Photo by Chachawal Prapai/EyeEm/Getty
‘Happily ever after’ is a romantic myth. Defy society’s singlism and discover ways to embrace a joyful, independent life
by David Robson
Photo by Chachawal Prapai/EyeEm/Getty
is a science writer. His first book is The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things and How to Make Wiser Decisions (2019). He lives in London.
Edited by Christian Jarrett
By the age of 29, the actress and activist Emma Watson had not only starred in one of the world’s most lucrative film franchises, she’d been named a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, launched the organisation’s campaign HeForShe, and co-founded the Time’s Up UK charity to support victims of sexual harassment. And yet it was Watson’s marital status that most interested the world’s journalists, with numerous articles obsessing over her relationships (or lack thereof).
Watson’s treatment is revealing of society’s wider attitude toward single people. In 2019, she told Vogue that this ‘subliminal messaging’ was so strong that it had seeped into her psyche causing her to feel enormous anxiety about approaching 30 without a partner or a family. She’d only recently learned to overcome those doubts, she told the magazine, and see the merits in being single, which she described as being ‘self-partnered’. She didn’t expect her comment to be controversial, she added later; she just wanted to have new language to talk about the experience of her romantic independence, without the connotations that are attached to being ‘single’.
The resulting ridicule couldn’t have proven Watson’s point more completely. ‘Self-partnering means you can’t get a bloke, right?’ the TV personality Piers Morgan asked his co-presenter, Susanna Reid, on Good Morning Britain, upon hearing the news. ‘Why do we have to put a positive spin?’ he continued. ‘Put negative spins on negatives.’ He doesn’t seem to have considered the possibility that for many people, there need be no ‘spin’: being single can be a genuinely joyous experience.
Morgan is hardly alone in these misperceptions. Our culture is steeped in the idea that long-term romantic relationships are the central ingredient of a happy life. Whether you turn on the radio, fire up Netflix or enter a bookshop, you’ll be confronted with tales of loves lost and loves found – as if our lives must necessarily revolve around a significant other. For a while, even the scientific evidence appeared to support this conclusion. Surveys had shown that married people, in particular, enjoy greater life satisfaction, health and longevity than the rest of the population. Little wonder that so many people have feared being alone.
The reality, however, is more nuanced. Many of the surveys extolling the benefits of marriage had failed to separate the effects of people who were never married from those who’d been divorced or widowed. These are two incredibly stressful events that are bound to have an influence on people’s wellbeing. When those complications are taken into account and the data are divided accordingly, one study found that people who never married show similar levels of happiness to those who were currently married. Moreover, generally speaking, when you chart someone’s happiness over the lifetime, marriage offers only a temporary rise – lasting about two years after the wedding – before it falls back to the baseline. For the average person, marriage won’t be the ‘happily ever after’ that we’ve been led to believe.
Marriage is, admittedly, a rather antiquated way of defining a long-term committed relationship. (Unfortunately, the surveys mentioned above didn’t offer separate data for cohabiting couples.) But the differences remain small when you compare singles with those in any kind of romantic relationship – cohabiting, long-distance, etc. In one survey from 2008, ‘partnered’ people scored 5.78 on an 8-point scale of life satisfaction, while ‘single’ people scored 5.7 – a tiny difference that was considered to be not statistically significant.
This is not to diminish the importance of romance for those who are in love with the idea of being in love, but simply to point out that there are many paths to happiness. And contrary to many people’s assumptions (including Morgan’s), a large number of people reach that destination by flying solo.
‘Not having a romantic partner at the centre of our lives does not limit our lives, it throws the doors wide open,’ Bella DePaulo, a social scientist affiliated with the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of the book Singled Out (2004), told me. ‘Now, instead of prioritising one person by default, we can decide for ourselves who really matters to us, and live accordingly.’
DePaulo uses the term ‘single at heart’ to describe the people who will find their greatest fulfilment and meaning without a romantic partner. ‘The touchstone for people who are single at heart is authenticity,’ she told me. ‘That means that the usual paradigms will not always prevail. Who knows what we will do with our lives once we truly feel free to pursue what is meaningful to us rather than what is socially prescribed.’ For many people, certain activities, such as travelling, political campaigning or artistic creation could provide all the passion of a romantic relationship.
Perhaps you’re single at heart yourself. (You can find out if your attitudes align with DePaulo’s definition of the term by taking her survey here.) Or perhaps you suspect that your single status will be temporary but wish to embrace the experience while it lasts. Maybe – like Renée Zellweger in Down with Love (2003) – you wish to enjoy sex ‘à la carte’ without any of the emotional trappings of a relationship. Or maybe you choose to forgo physical intimacy entirely. There are countless bestselling guides to heteronormative relationships – John Gray’s pseudoscientific Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (1992) is reported to have sold at least 15 million copies – but there’s comparatively little advice on the best ways for singles to cultivate the perfect self-partnership. Based on my review of the burgeoning scientific study of singlehood and interviews with relevant experts, this Guide aims to redress the balance. Whatever your circumstances and personal decisions, what follows are some practical steps to help you navigate your way through single life’s challenges and to capitalise on its many advantages.
Many of the challenges of being single come from other people. From intrusive family conversations about your love life to formal invitations encouraging you to bring a ‘plus one’, single people face constant reminders that they’re veering from the accepted life script. DePaulo calls this ‘singlism’ and, like all other prejudices, it can be mentally exhausting to confront on a daily basis.
For this reason, your first step to enjoying single life might be to realise that you’re not alone in your choice to self-partner – temporarily or permanently – but part of a much larger social revolution. ‘Single adults are the fastest-growing demographic in recent years,’ says Elyakim Kislev, an assistant professor in the School of Public Policy and Government at the Hebrew University and author of Happy Singlehood: The Rising Acceptance and Celebration of Solo Living (2019). He points out that singles account for around 40 per cent of all households in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Germany.
From his own interviews and data analyses, Kislev has found that a greater awareness of ‘singlism’ – and the accompanying social pressure to ‘couple’ – as a common, shared experience can itself have a positive influence on wellbeing. Lauri, a single woman quoted in Kislev’s book, captures the sentiment best: ‘Realising that I wasn’t nuts for recognising singlism and matrimania in the world, I actually feel better about myself and paint a clearer picture of things.’
Unfortunately, because few single people are consciously aware of ‘singlism’, the stigma can become internalised, so they feel like there really is something ‘wrong’ with them. In one study, DePaulo found that single participants were just as likely to endorse prejudice against other single people as were participants who were in romantic relationships. Overall, the participants felt that assumptions about singles’ supposed lack of responsibility was more legitimate than prejudice against almost all other groups.
You might need to apply conscious effort to question your own beliefs and to reject the false assumptions that are so widespread in our societies. Based on his research, Kislev argues that the happiest singles will often actively challenge the prejudice that they encounter in other people. ‘They must fight creatively and individually against discriminatory practices,’ he writes in Happy Singlehood. These acts of defiance, Kislev says, can be personally energising and empowering.
Go on a solo adventure
It’s not just the overt prejudice that can create a fear being single; anxieties about silent judgment can prevent singles enjoying many of the activities normally enjoyed by couples. Whether it’s eating alone in a restaurant, going to an art gallery, catching a play at the theatre, holidaying by yourself or attending another’s wedding, some people struggle to imagine an enjoyable experience without a beau or belle by their side to divert the pitying eyes of strangers.
Fortunately, these fears of spending time alone in public seem to be unfounded. In one memorable study, Rebecca Ratner at the University of Maryland and Rebecca Hamilton at Georgetown University recruited 86 participants from a university campus and invited them to attend an exhibition at an art gallery. Some were alone, others were in pairs with an existing acquaintance. Before they saw the exhibition, they were asked to estimate how much they would enjoy the experience – and, after they’d had a look around, they had to rate their actual enjoyment.
The lone participants tended to envision a dim view of the experience without a partner. Yet Ratner and Hamilton found that the presence of a companion made no difference to their overall enjoyment. Importantly, the experience seemed to reduce their feelings of self-consciousness. After visiting the exhibition by themselves, the lone participants were less likely to assume that others had formed a negative judgment, as compared with their fears before the experience.
Given these results, you might choose to plan small solo adventures for yourself, as you slowly build your self-confidence to enjoy life on your own terms. With time, you might come to appreciate periods of solitude as time to reconnect with yourself.
Reframe your thinking
Fighting singlism and embracing your solitude is likely to feel much harder if you’re single by circumstance rather than through choice. If this applies to you, there are tools from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) that you can use to navigate your feelings as you cope with past breakups and look to embark on future relationships.
For example, if you’re unhappily single, you might find yourself falling into regular periods of regret, as you look back at past loves and ruminate on what might have been if the relationship hadn’t disintegrated. That’s not always a bad thing. Regret – like all negative emotions – can help us learn from our errors to avoid making the same mistakes in the future. In excess, however, it will act like psychological quicksand so that you’re unable to move on with your life. In these cases, Jennifer Taitz, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles, suggests to her clients that they employ a little counterfactual thinking, asking themselves how the relationship might have played out if they hadn’t broken up. Is it really feasible that you could have put up with their flaws and still lived happily ever after, or is it just wishful thinking? How do you know that they wouldn’t have acted even worse as time wore on? Many couples, after all, have serious regrets about their choice of partner, but might struggle to summon up the courage to leave the relationship. There’s no guarantee that you would have achieved the happiness you imagine, had you taken that other path.
You might want to pay attention to your fantasies about the future too. It’s tempting to assume that all your problems will be solved when you meet your Prince or Princess Charming. If you venture too far into these romantic dreams, you’ll miss out on all the potential pleasures that are right in front of you. If that sounds familiar, you might ground yourself in a little realism by remembering that the human mind is notoriously bad at predicting what will and won’t make it happy. (Remember that, contrary to expectations, marriage causes only a temporary increase in life satisfaction – a fact that’s also true of many other big life events.) According to the available happiness research, you’ve just as much chance of being happy now as you would with a partner. The aim, Taitz says, is to adopt a mindful approach that focuses on the pleasures of the present moment.
Practise radical acceptance
Taitz also endorses ‘radical acceptance’ to deal with disappointments. In general, we often exacerbate our negative feelings by focusing on the injustice of our situation, or by seeing it as a sign of worse things to come. ‘We add so much weight to our suffering when we anticipate future pain,’ she told me. If you’re single and you’ve been on a bad date, for instance, it’s easy to start a depressing ‘trend analysis’ that paints a dim view of your future prospects – leading to greater feelings of hopelessness.
With radical acceptance, you can acknowledge the pain you’re feeling without any of those judgments. If you apply this to a bad date, you might tell yourself that it’s OK to feel sad – it’s a sign that you care deeply about your love life – but you can remain focused on your feelings in that moment rather than drawing catastrophic conclusions about dating more generally. ‘It’s kind of keeping things current in a way that is more empowering than depleting,’ Taitz said.
To apply radical acceptance more generally, you need to first recognise the signs that you’re trying to fight reality. This could include regular thoughts that ‘It shouldn’t be this way!’ or wistful desires such as ‘If only I had a partner.’ You can acknowledge the physical sensations of the emotions you’re feeling, without judging them. You could then remind yourself of the multiple factors that have led to your current situation, and recognise the futility of ruminating on events that were beyond your control; ultimately, you can’t change reality but you can change the way you think about that reality. By letting go of those self-defeating thoughts, you can then devote your energy to the things that you can actually change in your life, through positive and practical actions.
Find your purpose
As a single person, given the sense of social judgment and prejudice that you likely have to contend with on a daily basis, you might find it especially beneficial to practise strategies that improve your overall psychological resilience and self-perception. (Supporting this, Kislev has found that attitudes such as optimism and a sense of accomplishment make a greater difference to overall happiness among singles than among coupled people.)
To build your inner strength, you might spend some more time thinking about personal goals and values. Various strands of research have shown that people who report having a strong sense of purpose in their life tend to recover more quickly from stressful events, including difficult social situations. In her book How to Be Single and Happy (2018), Taitz suggests that you start out by answering the following questions:
Once you’ve reflected on your answers and the ways that they reflect your overall purpose in life, try to make some concrete plans to enact them. If friendships are vitally important and you feel that you’re not currently spending enough time on them, then decide to reach out to two people each week; if you want to be a better uncle, think of activities you might regularly share with your niece; if it’s about making a difference politically, decide how you’re actively going to campaign.
Many people can also benefit from a sense of personal growth. For this reason, you might also commit to new hobbies and skills that will continue to challenge you, such as cooking, music or learning a foreign language. The sense of mastery will bolster feelings of self-efficacy and self-worth. (It is one form of ‘behavioural activation’ that’s a common element of psychotherapies.)
It has to be said that many singles have naturally come to this way of thinking, without being educated about these strategies. DePaulo, for example, points to one study that tracked thousands of participants over a five-year period. It found that single people were much more likely to agree with the statement ‘For me, life has been a continuous process of learning, change and growth’ than married participants, who were more likely to agree with the statement ‘I gave up trying to make improvements in my life a long time ago.’
Even if you’re currently uncertain about your single status, you might soon find yourself living ‘joyfully and unapologetically’, says DePaulo. ‘For people who have already come to understand themselves as single at heart, that comes naturally,’ she adds. ‘Others may appreciate prompts. Here’s one: what have you always longed to do? Do it. Don’t wait for that elusive partner who may never show up or who may turn out to be an impediment to your dreams rather than the answer to them.’
What to read as a single person
It should be a truth universally acknowledged that singlism is prevalent in fiction.
In many cases, the authors are simply holding up a mirror to the societies that they live in, of course. Jane Austen’s novels might seem like classic tales of ‘matrimania’ but they also cast a critical glance over the systemic prejudices faced by unmarried women in early 19th-century England, and their limited options for financial security. (Austen chose to forgo marriage herself.) Other writers, unfortunately, are much lazier, and simply replicate the existing prejudices without judgment, portraying singles who are depressed, unfulfilled and desperate for romance. Sadly, this is especially true for female protagonists.
Unsurprisingly, these depictions can have negative effects on people’s psychological wellbeing – a phenomenon that psychologists call the Bridget Jones effect. One study used a questionnaire examining people’s fear of being single, in which participants had to rate statements such as ‘If I end up alone in life, I will probably feel like there is something wrong with me.’ Among the single women in their sample, the authors saw a clear correlation between these anxieties and the amount of romantic media the participants consumed.
‘It does tend to be a cliché over many a novel that you start off with two single people being sad, and you end up with a happy couple,’ says Ella Berthoud, co-author of The Novel Cure (2013). And it has long been suspected that this could set up unrealistic expectations of romance, she says.
As a ‘bibliotherapist’ at the School of Life in London, Berthoud helps clients to reappraise their current situation through the reading of fiction. ‘When you read a great novel, you take on the psyche and persona of the characters in the book, so you can be effectively transformed from within.’ And if you feel like an antidote to singlist stereotypes, she has many suggestions for books that might help you navigate your way through single life.
The first is The Dud Avocado (1958) by Elaine Dundy. Now a classic, Dundy’s debut novel follows 21-year-old Sally Jay Gorce through a string of affairs as she tries to break into the French film industry. ‘She’s really fun – you just want to be in her company. And whoever she ends up with – that’s not the goal of her life,’ says Berthoud. It’s Gorce’s confidence, in particular, and her willingness to shun convention, that makes The Dud Avocado such a refreshing change, Berthoud says. ‘She makes you feel more confident and upbeat.’
Berthoud also suggests the Jack Reacher novels, whose character (created by Lee Child) is mostly single and happy in his solitude; and All Grown Up (2017) by Jami Attenberg, which follows the life of an unapologetic (former) artist, Andrea, as she navigates her late 30s. ‘It shows the goals that you thought you were aspiring to might not be the real goals that you actually want for your later life.’ Finally, for people who are trying to come to terms with a previous toxic relationship, she recommends The Great Alone (2018) by Kristin Hannah.
If you’re looking for further inspiration, Hephzibah Anderson, the author of Chastened: The Unexpected Story of My Year Without Sex (2009), and a former contributor to the Textual Healing column at BBC Culture, suggests that Ella Hepworth Dixon’s novel The Story of a Modern Woman (1894) could help you to ‘take heart from the past’. ‘It describes a time when carving an existence as a single woman – in this protagonist’s case, by writing pulp fiction – was a radical act.’ For nonfiction, Anderson recommends Kate Bolick’s Spinster (2015). ‘It rallies kickass heroines including Edna St Vincent Millay and Edith Wharton, all of whom made the very most of their solitary status, even if it turned out to be only temporary.’
These are just a few recommendations. But whatever media you’re consuming, you might try to be a little more conscious of the way that singles are represented, and the effects that those depictions are having on your psyche. Perhaps, having recognised the poor representation of singles in literature, you’ll even be inspired to write your own antidote to the Bridget Jones effect, detailing your own adventures in self-coupling – and, who knows, maybe Emma Watson could play the film lead.
In her TEDx talk ‘How to Be Alone’ (2019), Lane Moore – a comedian and author of How to Be Alone: If You Want to, and Even If You Don’t (2018) – discusses finding human connections, even when family, friends and partners disappoint.
In Bella DePaulo’s TEDx talk ‘What No One Ever Told You About People Who Are Single’ (2017), you’ll find out why, even though they get stereotyped and stigmatised, single people can live happily ever after.
Visit the Happy Singlehood Facebook discussion group to discover others’ perspectives on the best strategies to live a fulfilling single life, and to share your own.
For further conversations about singlism and the ways to escape the stigma, visit the Community of Single People Facebook discussion group; note, this has strict rules for membership: it is not a place to look for a date.
Listen to the podcast series ‘Solo: The Single Person’s Guide to a Remarkable Life’ (2019-) by the behavioural scientist, humour researcher and bachelor Peter McGraw, for a combination of interviews that explore the single experience, along with advice from health and wellness experts.
Read Bella DePaulo’s book Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After (2004). DePaulo has led the way with the study of singlism and its consequences, and Singled Out skilfully dismantles many of the most prevalent myths. Her website provides further information, including links to her scholarly papers. DePaulo also regularly blogs at Psychology Today, where you can read her most recent thoughts on the subject.
Elyakim Kislev’s book Happy Singlehood: The Rising Acceptance and Celebration of Solo Living (2019) describes the ‘singles awareness’ movement and explores the ways that our cultural norms are already changing. It includes interviews with many single people on their lifestyles and the ways they cope with prejudice, alongside a detailed examination of the need for structural change to allow singles to flourish. Like DePaulo, Kislev also blogs at Psychology Today.
There’s also Jennifer Taitz’s book How to Be Single and Happy: Science-Based Strategies for Keeping Your Sanity While Looking for a Soul Mate (2018). As the subtitle suggests, this is aimed at readers who see their single status as a temporary rather than permanent situation. But many of the astute insights from Taitz on the best ways to maintain your wellbeing in a world designed for couples would be eminently useful for the ‘single at heart’.
Finally, the book The Tenacity of the Couple-Norm: Intimate Citizenship Regimes in a Changing Europe (2020) by the social scientist Sasha Roseneil et al is a detailed examination of the many ways that European societies have institutionalised the idea of the romantic cohabiting couple. It’s available for free from UCL Press.