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Mother of the “Old Maid”: Sound Advice

single at heartMany single people lament the pressures from their parents to get married. Recently I read a welcome twist on that old story.

A mother wrote to an advice columnist because her 30-something year old daughter started calling herself an “old maid” in the making. The mother was not asking how she could turn up the heat on her mate-seeking daughter. Instead, she wanted to know how she could be supportive without conveying the impression that she agreed with her daughter’s self-criticism.

The advice columnist, Carolyn Hax, acknowledged the possibility that the daughter may indeed stay single. She disagreed, though, with the daughter’s damning perceptions of single people. You can read Hax’s entire response at the Washington Post.  Here I’ll share a few of my favorite quotes.

Hax said that the daughter’s “self-loathing…grants undeserved status to the married, who are no more inoculated against lonely wretchedness than singles are doomed to it.

Photo by Kasia, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.

This observation should be common knowledge but instead it is an extraordinarily rare insight. So persuaded are Americans that single people are lonely and “don’t have anyone” that sometimes the word “alone” is used interchangeably with “single.”

When I examined the research on loneliness when writing Singled Out, I discovered several studies suggesting that no group is less likely to be lonely than older women who have always been single. The key, I think, is that people who live single often have networks of people who are important to them. Those personal communities may include friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, and others. Singles are not putting those people on the back burner as they attend to The One.

For other singles, there may be a different explanation for their low levels of loneliness. They may savor their solitude. They may not need or want a lot of social activity.

Loneliness is not about the number of people you have in your life, or how often you see those people. It is instead about a feeling – a painful feeling that you do not have enough meaningful social connection in your life. What matters is whether you have the amount and quality of social connection that is right for you.

When people mistakenly presume that single people are lonely, and getting married will relieve them of that loneliness, they are misconstruing marriage. They are assuming that married life is never a lonely life. Carolyn Hax does not make that mistake.

The daughter thinks her problem is a lack of suitable men. Hax sees the trouble very differently, as the daughter’s “own flat refusal to look at her cards as a challenging puzzle, if not an outright gift.

That advice, too, is very enlightened. Instead of telling the single person – “oh, you poor thing, let me help you catch a mate” – she instead advises her to think of her life as an interesting puzzle or even a gift.

Based on discussions with other single people and with therapists who see singles in their practice, and on the available research (of which more really is needed), I think that the early 30’s are among the hardest years to be single. That’s when your peers are likely to be pairing off into married couples and your relatives are fretting.

Over time, though, many singles become quite comfortable with their single lives. Some even realize that the problem wasn’t that they really wanted to be married, but that they thought they should want that, and so did other people who were pressuring them.

One of the joys of getting beyond your 30s is the sense of self that comes with that, the security in knowing who you really are. For those of us who are single at heart, single is who we really are.

Photo by Kasia, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.

Mother of the “Old Maid”: Sound Advice

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D

Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard; Academic Affiliate, Psychological and Brain Sciences, UC Santa Barbara), an expert on single life, is the author of several books, including "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After" and "How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century." Her TEDx talk is "What no one ever told you about people who are single," Dr. DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been described in newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and magazines such as Time, Atlantic, the Week, More, the Nation, Business Week, AARP Magazine, and Newsweek. Dr. DePaulo is in her sixties. She has always been single and always will be. She is "single at heart" -- single is how she lives her best and most meaningful life. Visit her website at

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APA Reference
DePaulo, B. (2011). Mother of the “Old Maid”: Sound Advice. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 2 Nov 2011
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