachment, and just being social with others on a daily basis.” He believes that single people do not have intimacy, do not have attachment, and do not have everyday social interactions with other people. WRONG, WRONG, and WRONG. Also: wow.
- He also says that “we all need intimacy, even asexual people, believe it or not.” He thinks asexual people have no intimacy, believe it or not. WRONG. Perhaps he has a very narrow view of what counts as intimacy.
- Finally, for good measure, he wants to pin social problems on the children of divorce and single-parent homes. He seems to see those children as the criminals who are filling our jails. You know what’s coming: WRONG. Also, again, gratuitously offensive.
I told this person that I found his message offensive. In response, he said, “There is also nothing offensive about what I said, just stating another point of view different than your own, as much as you don’t like that or agree with it.”
That’s troubling, too. Here is someone who has just said that single people are selfish, unconcerned with anyone or anything other than themselves, and lacking in intimacy and attachment and the most basic interpersonal skills. He seems to think that single people hardly even qualify as human. And also, their kids are criminals. Still, he insists that there is nothing offensive about anything he said.
That’s one of the most important ways that singlism differs from racism and sexism and the other isms that get more attention: Singlism is often practiced without awareness. People can say the most insulting things about single people, and continue to contend that there is nothing wrong with any of it.
This article originally appeared in Bella DePaulo’s Single at Heart blog.
Bella DePaulo (Ph.D.), an expert on single life, is the author of several books, including “Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After” and “How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century.” Her TEDx talk is “What no one ever told you about people who are single,” Dr. DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been described in newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and magazines such as Time, Atlantic, the Week, More, the Nation, Business Week, AARP Magazine, and Newsweek. Dr. DePaulo is in her sixties. She has always been single and always will be. She is “single at heart” — single is how she lives her best and most meaningful life. Visit her website at www.BellaDePaulo.com.