In our culture, we don't acknowledge the benefits of being single.
Being single is sometimes seen as a failure, especially for women. Getting married and having children is often treated as the hallmark for adulthood — even though plenty of immature people have a spouse and/or kids.
I recently realized that single life has plenty of unacknowledged advantages. Spending time by myself reminded me of what it was like to be my own partner in life. In some ways, my life was more exciting when it was just me. I spend more time with friends and tried more new things. And while I love my hubby, I don’t want to abandon my past, single self.
My experience is not unusual. Single people excel at some things that suddenly become a struggle when you’re in a relationship.
Let’s explore those:
3 Things Singles Do Much Better
1. They are better at maintaining friendships
In general, single people are much better about maintaining friendships than their partnered friends. The more committed someone’s relationship is, the worse that person does when it comes to maintaining friendships.
I’ve always had that impression — noticing how closer I was to friends when I was single than when I was in a relationship — and research confirms this.
As sociology researcher Elyakim Kislev put it:
Ouch. (That’s shorthand for “guilty as charged.”)
Oxford University researchers discovered that falling in love costs you (on average) two friends. As Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary anthropology at Oxford, explains:
“People who are in romantic relationships — instead of having the typical five [individuals] on average, they only have four in that circle. And bearing in mind that one of those is the new person that’s come into your life, it means you’ve had to give up two others.”
That’s not… great.
What makes it worse is that research suggests that the midlife wellbeing of people depends on having a wide circle of friends whom they see regularly. The same is also true later in life. After analyzing a pair of studies involving nearly 280,000 people, assistant professor William Chopik concluded that
“Summaries of these studies show that friendships predict day-to-day happiness more and ultimately how long we’ll live, more so than spousal and family relationships.”
Chopik mentions a potential reason for this: the optionality of friendships. Because we don’t have to stick with our friends, over time we only keep the friends we like and free ourselves from the rest.
Here’s how I’d summarize all the research I shared above: if you’re in a committed relationship and you want to be happy throughout your entire life, it might be time to pick up the phone and call a friend. And then call another friend. And then maybe go travel together with friends. (If your partner disagrees with that plan, show them the research and then give them their phone so they can make their own travel arrangements. Separate from you — perhaps on another continent?)
For me, these studies are a wake-up call. They ask me to consider the strength of my friendships and how I want to improve it. (Also, does anyone want to plan a trip with me? I’m kind of in the market for new friends…)
2. They are more self-determined and self-sufficient
Single people don’t just tend to have better relationships with friends, they also might have a stronger connection to themselves. According to research, single people do better than their married counterparts when it comes to autonomy and personal growth.
It’s not surprising to me that single people tend to be more self-determined than people in a relationship. When you don’t have a partner around, there are things you need to handle by yourself because nobody else will do it for you. In some ways, I definitely felt more self-sufficient when I was single and even when I was married but living in another country.
While you can’t fully replicate the self-reliance demands a single has inside a relationship, you can expose yourself to situations that ask you to step up the plate. For instance, my husband recently went to see his parents so I could spend some time by myself. I used that time to complete some hard tasks, including redoing the asphalt on our driveway. While I was sweating in the sun and trying to get the project completed, our new neighbor and his friend appeared, offering their help. (Hah! In just a few hours, I scored two single benefit points at once: self-sufficiency and interaction with neighbors.)
Spending some time apart is one way to deepen your self-sufficiency even when you are in a relationship, as is traveling alone. (So, if you haven’t been able to find friends who want to travel with you, you could just go by yourself and make friends while traveling.)
3. They are more generous with their time and energy
Social psychologist Bella DePaulo compiled a long, research-baked list of ways in which singles are generous than people in relationships. This includes doing more long-term caretaking of people, being more engaged in the town or city where they live, and giving more support to parents, siblings, neighbors, and friends. In contrast, married people become more insular over time, regardless of whether they have children or not.
They might also be more involved in the workplace in ways that don’t just benefit themselves. For instance, a study that just included men found that those who got married participated less often in groups such as farm organizations, unions, or professional societies than they had when they were single.
What this shows st that reality is quite different than all the talk about “selfish singles” would have you believe. The opposite seems to be true and that phenomenon is called “greedy marriage.” (Most of the research seems to be about married people, not just people in committed relationships.)
Here’s how Sociologist Naomi Gerstel describes this phenomenon:
“Marriage clearly has troublesome implications for the community that are often overlooked. As the population ages, the greediness of marriage deprives more elderly parents — who, ironically, have often pressed their children to marry — of the help and support that they want and need. Marriage can also generate excessive burdens on those who are single, as they are expected to provide the care that their married siblings do not.”
Wow! So, basically, if you’re a parent and want someone to be there for you in old age, you’d be better off with a child who is single. (Well, I guess that’s fair punishment for all the parents who ever badgered their children to get married…)
Discovering more about the generosity of single people has been eye-opening for me. It’s people in a committed relationship (and not single people) who are most at risk of being ungenerous. It’s single people who hold up much of the social fabric of the world we live in.
While I’m as much in touch with my family members and about as likely to offer help as back when I was single, I can see what “greedy marriage” is referring to. When you’re in a committed relationship, you need to be wary of this drift towards “insularity.”
Given all that I shared above, it’s perhaps not surprising that single people aren’t necessarily less happy than people who are in committed relationships.
Paul Dolan, a professor of behavioral science at the London School of Economics, actually says that unlike men (who gain some benefits from marriage), women shouldn’t bother to get married: “The healthiest and happiest population subgroup are women who never married or had children.”
So, if you’re in a relationship (particularly if you’re a woman), should you leave your partner to enjoy these benefits of being single?
Of course not! There are many positive things about being in a committed relationship with the right person. These include support, growth, as well as potential tax and other savings.
So, there’s no reason to ditch your partner unless it’s a bad relationship you’d like to leave anyway. In that case, it might be reassuring to hear that single life has many, many advantages.
However, if you are in a relationship, you might like to take a leaf out of your single friend’s book. Not only are there things single people do a lot better than the rest of us, being single is also incredibly normal and thus something we should be able to do, if necessary.
We’ve all been single at some point in the past and many of us might be single again at some point in the future. As the aforementioned sociology researcher Elyakim Kislev so accurately put it:
“… marriage is not forever; the only three ways to get out are you die, your spouse dies, or you get divorced. Besides the rare occasion where you marry early and stay with the same partner all your life, and die before them — that’s the only way you won’t be single. Society should start preparing people to be single because this situation will be very prevalent. The majority of the population in North America and Europe are single.”
If you are single, you probably have this handled already.
If, like me, you are in a relationship now is a great time to start becoming less insular and learn from your single friends (you have reached out to your friends, haven’t you?).
Before writing this article, I had planned to cancel a call with my friends/coaching colleagues next week due to my busy schedule. Now, I’ll find a way to be on the call!
Regardless of whether you will be in a relationship for your whole life or not, acting more like a single person might make you happier.
P.S.: Oh, and let’s all stop pitying single people, alright?
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