Sad, lonely and left on the shelf...or time for a different story?

Woman dancing against sunlight
Happy and alone, can we do it? (Pexels, Jackson David)

When we are single, we tend to feel lonely, sad, and flawed at relationships. We are probably just waiting for someone to come along. Such notions about being single are in the films we watch, the music we hear, the conversations we have. We could say that it's a narrative most of us believe in, whatever our belief system. There is another story, though, we just don't often hear about it.


Let’s say that we find ourselves on a sunny terrace of a bustling little corner of the city, stirring our coffee. Then a couple pass by, hand in hand, gleefully in love. Pang. Feelings of envy and sadness may engulf us. We feel like there might be something wrong with us, and that fear of growing old alone, the worst of them all, is back, even if just for a moment. We are, after all, single. ‘What is wrong with me, why can't I have that,’ we may wonder.

Or, changing our perspective for a moment, we may be the couple passing in this scenario, glancing over to the lonely person, and feel a moment of pity for them. Happy that we are not one of them, or even worried that one day we might be again.

These scenarios may sound a bit over the top, but, no matter how modern or forward-thinking we consider ourselves to be, if we are honest with ourselves, do we not see life that way?

One study entitled ‘Stereotypes of singles: Are singles what we think?' has demonstrated to us that when we view single people compared to those being partnered, we see them in a more negative way. We do this, say the researchers: “In terms of a wide range of personality characteristics, overall well-being, and satisfaction with relationships status.”

The researchers also found that when we are single ourselves, we do the same, and they wrote: “Self-ratings of single and partnered participants were remarkably similar for all personality characteristics as well as overall well-being.”

The mythology of marriage

One writer, who called these ways of seeing "common cultural scripts," wrote in 2016: "Social science has reinforced [these scripts] a bit by telling us over and over that getting married does, in fact, bring various benefits to one's level of happiness and life satisfaction. Marriage is good for you, we hear over and over and over."

In this author’s experience, when people in the US are asked what the main difference is between single and married people, the answer would usually be that they are "a little lonelier, a little sadder," and maybe "a bit more lacking in life purpose and fulfilment."

Some would even say that the very focus of most research into being single versus in a relationship, has been on the benefits of being in a relationship, as did Social Scientist (PhD, Harvard) Bella DePaulo, who wrote in 2018, that the "mythology of marriage," is something that has long been "bolstered by the writings of social scientists."

Single people may have no spouse to talk to at the end of the afternoon, but they can choose to talk things over with a good friend.

Single people may have to do everything on their own without partner support, but they may be able to forgo a reliance on another individual for their happiness.

Unmarried people may have to face life on their own, but they may be less likely to end up in a relationship that is not good for them. They may even find richness in their lives in other ways.

These are all other perspectives that tell a different story, one that can be just as compelling. But we just don't tend to hear them as much.

There is also research suggesting otherwise. For example, by the evolutionary psychologists David M. Buss for example, who has asserted that humans are "neither solely monogamous, nor solely promiscuous," and they are "neither polygynous nor polyandrous" when it comes to mating strategies. Yet that persistent idea that we are just not destined to be alone, that it’s just not good for us, continues to exist, whether it is true for us, individually, or not.

Some people are so fed up with this persistent message that they decide to do something about it.

Take Nicola Slawson, a journalist from the UK, who has told The Guardian newspaper that the general persistent message in content aimed at women is condescending and negative, and "all about what to do with your partner, or how to get a partner if you don't have one," and that this has encouraged her to create The Single Supplement, a newsletter for single women.

Single and happy, and out of choice

When in 2019, Behavioural Scientist of the London School of Economics Paul Dolan talked about his book ‘Happy Ever After: Escaping the Myths of the Perfect Life,’ he too managed to show us quite a different picture. He went as far as to say that current evidence supports that "the healthiest and happiest population subgroup are women who never married."

Dolan also told Breaking Perspectives more recently: “Although the narrative is that single people are miserable, there is evidence to the contrary, including that single women live longer, and never-married women have, by definition, not experienced any unhappiness from marital divorce or separation during their lifetimes.”

Eric Klinenberg, a Professor of Social Science at New York University, and who wrote 'Going Solo: The extraordinary rise and surprising appeal of living alone,' has also discovered quite a different picture.  "When I got deeper into the research, I realised that, in fact, only a small number of people who are living alone are actually isolated, or lonely,” he has said before in an interview about his book, and he added: "Many people living on their own have richer lives than other adults," and that a living alone lifestyle can help foster a "kind of restorative solitude, a solitude that can be productive."

Interestingly, what the researchers of the previously-mentioned study about singles and our stereotypes, also found was that all in all, the single stereotype is “largely inaccurate” and thus, we may not be as sad and unhealthy when single as we keep on saying.

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Interested in reading about one of the myths surrounding travel: Travelling Alone? Check out this story from Seven Corners about solo women travellers and how they are going anyway

A strength that just has to be present

Can we not just say, there are benefits to being single, just as there are to being in a relationship?

When Dr. Niloo Dardashti, a relationship and workplace psychologist from New York City, talked to Time Magazine in 2018, she said: "We tend to sometimes rely on our partners for a lot more than what we need to," and when she spoke to Breaking Perspectives more recently, she added: "When you're alone, there's a strength and resourcefulness that is almost required to be present."

"Being single comes with many perks, and it’s important to remember that it doesn’t necessarily mean that one cannot nail down a partner, but may, in fact, mean that one does not want to settle," she also told us.

“I think in the past we did not have this luxury," she added: "...given all of the expectations around us. Not that we don’t have expectations around us anymore, because we certainly do, but I think that people are being encouraged to be authentic, and be with a partner that they feel satisfied with rather than someone who is good enough"

Echoing this sentiment, when one author wrote about the surprising benefits of being single on the Oprah Daily site in 2019, she said: "When you're not legally bound to another person, you have the freedom to learn, grow, and explore, without any of the guilt associated with taking time for self-care."

"When you're alone, there's a strength and resourcefulness that is almost required to be present"

Self belief

More and more, when people are single, it is no longer just because they have just suffered a relationship break, or because they are not good at relationships and just can’t keep one. It is because they are choosing to live that way, and it’s because they feel genuinely happy about doing it.

Back in 2013, one author wrote that "one of the most unprecedented trends of modern society," was "the number of people who choose to live alone."

"Single people are getting harder and harder to ignore," wrote the author of another aforementioned article in 2016, and she added: "People, on the whole, seem less into marriage than they used to be. At a time when it's easier than ever before to learn about the purported benefits of getting married…more and more people are building solo lives for themselves that would have been viewed as wildly unorthodox in the fairly recent past."

In 2019, DePaulo wrote in an article in Psychology Today: "All around the world, marriage is in decline and single living is on the rise."

According to the author of the aforementioned article in The Guardian, there are an "increasing number of single-positive" people who are "rejecting the notion that true love is the only path to happiness."

And, Nicola Slawson who was interviewed about her newsletter for singles, told readers in the same article: "All you need, in fact, is self-belief....I don't see the point in apologising for existing as a single woman or sitting around feeling like I am waiting for my life to start. I just want to get out there and live it."

Or, as Dr. Dardashti put it when she spoke to Breaking Perspectives: "In general, I think that we have come to see being single as not a negative thing; in other words in the past where we may have seen it as not based on a choice, we now realise that for many people it is definitely a choice."

"In general, I think that we have come to see being single as not a negative thing: We now realise that for many people it is definitely a choice"

Couple of swans against sunset
Into the sunset: Time for another story alongside our old one?

Singletons around the world

According to a Pew Research Center report from 2014, by the time young US adults reach the age of 50, about one in four of them will have been single all their life

In 2016, it has been estimated that 45.2 percent of all U.S. residents from 18-year-old up were unmarried

Over in Australia, it was reported that between 1986 and 2016, the number of single-person households had increased from 19% to 24%

Meanwhile, in the UK in 2017, marriage rates for opposite-sex couples in England and Wales were valued by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) as the lowest on record


Panorama of autumn woods and sky

Ready to mix things up a bit? Less following, influencing, taking a stance and giving an opinion: more reflecting on different perspectives on life? Check out our content!

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Breaking Perspectives is about seeing life from more than one perspective. It is brand new and features various points of view in our daily personal and working lives. Seeing things from a variety of perspectives might not come naturally to us, but if it did, it could improve our lives as well as the world. Let's see where things may take us! Read more

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