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Whichever way you choose to dress it up, being single can sometimes feel like one of life’s biggest drags. Enduring the doom and gloom of singlehood whilst all your friends settle (or remain settled) in doughy-eyed bliss can be a very real source of woe. But beyond the strife, can lonesomeness actually be a source of empowerment? We say yes, and we’ll explain why…
The sociology of being single
Although the subheading of this section may sound like the title of an ambitious undergraduate dissertation, a great deal of import can be drawn from the social sciences when it comes to understanding singlehood. You may well be wondering what on earth sociology has to do with being single. Here’s the scoop.
Most of us will be all too familiar with that oft-parodied image of a hapless single lost in a sea of self-help books and empty wine bottles. Whilst this caricature is both exaggerated and insulting, it’s a depiction that pervades both the media and our imaginations.
In search of an alternate perspective on being single, EliteSingles spoke to one of the most prominent researchers involved in the study of singlehood; Bella DePaulo. A visiting professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, she has published extensively on broad range of issues that overlap with being single.
The Harvard-educated academic is quick to point the pros of a more rigorous and sociological standpoint can bring to the debate. “A scientific approach can push past selective perception and bust myths,” says DePaulo, “It lets us talk about singlehood based on data rather than just opinion and prejudice. With good research, we can see the strengths of being single and the meaningfulness of single life.”
Myth busting and raising awareness are central components of DePaulo’s work. For example, she challenges scientifically endorsed research that suggests wedded couples live happier and healthier lives (of which there is plenty). “It can be tricky,” she says of contesting the status quo, “all too often claims about the benefits of getting married are made that cannot possibly be supported based on the kind of research that’s been conducted.”
In fact, there’s evidence to support DePaulo’s claims. In 2015 a study conducted by researchers at the University of Auckland revealed that for some people, relationships can apparently have an adverse effect on quality of life1. More specifically, the investigation found that individuals of a non-confrontational disposition had a higher degree of life satisfaction being single as opposed to being in a relationship.
To advance her critique DePaulo coined two terms; singlism and matrimania. The former relates to the prejudice that’s targeted at single men and women. “There is little cultural awareness of singlism,” says DePaulo, “yet discrimination against single people is written into the law. In the US for example, there are more than 1,000 laws at the federal level alone that benefit and protect only those people who are legally married.” Examples of where being single is ignored legally include income tax deductions, rights to inheritance and employment laws
DePaulo’s second concept, matrimania, is meant to “the over-the-top hyping of marriage and coupling and weddings.” “Matrimania has actually gotten more extreme since, say, the 1950s or so,” says DePaulo, “people celebrate marriage so relentlessly, and in such ostentatious ways, not because we are all so secure about the place of marriage in our lives, but because we are so insecure. Marriage just isn’t important to our lives in the big important ways it used to be.”
Long live singledom
On the flipside, is it not fair to reason that singlehood in the 21st century is much less stigmatised than ever before? And could matrimania be ebbing? It’s certainly true that marital habits have changed drastically over the last forty years in Australia. In 1975 a mere 16% of couples had lived together before getting hitched.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and things are much different; in 2013 77% of marriages were preceded by cohabitation2. The median age for first time marriages increased over this period too; 23 for men in 1975 compared to 30 in 2013, 21 for women in 1975 as opposed to 28 in 2013. Furthermore, since 1986, there has been a 9% drop in married Aussie couples, 58-49% to be precise.
These findings would appear to indicate that though people aren’t necessarily opting for singlehood, they’re certainly being a lot more cautious, or sceptical, about marriage. And according to a 2011 report published by the US-based Pew Research Centre, something is indeed afoot, and in other parts of the world as well. Not only did the study reveal that just over half of adult Americans are married, it also flagged up that 43% of individuals aged 18-49 think matrimony is becoming less relevant3.
READ MORE: Get the lowdown on the science behind falling in love.
For DePaulo the latter is representative of a more positive societal trend. When asked whether the rise in conservatism in evidence across the globe could lead to a spike in both singlism and matrimania, she remains upbeat. “I hope it won’t happen,” she says, “I have some optimism based on the fact that today’s younger generation of adults tends to be open-minded and unlikely to be sexist, racist or homophobic.”
DePaulo’s optimism doesn’t quite fit with another finding pulled from the Pew report. Of those single respondents who said marriage is a near obsolescent institution, a substantial 47% said that they would still like to be wedded someday. Suffice it to say, this does seem a little contradictory. However, there are answers.
One such explanation comes in the form of a study conducted by La Trobe University’s Jody Hughes4. Published in 2014, Hughes’ paper draws upon the work of theorists such as Anthony Giddens, Ulrich Beck and Zygmunt Bauman to investigate the reflexivity of both individuality and intimate relationships. After interviewing some 28 Aussies aged 21-39, all of whom lived alone, Hughes found that rather than assigning less value to ‘sexual-couple’ relationships, her participants aspired to be in a long-term and healthy relationship.
Contrary to the hackneyed (and derogatory) image of a lonely older woman, DePaulo agrees that the people who fear singlism the most are probably in their early 30s. She pulls up an article she wrote for Psychology Today on singlehood and young adulthood5. The piece centres on a Q&A she had with Wendy Wasson, a clinical psychiatrist based in Chicago. Wasson describes how many of her young, single and female patients aged around 25-30 experience a pressure from seeing their friends marrying and starting family, a strain that’s further compounded by the omnipresent biological clock.
Kinneret Lahad, a professor at the University of Tel Aviv, argues that it’s imperative to understand the concept of time and how it’s entangled with singlehood. In a 2012 paper, the Israeli academic wrote that singlehood is ‘a sociological phenomenon constituted and forged through changing social definitions, norms, and societal expectations’6. In her opinion, time is represented by ‘social clocks’, such as the very real yet socially ratified temporality of childbearing age. This accentuates the urge to marry and further stigmatises being single.
But surely technology is changing the landscape of singlehood? From reproductive technologies to social media, being single today is much more fluid than it used to be. “It is easier for single people who live alone to be connected at all times,” says DePaulo, “they can reach out to friends without ever leaving their homes, and they can use technology to arrange in-person gatherings more easily too.” The dating industry has also been overhauled too; in 2015 an estimated 91 million people were using dating apps worldwide (including 15% of the total adult population in America7).
However you chose to look at it, it’s hard to refute the tacit stigma attached to singlehood. But it’s not all bad news. To end things on a more positive note, being single is a choice that can yield great benefits. Anyone whose lost love will know that singlehood encourages soul-searching, which in turn leads to self discovery and ultimately progress. Rejecting social mores and revelling in the freedom being single affords is a sure fire way to decide upon what’s best for you. Above all, when you’re ready to start a new relationship, it’s going to be for the right reasons!
1. Girme, Y.U et al. (2015) Happily Single; The Link Between Relationship Status and Well-Being Depends on Avoidance and Approach Social Goals
2. Australian Institute of Family Studies; Marriage in Australia
3. Cohn, D. et al. (2011) Barely Half of U.S. Adults Are Married – A Record Low; Pew Research Centre
4. Hughes, J (2015) The Decentering of Couple Relationships? An Examination of Young Adults Living Alone
5. De Paulo, B (2009) Are the Early Years of Single Life the Hardest? Part II: Approaching Age 30; Psychology Today
6. Lahad, K (2012) Singlehood, Waiting, and the Sociology of Time.
7. Smith, A (2016) 15% of American Adults have used Online Dating Sites or Moblie Dating Apps; Pew Research Centre