The single experiment

My last two and a half years as a very content single lady has really been one fascinating sociological and psychological experiment. Here are my findings.

Apparently anyone who manifests no longing to be in a relationship is – in our times – almost automatically viewed as both pitiable and somewhat troubled. Or lying about it. It’s simply not thought possible to be at once alone and content. On all accounts, it appears this actually needs to be justified to everyone. And anyone. Even people you hardly know. When asked, you can’t just respond “I’m single”. An explanation for this needs to be provided. Weirdly, the neighbours across the road who seem to enjoy locking each other out of the house after hours and affectionately referring to each other with obscenities do NOT need to justify their cause for their relationship status.

And while I’m making the point about asking inappropriate questions, it also appears to be perfectly okay to ask “when will you be dating again?” Despite sometimes wanting to, I’ve always resisted the temptation to ask “And when will you guys be breaking up? Again?”

Because the single life does not enjoy the same prestige that the coupled up life does. And to be honest, I understand the judgment because when I initially became single I judged myself. But right now, at 34.5 I’m single by choice for the first time in probably 18 years. And it’s wonderful.

Dating back to high school I was a person with a deep-seated belief that in order to be a worthy being it was required I had a partner. I didn’t apply this thinking to anyone else. I was just terrified of what it might mean to be alone. To be by myself.

But if we are always dependent upon another for resources, whether they be emotional or financial or safety, can we really be the best person we can be? Either way it probably doesn’t make for the healthiest or most balanced of unions.

But apart from figuring out that I can survive with just myself, there's a number of things about singledom that make it a content place for me. There may also be a few things that single people do a bit better than their married counterparts that don’t get the attention they deserve.

First up, on average we’re way better connected than those in a coupled relationship. Since I bowed out of the commitment complex, I’ve found a much greater connection to my family and my friends. To new friends. To my friends’ children. To my colleagues. To my parents’ friends. To my neighbours and my local community. I do some volunteer work. I seek out holidays with my family (yes, you read that correctly!). It is a pretty enormous pleasure to spend time with people of my choosing rather than to endure conversations out of obligation. Bella dePaulo (another ‘single’ psychologist) sifted through 814 studies and found data that supported this anecdotal evidence, showing that single people are more connected with family and friends, whereas marriage tends to make two people insular.

Other studies have shown that not only are us singles more connected, but we’re also more attentive to the needs of our siblings, parents, friends and neighbours compared to couples, regardless of whether the couple have just started dating or have been together for years. Why does this matter? Well, lacking social bonds is pretty much as bad for your health as smoking. One study found that people with fewer close friends were 50% more likely to die within the seven and a half years after the study, regardless of age!

Secondly, being alone does not equate to being lonely. I’m sure there are some single people in the world who experience loneliness at times, but there are also probably coupled people who do. There were periods when I was in a relationship when I felt lonely. But just because I am “alone” now does not mean I am “lonely”.

Personally, I’ve found that when single and I feel lonely I turn to and invest in multiple someones (like friends and family), which continues to strengthen my support system AND ease my loneliness. But when I was in a relationship and felt lonely, I would turn only to my partner. Again, expecting to derive all my needs for human connection from one person was probably not a healthy belief to have, but from all reports, a pretty common and easy habit for couples to fall in to.

Thirdly, us long-term single people are bloody resilient when you think about it. Coupling up, in contemporary Western society, bestows couples with a whole array of unearned privileges, social, psychological, emotional, political, and cultural. In countless ways that we sometimes don’t even notice, coupled people’s lives are valued and celebrated while single people’s lives can be marginalised or even mocked.

That means that when single people achieve the same level of health or well-being as married people, they do so against greater odds. Let alone if a single person manages to make it into the Australian housing market. Surely this suggests that single people have an impressive level of resilience – an admirable quality that is rarely recognised or acknowledged.

We may even be able to handle stress on our own better than someone who has another half. The RAND Corporation, which has been studying military members wounded in 9/11, found that the wounded members who were single were less likely to experience symptoms of PTSD, more successful at overcoming injury or illness, and less likely to have emotional or physical health problems compared to those who were married or divorced.

Lastly, I am in charge and I love it. I can binge watch American high school dramas in the middle of the night. I eat what I want and as much as I want. I can tell inappropriate jokes and I laugh a shitload. I eat in restaurants alone. I travel alone. I turn up unannounced at my best friend’s house. I journal. I read a lot. I unashamedly read books about courage and empathy and self-development.

What I am trying to say, is that I have a strong sense of self. Probably stronger than it has ever been. And the research supports this. In close romantic relationships, we run the risk of our sense of self being merged with our partners. But by savouring my solitude and experiencing things alone, I’ve started to see what things are most important and meaningful to me.

Like all things in life, the reality is that there is probably many more than one way in which we can live our lives happily. It might just be that intimate couple relationships aren't for everyone.

A massive 2015 study from New Zealand found that men and women who tend to avoid conflict and confrontation were happier alone than paired up. In addition, a study of 464 heterosexual newlyweds were asked if they ever felt uncertain or hesitant about getting married. A substantial proportion said yes - 47% of the men and 38% of the women. For the women, the cold feet mattered. Four years later, the women who had experienced doubts were about 2.5 times more likely to end up divorced than the women who did not have doubts. Among those who were still married four years later, those who had cold feet were less satisfied with their marriages from the outset than those who did not, and they stayed less satisfied over the course of their relationships.

By no means, is this a post about whether single life is better than the coupled life. Coupled life has many perks too. My point is that perhaps there is no one blueprint for a content and meaningful life. Like most things, what matters is not what everyone else is doing or what other people think we should be doing, but whether we can find the spot where we can live our best life.

It may be possible, that there's certain people who are "single at heart". Who live their best, most meaningful and fulfilling lives by being single. I'm not sure yet if I'm this person. But I am a pretty content single. And I'd really like to stop having to justify it now.

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