People who are “single at heart” live their best, most authentic, most meaningful and most fulfilling lives by living single. And yet, some of them are married. What’s that about?

If people realize that single life is for them, then why do they marry? And if they are married, why do they stay married?

A reader I’ll call Christopher told me that he is in a loving and respectful marriage, but feels that his “authentic self is calling from outside the bounds of matrimony.” He asked if I had published anything by or about people who had left their marriages not because of reasons such as irreconcilable differences, conflict, infidelity, or because they had married the wrong person, but because they realized they shouldn’t be married at all. Single life is their best life, and that’s how they should be living.

I haven’t ever published anything about that. (If you have that experience and want to write about it, let me know.) I’ve heard from married people who are single at heart and wish they had never married, but none of them have gotten divorced.

I have some ideas about why people who are single at heart get married and why they stay married. Christopher does, too.

Why do people who are “single at heart” get married?

I think lots of people do not realize until after they’ve married that single life is for them. The assumption that just about everyone wants to marry and just about everyone will marry is so much a part of our conventional wisdom that it is more than a belief – it is an ideology. Not only do we think just about everyone will marry, we think they should marry. We think that they will become happier and healthier if they marry. (Those claims are grossly exaggerated or just plain wrong.) What’s more – and this is especially important – these kinds of beliefs and claims are rarely challenged.

So people marry. Even people who are enjoying their single lives. Even people who have reservations all along about whether marrying is what they should be doing. How can they take seriously the possibility that lifelong singlehood is a real option, one that can bring genuine fulfillment, when that story has never been part of our cultural conversation?

Here’s Christopher’s explanation of why he married, and then married again:

My script read: romantic love and a forever marriage is the epitome of what it means to be human. Single people are sad people. But more than that, single people are failures. You know the drill. Not being the most confident man in the world, I believed it.

So, I tried marriage, more than once. I certainly was happier, had more friends and felt more fulfilled between marriages. But marriage offered me something very appealing: having that one-and-only who loved me and made me feel not so much alone in the world. But I have discovered that, that again is a fallacy. Because, to a degree, I gave up my loving friendships in order to apply myself to the marriage. I am not saying I let go of my friends, I didn’t. But they needed to be secondary in the hierarchy of my affection, and that has its effects on intimacy and growth. Hence, outside of my marriage, I was lonelier.

Not all the stories that tempt people to marry are ennobling. Some are just scare stories – powerful, relentlessly perpetrated scare stories. For example: unless you marry, you will grow old alone and die alone. I heard from a single man who liked his single life but was worried about what would happen to him as he grew older. He asked if he should try to find a wife so he would have someone to care for him later in life. (I don’t think he asked himself what was in it for her.)

Why do people who are “single at heart” stay married?

Perhaps one of the most important reasons why people who are single at heart stay married is because they have made a commitment and want to honor it. If there are children involved, that makes the option of leaving even more fraught. They are also worried about disappointing not just their spouse and children, but other family and friends who may feel that they are doing the wrong thing.

Christopher thinks that some people just don’t fully trust their own judgment. Others, he suggests, are still buying what society is selling – the fairytales of marrying and living happily ever after – even though marrying didn’t make them happier.

Perhaps they assume what so many people do when they remarry – that what went wrong the first time wasn’t about marriage, it was about the particular person they married. Or about who they were when they married (too young, too inexperienced, not as wise as they are now). In some instances, these explanations are true. But for those who are single at heart, they aren’t – or they aren’t the whole truth.

Here’s what Christopher has to say about staying in his current marriage:

I am married and my wife loves me and I love her. We have changed over the years and I think our relationship has stopped growing. What we have is a comfortable life, although neither one of us feels particularly fulfilled with our lives. But how do you give something up that isn’t ‘bad’? How do you make that choice considering the impact it will have on friends, family, and the person you love and who loves you? Sometimes, this love is not enough. But it takes a lot of guts to face down all the pressure to stay to the status quo.

The solution? Knowing ourselves and our options before making the wrong choice

Getting married, and then realizing you should have stayed single, puts you and everyone else in a difficult spot. But that’s what happens when cultures just won’t let up on the message that everyone wants to get married, and if you don’t, then there’s something wrong with you.

Humans are a very diverse lot. We have different experiences, hopes, dreams, and desires. Trying to force us all onto the same life path is going to backfire.

Happily, despite all the societal pressures, more and more people are finding or creating ways of living that work for them, even if they are not the kinds of arrangements that are widely recognized or celebrated.

Consider, for example, people who are attracted to many aspects of single life, but who also enjoy committed romantic relationships. There are ways to have some of both, such as by “living apart together.” That’s the name for the living arrangements of couples who are committed to each other but want to live in places of their own. They’ve also been called apartners and dual dwelling duos.

We need to hear more stories that honor the many different ways that different humans live their best lives. When we understand, at a deep level, that there are many ways to live a good, meaningful, and fulfilling life, then more of us will understand ourselves better, and make the kinds of choices that are right for us and the other important people in our lives the first time around.

Photo by Michael_Lehet