I hear this all the time: “Being single is better than being in a bad relationship” (or a bad marriage). There are other versions, too, such as, “It is better to be single than to wish you were.” Sometimes I read those platitudes in the media and sometimes people say them to me, knowing that I am one who lives my single life fully, joyfully, and unapologetically.
I don’t like those sentiments and I wish people would stop expressing them.
My problem is not that I think the statements are inaccurate. It is true that being single is better than being in a bad relationship or a bad marriage. It is demonstrably true – research shows that. But the sentiments are just so grudging. They make single life seem like the sad, pitiful choice you would make only if your only alternative was a lousy romantic relationship or marriage.
Some people really do want to be coupled – sometimes desperately so – and for them, single life would just be something they’re stuck with and not something they would ever choose. But there are other people very different from them. They are so important to me that I named this blog after them – they are “single at heart.”
People who are single at heart lead their best lives, their most authentic and meaningful lives, by living single. Single life for them is not just better than a bad marriage, it is better than a good one.
I have a long list of topics I want to write about here and this one has been on that list for a very long time. I was motivated to move it to the front of the list now because of all the attention a recent journal article has been getting. In it, the authors described happy single people as those who were avoiding conflict and disagreements in their close personal relationships.
It may be true that some single people are happy living single because they dislike conflict in their personal relationships (though I think the research is not as strong as it should be methodologically). But that’s, at best, a backhanded compliment. It is a grudging way of acknowledging that some single people are happy. I had hoped that somewhere in the article, even if only at the very end when scholars admit the shortcomings of their research, the authors would have acknowledged that there are also very positive reasons that people live single. But they didn’t.
I’ve described many of those positive reasons in The Best of Single Life as well as in my critique of that conflict-avoidance article. They include, for example, the love of solitude, the deep fulfillment that comes from designing a life that works best for you, the freedom to pursue your passions or devote yourself to meaningful work, and the opportunities to fashion the social life that works for you, whether that means attending to a whole network of friends and relatives or spending lots of time on your own.
Living single in a mindful way means thinking about concepts such as “relationships” and “love” in bigger, broader ways than is typical in our society. There are many kinds of relationships beyond the conjugal ones, and many varieties of love. There are many kinds of values and pursuits and experiences that make our lives meaningful and joyful. Coupled life is not the one and only good life; for many people, the best way to live fully and in a way that honors their values is to live single.
[Note: My new book, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, tells the stories of people finding or creating their own lifespaces – the places, spaces, and people who are important to them. The people interviewed include singles and couples, parents and people who are not parents, and arrangements ranging from the most traditional to the most contemporary and radical. Stories of the participants are discussed with reference to the relevant research from the social sciences, and placed in historical and cross-cultural context. You can read more about the book on my website or on its Facebook page.]