The one area where couples do have a distinct advantage is finances: they either have two incomes contributing to their household expenses or have one person with the time to take care of any cleaning, cooking or childcare. But beyond that, couples can share tax credits. They can use each other’s health benefit plans. One study even showed that the majority of rental agents would choose a married couple over other pairs of applicants, even with the same combined income.
DePaulo calls these disadvantages, and the negative stereotypes behind them, “singlism.” While there are certainly worse “-isms,” this one can be annoying and damaging nevertheless. The stereotypes are well known: an older man without a partner needs to grow up; an older single woman needs to stop being so picky; single is synonymous with lonely; everyone dreams of finding “the one.” DePaulo’s research shows that people view singles as insecure, self-centred, unattractive, unhappy (though more successful), and those perceptions get worse for older singles.
“Because people are so rarely exposed to any other way of thinking,” says DePaulo, “they cling to relationships that are bad for them, and they pursue romantic relationships even when they might live a better, more fulfilled and more meaningful life by staying single.” In 2015, DePaulo started a Facebook group called the Community of Single People. It now has over 1,800 members who share articles, advice and achievements with each other. They meet up in person, too; a group of New York-based members got together to see The Lobster, director Yorgos Lanthimos’s glum 2015 dystopian satire about the overemphasis on coupled life. (In the film, people who become single are sent to a hotel where they have 45 days to pair off, or else be turned into an animal of their choice.)
Kristin Noreen, 52, has been a member of the Facebook group since it started, and it’s been a source of real friendship and community for her. Whenever she travels outside her home city of Bellingham, Wash., she makes a point of meeting people from the group. “When we finally meet, we just hug,” she says. She now lives purposely without a relationship, though it took her some time to get there. At 24, she got married, but before long she realized, “I didn’t like being married at all.” She didn’t like sharing her space or having to follow her spouse to different cities for jobs. Then she realized she wasn’t heterosexual. She divorced and moved to Bellingham, in part because of its active LGBT community. “Not long after I got here,” she says, “I realized I didn’t want to date either. I just want to live.” When she came across one of DePaulo’s books, it all made sense. “I read it in one night and realized, okay, this is me. This is what it’s all about. I’m single at heart.”
Actively choosing to be single isn’t as rare as it might seem. This past October, a post on the anonymous message board Reddit asked single men to share why they weren’t in a relationship. Nearly 21,000 comments poured in. While some cited bad experiences with previous relationships or their own anxieties, a significant minority admitted that they just didn’t want to be attached. “Because I am sort of selfish and want to do what I want when I want,” one man wrote, adding, “I can be alone without being lonely!” In fact, research shows that he’s right: single people have more meaningful social connections than those in long-term relationships. They’re also more likely to be self-determined, value meaningful work and feel like they’re growing and developing as people.
And while living solo isn’t the first choice of every satisfied single, many are embracing it by doing things that we’ve long assumed required a partner. Athena Reich, 40, has always known she wanted to be a mother. She left her hometown of Toronto to pursue a creative career — she’s an actress, writer, musician and Lady Gaga impersonator — and tried to find a partner to achieve that dream with. “It just was never the right relationship,” she says. “It never worked out.” When Reich was 36, the woman she was with said she wasn’t sure if she wanted children. Reich remembers thinking, “You know what? I’m just tired of waiting for someone else. I’m just going to do it on my own!” She ended the relationship and eventually had a baby boy named Phoenix. He’s now 18 months old, and she’s since moved back to Toronto to raise him.
She compares the desire to have a child to the calling she feels to be an artist: being a mother is just part of who she is. She still would love to be in a relationship, a kind of loving best friendship she wouldn’t have to settle for, but is more concerned about caring for her son and deciding if she wants a second child. “I’m open to [a relationship], but I don’t have a lot of time right now to pursue it very actively,” she says. “But I’m okay with that. . . . I definitely would like love, but I don’t feel like I have to find love.”
There are, of course, some practical challenges to raising a child on your own; but there’s another part of life that’s harder for singles to deal with: failing health. A spouse can drive you to doctor’s appointments; provide comfort, support and advocacy in the hospital; and take care of the day-to-day business of living.
For many singles, networks of friends and relatives can fill these same needs, though a more supportive health-care system could be vital for those who are truly isolated. When Joan DelFattore, 70, was diagnosed with cancer, she had a lot of people she could call on. She found, though, that her friends and cousins weren’t treated the same way as children, parents or spouses by the hospital system. During one surgery, her supporters sat in the waiting room for hours without any updates from the doctors because they weren’t immediate family. “The problem wasn’t official hospital policy,” wrote DelFattore in the Washington Post, “but hospital employees who imposed their personal prejudices on me and on the people who love me.” DelFattore is now working on a book about her choice to live without a partner, and having a serious illness without one.
For the conservative Catholic family she was raised in, the choice was unusual. She didn’t want the inequality faced by her grandmother’s generation or the stay-at-home life lived by many in her mother’s. Instead, she became an academic and is currently a professor emeritus at the University of Delaware in English and legal studies. She fills the rest of her time with writing, participating in clubs and running a writing program at her local cancer centre. “When I came home, I had solitude, autonomy, independence, to a degree that would not have been possible with any kind of marriage or even a non-married partnership,” she says in a telephone interview. “I understood that a romantic relationship can be a very beautiful thing. But to me, it wasn’t worth trading for what I already had.”
She’s started to notice resistance to this idea getting quieter. “The statistics show how many unmarried people there are,” she says, “and the likelihood that millennials and generations behind them will not marry at the rates that previous generations did. I think the culture has changed to accept that.” As we wrap up our conversation, she turns a question toward me. “If you don’t mind answering what I hope is not an intrusive question, how old are you?”
“I’m 24,” I say. I can hear a warm smile in her voice as she continues: “I am so glad to hear that. Because, for my generation, women’s choices were a whole different subject than they are now. . . . I’m very happy for you that you have a choice.”