Thursday, December 24, 2009


Double X recently posted an article about a study that compared psychological well-being among singletons and those already married, and found that contrary to stereotype, most singles are just as happy and resilient as their married peers. The study, which profiled heterosexuals 40-74, left out those who were divorced or widowed, normally skewering the results of “single”. The article has some problems, however:
“When single people feel control over their lives and can rely on themselves, they can have especially high levels of happiness,” explains Jamila Bookwala, lead author and associate professor of psychology at Lafayette. She adds that the married people in her study who reported being highly self-sufficient weren’t happy about it, whereas single people on average felt relatively good about carrying their own weight.
Interesting how self-sufficiency is viewed in these two categories. I suspect that it is a point of pride for many singletons to be as self-sufficient as possible, but also in that they have to, or want to, rely on themselves for many things; that’s how the cookie crumbles, it’s just easier to do. But, when married, there is someone there to rely on, and you often just naturally fall into that pattern of needing that person to do things, expecting that person to provide something, and when that person falls short, disappointment arises. Those who are married are self-sufficient because they’ve found that they can’t rely on their spouse, and that causes unhappiness.

But of course, single is never an easy word to define:
It’s also not clear from the November study which single respondents had satisfying love lives but simply didn’t believe in marriage and which people preferred flying solo.
Neither of these designations is clear. What if you are single, have a satisfying love life, but do believe in marriage, and are just not ready for it? That seems like a hell of a lot of people to me. And while “prefer flying solo” is just a phrase, it’s too simplistic. Are these people who don’t want a relationship? Is this incompatible with having a satisfying love life?

The DoubleX piece links to a cover story from 2006 from Psychology Today on the growing shift and reduced stigma towards singles, and one psychologist actually links the current marriage craze (matrimania) to the rise of the singles. With a greater percentage of households not being filled by married couples, and with people marrying later, she posits that there are those who are insecure about the state of the union (and she doesn’t even mention the increased prominence of homosexual marriage).

Does that go back to the idea that being single is seen as a threat to those in relationships? The idea seems laughable, but somehow it always come roaring back. There are also still so many (namely lumped into the category of “relatives”) that find it strange when you don’t bring a love interest to the Christmas party every year. But I do wonder where this marriage glamour comes from. It’s become a topic of conversation among my friends, as we see so many acquaintances pair off and announce their engagement. For many, it is a confused surprise—why settle down so early? What’s the rush? I don’t know if that’s where the mocking originates, the idea to bum rush a David’s Bridal and try on a bunch of dresses for giggles. Why not? It’s an excuse to play dress up and not have to pony up the cash, to worry about the real things marriage signifies. But is it? I play along, because apparently once you hit your mid-20s, marriage is supposed to float into your head, and now we’re being forced to think about it. Dating for a number of years? Be prepared for the questions, the assumptions, the expectations.

Of course, when thinking about “singles”, that iconic show of single women, Sex and the City, comes up. The show itself did a lot to change perceptions, but it also married off three of the four women. I’m reminded of a season six episode, “A Woman’s Right to Shoes”, which explores how society does or does not celebrate or accept a person’s personal choices:
Carrie: You know what? I am Santa. I did a little mental addition and over the years I have bought Kyra an engagement gift, a wedding gift, then there was the trip to Maine for the wedding- three baby total I have spent over $2300.00 celebrating her life choices and she is shaming me for spending a lousy $485.00 bucks on myself? Yes, I did the math.

Charlotte: Yes, but those were gifts. And if you got married or had a baby, she would spend the same on you.

Carrie: And if I don't ever get married or have a baby, what? I get bubkiss? Think about it. If you are single, after graduation, there isn't one occasion where people celebrate you.

Charlotte: Oh! We have birthdays!

Carrie: Oh, no no no no- we all have birthdays, that's a wash. I am thinking about the single gal. Hallmark doesn't make a "congratulations you didn't marry the wrong guy" card. And where's the flatware for going on vacation alone?
Exactly. Plenty of people experience major milestones that don’t fall under these traditional rubrics, but they can’t throw multiple parties every step of the way and expect gifts. Announcing a marriage can have engagement, shower, and wedding gifts, and that’s not including all the ancillary expenses! Many people also agree that we have an obligation to make ourselves happy, and that includes a lot of “selfish” decisions, ones that can be judged harshly by outsiders:
Even as singlehood is becoming the de facto norm, people who choose to go through life solo are deliberately kept in a state of confusion about their own motives by a culture that clings to the marriage standard. Typically, says DePaulo, singles are told that they are selfish for pursuing their own life goals. If you're single and you have a great job to which you devote energy, you're typically told your job won't love you back. Of course, singles are always suspect as tragic losers in the game of love. But most of all they are told through commercials, images and endless articles that they will never be truly happy and deeply fulfilled unless they are married.

"The battlefield is now psychological," says DePaulo. Single women today have work opportunities, economic independence and reproductive freedom. "The things that can be legislated are all done," she notes. "The last great way to keep women in their place is to remind them that they are incomplete. Even if you think you're happy, the messages go, you don't know real happiness." There's a hunger out there for a new view of singles.
Notice, of course, that the article goes from all singles to just female singles, again focusing on the women. Because it’s women who want to be married, right? There the ones we have to worry about. As friends of mine commented a few months ago, it’s assumed that men will marry, but for women, you never know…the men might be a little off, but the women will be downright strange!

But for many people, being single is both a choice and not a choice. It’s a choice in that a person can decide whether or not to pursue something, to set up an online profile, to ask out every person seen at a bar. But it’s also not a choice in that you don’t always get what you want, the person you want may be unavailable for a variety of factors, and sometimes, there just isn’t a suitable person available.

The Psychology Today article has some noteworthy stuff, although I don’t agree with it completely. But neither do I with another singles “movement”: Quirkyalone. The premise is basically that it’s better to be without a relationship than to settle, a feeling that many people agree with in theory. It’s meant to battle the relationship stigma, all those people who hop from one person to another. But many of these people, just like many of the people in relationships, do really believe that they don’t “need” someone. Quirkyalone is a mindset, as Sasha Cagen repeatedly declares. I understand where she’s coming from. I just do not like the label. Singlehood as a movement seems a bit silly to me, though I understand the points of privilege single bloggers point out, like tax code rates, hotel rates and whatnot.

A lot of the advice Psychology Today points to is rather obvious, at least to those of us who know the world. It might not always be feasible or easy to follow, but it makes sense. It’s what people do, it’s the natural evolution. It always seemed sad to me that when people coupled up, their social circle often narrowed, instead of expanded. This isn’t always the case, but especially with marriage, circles get smaller, because the available time one has now must be appropriately divided, and a smaller portion goes to friends. It’s part of the soulmate culture, another dangerous idea: one person can change your life, but it can’t fulfill you always and forever:
The soulmate culture insists that one person can satisfy all your emotional needs, says DePaulo. "But that's like putting all of your money in one stock and hoping it's not Enron." Marriage today forces many people to put their friendships on the back burner. Singles, on the other hand, are free to develop deeper relationships with their friends without fear that they are betraying closeness. The flip side is that singles have to be more proactive about building their social lives; it takes an effort.

"Single people are more likely to have a good relationship investment strategy. They tend to have a diversified portfolio of relationships—friends, siblings, colleagues—and to value a number of them," says DePaulo. "They have not invested their entire emotional capital in one person." Having a broad social network is physiologically as well as emotionally protective, although society perceives singles as psychologically vulnerable precisely because they lack the built-in support system of a spouse.
As I said, lots of these things just naturally happen, and they should, whether a person is single (whatever that means) or not. As more people stay unmarried, and the psychology of happiness continues to grow, there will be more studies…probably proving that what single people hate most is forcing them to answer questions about coupling up.


petpluto said...

This is a wonderful piece of writing! Especially this part:
There are also still so many (namely lumped into the category of “relatives”) that find it strange when you don’t bring a love interest to the Christmas party every year.

Laughed out loud.

I especially liked the comparison between self-sufficiency as a single versus in a relationship. Very true. There is another part of this too, and that is the other partner in a romantic relationship not liking the self-sufficiency - either naturally occurring or acquired after years of existing in a single state - of hir partner, and that creating tension in the relationship.

I also love Carrie's shoe point. That is probably the first episode of S&tC I saw, and - aside from Aidan scenes - was the only one I truly loved.

Emily said...

I love, love, love that episode of SATC when Carrie registers for the shoes. She was so right.