Like many women, I spent the bulk of my 20s “finding myself” (to various levels of success). Simultaneously pursuing a career, deeper friendships, and yes, non-awful dating prospects, it was a time in which I was also deeply, profoundly single. This was a condition I at first bemoaned, then later relished as I came into my own—developing creative and professional pursuits, traveling, and eventually, living alone for the first time. Few activities felt as luxurious as spending a solo morning in my PJs, cup of coffee in hand, sitting in a sun-lit living room with the dulcet sounds of WNYC’s Soterios Johnson on the radio.
This lifestyle, however, came with its burdens, including both active and passive curiosity from friends, family, and casual acquaintances who often lamented my supposed loneliness (and frequently offered unwanted dating advice). A co-worker, after hearing I had been single for more than three years—actually it was closer to five—cheerfully let me know that I “deserved to be happy, and should let love in.” Strangers at parties felt emboldened to let let me know I was “probably being too picky.” Meanwhile, I was busy exploring the person I was evolving into, taking classes, meeting interesting people, and enjoying my life.
Now, fully coupled and cohabitating at 32, I sense a general relief from both strangers and loved ones who are finally able to label, categorize, and “get” me. From the other side of the romantic divide, I can say with strong conviction that singles marginalization is real. But, also, that one lifestyle is not necessarily “better” than another—just different. This realization has made me wonder: What must it be like for people who never plan to find a partner? People who consider their single status permanent?
The past few years have seen a small but notable boom in pro-singles lit exploring the nuanced relationships and rise of the single woman, from Kate Bolick’s Spinster to Rebecca Traister’s sprawling All the Single Ladies. These books acknowledge both the challenges and joys of singledom. Traister’s book, specifically, touches on how singledom can sometimes be one’s preferred lifestyle, rather than a terrifying default—which is especially notable now that more than half of Americans are currently single. And yet, despite these important works, “singles panic” still reigns for both sexes.
Last month, Bella DePaulo, a social psychologist and the foremost academic expert on single life caused something of an internet earthquake when she presented research at the American Psychological Association’s annual meeting highlighting the ways single people often have richer lives, and experience greater psychological growth, than their married counterparts. Her presentation synthesized previous findings that single people are happier, healthier, and more connected to their communities. After the web caught wind of her presentation, dozens of “it gets better!”-style posts and “there-there” back-patting sprung up. But what the buzz missed was the crucial point that, for some, choosing to remain single can be a conscious, fulfilling decision—not a plan B.
Being single doesn’t have to equate to misery, and in fact, some do actually prefer it. But thanks in part to generations of cultural messaging, as much from the media as our immediate families, many coupled and single people alike have a difficult time accepting that it can also be the state in which they are happiest. And so, since the best way to counter prejudice and stereotypes is with visibility, I decided to chat with folks who want to be single forever. Their stories—which came from men and women of all ages, locations, and socioeconomic backgrounds—make it clear that being partnered really is, and should be, a choice.
The natural place for me to start my interviews was with Bella DePaulo herself, the 63-year-old lifelong singleton who recently kicked up a media hornet’s nest. DePaulo believes that we’re being shortsighted as a culture by putting too much emphasis on “finding the one,” at the risk of shortchanging a range of experiences.
“One of the things the romantic ideology does is to devalue every adult relationship other than a romantic marital relationship,” said DePaulo, who in 2007 wrote the popular book Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. “It’s an attempt to live the truest and most authentic self.” Rejecting the notion that “women supposedly need marriage more than men do,” she also believes that the sad single lady stereotype comes from both societal pressure to conform, and maybe even as a manifestation of the insecurities of the unhappily married. “The single woman who’s doing great, who’s happily and successfully single, challenges the cherished idea that married people are better off than single people in all ways,” she explained.
After years of enjoying a fruitful single life, but still experiencing microaggressions from friends and colleagues, DePaulo set up a closed Facebook group for like-minded others. Here, they could vent, share, and even encourage folks to “come out” as single-for-life, letting loved ones know they had no intention of ever “settling down.” Despite a call on social media that yielded many 20- and 30-somethings contemplating lifetime single-ness, the bulk of my conversations were with members of this thriving group, which is nearly 2,000-members strong, many of whom have been single for decades.
Among the group’s members is Deborah, who requested that I change her name to protect her privacy. A 63-year-old accountant and poet from Northern California, she spent her early adult years attempting to conform to societal norms of dating and coupledom. Then, in her 40s, she discovered romantic relationships weren’t for her. “I never really enjoyed dating,” she disclosed, “and when I was in a relationship, it always felt really odd.” She confided that “I knew when I was 16 I never wanted to be married. I just knew it in my bones.” Yet, she pushed herself to try dating, both men and women, before realizing, “I was happy enough with my friends and my life. That I would much rather work than date.”
Today, Deborah enjoys a rich network of social connections, and spends her free time writing and pursuing spiritual fulfillment. She also bucks the narrative—and widely held fear—that if we remain single into middle or old age we will “die alone”—the 21st-century equivalent of being loaded onto an ice drift and pushed out to sea. Instead, she sees her impending retirement as just another adventure. “I have often not known what I am going to do in my life,” she jokes, “and it’s kept working out!” She also looks on with a bit of envy at those born post-sexual revolution. “Young people are growing up in a time when there’s so many ways you can acknowledge what matters to you,” she admits. “So why settle?”
Kristen Noreen, another woman I met through DePaulo’s group, is a 50-year-old writer from a small town in Washington that never experienced stereotypical fantasies of married life. “I always dreamed of living alone as a child,” she told me via email. “When the other kids played ‘house’ and ‘wedding,’ I played ‘runaway’—pretending to live by my wits in a hideaway.” In her late-teens and early-20s, when her best friends began to pair-off, she says she “fell prey to the whole coupling thing. I ended up getting married, but knew early on that I’d made a terrible mistake.” It took 14 years, during which her partner was mostly traveling for work, to “finally get the courage to leave.”
After deep introspection, she realized she was gay and came out; however, she discovered that she “wasn’t cut out for the dating scene.” Today, she is still coming to terms with who she is and what she wants. With a touch of irony, she noticed that others were “prepared to accept a declaration of homosexuality, but weren’t so prepared to accept me not being in a couple at all.”
Some lifelong singletons I spoke with decided very early on they didn’t even want to attempt to date. Steve Thomasson, a 36-year old self-employed translator from a small town near Manchester, England, often spends his free time on athletic pursuits and traveling to far-flung locations—when I spoke to him, he was planning his dream trip to Greenland—and hanging with friends. Occasionally, he’s had his head turned, but still prefers single life.
“I spent quite a bit of my childhood looking after a disabled parent,” he explained via Skype, “and went through a child/parent relationship that wasn’t the norm. [By adulthood] I had already done the nurturing thing. It made me realize sooner that I just wanted the ‘me time.’” He also mentioned that this preference might be part of his personality. “I am incredibly independent. I do not like to be told how to do things. I like to do it my way!” he laughed.
Melissa Bergen, a 33-year-old liberal pastor from outside Fresno, California, with a joyfully reassuring voice, also never had much interest in dating. “When you’re introverted, and highly sensitive, it makes it difficult,” she explained. “I’ve always been happier with what I’ve been doing in life [other than dating].” Raised by open-minded parents who never pressured her to conform, she saw the ways her mother bucked at the confines of her own marriage. So she decided to live a different sort of life, noticing “the longer I stayed single, the more I got invested in my career, the happier I was in my work and in my social life.”
Eventually, comments about settling down also “started going down.” Self-admittedly, part of this external pressure had to do with the fact that Bergen lives far from a major city, where statistically people are expected to pair off and start a family younger. In her work, which often includes outreach with low-income families helmed by single mothers, she understands that her choice to remain solo comes from a point of privilege—one seen by her clients as financially and emotionally perilous. “From [many I met in my social work] I still get pressure. So I’ve just kind of started joking “Oh, I’m a nun!’ At least then people have a box to put me in. It’s funny, [my church doesn’t] even have nuns.”
Bergen spends most of her free time volunteering, baby-sitting for friends, and yes, even providing marriage counseling. “A handful of folks I work with, but not 50%, are unhappy in their marriages. I’m a pastor and it tends to come up in conversation when people are unhappy,” she said. But these same people, who often prod her to find “the one,” also appreciate her single status. “Because of my free time, I’m able to invest so fully in other rich, giving relationships. It just fulfills me to no end!”
As I can personally attest, having a partner comes with a wealth of unexpected joys—and my boyfriend has enriched my life in so many intangible ways. But this is more because of the wonderful man he is rather than the fact that he is a warm body. If I had remained single, even into old age, I wouldn’t have seen my life as sad or wasted. I would have seen it as filled with a different type of joy—one that, based on my reporting, many who remain single by choice continue to experience.
Single people still face a crushing wave of judgement, discrimination, and marginalization, but it’s hard not to see this Hatorade as a mirror of our own collective unhappiness—perhaps even a rising skepticism of traditional societal structures, given how many marriages still end in divorce. The reality is, as Rebecca Traister so convincingly points out in her book, we as a society are moving toward a nation of single people. Maybe we live alone, or with friends. Maybe some are unhappy with this situation. But others are maintaining joyous, fulfilled lives just the way they are. And at the end of the day, why is that still so hard to understand?