Honoring the Choice to Be Single

Have We Gotten Past Our Relationship Biases?

Magazine Issue
May/June 2023
Older woman sitting in a field | Photo by iStock/Tom Merton

Robyn is a therapist in training, who’s working with a client in her late 40s named Melody. A professional musician who teaches marimba to schoolkids on the side, Melody has been in a few serious relationships, but she isn’t looking for one now and has told Robyn several times that she’s done with that chapter of her life. She says she’d like to stay single, not temporarily while she “works on herself,” as others say they’re doing, but for the rest of her life.

Robyn is well aware of a growing singles movement, where people are publicly celebrating their single status and eschewing marriage or long-term relationships. But she’s starting to realize that the psychotherapy field considers singlism to be a youthful choice at best and an unhealthy one at worst. And while Robyn’s bookshelves are lined with texts on helping couples clients have better relationships, she hasn’t come across one geared toward helping clients celebrate the choice to forgo a partnership altogether. After all, MFTs are not “marriage (or whatever solo arrangement you choose for yourself in adulthood) and family therapists.”

Her supervisor seems to be toeing this line as well. As they settle into a supervisory session and Robyn shares Melody’s comments and her own uncertainty about how to proceed, her supervisor pushes her glasses back on her head and smiles. “You’re in a position of wanting to support your client’s choices while being aware of what she might be missing if she swears off future relationships. Now, it’s a delicate dance, but it might be helpful to invite Melody to remain open. You might ask, ‘Can we explore why you want to rule out the possibility that, one day, you may find yourself drawn to someone who could be a source of ongoing support and lasting love?’ It’s interesting that she’s determined to close this door. What’s driving that?”

Robyn has already talked with her client about this. Melody is clear that although she’s not ruling out any possibilities, she wants to celebrate her choice to be single, rather than viewing it as a pit stop on a waystation to being partnered. Her relationship experiences haven’t been terrible; they just didn’t improve on the well-being she experiences as a single person, and at times, they dampened it. “I honestly think she feels happiest outside of a committed partnership,” Robyn says weakly, squirming under her supervisor’s skeptical gaze. “Do you think she’s deluding herself?”

Her supervisor shrugs. “Rela­tionships are challenging, but of course that’s because other people reactivate old attachment wounds we still carry around, which gives us the opportunity to heal them. You mentioned her parents divorced when she was a teenager?”

Robyn nods and smiles wanly, unsurprised by this response but still feeling conflicted. The nature of the work she and her fellow trainees are doing with many of their couples clients reflects the same clinical perspective. Their task seems to be rooted in the belief that being part of a healthy, happy couple is a state everyone should aspire to, and individuals need to work through personal issues that get in the way of achieving this. Even when couples decide to separate, there’s an assumption that managing anxiety and fostering growth depend on healing old wounds that might get in the way of the search for their next relationship.

None of it feels entirely right.

Robyn gazes at her supervisor and stifles the question she really wants to ask, “What if committed relationships aren’t the answer for everyone? Can you tell me what’s actually so bad about clients staying single?”

For many practitioners, the idea of the devoted singleton still smacks of someone in need of help, someone who avoids deep connection and is missing out on the chance to evolve and heal childhood attachment wounds with an intimate partner in adulthood. Popular therapy trainer and practitioner Linda Carroll, the author of Love Skills and Love Cycles, has been a couples therapist for nearly 40 years, and calls this notion into question.

“There’s so much messaging suggesting that if you don’t have a great romantic relationship, your life is a failure,” Carroll says. “But the whole idea of finding your other half has created so many problems in the world. The truth is, there is no other half. Once you’re cured of that disillusionment, you realize that the one has to be you. And that’s what’s pivotal to healing. You can do really great work as a single person that you miss out on when you’re in a relationship.”

She suggests therapists try to look more deeply and clearly at what constitutes a meaningful life. “The research tells us our relationships define our well-being, and I agree 100 percent that we need other to find self,” she says. “But that other doesn’t have to be another person. It can be rocks or turtles or prayer. I’ve been married forever, but I could live happily with a pack of dogs. A fulfilling life doesn’t have to involve marriage, or romantic love, or a child. It could involve any passion. As an Imago therapist, I believe we’re born in relationship and heal in relationship. But that relationship could be with my supervisor at work, or my friends, or maybe a neighbor I bring soup to. Some people may not have ‘good attachment,’ but they have other things that are wonderful in their life.”

The next generation, Carroll notes, is open to these ideas in ways that may force the field to change. “I just helped my granddaughter get ready for her winter prom. You know what winter prom was for her? A sunny white skirt, Doc Martens boots, a tank top, a great big jacket, and her five girlfriends. When I was in high school, if you didn’t have a date, you were shunned. But now, you don’t need a date. There are so many ways of being attached and connected.”

Why does the redefinition of partnership Carroll suggests feel like such a revolutionary concept from a therapist, even in the 21st century? Part of the reason may be the pervasive societal message that adults reap so many benefits from marriage that it would be foolish to pass it up. After all, marriage in the U.S. is still associated with living longer and better. Married people have a leg up on singletons when it comes to wealth building, including uncontestable rights to shared property. Taxes are more favorable to married Americans, as is our healthcare system. Plus, most Americans look favorably upon the idea of marrying for life. After the Obergefell decision, for example, LGBTQ marriages doubled in the U.S., and according to Gallup, same-sex couples who live together are now more often choosing to marry than not.

Yet Americans are still choosing to remain single in unprecedented numbers these days. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly half of all Americans over the age of 18 are currently single—more than 125 million people—and five years ago, America’s marriage rate for young adults fell to 29 percent, one of the lowest since the mid-1800s, when record-keeping began.

Since the ’80s, the percentage of married adult women in the U.S. has dropped about 10 points, to less than half, while those who’ve never married has risen to around 30 percent. Marriage rates in much of Asia, Australia, and South America have dropped precipitously in the last 30 years.

Of course, plenty of unmarried folks cohabitate in committed relationships, and in the U.S., the acceptance of cohabitation without marriage has risen. But growing numbers of adults choosing to neither marry nor live with someone else long-term are speaking up for their choice.

Peter McGraw, a behavioral economist, professor, podcaster, and avowed bachelor, is one of those people. As the founder of the Solo movement, an online community of singles—two-thirds of whom are women—that has its own popular podcast and hosts occasional salons, he argues that today’s singles shouldn’t feel any shame about being unattached for life.

As he told The Today Show, part of the messaging his fellow soloists are up against is that “singles are sad and lonely. All of the data and all of the experience that I’ve had suggest that most of them are not.” Cultural messaging may indeed contribute to making some singles feel incomplete, but most of the singles he encounters in the Solo community, he says, don’t feel inferior to partnered people. “They feel proud of where they are in life.”

Leslie Rogers, a 75-year-old therapist in Washington, DC, says that she came alive when she divorced 25 years ago. She has a fulfilling career, lives close to family, and has built up a thriving community around her. The latter is critical as a single person, she says. “I tell this to my clients who are considering being single or are newly single—you have to keep building your community.

“Sometimes my single clients say, ‘I’m happy, but I do get lonely on a Sunday afternoon.’ I’ll ask, “Is it okay to be able to feel that for those hours? How do those hours blend into the much larger totality of the rest of your life?’ Some people have trouble feeling filled up, and they may always want a soulmate. But most of us can get filled up being with people in other ways.”

Rogers says she never thinks, as some others in the field seem to, that her clients should or shouldn’t be coupled, or that either of those choices are responses to an attachment style. “I’m always supportive if a client wants to be coupled, but if they don’t, I don’t push them.” Especially in her couples work, Rogers is forthright about her single status. “I’m honest about my singleness. I’ll say, ‘What’s it like to have a therapist who’s single?’ or ‘What’s it like to have a therapist who’s divorced?’ Clients are usually not put off and it opens up a conversation about the choices they might make. In fact, I’ve found most of my female single clients who are over 55 aren’t interested in being partnered in a cohabitation situation. Some say they enjoy a man’s company and would like someone to do things with, but I rarely hear anyone say they want to remarry.”

Perhaps the best-known voice for singletons is psychologist Bella DePaulo. She’s the author of 10 books and a prolific blogger on single life. She has noted that the therapy field is woefully out of touch with the world of singles, and told Psychotherapy Networker in a 2018 interview titled “Resisting Matrimania” that the constant drumbeat of attachment theory is partly to blame for many therapists believing long-term, romantic commitment is a necessity for a meaningful, happy life. Here’s an excerpt from that interview:

Psychotherapy Networker: What inspired you to study the psychology of singleness?

Bella DePaulo: For years, I kept a secret file folder of observations about what I’d later call singlism. Some of them were stories in the media. Others were my personal experiences, which at the time I didn’t know whether to attribute to the fact that I was single or to some other explanation. For example, when I started at a new job, my colleagues would invite me to lunch during the work week, but over the weekends, the couples would socialize only with other couples. Were they excluding me because I was single, or because they just didn’t want to spend more time with me? When job candidates would come to visit and my married colleagues asked me to cover the times with them that no one else wanted, were they doing that because they figured that as a single person I didn’t have a life like they did?

After a while, I started asking other single people—tentatively at first—whether they’d had experiences like mine. The first time I did this was at a social event, and I approached just one other single person. She could totally relate. Then someone else joined the conversation and had her own stories. Then another person, and then some more people stepped into the circle, and they weren’t all women. We talked for as long as the event lasted. The next morning, I opened my email and found messages that said, “Oh, and another thing!”

At the next social event, the same thing happened—then again on a trip I took to an entirely new place. That’s when I realized that this was something that resonated with lots of singles. The more I researched single life and wrote about it, the more passionate I became about getting a more affirming and balanced perspective out there.

PN: People often quote studies that point to the benefits of marriage over singleness, but you dispute their validity. Why?

DePaulo: When I decided to write Singled Out, my first book on the topic, I spent a lot of time delving into the social scientific studies on the implications of getting married. I’d never read any of the original research reports, but I was familiar with what the popular press had to say: people who marry become happier and healthier and live longer and all the rest.

Even though I didn’t think I’d be happier if I married, I thought I was the exception. Back then, my hope in collecting stacks of studies was that I’d find some wrinkles somewhere: maybe for women at a certain age, single life was just as good or even better than married life.

I was stunned when I started reading the actual research reports. The vast majority of studies were cross-sectional. They compared people who were currently married with people who were single, and if the married people were doing better, they’d say, “See, marriage makes people happier! See, if single people would only get married, they’d be happier!”

But I soon realized all the conclusions were based on correlations that didn’t tell us anything about causation. Married people might differ from the single people studied in all sorts of ways that could account for the difference. Maybe the married people weren’t happier (or healthier or whatever) because they were married, but because they had more money or because they were healthier to begin with—the possibilities are endless. Sometimes researchers try to control for this or that, but they can never control for every possibility, and they never even think of some of the most important ones, such as whether the single people want to be single.

Then I began to see more clearly a fundamental flaw in the research. By including in the married group only those people who are currently married, the researchers were ignoring all the people—probably more than 40 percent—who got married, hated it, and didn’t stay married. An apt analogy is a drug company doing a study in which 40 percent of the people in the drug condition hate the drug and refuse to keep taking it. Then, when the company submits the study for publication, it includes in the drug group only those people who stayed on it. No self-respecting journal would ever publish that.

Nevertheless, despite a methodology that gave married people an unfair advantage, sometimes those studies showed little difference between the married and the unmarried people. Some of them even found advantages for the lifelong single people.

Longitudinal studies, though still not perfect, are much better. By 2012, there were at least 18 studies of happiness in which the same people had been studied over time as they’d gone from being single to getting married. A review of those studies showed that people who’d gotten married typically hadn’t become any happier. At best, they’d experienced a brief increase in their satisfaction with life right around the time of the wedding, but then over time, their happiness had steadily decreased. And only those people who’d gotten married and stayed married enjoyed that honeymoon effect! The people who eventually divorced were already becoming less happy, rather than more so, as the day of their wedding approached. They ended up less happy than they’d been when they were single.

Some of the most recent and most sophisticated studies are even more shattering of the myths about the supposed benefits of marrying. For example, on some measures, people who get married get less healthy than they were before.

PN: Attachment theorists might say that someone who’s dedicated to remaining single may have an avoidant attachment style. How would you respond to that?

DePaulo: Sure, some single people have an avoidant attachment style, but so do many married people! A lot of these theorists may be thinking about attachment only as it relates to romantic partners. But research shows that single people often have secure attachment relationships with close friends, siblings, and parents.

To think that people who want to stay single may have an avoidant attachment style is to tell people who choose single life that, sure, they may think they want to be single, but really, deep down inside, there’s something wrong with them. It’s condescending and regressive, and it pathologizes single people just for being single.

It’s important not to undercut the lifelong single people who have close relationships (including friendships that have outlasted many marriages), are doing important and engaging work, and are passionately pursuing goals. Nor should we be dismissive about the single people who may not be chasing “great achievements,” but are living the lives they choose.

PN: Why do coupled people feel so threatened by dedicated singletons?

DePaulo: Single people who are happily single, who embrace their single lives, threaten the mythology and ideology of marriage and romantic coupling: the idea that it’s the royal road to happiness and a good life. Once people recognize they can live full and happy and meaningful lives as single people, then they begin to challenge the idealized brass ring of matrimony as being a counterfeit. Many people, and not just coupled people, are very invested in the ideology of married people as somehow superior. For them, it’s not just any old set of beliefs: it’s a worldview.

PN: Aren’t dual incomes, sharing responsibilities, and built-in companionship and support a desirable thing?

DePaulo: Sure, I wish I had two incomes! But if I have to be married and live with someone to get that, never mind. I love living alone. And yes, it might be nice if someone swooped in and did some of the household chores. But here’s the thing: after they cleaned up, I’d like them to leave. I like companionship and support. But I don’t like “built-in companionship” in the sense that I’m obligated to always have the same person as my plus-one, and that person always wants me to tag along to their events, whether I want to or not.

All of this does not mean that I don’t value close personal relationships. I do. I like going out to long, leisurely dinners with close friends. Sometimes I like traveling with them. Sometimes I enjoy visits from out-of-town friends or family. I have cherished friendships that have lasted decades. But I want that closeness to be balanced by delicious stretches of solitude.

People who love their single lives often prefer the DIY approach to relationships and to life. They like deciding who they’re going to spend their time with (without it having to be the same person every time), and they like the option of not spending time with anyone at all on a given day.

I think what people don’t often realize is that single people, on average, do more to create, maintain, and nurture ties with other people than married people do. That’s across all single people—not just the ones who want to be single. Studies show that single people have more friends. They stay in touch with friends, neighbors, siblings, and parents more than married people do, and they’re there for them more often when they need help. Longitudinal studies show that when couples move in together or get married, they become more insular, even if they don’t have kids.

PN: What would you recommend for a therapist whose client’s stated goal is finding someone to marry?

DePaulo: Of course, it’s entirely possible that marriage is what they really do want. The problem is that everyone knows they’re supposed to want that. What sometimes happens is that single people tell their therapists—and themselves—that they want to marry, but when it comes to doing what it would take, that ranks somewhere below cleaning out their sock drawer. There could be lots of reasons for that, but one is that they actually like their single lives, if they’re living them fully and with purpose.

If you’re old enough, you may remember when women (well, middle- and upper-class white women) were expected to want nothing more than to marry or have children. If they went to college, it was to get a Mrs., not a BA. Many didn’t even consider the possibility that they might love having a career. That’s where we are now about choosing single life: it’s not out there as a real, viable, obvious life choice. So it’s especially important for therapists to be attuned to choices that are not yet socially recognized or validated, but that may be the best choices for some people—the ones they’d choose for themselves, without needing any help, if only the common misconceptions about them were made apparent.


Main photo by iStock/Tom Merton

Additional photo by iStock/Vauvau

Lauren Dockett

Lauren Dockett, MS, is the senior writer at Psychotherapy Networker. A longtime journalist, journalism lecturer, and book and magazine editor, she’s also a former caseworker taken with the complexity of mental health, who finds the ongoing evolution of the therapy field and its broadening reach an engrossing story. Prior to the Networker, she contributed to many outlets, including The Washington Post, NPR, and Salon. Her books include Facing 30, Sex Talk, and The Deepest Blue. Visit her website at laurendockett.com.