[Bella’s intro: For far too long, single life has been neglected by scholars who instead pour all their energy and attention into the study of marriage. So when I learn about new scholars who are studying single life, I am delighted. That is especially true when their work is superb. That was my impression of a thesis, “Party of One,” by Kristen “Edie” Bernhardt. It inspired me to spend some time updating my knowledge of new concepts relevant to relationships, sexual orientations, gender identities, and more. There were so many important insights in that thesis, so I asked the author if she would share some of them with us. I am so grateful that she agreed. In this article, she tells us why she has never wanted to marry, why she considers herself “agentically single” and how she got interested in studying such a thing.]
The Many Ways to Be Agentically Single
Guest Post by Kristen Bernhardt
The first time I heard the word “agentic” was in an article written by brilliant Stanford social psychologist Dr. Albert Bandura, referring to his social cognitive theory. In his 2001 essay, Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective, he described the basic components of personal agency. The article was written for academics, so it doesn’t have the easy accessibility of most blog posts, but I think you will get a sense of what he means:
…the temporal extension of agency through intentionality and forethought, self-regulation by self-reactive influence, and self-reflectiveness about one’s capabilities, quality of functioning, and the meaning and purposes of one’s life pursuits. Personal agency operates within a broad network of sociocultural influences. In these agentic transactions, people are producers as well as products of social systems.
Agentic people, Bandura is suggesting, are not just passive recipients of the prevailing cultural narratives. They are active creators of their own life scripts. They lead lives of reflection, meaning, and purpose.
The second time I consciously thought about the concept of agency in intimate relationships was when I read Dr. Kassia Wosick’s Sex, Love, and Fidelity: A Study of Contemporary Romantic Relationships (2012), while I was researching where to go to grad school. (I ended up studying with her.) Her study compares diverse types of monogamous and non-monogamous relationship structures. She uses the term “agentic fidelity” to describe the ways in which the polyamorous people in her study usually followed a narrow set of rules, but also had a lot of flexibility to re-evalauate concepts, often changing patterns of behavior that weren’t working. Polyamory (and its newer, more inclusive cousin, relationship anarchy), is defined as being open to more than one sexual and/or emotional connection simultaneously. There is emphasis on consent and honesty, and in my experiences, this openness can have the effect of evening out power relations.
One of the things I was interested in exploring in an academic capacity was polyamory and its relationship to power. I was convinced that its anti-authoritarian approach was in some way linked to larger social structures such as marriage, heteronormativity, and even war. To me, geopolitical conflicts seemed like higher-stakes versions of domestic disputes. The idea that someone else could ever dictate what I could do, feel, or say, or who I can freely associate with, smacks of ownership to me and just rubs me the wrong way. Additionally, it implies a lack of trust. If I can’t talk to another man without a boyfriend thinking I’m deceiving him in some way, then he just doesn’t trust me, and if that’s the case, what’s the point of being committed?
The concept of marriage has always eluded me as well. Successful monogamous as well as hierarchical polyamorous relationships have been modeled to me, and I have had both myself. has many forms, but it usually revolves around a couple or a few people who consider themselves to be “primary” partners, who each have varying levels of secondary or satellite partners. Non-hierarchical poly, solo poly, and relationship anarchy tend to be slightly more egalitarian and strive to value all relationships equally. Although some degree of hierarchy seems to be unavoidable, in these structures it is more fluid and situational rather than fixed.
Sometimes I was quite happy with monogamy or hierarchical poly, and someday I may be again. But never once have I entertained the concept of legal marriage. Informally, before I began working on my master’s degree, I used to ask married friends what made them decide to make the leap from cohabitation to legal marriage. I got lots of answers, but to me, all of them seemed achievable without getting a stamp of approval from the government. There were a few exceptions, such as access to health care, better mortgage rates (which is essentially housing discrimination against unmarried people), and adjustment of immigration status. But those are all problems with institutional structures, and as readers of Dr. DePaulo’s work know – we singles and solos are getting louder and louder about how unfair these processes are and the ways in which we think they should be changed.
The way that people typically engage in relationships is to ride what has been called the “relationship escalator.” This concept describes the linear trajectory most romantic relationships follow – some people step on the bottom stair with a crush or first date, and then if they get along, the escalator propels them upwards towards more and more life enmeshment, often culminating in marriage. When I first met happily solo people who still had sex and intimacy and romance without having to deal with the sometimes stressful associations of “escalator” relationships, I took to the idea right away. Before I actually knew people successfully living this way, I didn’t even know it was a choice. People just don’t “do” that in our society. But they do. I do now, and it’s perfect for me at this point in my life. Others might be happier in monogamous LAT (Living Apart Together) relationships, or in consciously chosen (agentic) monogamous relationships.
Over the last ten years or so, I’ve been learning that solo life is definitely for me. Dr Bella DePaulo and Amy Gahran, through their books and blogs, have helped to validate this choice for me. I hope to do the same for others – whether you prefer monogamy, casual dating, polyamory, relationship anarchy, some other relationship structure, or no structure at all, there is a happy place for you. In my research, I found that the single and solo people I interviewed (who self-defined as not actively looking for a lifetime, monogamous partner at the time of writing) were happy because they were living authentically. The sample includes solo polyamorous people who may or may not be in one or more relationships, both sexual and non-sexual; people who had been in long-term monogamous couples and determined one way or the other that they preferred to be free agents; and those who have never been married or coupled, including some who are aromantic and/or asexual. This was a small-scale study and not generalizable, but what all these people have in common is a sense of pride and self-worth in having overcome past insecurities and living their lives as they feel they are meant to be lived.
Many participants describe a feeling of being “boxed in” when they were part of traditional couples. Part of their process of self-discovery was that of “building your own box,” as one participant put it, which fits perfectly into Bandura’s (2001) social cognitive theory: “Social structures are created by human activity, and sociostructural practices, in turn, impose constraints and provide enabling resources and opportunity structures for personal development and functioning.” To live entirely outside the box may be isolating and counterproductive, but if you can build a box that suits your needs and doesn’t interfere with the basic functions of society, then not only have you found a way to be happy, but perhaps if enough people choose more non-traditional ways of living, institutions will start to respond positively, as we have seen with the marriage equality movement.
Of course, all of this assumes a privileged, western point of view. In India and in many parts of Africa and the Middle East, for example, women really don’t have a choice to be agentic when it comes to sexuality. But that is a different column altogether. Here in the U.S., many of us do have that choice – although, as far as coupling is concerned, we may not know it’s there due to the cultural hegemony we’re inundated with every day. I didn’t know until I was in my 30s. I knew I wasn’t getting married, but I hadn’t really thought deliberately about that choice and the reasoning behind it. Being agentically single is not a binary decision between getting married or staying single/solo. There are lots of versions in between. There are even married folks who consider themselves agentically solo. What is important in terms of agency is being able to take advantage of the free flow of information and communication that’s available all around us and use it to our full advantage. No matter what you preferred approach to relationships may be, you can probably find others who share your preferences and values. You can probably find online forums as well.
If we are truly agentic, we have the ability to personalize interpersonal relationships, choosing the ones that work best for us as individuals. By modeling that process for others, we can expand the range of social scripts and life paths that are considered acceptable. That way, we will be doing our part in legitimizing the many varieties of single and solo life in culture, politics, and societies.
About the Author
Kristen (or Edie, as her friends call her) is a feminist, a comedy nerd, and a militant pacifist, not necessarily in that order. She holds Bachelor’s degrees in journalism and community psychology, and a Master’s degree in sociology. Some of her other research interests include racial and environmental justice, decarceration and human rights, and the study of social movements.
[Author photo is by Michael Poggenburg]