“I’ve been single all my life,” said Bella DePaulo. And she’s perfectly happy with that.
DePaulo is a researcher and psychologist, and she says that she’s never fantasized about giant weddings or the ideal spouse. But she did notice that, sometimes, it seemed like everyone (including other scientists) were trying to push her toward marriage.
There have been a lot of scientific studies about the benefits of marriage.
“I was used to seeing headlines that said, ‘Oh, if you get married you’ll be happier and healthier,'” said DePaulo. And it’s true, there’s a lot of information out there that links marriage and health. A lot of it paints a pretty doom-and-gloom picture for single people.
“But I didn’t think I’d be happier and healthier if I got married. I always loved my single life.”
It seemed like the whole world was saying that single people were destined to be unhappy, and DePaulo just figured she was the exception.
But starting in the mid-to-late ’90s, after talking with some other single people, DePaulo started looking into whether this was actually true. She started with research papers. And what she found shocked her, she said.
DePaulo thinks it’s time we gave the whole subject a new look.
DePaulo is now a project scientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara and she has been studying and writing about the single life for many years. In 2006 she even published a book called “Singled Out” about the subject (plus a few more since).
This is what she knows:
Single people make up a huge and growing percentage of the American population. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2014, singles outnumber married people in America.
That alone might be enough to warrant a second look, but as a researcher herself, DePaulo said she noticed something else. Many studies about the benefits marriage fell into a few pitfalls that might accidentally make the results biased against single people.
On Aug. 5, 2016, DePaulo gave a talk at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention to explain this.
For one example of this accidental bias, imagine a study that sorts people into two categories: “currently married” and “currently unmarried.”
Simple, right? But here’s a hitch: Where do divorced people go? Putting them in married doesn’t feel right, but putting them in the unmarried category means you can no longer tease out how people who never married are doing. And if you don’t include them at all, aren’t we missing a big part of the picture?
There are other potential pitfalls too, such as how long into a marriage you look at people or whether it’s better to examine random people or one person over time. And on the flip side, there simply haven’t been many studies specifically about singlehood either.
These subtle experimental problems may have hidden the truth about relationships for decades.
Relationships are a lot more complicated than “married” or “not married,” which is something that can be hard to reflect in a scientific study.
There are people who are single and waiting for the right person to come along, of course. But there are also couples who tried marriage, decided it wasn’t for them, and amicably went back to being single. There are also loving, supportive couples who live together but don’t tie the knot (and, it’s worth pointing out, that until recently there were a ton of LGBT people who may have wanted to get married, but weren’t allowed to).
And, yes, there people who are just happily single-at-heart and who choose that life for themselves.
As it turns out, being single may have its perks too.
Many people thrive in their single lives. A lot of people think being “alone” means being “lonely,” but quiet moments of solitude can also be a blessing to be savored and appreciated.
Conversely, some single people may actually be better connected than married people, spreading out their love over a whole group of people, instead of focusing most of it toward one person. One study, for example, found that single people may end up more connected to their friends and community than those who are married.
“[The] single life is something that many people embrace and they can live their lives fully, happily, and unapologetically,” said DePaulo. “And so many things they’ve heard about the scare stories that will happen to them if they stay single just aren’t supported by the research.”
The benefits of marriage studies probably shouldn’t be wholly dismissed, of course. Many people do get measurable and immeasurable benefits from marriage. But each person is different and what may bring benefits for one person might not work for another.
Perhaps we need a greater degree of nuance when studying or talking about the wide range of relationship styles people choose. With more categories and more nuance, maybe we can learn more about the benefits of singlehood, rather than just the pitfalls.
The greater takeaway here is that there’s no one blueprint for the good life.
“More than ever before, Americans can pursue the ways of living that work best for them. There is no one blueprint for the good life,” said DePaulo in a press release about her talk.
“What matters is not what everyone else is doing or what other people think we should be doing, but whether we can find the places, the spaces and the people that fit who we really are and allow us to live our best lives.”