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What Does It Mean to Be Emotionally Independent?

If the only adult relationships that are celebrated and respected are romantic ones, then none of us can truly be emotionally independent. That’s one of the arguments Professor Rachel Moran made in 2004 in an influential law review article, “How second-wave feminism forgot the single woman,” that is still resonating 15 years later. Single women were marginalized, Moran argued, by a focus on the superwoman who could “have it all” – marriage, kids, and career.

Another significant theme from Moran’s paper was the argument that activists should turn their attention to the goal of emotional independence. First-wave feminism, she noted, was about political independence. The right to vote meant that women had their own political opinions – married women weren’t “covered” by the votes of their husbands. Second-wave feminism took on economic independence. With greater opportunities in the workplace, more women could earn their own way financially.

As long as the bonds between couples, and between parents and children, are the only relationships that are truly respected, Moran maintained, women will not be emotionally independent. Instead, they will be dependent on having a spouse and children in order to be regarded as emotionally complete, and perhaps they will be inclined to internalize the same prejudice themselves. Many singles build networks of friends, relatives, and neighbors, but compared to marriage and traditional family, those personal communities are culturally invisible.

Emotional independence, according to Moran’s formulation, is not about having no emotional connections with other people. It is about independence from the norms and pressures that make romantic relationships and relationships between parents and children seem like the only relationships that count. Once we understand and accept the wide array of relationships that can be important, we can understand other issues, such as “having it all,” in new and more encompassing ways, too.

Here is how Professor Moran puts it:

“The women’s movement now must make clear that its goal is not for women to follow a script of combining work and family. What ‘having it all’ should mean instead is that women can choose among a wide array of options related to careers and personal relationships. Singlehood, then, becomes simply one among many legitimate choices, a path that can lead to a full and happy life just as marriage and children can.” (p. 288)

I’d add two points. First, I’d like men to have the same array of options, and be respected for their choices, too. Second, in our quest to recognize a wider range of valuable relationships, we should not diminish the potential value of time spent alone. People vary in the mix of sociability and solitude that they find optimal, and those individual differences need to be respected, too.

Photo by TheeErin

What Does It Mean to Be Emotionally Independent?

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. (2019). What Does It Mean to Be Emotionally Independent?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 7, 2019, from


Last updated: 9 Jul 2019
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