Bella DePaulo, PhD, is a social scientist and author. Her latest book, Single at Heart: The Power, Freedom, and Heart-Filling Joy of Single Life, is out now and excerpted below.
Not everyone who does not want a partner is single at heart. Some, for example, may be fed up with coupled life rather than enthralled by single life. Nonetheless, the results of a long-term German survey and my own single at heart survey both suggest the same thing: Substantial numbers of people just don’t want to be coupled. Even as the over-the-top celebration of marriage, weddings, and coupling that I call “matrimania” continues to run wild, and even as many countries around the world continue to respect, value, and advantage people who are coupled over those who are single in their laws, policies, and practices, and in everyday social interactions, at least one in five single people in Germany, and probably in many other nations as well, is just saying “no thanks.”
“I always lived my most fulfilling, creative, happy, exciting life as a single,” says Eva (forty-four, London, England). In describing single life in such exuberant terms, Eva speaks for many of us. In fact, if you want to answer just one question from the single at heart quiz (found in the book), instead of all fourteen, to know if you are likely to be single at heart, it would be this one: “When you think about all the potential joys of single life, what do you conclude?” Of those who are clearly single at heart, 96 percent answer, “Sounds great!” Of those who are clearly not single at heart, only 7 percent think that single life sounds great.
We who are single at heart revel in our single life and all it has to offer. It’s a delicious experience we get to savor every day. Sally, a forty-five-year-old from Austria, said, “Singledom is very much a state I enjoy and relish. I love to live alone, spend time alone, travel alone, and do things alone. I do not feel I am missing something or someone but feel happy and complete as an individual.”
People who are powerfully drawn to single life, but who are currently in a romantic relationship, often find themselves yearning for their single lives. Sally shared, “I have enjoyed relationships when I have been in them, but ultimately I felt a need to be on my own again and I never wanted to live with anyone.” A man told me he was in a relationship with “a very nice guy,” but added, “I have basically daydreamt about my solo life every day.” A woman married to a man said, “More and more often, I fantasize about being alone again. Being free.”
When social psychologist Wendy Morris and I studied stereotypes of single people, we found what we expected: people think single people are not as happy as married people. They also think that single people become even more unhappy as they grow older. The single at heart defy those stereotypes. Over the course of their adult life, the more single people embrace their single lives, the more satisfied they feel. That’s not just what I learned from the people who shared their life stories with me; it is also the conclusion of another study of more than seventeen thousand Germans, eighteen and older, who reported the degree to which they were pining for a partner, and their satisfaction with their lives, over and over again, for up to ten years. Single people who are not trying to unsingle themselves are leading the life they want, and it just keeps getting better.
None of this means that we are happy all the time. No one is. But we are happy that we get to be single. We are grateful for our single lives in the best of times, and we are grateful even in the worst of times. When life taunts us with some of the most threatening experiences imaginable, we remain undeterred. The pandemic did not send us fleeing into the arms of a romantic partner. I live in Southern California, a land of wildfires. When a particularly ferocious fire came barreling toward my home and my phone blared with the warning that I had to evacuate immediately, I did not wish I had a romantic partner at my side. Kristin, age fifty-five, of Bellingham, Washington, whom I talk more about later in the book, faced the ultimate challenge. A car swerved into her as she was bicycling, leaving her mangled and barely breathing. She knew in those moments after she was hit that they could be her last, but she did not wish that she had stayed married. We really aren’t just fooling ourselves about loving our single lives.
Because we who are single at heart love our single lives and don’t want to ever unsingle ourselves, we are spared from some of the most painful emotions experienced by single people who really don’t want to be single. One such emotion is the “ambiguous loss” of yearning to find a lifelong romantic partner, but not knowing whether that will ever happen. Karen Gail Lewis, author of With or without a Man, defined that as “a loss for which there is no resolution,” making it difficult to move on. Dear Therapist, an advice column, described it as “ambiguous grief—the intangible loss, the not knowing, the toggling between hope one minute and sadness the next.” It is hard for people struggling with that ambiguity to invest in their single lives and feel joyful about being single the way the single at heart do.
The single at heart are not spared from getting pitied. To be any kind of single person is to be at risk of being pitied. Sure, there are acknowledgments of strong, confident, happy single people in the media these days—I’ve done my share to encourage that—and yet the pity parties continue, mostly unabated.
To pity someone who is single at heart is to get our emotional profile all wrong. We know the feeling rules that tell us how we are supposed to experience things. But that’s not how it works for us. One rule about feelings is that adults—women, especially—should feel badly when a younger sibling marries before they do. I was happy for my younger brother when he got married. I love him and his wife. Marriage is what he wanted. It is not what I wanted, and it is not what I ever wanted. Why would I feel bad about not having something I don’t want? Lily, a thirty-six-year-old from West Virginia, put it this way: “When my brother got married, I was happy for him, but I was detached from the whole ceremony. I didn’t think, Wow, I can’t wait until I find someone and get married.”
You can be single at heart and still be happy for people who are married. Single at heart is about being happily single. It is not about being anti-coupling or anti-marriage, though those attitudes are not disqualifying. I’m against using legal marriage as a criterion for access to special benefits and protections, as happens in the US, but for me, that’s something different from being against romantic coupling.
My older brother is married. He and his wife live nearly two thousand miles away, but we visit each other and stay in touch. I’m the last person in the world who would know what goes on inside anyone’s marriage, but they seem to have a very nice relationship, easy and loving. They’ve traveled the world together. They’ve gone to some fabulous restaurants. Stuck at home during the pandemic, they Zoomed into wine and cheese tastings hosted by the iconic New Orleans restaurant Commander’s Palace.
I’m happy for them, too. I love them. And I’m not envious. I don’t want to be part of a couple, not even an awesome one. If I were traveling the world with someone, I’d want my own room. I’d want to go off on my own some of the time. Maybe a lot of the time. I have had plenty of marvelous meals with friends and relatives, and I enjoyed every moment. When those dinner companions included couples, I have always been so very happy that I wasn’t them. At the end of the evening, they went home together; I got to go home and be alone.
Excerpted from Single at Heart: The Power, Freedom, and Heart-Filling Joy of Single Life (Apollo Publishers, December 5, 2023) by Dr. Bella DePaulo.