I love hearing stories of happy single people of every variety – women and men and singles who do not identify as either, young and old, rich and poor, queer and straight, singles of diverse backgrounds, single parents and single people who are not parents. Some people, though – maybe most – do not want to hear stories about single people who are happy.
I was reminded of this when I saw this title of a section of a chapter in a new book: “Nobody wants to hear stories of a happy single mom.” The chapter was “The best of the people we know,” in Mia Birdsong’s How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, Community. (I also discussed that inspiring book here.)
The woman at the heart of that section of the chapter was C. Nicole Mason, a Black woman who had a baby as a single mom when she was just starting an important job at New York University. She is now also the author of a memoir, Born Bright: A Young Girl’s Journey from Nothing to Something. When Professor Mason was on her book tour, Birdsong tells us, she was asked all sorts of presumptuous questions about what it was like to be a Black single mother. This is how she really felt:
“I’m a single mom. I feel very fulfilled. I’m happy. I don’t feel burdened. I don’t feel haggard at the end of the day. I go out. I have fun. But those are not the stories. Frankly, I don’t think anybody wants to hear those kinds of stories, of a happy single mom.”
The stereotype that single people, whether parents or not, cannot possibly be happy, is pervasive. It has also been debunked over and over again.
Nonetheless, people seem to cling to that stereotype, as Professor Mason discovered. What surprised and baffled me, when I first started studying single people, was how intensely some people reacted to single people who said that they were happily single. They didn’t want to hear those stories.
The first example that really grabbed me was a letter written in response to a 2002 cover story in Time magazine about women who were choosing to stay single and not have kids. Those women were not complaining about their single lives; they were embracing them. And yet, a reader said this:
“As long as women bounce around kidding themselves that life is full when alone, they are putting their hedonistic, selfish desires ahead of what’s best for children and society.”
At the time, all I had were anecdotes and my own guesses about what they might mean. Now there are several careful studies suggesting that happy single people are not disparaged despite being happy, but because of it.
In two studies, one from Israel and the other from the U.S., participants were shown brief biographical sketches of people who were single and wanted to stay single and people who were single but wanted to be married or coupled. (Sketches of married or coupled people were included, too.) The single people who were single because they wanted to be single were judged more harshly than the single people who wished they were not single.
Remarkably, the single people who wanted to be single, probably because they were happy with their single lives, were judged as less happy than the single people who wanted to be coupled! They were also judged as less secure, less warm and sociable, more self-centered, and as leading less exciting lives.
In another startling finding, people expressed more anger at the single people who chose to stay single than the single people who were pining to be coupled.
Why do people go after singles who are not complaining about their single lives? Why are they angry at those single people? Why do they look at single people who are happily single, and who are leading the life they want to be leading, and proclaim that they are actually less happy, and leading less exciting lives, than the single people who want to be married?
I think the happy single people are challenging a cherished worldview. Many people – including many single people – want to believe the fairy tales about marriage. They are invested in the idea that if only you find the right person and get married, you will be happier and healthier and live longer, and all the pieces of your life will fall in place. (None of that is true.)
People who are happily single challenge all that. By choosing to live single, they are refusing to buy what the culture is selling. They are saying: “No, you are not a better person just because you are married. I’m single, I’m happy, and I want to stay single.” Lots of people really don’t want to hear that. It makes them angry. They would prefer to believe that if you are single, you are unhappy and what you want more than anything else is not to be single anymore. The single people who tow that ideological line are the ones who are going to be looked upon more kindly.
A few years ago at this blog, David P. Crews wrote a two-part guest post describing his single life. David is a single man of many talents and great adventures. But he too often finds that when he describes the experiences that he so enjoys, other people are dismissive. They have nothing to say, or they offer some perfunctory response and then change the subject. David wondered what that was about. I think the studies I described here offer one possible answer.
Some people just do not want to believe that a single life can be a good life – a happy, fulfilling, and exciting life. That threatens their cherished view of the world. So they’d rather talk about something else.
Morris, W. L., & Osburn, B. K. (2016). Do you take this marriage? Perceived choice over marital status affects the stereotypes of single and married people. In K. Adamczyk (Ed.), Singlehood from individual and social perspectives (pp 145–162). Krakow, Poland: Libron Publishing.
Slonim, G., Gur-Yaish, N., & Katz, R. (2015). By choice or by circumstance?: Stereotypes and feelings about single people. Studia Psychologica, 57, 35-48.