Is being single better than being married? In this episode, Peter McGraw sits down with the world’s expert on the science of single living, Bella DePaulo. In this episode, I sit down with the world’s expert on the science of single living. Peter and Bella spend a lot of time myth busting single and married living, discussing the myth that marriage causes people to be happier, as well as the myth that single people are lonely – they are actually more socially connected! She also shows the ways that single people are stigmatized, stereotyped, and discriminated. On the flip side, they discuss the benefits of being single, such as the freedom to pursue things that you really want to pursue, the ability to take chances, and the opportunity for growth. Finally, they talk about resources for single people. Surprisingly, you can find some of those resources in the exhibits!
Listen to Episode #2 here:
The Science of Single Living
I sit down with the world’s expert on the science of single living. We spend a lot of time myth-busting, singled and married life. For example, we discussed the myth that marriage causes people to be happier. It doesn’t. We talk about the myth that single people are lonely. They are actually more socially connected. She shows you the way that single people are stigmatized, stereotyped and discriminated against. On the flip side, we discussed the benefits of being single, such as the freedom to pursue things that you want to pursue, the ability to take chances and the opportunity for growth. Finally, we talk about some resources for single people, some of which you can find in the exhibits. There’s no bonus material, but there will be some in the future. Let’s get started.
Our guest is Bella DePaulo. A Harvard PhD, Bella, is the world’s leading researcher on living single. She’s the author of Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized and Ignored and Still Live Happily Ever After. She’s also the author of many other books. Her TEDx Talk, What No One Ever Told You About People Who Are Single has been viewed over 900,000 times, more than my TEDx Talk. She has been writing the Living Single blog on Psychology Today for over a decade. I think all of this explains why I’m so eager to speak to her. Welcome, Bella.
Thanks for having me. I’m glad you have this show.
It’s brand new. I think it’s fitting to feature you. I’m going to tell you how I came across your work. I knew of your work when you were at the University of Virginia on lie detection, which we might talk about it at some point. I came across you when I was an aspiring to be a graduate student. I was telling Bella that I had applied to Virginia and I had mentioned in my letter that I had wanted to work with her. It’s through happenstance that I find myself here.
I wasn’t doing my single’s work then. You did better. We both ended up in the same place.
By different means. How I got to know you was I remember a study. I think it’s a study that you did, which I just loved the cleverness of it and I think we should launch right into it with that. You can correct my bad science. Nearly everyone, except the folks who have done the work like you or read your work, think that married people are happier than single people and they ascribe a causal mechanism to this. That there is happiness that comes from being married. The reason they do that is that they compare the happiness of single people to the happiness of married people to the happiness of divorced people. The happiest people are married, the least happy people are divorced. The single people sit in between. What you did was you go, because you’re a well-trained scientist, you say, “Let’s look at the data the way we ought to look at the data.” I’m going to hand it over to you to describe the findings.
What people like to say, including fully-grown scientists who should know better. What they like to say when they see studies like that is, “Marriage wins, get married and you will be happier too.” The right study to do to test this is to follow the same people over the course of their lives to see if the same people get married, they get happier. What you find is if you follow the same people and you asked them every year, “How happy are you?” when they get married, they get a little bit happier but then they go back to being as happy or as unhappy as they were when they were single. That only happens if you get married and stay married. If you get married and get divorced, you’ll see that those people were already getting a little less and less happy as the day of their wedding. They didn’t even get that little a honeymoon effect that people who stay married get where they get a little bit happier. They have the wedding and the big party and it’s all exciting and then they go back to whatever.
As a single person, as a bachelor, I’ve found a lot of meaning in that. That gave me ammunition in my conversations with people who said, “Pete, I’m worried about you. I’m worried about your incompleteness.”
Imagine if you flipped that and said, “I’m worried about you, my married friend. When are you going to get divorced? You’re so dependent. I, as a single person, I have freedom and independence. I can do all the different things that married people divvy off and I’m worried about.”
I have a little story of a woman who I met who even before we went on a date, I told her, “I’m not interested in being married with children.” She’s like, “I want to talk to you about that. I want to find out why you want to do that.” We met for brunch one day and she went, “Why don’t you want to be married?” I’m happy to answer this question. “I want to point out, imagine if I sat down to you and I said, I want to understand why you want to be married. Will you convince me why you’re making this correct choice?”
That is one of the most important things that I have to suggest to single people who feel put upon or defensive in all these different ways. Flip the script just like you did. You want to understand why I’m not married and I don’t want to have kids. I want to understand why you do and I think it’s a powerful thing. In fact, when I wrote Singled Out, I didn’t decide until I finished the entire book how to start it. I wrote the first page last and I said, “I could imagine a world in which married people were not treated appropriately. If that world ever materialized, I would protest.” Here are a few examples of what I find offensive. When you tell people you are married, they tilt their heads and say things like, “Don’t worry, your turn to divorce will come.” When you browse the bookstores, you see shelves bursting with titles such as, “If I’m So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Unmarried?” and “How to Ditch Your Husband After Age 35 Using What I Learned at Harvard Business School.”
Every time you get married, you feel obligated to give expensive presents to single people. When you travel with your spouse, you each have to pay more than when you travel alone. At work, the single people assume that you can cover the holidays and all the inconvenient assignments. They figure that as a married person, you don’t have anything better to do. I won’t keep going, but it goes on like that for a while and it’s again a way of taking all the insults that get run at single people and flipped them. The important thing is it’s not things that are insulting. It isn’t making us feel bad. It’s serious examples of discrimination such as laws and policies that benefit you only if you’re legally married.
When I started this project, originally I was looking at it more for men, for bachelors. I was doing a bunch of reading. There’s actually through history, bachelor taxes. That existed that if you’re a single man of a certain age, you had to pay the government. There were even incentives where it was nice to have single men out as pioneers right out on the leading edges. Once everything was settled, let’s get you hitched. Let’s step back a little bit. There’s a whole bunch of things I want to do with this. I think giving single people ammunition, not only to be able to talk about these myths with the people who perpetuate them. Also, to feel comfortable with either a decision that they’re in or this idea that I like this idea that as you’ve pointed out, the average person nowadays spends more of their life single than you do married. I chafe at the idea that being single is a liminal state. That it’s considered this temporary transitional stage. That you’re incomplete until this happens. Let’s step back for a moment. You’re at the University of Virginia, you are doing work on lie detection. If I remember correctly, most of the work you showed is that we’re not as good at lie detection as we think we are.
In fact, I did a review paper with Charlie Bond and we reviewed over 200 studies. We found that on average, people are correct about whether someone is lying or not. It’s 50% of the time when by chance they would be right.
I think of you as being at the leading edge, frankly, too early in some ways of what’s I think starting to happen now. You must notice it more than even me. There’s starting to be more conversation around that maybe marriage and family isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I think some of that has come out of a lot of the work on wellbeing that a lot of behavioral economists and so on have done. Also this idea of like, “Single people can live rich lives,” but you are way early. Where did this come from?
I’ve always been single and I’m 66, that’s a long time. There was a time when I thought, maybe marriage is like a bug and you get bitten and I just haven’t gotten bitten. At some point, I don’t remember when, I realized no self, you are never going to want this. Single is who you are. That was such a revelation.
You were in your 40s at the time?It’s very freeing to be able to do whatever you want, say whatever you want, and pursue the life that you care about. Click To Tweet
I don’t remember when. I think it was earlier than that. I realized I like being single and yet all around me there were still these headlines, even back then in the paper, “You get married, you’ll be happier, you’ll be healthier, you’ll live longer,” which are still around. I had no reason not to believe that until I decided to write a book and look into it. That was part of it.
Where’s that idea of like, “I’m going to write a book about this?”
There’s another part of that which came first, which is noticing that it seemed like in some ways I was treated as lesser than because I was single. If we had a job candidate coming and somebody needed to entertain the job candidate, they’d say, “Why don’t you take it?” Because married people, they have to go home and come to dinner with their spouse or whatever. I was asked to teach the night classes again for the same reason. This was one of my favorites. It’s such a little thing, but it drove me nuts. At our department, we used to have a psychology department picnic and every faculty member would contribute $10 and then they could bring their whole family. For $10, I brought myself. The department chair, who was probably making more money than anybody else, brought himself and his wife and four kids.
If you travel and go to somebody else’s house, if you’re single, they might put you on the couch, in the living room instead of a bedroom with a door that shuts. If you socialize with your friends who are married, they might socialize with other couples on the weekends, movies, dinner. With their single friends, you’re demoted to children’s birthday parties and stuff like that. When I first started thinking about this, I wasn’t sure if it’s me or is this something more general about single people? I started approaching people tentatively at first, people I knew who are single. I said, “Do you ever think you’re treated differently because you’re single?”
The first time I did this, I approached one person and she started telling me her stories. Somebody else joined us and he started telling his stories and then somebody else joined us. We talked for the rest of the evening at that social event. The next morning, I turn on my email and I had all these messages from the same people saying, “Another thing.” About a month later, I got invited to give a talk at Yale. It was about my deception work and afterward they had this reception for me and I did the same thing. I approached someone who I knew was single and asked, “Have you ever had this experience?” The same thing unfolded.
One person after another wanted to tell me about the ways they thought they were being treated as not fully adult or not fully first-rate citizens because they were single. That’s when I realized this is hitting a nerve. This needs to go beyond academe. That’s when I wanted to write my book and I wrote Singled Out. Once I decided to write a book and I was an academic, then I had to take on what about all these studies that supposedly say that if you get married, you’ll be happier and healthier. I had no reason not to believe them.
It’s a compelling narrative. I’ve read Jane Austen.
As a social scientist trained in research, I used to teach graduate courses and research methodology. I know about how to do research and how to interpret it. I was hoping to find some little exceptions.
In our world, we’re looking for what we call moderator, an exception. When this condition is present, the effect is the reverse.
Maybe for rich women, they do better or something. That’s what I looked at the research and it was stunned to find that these studies could never support this conclusion. First of all, they separate the people who are currently married and they say, “The currently married people do better than the other people, so you should get married.” What they’re doing is taking out of the married group the nearly 50%, it’s about 43%, who get divorced. They’re less happy, they’re less healthy. It’s like they want to take that and set it aside and say, “That doesn’t count.”
Which is something scientists do because they want to publish papers that say what they want them to say rather than what the data often say.
That is called cheating.
How was this turn, this change in focus met professionally? I had the same thing when I stumbled on the question of what makes things funny. I had come to it with several years of experience studying emotions. I had a fresh perspective and I was able to look at years of data and thousands of years of theorizing and see the problems. I had one advantage, which is I could run these experiments and I was able to create some new insights, but I would say that the topic was met at best with some skepticism as a choice by colleagues.
I had a student who also wanted to pursue that and he ran into the same thing. It was hard for people to take it seriously.
Because it’s not a serious topic, yet it’s important. When you made this pivot, what happened?
I basically had to go off on my own. I came out to Santa Barbara in the year 2000 for what I thought was going to be a one-year sabbatical and I never went back. There are a lot of reasons for that, including how incredibly spectacularly beautiful it is out here.
Sitting in your living room in Summerland and it’s idyllic and beautiful.
I’ve been here for years now and every single day I wake up, I can’t believe how lucky I am to be here.
Did you leave academia?
I didn’t think I was going to, but I was on a one-year sabbatical. During that one year, the year 2000, that’s when I started rethinking everything. I had this established area of expertise in the psychology of deception, lying and detecting lies, but my heart was in this work on singles. Actually, I started this secret file folder, not even on a computer. It was one that you can hold in your hand, those old Manila ones. I wrote the number one on it. That was going to be my study of singles. I think the first thing I slipped into that file was from the year 1992 and it was an advice column where the advice person set included the quote, “One is a whole number.” That was my first entry into my then-secret study of the single life.
This show is only part of what’s going to be a bigger project, details to come. I have been calling it my secret project. I’ve been having so much fun telling people that I’m working on this secret project. Even people I’m close with or people who this idea has come up with. At some point, this will have come out and launch the secret project. I think that you are treating it in the same way.
When I was on sabbatical, that’s when I decided, “This is what I care about. This is what I wanted to do.” At the same time, I decided I never wanted to leave the West Coast because it was beautiful here. To apply for jobs in academia, as someone whose main area of interest was now single life, having no credentials. I hadn’t published a study yet. I had started doing my own research and writing, but nothing was out there yet, except for things in nonacademic places. I applied to one job that’s it and did not get it. I was told, “If you want to instead reapply and talk about being a deception researcher, that would be a whole different thing.” I said, “No, this is what I care about.”
It was a little disconcerting at the time, but I am happy now because it’s very freeing to be able to do whatever you want, say whatever you want and pursue the life that I care about. The one big thing I don’t have is that regular salary and that was nice to have. I have to put things together on my own, pick up courses to teach here and there or my blogging or my writing. Sometimes I get some consulting and it’s a whole different less secure thing than knowing that you have that regular paycheck coming come hell or high water. That is the only thing that I regret about not having my academic job anymore. I loved it. I loved academia. I love intellectual life. I’m not putting it down. I’m saying it’s also freeing to be able to have the life of the mind without the committee meetings.
We’re going to jump into some myths about marital bliss, but my take on this is if you talk to an academic, what they’ll say is the best job in the world. If you listen to an academic, you realize that for that steady paycheck, they do a lot of things that they don’t find to be pleasant.
As one of my colleagues used to say, “You can work any 80 hours you want.”
This has made you obviously much more entrepreneurial. I was looking at your website and I was amazed by how prolific you are as a writer and when you don’t have to do committee meetings and faculty meetings, you can dedicate more time to your creative work. I have to point this out. It’s probably obvious to the reader and to you, but you being single allowed you to make this choice.
When you see in the popular press and you see articles about living in low and her being single, they’ll say the ten best things and they’ll say things like, “You can eat whatever you want, whenever you want,” which is true.
I have a little thing in my description as you or simply sleep in when you want to.
All that is true and all the other little things like you don’t have to be dressed when you’re on the house and stuff like that. I don’t take advantage of that, but to me, it’s the big thing. If I were married when I took this sabbatical, even to someone who was the most accommodating, gracious spouse in the world, I don’t think I would have asked that person to do what I was totally willing to do by myself. I gave up a great job with tenure to have nothing.
I have to emphasize that it’s such a rarity for someone to resign a tenured job at an elite university. The two ways that it tends to happen is there’s some scandal and it has to be a big one or you’ve found some way to make oodles of money. You’re a Wharton Business School professor and you start to invest in businesses. One of them pops and you make $50 million and then you’re, “I don’t want to deal with the faculty meetings.” What you did is. I think the thing is what most of us want is to live the life that we want to live. My critique of marriage has always been I’m not anti-marriage. I am anti-choice. I think that marriage is overprescribed. It’s right for some people, it’s not right for some people. There’s almost nothing else in the world that is prescribed as strongly that’s taste-based as marriage.
It’s disappointing in a way. It’s one of the rare issues in which the right and the left degree. As someone who could consider herself progressive, it hurts me that progressives aren’t on my side. Now I can’t get much support from them. You can get the most progressive candidate and they will still talk about how they’re going to fight for working families. That’s when single people are a Democrat’s best constituents. Single people vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Single women more so than single men, especially black single women. They should be going and washing their car and making them dinner.
It’s true. That’s an important voting block. Let’s talk a little bit more about these myths. I think talking about that initial study kicks off this idea and I think it’s strong evidence that the normal narrative, that getting married makes you happy, but there’s no support for that. There is a tiny blip around the wedding.
It’s only for the people who stay married. Those who are headed to divorce already headed to less happiness on their wedding day.
What are some of the other myths and findings that you’ve talked about?
The one that goes along with that is that people who get married get healthier. In that respect, the studies are getting better and better, including studies that go on for many years. In fact, one that came out a few years ago showed that in some ways people who get married get a little less healthy. I wrote an op-ed that the New York Times published. It said, “Get Married, Get Healthy? Maybe Not.” I thought it was a big breakthrough to get that core myth about marriage punctured with some of the best data out there and get it published in the New York Times. That’s great.There is a real hunger for a script, a narrative about single people that is affirming. Click To Tweet
What was the response that you had?
It was popular. It made the most popular list for a long time. The right-wing freaked out and wrote critiques that appeared in right-wing publications, which were interesting because they do this right-wing thing of the evil New York times and they must not have fact-checked. The truth was it was fact-checked down to the detail. I had to tell them the exact line and the exact paragraph when I was describing the study because they’re conscientious. They do serious fact-checking. In the right-wing articles that critiqued me, they got all these things wrong, nobody fact-checked them. That was predictable.
I feel that there’s a lack of conversation around this. The fact is that your TEDx Talk has 900,000 views suggests that there are people out there searching for information, approaching it with some open mind. Frankly, I don’t think a lot of good resources.
I think there is a real hunger for a script, a narrative about single people that is affirming. What I do isn’t, “I like being single. Maybe you will too.” I do research-based or what the medical community calls evidence-based writings. I don’t say, “Single life can be great.” I show you the research. In fact, there are new studies coming out showing that single people, contrary to the stereotypes. The stereotype says you get older, you get more and more miserable. These studies are showing, in fact people who stay single become more satisfied with their lives, which is different from people who are coupled who don’t show the same clear pattern. That over time, historically, people who stay single are happier. Lifelong single people are happier than lifelong single people from two decades ago or four decades ago.
I’m going to venture a hypothesis and then I want you to tell me what you think of it. I would say that what being single offers is the opportunity for growth. That pays off in the long run. Also, when you are a lifelong single person, you are prepared for life, especially the end of life where your spouse may be gone. Everybody’s like, “Do you want to die alone?” I’m like, “Half of us die alone.” Is that a hypothesis for that finding?
That is an established result.
By the way, I’m glad I don’t have to do the research. I’m glad you’ve done it and others have done it already.
A study that looked at people who are married and people who had always been single over a five-year period found that lifelong single people experienced more personal development and personal growth. I think that there’s a reason what you alluded to, there are a lot of reasons why people who stay single for life, again, contrary to the stereotypes, do better than people who were previously married. Almost no matter what dimension you look at, happiness, health, whatever, it’s the lifelong single people are doing better than the previously married.
I think part of it is that the way we practice marriage now, it hasn’t always been there that way. It’s intensive. It’s considered romantic and not horrifying that you look at your partner and say, “You are my everything.” When people take those romantic notions seriously and they look to their partner to be their everything and they put their friends on their back burner. They ditched them and they put everybody else and everything else aside. If the marriage is going well, it’s fine. It might be great, but you are putting yourself at great risk.
Even the steadiest of marriages have moments of illness, unemployment and children that cause challenges.
What are you going to do when you’ve already ditched all your friends because you had your everything and your spouse? In fact, there’s research on that too showing that. These studies ask people who do you go to when you are happy and you want somebody to be happy with you. When you’re angry, when you’re sad, when you’re anxious. They found that people who specialize, who go to different people for different things are more satisfied with their lives.
I’m that person. I’ve got a person for everyone, every situation.
It’s exactly the opposite of the romantic narrative we’ve been sold. That the epitome, the height of bliss of true fulfillment is to have one person who is your everything. You complete me. That is supposed to be romantic and that is scary.
To me, that’s one of the myths that I’d like to attack, which is the idea that single people are lonely and isolated. You were talking about this affirming view of a single life to me. This is designed for them. It is as positive of a view. It’s not that single life is okay. It’s that single life is great. It allows you to do remarkable things. I think that that idea that single people, at least the ones who are doing it well, have rich social connections. They have a broader social network and that can help with growth. Let’s be honest, it’s a hedge in a world where things don’t always go well.
Married people have the one, single people have the ones and that makes all the difference. In fact, of all the different lines of research about single people and scholarship is overwhelmingly about married people. Tens of thousands of studies of married people and single people are only there for comparison to make married people look good. In this slowly emerging science of snow people, one of the best-established findings is that single people are better connected. They have more friends than married people. They stay more connected to people. They’re more likely to stay in touch with them, to help them, to exchange help, to be there for them, to be confidantes. This is true of their siblings, their parents, their neighbors, their colleagues, their friends. In lots of ways, single people are not only not isolated, but they are on average better connected.
I think that there is a lesson in that. I figured this out on my own as a young man because I had some family difficulties. I’m a Gen X‑er, so parents were adversaries unlike nowadays where parents are affiliative. They’re your partners. I found that when I was very young, I relied heavily on my friends for advice or knowledge for guidance and so on. What happens is you find that’s rewarding. It was useful. That has always been part of my repertoire as a single person because I moved to a new place. I’m not moving there with someone where you automatically have a partner. It pushed me to spread out and seek out those people who are going to be not people that I might want to date, but people that I want to be my friends. These are big myths. The data are clear. Are there any other big myths that come to mind before we move on?
Yes, that single people are selfish. In fact, in everyday life, in the little exchanges of small things, single people do more of that than married people do. Informal volunteering. Single people do more of every kind, except religious stuff. The difference between single and married people in volunteering and doing work in religious organizations or churches is very big. When people say, “Married people volunteer more,” they’re right in that one domain. Big things like being there for other people who need help on a long-term basis. If you are an old parent about to need help, you better hope you have a single child because whether you’re black or white, whether your kid is male or female, they are more likely to be there for you.
I was my mom’s primary caregiver in her last years because I had the flexibility. There were other familial reasons, which I won’t go into. Part of the reason I felt such a strong pull to do it was I had the resources and I have the flexibility as a bachelor.
There are good and bad things about that. The good thing is some single people like doing it and they’re so grateful that they can do it and they care about their parents and want to be there for them. The bad part is when people think, “You’re single, you don’t have a life.” What that misses is that when single people take time off from work to be there to help somebody else, they don’t have a backup and come. It’s much more financially precarious for single people to do this and yet they are the ones who do it.
It’s interesting that you bring this up because I was thinking about this. That I, in hindsight, regret not taking a family leave of absence. That I continued to do my work and to try to do it at a high level and the amount of discomfort that it caused me. If I had a child, I would have taken a family leave. I’m not suggesting that my caregiving was equal to that, but it was a heavy lift. It was difficult.
I think that’s the difference between a child too. A child, it can be a lot of time work, but sometimes that adorable.
I will tell you my thing, and this is related to the selfishness thing, is it doesn’t help that my name’s Peter, but when being referred to as a Peter Pan. It’s the idea of the man who will never grow up. First of all I say, “We can’t make marriage the standard of being a grown-up because I know a lot of immature people who are married.” The other one is a point to anything else in my life that suggests that I’m not a grown-up in terms of the kinds of things that we’re talking about, professional success and taking good care of myself.
In fact, I think you can make the case then in a lot of ways, people who are single are more mature. They’re more the grownup because they are doing everything. They’re not depending on somebody else to do half the work. I think in Singled Out, I used the quip that married people are the ones on training wheels.
For me, the issue is that they are different paths to walk. If you want to say you’re Peter Pan because you’re enjoying your life.
When do we ever give married people demerits for enjoying their life?
The other one is that I think that whether you’re married or single, you likely have some level of selfishness, which is if you ask people, “Why did you get married?” They say, “Because this person makes me happy.” No one ever goes, “That’s selfish of you to drag this person along because they make you happy.” Let’s talk about a few other things. One of the things that I’ve been reading about is the demographic shifts in single living. If you’re 86, nowadays the likelihood that you were married is incredibly high, but if you’re 26, the probability that you’re married or for some or all of your life is not as high.
In fact, there was a Pew Research report that came out a few years ago that predicted that when young adults now get to the age of 50, one out of four of them will have been single their entire life. Imagine that. A cohort, a 50-year-old in which 25% have never been married, it’s astonishing.
Those shifts suggest as I was saying, you being on the leading edge of this, that what we’re going to see as a result of that. By the way, when people are 50, that’s when they have power. They have buying power, political power. They are someone to be paid attention to by governments and corporations and so on. We should start to see some. At the least, I think we’re going to see it on the consumer side of things where the offerings in the world.
You’re already starting to see in the travel industry you’ll find that do not charge the single supplement.
The supplement is I get a hotel room that costs me $200 a night. My friends who are married get a hotel room that costs $200 a night.
Which in some ways is understandable because it’s the room, but some cruises and other travel packages do more than double and that’s where you have to start saying, “Seriously?”
You use this term singleism. Did you invent that?
I did. It’s comparable to racism, sexism.
Are there any other demographic changes that stand out to you?People who are single are more mature. They’re not depending on somebody else to do half the work. Click To Tweet
More people are staying single for more years of their lives, even if they do get married and that’s because they’re delaying marriage. At the other end, people who get divorced or widowed remarry at lower rates than they used to. More people living alone because most people don’t like living alone, but the proportion living alone has been growing for decades.
I think it is especially among women.
Most certainly at a later life.
Certainly later in life because there are more women. I think even young women, there are more guys in their parents’ basement. Is that not true?
I should know this, but I don’t.
Let’s talk a little bit about these opportunities. We can agree that there are lots of stereotypes. There are people are stigmatized. In terms of the isms, the discrimination is mild.
There are more than 1,000 laws that benefit or protect you only if you are legally married. That was among the many motivations for the people who work so hard to get same-sex marriage legalized, all of this whole panoply of. In fact, the Edith Windsor case was about that, that she didn’t have access to the same benefits that she would have if she were legally married in the United States. They include things like Social Security. I can work side by side with a married colleague, the same number of years and greater productivity and in the end when my married colleague dies, their benefits go to their spouse. Mine you go into the system and no one could give their benefits to me or take something like family and medical leave. Anyone, married or single, can take leave to care for a parent or a child or themselves. A married person can also take leave to care for their spouse.
The costs of being single is a missed benefit rather than a penalty per se.
There are penalties too. Take for example, Joan DelFattore had an article published in The New England Journal of Medicine showing that oncologists undertreat people who are single because they think they don’t have social support. She got into this by her own personal experience of having a deadly form of cancer. The first person she talked to wanted to give her a less potent treatment because he thought that without a spouse, she wouldn’t be able to handle the effects of a strong chemo. That goes to what we now know about single people. She was a great example of that. She had cousins who cared about her, a great network of friends and yet when we are so obsessed with marriage and so persuaded that it’s the married people have social support and the single people who don’t. It can have truly deadly consequences. If she didn’t go to another oncologist who was willing to look beyond her marital status, she would probably be dead.
This stuff is good. Much of my understanding of the workaround this has been reading your work, for a good reason. Let’s turn our attention to a little bit to not the threats, but the opportunities. Because the case that we’re making is like, “There are these benefits to being married.” Let’s talk about some of the benefits of being single. We’ve already alluded to one, which is the freedom of choice.
The freedom to pursue the big things in your life that mattered to you. I talked about mine, for example, eating pizza for breakfast. It’s the big things. For The Washington Post, I wrote an article in which I interviewed single people and said, “What did you get to do with your life that you would not have been able to do or probably wouldn’t have done if you were married?” They were big things like starting their own business or literally traveling the world or changing careers. One person said, “Because I wasn’t married, I was able to be there for my father in the waning years of his life. That was such a great gift to me that I was able to be there.”
When I was focused on this male side of this, there’s a lot of talk about the patriarchy, the systems that ended up basically being oppressive to women. The argument I make is that they’re also oppressive to men. The cost to men of marriage is an interesting one. That there a subset of men who work themselves to death as the breadwinner. They go off into the military and they become police officers. One of the things that being single, to use finance terms, you can lower your burn rate. You can lower your expenses. When you lower your expenses, then suddenly you can make decisions that aren’t always financially-based, not being the primary caregiver with family. In the case with women who tend to be a person raising kids more often, what you have to set aside to do that.
I think that single people are good at creative work and scholarly thoughtful work. There was an op-ed published somewhere by a philosopher who was making the case that many of the great philosophers were single all their life. I don’t know how that holds up if you did it systematically. I was curious about the research that single people value meaningful work more than married people do. It wasn’t comparing single and married people when they were fully grown adults. This study started when they were in high school. When they were in high school and no one was married yet, the people who would go on to stay single were already saying that they wanted work that was meaningful. The people who were the high school students who would go on to be married were already saying, “I want to be paid a lot of money.”
Is there a sense of what leads someone to live a single life? My own personal story, at least the narrative I tell, which is compelling, was my parents had an unhappy marriage and divorced and so on. I never had role models. I never saw all this positiveness. The fact is it always seemed like a dubious claim that is blissful when I looked at these two people who had this relationship that was devastating to them.
My parents stayed married for 42 years, first and only marriage for both of them.
You didn’t have that?
Not at all. I think that there are people that I call, and I made up this name too, single at heart. People who are single at heart live their best lives by living single. It’s not the dismissive, “Being single is better than being in a bad relationship.” No. Being single as how you lead your most meaningful, authentic, rewarding and fulfilling life. This is what I’m most intensely studying now. In fact, I just put out a lengthy questionnaire where I ask people to tell me about their lives as a single at heart and the process of becoming single at heart. Some of them know it from the beginning. They love doing things by themselves when they were little. Some of them have stories where they were asked to write a story when they were maybe in third grade saying how did they envision their lives? They’ll say, “I’m not going to get married.” They’ll describe this whole life that doesn’t involve marriage, even if they don’t mention it. It’s hard not to get taken by the marriage narrative.
It’s compelling. It’s everywhere. It starts young, in the ring bearers at weddings.
It’s relentless. It’s hard to escape. Some people realize it when they get into a committed relationship or they get married and it ends. Instead of feeling devastated, they feel relieved. Someone would try it again. It takes them a few times to realize, “I like my single life.” This is my favorite example. When they’re in a relationship with someone, they do love. It’s not like they ended up with a narcissist or some other horrible thing, but they are fantasizing about being single again. It’s not the spouse’s fault, it’s not the fault of the marriage.
There’s nothing wrong with you for wanting.
That’s the most important thing. That’s the thing that they have to get by, thinking that there’s something wrong with them. In fact, even all these years after Singled Out was published, I still hear from people who say, “I’ve been in therapy. I’ve done everything I could fit. I try to figure out what’s wrong with me for not wanting to be married.”
There’s nothing wrong with you. That is why this show exists because I think that there are a lot of people, this issue is spread out. What I hope to happen is the following, which is when you live in a world where nearly everyone gets married and even the people who don’t get married feel tremendous pressure to get married, beyond the benefits. I don’t think people get married to get the benefits. They get married because it seems like the thing that you do is to try to get people to think differently about the opportunities. When you’re released from that, you have all this possibility. You’re more positive about how you create your schedule, when you work, when you want to work, what you work on, where you work, where you want to go and do that work.
It takes a realization, it takes someone giving you a little shake that says, “You don’t have to have the same beats to your day. You don’t have to have the same goals for your life. Your development is different because you don’t have this enormous life change that you either have to pursue, you’re about to have that you’re in or you’re recovering from.” My thing about is the damage that divorce does, not only to your psyche, but to your finances, to your lifestyle and so on. I expect that there’ll be a fair number of divorced people who gravitate towards this project. Because what those people have done, which the average single person hasn’t done, is they’ve lived on both sides.
I’m always most taken by the stories of people who were once happily married so often widows and I’ll talk to them and they’ll say, “I had a wonderful life, had a wonderful spouse and I would never do it again.”
Let’s talk about some resources. Your work is a good resource in terms of understanding these things, especially because I do think that whether I like to say for now or forever committed to solo living, it helps to have the ammunition to have reasoned conversations if you desire with people. Sometimes I’m like, “I don’t want to go down that road.” Other people are like, “Let’s talk about this for a while. Let’s talk about how great it is on the other side because I don’t see it.” When I listen to my friends talk, it’s a lot like tenured professors, they have the best job in the world, then you talk to them and they complain about a lot of things about it. The issue of course is like for some people it’s great and for some people it’s so, so, for some people it’s horrible. Also, if you want to be inspired, where should people look?
I have a list of books for the unapologetically single and that’s at Medium. I don’t have too many blog posts there, but one of them is 63 books.
Does one stand out to you? Have you read a book that you go, “Wow?”
In terms of social science, of course my Singled Out is my personal favorite, but there’s a new one by an author named Kislev and it’s called Happy Singlehood. It’s based on tons of data. He does an analysis of over 300,000 people from 30 European nations and shows all these ways in which single people are doing well. There’s a memoir, cultural critique called No Thanks. Her name is Keturah Kendrick and that is great because she is so unapologetically single and writes beautifully and takes no prisoners. That is another one. That’s one thing. There are fewer talks, but at my Living Single blog at Psychology Today, I have a list of best TED Talks for the unapologetically single. They’re not all TED Talks.
For social justice themes, there is a group called Unmarried Equality. That’s on Facebook and online. If you want to be in a community of people who are mostly all single and love their single lives or mostly do, it’s called The Community of Single People. That’s also a Facebook community. You have to apply to get in. The main thing that we try to screen for is people who they’re looking for a date. It is about every aspect of a single life except dating. Don’t join the group if that’s what you have in mind, but if you want to talk about all aspects of single life with people who are mostly embracing their single lives.
In the same way that marriage is difficult, single life can be. Life is difficult. That’s one thing that I have been very clear is that I’m going to talk about dating. It’s going to come up because single people have the opportunity to date, unlike married people, but it’s not about dating. It’s much more. I’ve got these experts lined up to talk about nutrition and talk about health and talk about finances and talk about art, fashion and travel and so on, all through the lens of the opportunity that you have.
I always say that I write about every aspect of a single life except dating. My blog post at my Living Single blog at Psychology Today was about a study that showed that teenagers who don’t date are more socially skilled, have better leadership abilities and are less depressed than teenagers who do date. I had to put out there because so often the teenagers who don’t date are treated like they’re socially behind or they’re misfits or something and they’re not.
Let’s talk about dating for a moment though because it’s probably on people’s minds. There are two forms of being single. There’s the person who is single and not dating and then there’s the person who’s single and dating. That may ebb and flow and so on. Those two categories, is there anything different about those folks as far as you know?
The people who are dating in the sense of they’re dating because they’re afraid to be single, they are worse off in so many ways. They will settle more for somebody who’s not worth it though. They’re doing less well in a whole slew of ways. Being unafraid to be single puts you in a great place. It’s hard to say that in a way because it’s not totally under your control. If you want to be in a romantic relationship, that can be painful.
I want to shake these guys because I feel bad for them. People tend to have dispersions on them in part because I know there’s been some violence with a few of them. For the most part, I understand what it’s like. It’s called being a young man. Being a young man who wants to have sex and wants to be appealing to women. It’s because you’re a young man and you don’t have your act together, you’re not going to be. The worst thing you can do is not lean in. I think that there’s this happy irony in approaching single life from a positive viewpoint, which is imagine this person who goes, “I’m not sure marriage is right for me.” They date, but they lean into their career and they travel and they go to museums and they pick up the guitar. They have a rich social network and so on. Guess what happens? That person becomes an appealing partner. The person who’s struggling with being single and retreats into video games and pornography and these kinds of things is doubly painful because it’s not a rich life. The other one is that if they do want to be appealing, that’s not the way to be appealing.Being unafraid to be single puts you in a great place. Click To Tweet
If you wanted a partner and you did what you said, which is lean into all the things that interest you about life, what do you care about? Even if you don’t end up with a partner, you still have a rich life. I think the issue is it’s a product of how we overly value marriage and romantic relationships. It’s like we put this on a pedestal above all else. I call this matromania. The over the top valuing and celebrating of people who are married or weddings or couples. It’s not just the married people, but it’s the over the top weddings and now it’s coming down to the proposals, even for prom, that is out of control. It sends the message that the most important thing in your life, what makes you valuable, which makes you meaningful, what makes you worth celebrating is having a romantic partner.
As I think about this, in my own personal experiences, I’ve always worked to be well-rounded, even when I was a graduate student.
It’s hard to do because graduate school is limiting. It’s very focused.
It is but I’ve worked hard at doing that, having a physical side to my life. I played lacrosse at a fairly high level. It helped that I was good at graduate school. I was happy to work long hours otherwise. I have had this experience in life where I meet someone and we are coupling up some way. I know part of the reason we’re coupling up is that I’m interesting to this person because of the breadth of things that I do. At some point there starts to be some complaints, which is, “You work a lot. You’re traveling again? You’re going to go do that thing again?” I’m like, “Yes. These are the things that I do. I can’t start shedding them to spend more time with you. It doesn’t always feel right.” That’s the seed of this idea of the opportunities that you have. I think that you’re living a remarkable life. Not only are you an expert, but when I’m pleased by the risk that you took. I can appreciate it more than most anyone. Your creative productivity is it’s extraordinary. I’m envious of it. I know I don’t have your writing chops. I also have to sit in a lot more faculty meetings, so I’m doubly cursed. You get to pursue interesting things. Single life is interesting, but then you’ve edited a book on Dexter, for example.
Yes, I love that show. I have to admit, that wasn’t my idea. Somebody from the publishing house approached me and said, “Will you do this?”
You can do it and you could do it and you did do it. These are a series of essays about?
Mostly by people trained in psychology, usually academic psychology, but some clinical psychologists and interpreted various issues around the show. It was fascinating.
I’m sure the phone calls you get and the opportunities you get in life creates for rich, intellectual creative ideas.
I think a lot of what I do goes against conventional wisdom and that’s hard in a way, but it’s also fulfilling when I can do it in a way that draws from research and draws from my training as a methodologist. I can say, “I know what you think that study showed, but let me tell you why it doesn’t mean what the press releases and the headlines in the media are telling you that it says. That’s fulfilling. What I discovered from all these years of not just doing academic research and scholarly writing, but more writing for broader audiences. Talking to many single people is that these headlines based on research that scholars are another line on their feed. “Married people live longer,” whatever their claim is. They are hurtful to single people.
It’s not bad science. It’s harmful science.
I have found that over and over again. It is fulfilling to get to push back on the harmful bad science with better science.
You fight data with data. I always talked about at the paper level is you want to have an original solution to an important problem. I think with a research program, what you want is an original take on an important problem. You clearly have that. This is a result of not being on a college campus anymore and then also given the nature of the work, it has pushed you into the real world, into conversations with real people and with journalists. Your reach is much broader than publishing in these journals.
I understand what it is that people are thinking about in their everyday lives and it may not be something that the scholars are focused on.
This is just getting started. This might be the first official that I do. What advice do you have for me as I think about SOLO? I think about approaching this project with the goal of trying to grow it and to have a community of people who are comfortable, even unapologetic and it might inspire them to think in new ways and behave in new ways?
Do what you’re doing. It is so refreshing to hear someone focused on what’s affirming about the single life. What we’ve been missing is we have these whole narratives that are all focused on what’s good about marriage and what’s bad about being single. What happens is when you get these studies, like the one I wrote about in the New York Times a few years ago, showing that when people get married, they get less healthy. The scholars are stumped. They have a century of writings trying to insist that marriage is good for you. Until they go, “You have this person who is your support.” They don’t have anything to show for explaining when the data are showing you something entirely different.
You’re saying double down on the positivity?
Yes, which is not to ignore the real challenges. There are challenges.
I feel like the challenges are getting addressed.
Except for the ones based on laws. The singleism that’s institutional, that needs to be addressed because in a way, something remarkable about the studies of happiness and health that show that when people get married, they don’t become lastingly happier and they become a little less healthy. How is that even possible when they are advantaged in so many ways? They’re respected and celebrated all the matromania. They get all the laws that benefit and protect them and they can’t translate that into better health and happiness? What’s wrong with them? I think it is important to start asking about what it is that makes the single life so fulfilling, which is what you’re doing. It is shockingly rare for people to do that.
I’m going to give you my pet theory about it. I admittedly haven’t done the reading. I certainly haven’t done any of the research on this. In some ways, single living is connected much more closely to our hunter-gatherer roots than marriages. If you think about it, the rise of agriculture leads to this nuclear family. The idea of being in this hunter-gatherer, this group of people, we’ll see. That’s to be tackled at a later date. Bella, this has been a long time coming. I’ve been emailing you for a long time about coming up the coast to interview you. It’s been exactly what I would hope that it would be for. What would be fun is that in a much later date to revisit some of this stuff and to talk about some of the themes that have come up. I’m always happy to come up to this part of the world.
I appreciate it.
- Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized and Ignored and Still Live Happily Ever After
- What No One Ever Told You About People Who Are Single
- Living Single
- Happy Singlehood
- No Thanks
- Unmarried Equality – Facebook group
- The Community of Single People – Facebook group
About Bella DePaulo
A Harvard PhD, Bella DePaulo is the world’s leading researcher on living single. She is the author of Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Lives Happily Every After.
Her TEDx talk, “What no one ever told you about people who are single. For over a decade, she has been writing the “Living Single” blog at Psychology Today.