An Ode to the Single Life

8 minute read
DePaulo is a leading expert on single life, and is the author of Single at Heart: The Power, Freedom, and Heart-Filling Joy of Single Life. She has been writing the “Living Single” blog for Psychology Today since 2008

Lovers of single life, it’s time to set yourselves free. Unshackle yourselves from those old, regressive stories that claim that single life is sad and lonely. Rise above those repressive notions that everyone wants a romantic partner and if you think you don’t, you’ll get over it, and if you don’t get over it, you need help. Gleefully reject the idea that putting a romantic partner at the center of your life is something you have to do, something that everyone wants, or that it is the normal, natural, and superior way to live.

I have a new story to tell you, about people who are powerfully drawn to single life. I call them “single at heart,” and I’m one of them. For us, single life is our best life. It is our most authentic, meaningful, and fulfilling life. It is a psychologically rich life. No other way of life will ever feel as profoundly satisfying. To us, living single is every bit as desirable as a committed romantic partnership is to people who are drawn to coupled life.

My own road to embracing my single life was unencumbered by worries about disappointing my mother. For the first 45 years of my life, she never said a word about my single status. In the seven years she lived after my father died, we occasionally traveled together, just the two of us, and we spent some holidays together. We talked about a lot of things, but she never pressured me to marry, not even subtly. I was proud of that. I thought it meant that she could see that staying single wasn’t an issue for me.

In the last conversation I had alone with her, as she lay dying, she brought up my single life for the first time. “I worry about you,” she said.

I don’t remember what I said in response, but I do remember that I was stunned and saddened. I wish she had understood that for me, and the millions like me, staying single was how I stayed happy and fulfilled. I wish I knew then what I know now and could have helped her to understand.

The truth is that being single doesn’t limit our lives—it throws them wide open. We have our freedom, and we use it to make the most of our resources and opportunities, however vast or meager they may be. We get to decide the shape and contours of our lives, from our daily routines to life-altering transformations. We get to pursue our interests and passions, without trying to refashion or resize them in ways that suit a romantic partner. We get to welcome into our lives anyone we want—friends, relatives, mentors, colleagues, lovers, neighbors, spiritual figures, pets, or anyone else—as many or as few as we like, with no pressure to elevate a romantic partner above all others. We can devote ourselves to our inner circle, our larger communities, our countries, and our causes, if that’s what we want to do. We create homes that are our sanctuaries. We have our sweet, sweet solitude. If we don’t want kids, no partner is going to pout. If we do have kids, we get to raise them as we see fit. We enjoy intimacy on our own terms.

The risk to people who are single at heart is not what we will miss if we do not put a romantic partner at the center of our lives, but what we will miss if we do. I will never say that it is OK to be single or that it is better to be single than to be in a bad romantic relationship. Those sentiments are far too grudging. For people like us, it is better to be single. Period.

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To the single at heart, single life is joyful. It doesn’t matter if we have had no past romantic experiences or plenty of them. It doesn’t matter if any such experiences were glorious, horrifying, boring, or a mixed bag. We are not single just because we are running away from something or because we have “issues” (everyone has issues). We are single because we love what single life offers and will continue to offer for as long as we commit to it and invest in it. For us, that’s forever.

Because we are embracing our single lives rather than trying to escape them, we develop strengths, skills, resources, and attitudes that are less often honed by those who lead a conventionally coupled life. The time, money, and emotional resources that some other people devote to their pursuit of a romantic partner and then bestow upon that partner if they find such a person, we invest in the experiences that make our lives meaningful and that can never be taken away from us by a divorce or any other casualty of coupling. We value our friends, rather than looking past them for the romantic partner who may be on the horizon or waiting for us at home. That pays off: The more we value our friends, the more fulfilling we find our single lives to be. We also savor the time we have to ourselves; because we are enriched by our solitude rather than fearful of it, we are especially unlikely to feel lonely.

Our years of investing in our single lives and embracing all that single life has to offer pay off along the way, but the investment comes to its ultimate, stereotype-shattering pinnacle later in life. We’ve been warned that we are going to end up decrepit, despondent, despairing, and oh so alone when we are old, but that’s not what happens. Studies show that people who have stayed single are especially likely to be thriving in later life.

Unlike the newly single, such as the divorced and widowed people who organized their lives around a spouse, the lifelong single people aren’t trying to figure out for the first time how to do the things their spouse used to do for them. They aren’t trying to create a social circle or an emotional support system anew; they have been doing that all along. A 2006 study of older people in the United States showed that the men and women who stayed single were most optimistic about the future, were most likely to have an active social life, and most likely to have the help they needed and the intimacy they wanted. Black Americans, who are the targets of so much moralizing and shaming for their relatively low rates of marrying, were especially likely to be living a fulfilling life in their old age if they had never married. An 2006 Australian study of more than 10 thousand women in their 70s found that the lifelong single women without children were the most optimistic, least stressed, most altruistic, and had the fewest diagnoses of major illnesses, relative to the currently or previously married women, with or without children.

Contrary to stereotypes, single people keep getting happier and happier with their single lives as they approach middle age and head on to old age. Across the entire adult lifespan, the single people who are not looking for a romantic partner are especially likely to find their single lives increasingly fulfilling, according to a study from 2021.

We who are single at heart realize that by committing to our single lives, we are bucking the relentlessly touted and celebrated cultural script that insists that what adults want, more than anything else, is a committed romantic partnership. We know what people think: that it’s fine to be single for a while, but to stay single forever is just sad, and that to want to stay single isn’t natural or normal.

Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve seen other bedrock beliefs pulverized. Is it abnormal to be attracted to people of your own gender? We know better now. Is a woman’s place in the home? Oh, please. Is it only natural for women to want kids? That doesn’t seem obvious anymore.

Each time our understanding of human nature becomes more expansive, we all become freer to live our best and most authentic lives. In the enlightened world that I envision, every child will understand, as a matter of course, that living single is a life path that can be just as joyful and fulfilling as any other—and for some people, the best path of all. Every adult will forsake forever the temptation to pity or patronize people who are single, and will instead appreciate the profound rewards of single life. Adults who are naturally drawn to single life will not be asked to defend that choice ever again. Millions of happy single people will realize that they are happy and thriving not in spite of being single, but because of it.

Adapted from Single at Heart: The Power, Freedom, and Heart-Filling Joy of Single Life, by Bella DePaulo.

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