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Who Counts as Single? A Surprisingly Complicated Question

who counts as singleIs single the same as unmarried? Should single be defined broadly, or is it important to consider separately the many different kinds of people who are not married and their vastly different experiences?

I have been asked these kinds of questions surprisingly often lately, so I thought I’d share what I said in the opening chapter of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After:

I would like to clarify what I mean by single, but I cannot do so without first explaining what it means to have a serious partner. That, too, is part of the problem: Single people are defined negatively, in terms of what they do not have – a serious partner. They are labeled as “unmarried.” But it is singlehood that comes first and then is undone – if it is undone –  by marriage. So why aren’t married people called “unsingle”?

Back to the serious coupled relationship. Marriage is the gold standard. If you are married, you have your serious partner. It does not matter if you are happy or miserable, faithful or philandering, whether you live in the same home as your partner or on different continents. If you have the certificate, and you are not in the process of tearing it up, you are official.

Official marriage matters. Only the legal version of marriage comes with the guaranteed treasure trove of perks, privileges, rewards, and responsibilities. Access to another adult’s Social Security benefits, their health care plan, their hospital room, or their life-sustaining feeding tube can all turn on whether you are legally married. When the Census Bureau counts married people, they are counting the official kind. Legally single people, then, are adults who are not officially married. They include people who are divorced and widowed as well as people who have always been single.

More important to the texture of your everyday life is whether or not you are socially single or socially coupled. Once again, if you are married, you automatically count as coupled. Beyond that, the criteria are more slippery. People try to discern your coupled status from a hodgepodge of clues. Do you seem to be in a romantic relationship with another person? How long have you been with that person? Do you seem to expect to stay together? Are you living together? One question that does not matter much to the social coupling criterion is whether your pair consists of one man and one woman. Straights, gays, bisexuals, and transsexuals can all count as socially coupled if they are in a certain kind of relationship with another person.

Sex is the component that conventionally distinguishes the coupled relationship from every other close relationship, even if that component has not yet been realized or if its practice is a vague and distant memory. (Of course, sex alone is not sufficient. A one-night stand is not a coupled relationship – it is just a fling.)

In trying to discern who really is socially coupled, we are less likely to wonder about the couple’s practice of sex than about their approximation to an image, a romantic ideal. The image is two people looking lovingly into each other’s eyes, no one else in the picture, the background gauzy and ethereal. In song, the notion is captured by the titles that all sound so similar, such as Nat King Cole or Jerry Vale’s “You’re My Everything,” Elvis Presley’s “There Goes My Everything,” or Andy Gibb’s “I Just Want to be Your Everything.” In lyrics, the romantic ideal is Leann Rimes asking “How do I live without you? You are my world, my heart, my soul.”

Serious partners, in our current cultural fantasy, are the twosomes who look to each other for companionship, intimacy, caring, friendship, advice, the sharing of the tasks and finances of household and family, and just about everything else. They are the repositories for each other’s hopes and dreams. They are each other’s soul mates and sole mates. They are Sex and Everything Else Partners.

Now I can explain what single means: You don’t have a serious partner. The simple distinction, you have a serious partner or you don’t, maps onto the golden rule of singlism, the way of thinking that has become the conventional wisdom of our time: You have a serious partner or you lose. If you are single, then, you lose by definition. No matter what you can point to on your own behalf – spectacular accomplishments, a lifelong and caring convoy of relatives and friends, extraordinary altruism – none of it redeems you if you have no soulmate. Others will forever be scratching their heads and wondering what’s wrong with you and comparing notes (he’s always been a bit strange; she’s so neurotic; I think he’s gay). It is like having a gymnastics routine lacking a key element that qualifies it for a perfect score; no matter how skillfully and gracefully you perform your routine, it will always be judged as lacking.

Serious partner or no serious partner must sound awfully simplistic. Surely, the many significant distinctions must matter somehow. Among those without a serious partner, for example, there are single men and single women (always a distinction worth pondering); people who have always been single and those who are divorced or separated or widowed; young singles and old singles, rich singles and poor singles; singles who have children and singles who do not; singles who live in the city and singles who live in the suburbs or the countryside; coastal singles and Midwestern singles; singles living alone and singles living with others; smug singles and singles pining for partners; and singles of different races, ethnicities, and religions, to name just a few. These kinds of distinctions do matter. Some singles are stigmatized more relentlessly and unforgivingly than others.

The many varieties of singlehood, rather than creating hopeless complexity, can actually be sorted out with two simple rules. First, all of the existing prejudices remain in place. For example, since men still typically trump women, feminism notwithstanding, single men will have an easier time of it than will single women. Similarly, rich singles will sail more smoothly through singlehood than will poor singles. Second, everyone else curries favor to the degree that they honor soulmate values. Did you ever have a serious partner?  If so, then you are better than all of those people who never had one. (So, divorced and widowed singles are better than people who have always been single). Is your soulmate no longer with you through no fault of your own? If so, then you get some credit, too. (So, widows are in some ways better than divorced people.) If you don’t have a serious partner, are you at least trying to find one? That’s good, too.

When I say that some singles are better than others, I mean better in the public eye. Better mythologically. The lives of the “better” singles seem to make more sense and seem worthy of greater respect than the lives of the “lesser” singles. With regard to how different kinds of singles are actually doing, though – now that’s a whole different story.

Friends sharing dinner photo available from Shutterstock

Who Counts as Single? A Surprisingly Complicated Question

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. (2016). Who Counts as Single? A Surprisingly Complicated Question. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 16 Feb 2016
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