“What are the best things about being single?” That’s a question I get asked over and over again. Usually, the people who ask it have a certain kind of answer in mind. They are expecting the kinds of responses you find on listicles: If you are single, you can wear whatever you want (or nothing at all), eat whatever you want whenever you want, watch what you want, listen to whatever you want, stay up late or get up early.
There’s some truth to those answers, especially for single people who live alone. But they don’t capture the bigger, more consequential truths about the best things about being single.
Consider two of the big, important things that just about everyone wants out of life. One is connection with other people – meaningful social ties. Interdependence.
Another is independence. That includes autonomy, or getting to make your own decisions, and arranging your life in a way that works well for you. It also includes getting to have some solitude – some time to yourself – and your own space, too.
I think single people have a better chance at both of those things, and at getting them in the proportion they want, too.
The first may seem the most surprising. Don’t married people automatically have a connection with another person, a meaningful social tie, almost by definition? In theory, yes. And probably often in practice, too, because if they got to the point of feeling no meaningful connection, they may have already gotten divorced.
But as long-time readers of this blog know, there’s a catch. Couples who move in together or who marry become more insular. Romantic partners tend to focus mostly on each other and pay less attention to the other people in their lives. That is true even if they do not have children. In Singled Out, I called that “intensive coupling.” Sociologists refer to it as “greedy marriage.”
Single people, in contrast, have more friends, and they do more to maintain their ties with their friends, neighbors, siblings, and parents than married people do. That’s true for divorced people, and even more true for lifelong single people.
Couples who focus overwhelmingly on each other (and not all couples do) can do just fine when their relationship is in great shape. But when things falter, they are at greater risk. They pushed their friends and relatives and neighbors to the back burner, so now who is going to be there for them?
That single people have more independence seems more obvious. They have more autonomy. They typically have more freedom to make all the kinds of everyday decisions I mentioned earlier (about eating, sleeping, and so forth). They also get to make bigger decisions about their lives based on their own values and needs – decisions, for example, about whether to move, what kind of work to seek, and what kind of life to live.
Single people – especially those who live alone – have their own space. They may also have more time to themselves. Single people who are single at heart and embrace their single lives are especially likely to value their solitude.
That’s not to say that single people have no constraints. They do. They are more likely to be providing care to their aging parents as well as to other people who are ill or disabled and need sustained help. Single people also have more financial challenges than couples do, in large part because of all the laws and practices that favor married people.
Individual single people and individual people in couples vary tremendously in the extent to which they attain the mix of interdependence and independence that works best for them. On the average, though, I think single people have a better chance of striking just the right balance.