‘How to Start Over’: When Partnership Is Not the Destination
In a society dominated by romantic couples, it can be hard to accept your unpartnered…
In a society dominated by romantic couples, it can be hard to accept your unpartnered state for what it is. But for the “single at heart,” the desire for partnership is nonexistent—replaced with a sense of self-sufficiency, satisfaction, and robust friendships.
In this episode of How to Start Over, we explore misconceptions about singlehood and what explains a broad perception of it as an unwelcome fate. We also talk about how social and economic structures orient themselves around couples, and discuss arguments for why stigmas against solo living and single life are long overdue for a change.
This episode was produced by Rebecca Rashid and is hosted by Olga Khazan. Editing by A.C. Valdez and Claudine Ebeid. Fact-check by Ena Alvarado. Engineering by Matthew Simonson. Special thanks to managing editor Andrea Valdez and Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of The Atlantic.
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Music by FLYIN (“Being Nostalgic”), Timothy Infinite (“Rapid Years”), and Matt Large (“Value Every Moment” “The Marathon Will Continue [For Nipsey]”).
Khazan: Hi, I’m Olga Khazan, staff writer at The Atlantic.
Rashid: And I’m Rebecca Rashid, a producer at The Atlantic.
This is How to Start Over. Today, we’re talking about starting over as a single person—whether you are single by choice, or not so much. We’re going to explore why singlehood is often portrayed as a worst-case scenario, the economic and social barriers to living alone, and how to rethink what it means to be emotionally satisfied in a society dominated by romantic couples.
Rebecca Rashid: What comes to mind when someone tells you they’re happily single?
Olga Khazan: That can’t possibly be true.
Khazan: I am the rare person who’s “never single, always has to be in a relationship” but whose parents did not put pressure on her to do that and who have not pressured me to get married.
And maybe this is because I have this bias of like I feel like it’s important to have a romantic partner. I’ve just never been single. I had probably a year of my adult life where I was single. I really hated it; I got in a relationship as quickly as possible.
Rashid: Why did you hate it?
Khazan: I felt really alone. I’m not someone who makes friends very easily, and I don’t have any social support in my life that doesn’t come from a romantic partner. I realize not everyone is like that, though.
Khazan: Dr. Bella DePaulo is a pioneer in research on singles, and a former visiting psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. As a leading researcher of singlehood, Bella uses her own experience to explain what it means to be “single at heart.”
Bella DePaulo: So singlism is the stereotyping and stigmatizing and discrimination against people who are single. And you see it at all levels of society, from politics and religion and the workplace and universities and everyday life. So in the United States, there are more than 1,000 laws that benefit and protect only people who are legally married. And that was one of the big motivators for all the people who worked so hard to get same-sex marriage legalized.
Khazan: I wanted to zoom into your personal experience with this topic. Have you been single your entire life?
DePaulo: I have. And I’m 68 years old. I’ve always been single, and I always will be.
Khazan: You don’t have to get more personal than you’re comfortable with, but what qualifies as single—do you just mean you’re not married but you have occasional romantic partners?
DePaulo: When I was younger, I did have some romantic partners. I did some dating, but I would have been truer to myself if I never did. There’s this phrase that people use, relationship virgin, which really should be romantic-relationship virgin.
Because for me, and for I think many other people, our most authentic life is single life. And single for me in the most single sense possible—I live alone, I don’t date, I happily don’t date, and that’s the life that works best for me. People who feel like that—that single life is their best life—I call them “single at heart.” Because “single at heart” it’s who they really are.
Khazan: I guess, have you always been this happily single, or was there a time when you were younger when you kind of wished that you had a partner and weren’t super happy with being single?
DePaulo: No! Well, there’s two parts to that. One is I never wanted to be married. I don’t know when I finally realized that: No, self—single is who you really are! And once I realized that, it was just so liberating, because I never had this thought in the back of my mind, Well, I like being single now, but maybe it’s going to change—no! It’s not ever going to change.
Now, what I did want and still want are all those benefits and protections that married people get just because they’re married. You know, all the tax breaks and the benefits and the respect and the valuing that motivated a lot of people to get same-sex marriage on the books. So I want that, but I don’t want to have to marry to get it.
Khazan: What do you replace the role of the romantic partner with?
DePaulo: I want to change the question. Because what we find in big national studies is that when people move in with a romantic partner, or when they get married, they become more insular. They spend less time with their friends; they stay in touch with their parents less. They are less likely to be in touch with their neighbors, their co-workers.
Sociologists who study this have a term for it—they call it greedy marriage. It’s like when people get married, they greedily want each other for everything. You know, that “You’re going to be my everything now; I want you to be my everything.” And single people, especially people who are single at heart, don’t do that.
Khazan: So what if you have—let’s say, an eye appointment. And you have to get your pupils dilated, and the doctor is like, “You need someone to drive you home.” Who drives you home from the doctor’s appointment?
DePaulo: It’s an example of a way in which our medical system is built around the assumption that you have someone. And typically that someone is expected to be a spouse. Even if you have a spouse or romantic partner, maybe they actually have a job and it’s not going to be that easy for them to take time off from work, or if you’re older, maybe your romantic partner isn’t able to drive anymore. Or they’re sick, they might have to go out and do an errand, they might be traveling.
So the whole system that’s built around this idea that, Oh, someone’s there and you can just count on them. It’s not just an issue for single people. It can be an issue for anyone. And we do need a better way of dealing with that systematically so that you don’t need to be married to get a ride to the eye doctor.
Khazan: I want to drill into your 2016 book, which is Single, No Children. You’re right; [for] people who get married, almost a reflexive thing to say is “You’re my everything.” Even I think that’s too much. So what’s a different way of building that “everything” without getting married? Tell me about the texture of your emotional world.
DePaulo: A lot of single people have different people who fill different slots in our social convoys, in our social circles. There is research on this; it’s called having emotionships rather than relationships. So you have different people who are good at dealing with different emotions. And what this program of research shows is that people who have emotionships—they go to different people for different things—they are actually more satisfied with their lives than people who do the “you are my everything” thing.
Khazan: Have you ever told someone that you were happily single and they reacted badly?
Bella: Oh, yes. In fact, there are studies that show that when people evaluate single people, they’re much more harsh in their evaluations of single people who say they want to be single, who say that they’re happily single.
They think the single person who says they don’t want to be single is actually happier than a single person who is saying that they’re happily single. It’s like people are so invested in this idea that the only way you can be truly happy is to be coupled. And they want to believe it; that’s why it’s not just any old belief. It’s an ideology. It’s a worldview.
People want to have what that ideology is promising, which is to find that one special person, and your whole life will fall in place. You’ll have your best friend and your lover and your vacation planner and your financial planner and your co-parent. And you will live happily ever after.
Khazan: Are there some steps that unhappy single people can take to feel happier? If you’re single and you don’t love it, is there something you can tell yourself, some sort of self-talk or concrete steps you can take to be happily single?
DePaulo: One of the biggest obstacles to loving single life is never having given it a chance! People told me that they used to feel like if they had no plans or if they were alone or if they didn’t have a romantic partner, that meant they were a loser. And now during the pandemic, there were lots of people who had no plans, who were alone—and so it became normalized. They got to lean into their solitude, give it a real chance without feeling self-conscious about it. And some of them do eventually want to go back to being romantically partnered. But now, they are in a great position of strength because they’re not desperate.
Khazan: I feel like where I get stuck is that I feel like my relationship with my friends is fundamentally different than my relationship with my partner. My relationship with my partner is almost like my relationship with my family where it’s like he has to do certain things. In my friendships, there’s a lot more voluntariness. Anyone can opt out at any time.
DePaulo: You are describing the mindset of someone who is really, really not single at heart. People who like what you like, love the security in that. You know that if something happens, there’s this person who is obligated to be there for you.
And so the flip side of that is you don’t have the voluntariness which you are seeing as a downside, because it involves, you know, negotiation and seeing if the person is available and all that. But there’s a real power and affection and love of knowing that someone is there because they want to be and not because they are expected to be.
Khazan: Bella’s story intrigued me as much as it confused me. How can someone be so happily single when there are so many social and economic barriers actively working against single life and solo living? As Bella said, this is partly a difference in worldviews—but society is oriented around one of them. How do people keep swimming upstream when being single is not a choice?
For some, singlehood can be unwelcome—maybe someone broke up with you, maybe you haven’t met the right person yet, or maybe you unexpectedly lost a spouse. How do you find meaning and happiness if singlehood is a transitory phase for you? And is there any way to improve the day-to-day realities for single people so that you don’t have to get married or be coupled to get a ride to the eye doctor?
One quick note for our listeners: When Bella is referring to big national studies, she’s referring to data from the late 1980s and early 1990s, so they might not apply to all married couples’ ability to maintain social ties today. Other research on this has found exceptions to this idea that married couples socialize less.
Khazan: Joe Pinsker is my colleague and a fellow staff writer at The Atlantic. He wrote a piece in October of 2021 called “The Hidden Costs of Living Alone.”
Joe Pinsker: When we talk about single people, it’s important to distinguish between people who live on their own and then people who don’t. But also, I think there’s a further distinction to draw between people who live on their own or are single by choice, and people who do so not by choice, sort of regretfully. That should inform the ways we think about the challenges that each group faces.
There was a statistic that really caught my eye in a Pew Research Center analysis about how there was a growing number of Americans who were not partnered. And every time I come across this statistic, it kind of just is mind-boggling given the norms in our culture. There are 36 million people who live alone, and they make up 28 percent of households. And yet the way that they build their life sort of runs against a lot of the ways that we set society up.
Khazan: So how much more expensive is it to be single than to be in a relationship? How much more does it cost you to live alone or to be functionally single in society?
Pinsker: I think it was some economists who ran the numbers on this, and they put together an analysis saying that their guess was that if you were looking at two people who were a couple and if they were to live alone, versus living together, it would cost about 28 percent more for them to live separately. And that was looking at the costs of housing, utilities; these are the sorts of things that when you kind of bundle them all up together, it just is less costly if you’re dividing it among multiple people.
One guy wrote in saying that after his wife died a few years ago, he took a cruise by himself. And he ended up having to pay for not just the empty bed of a two-bed room, but also he had to pay for a whole second cruiser’s worth of food. So he was literally paying for the empty seat next to him in the dining room.
It’s weird; we have, you know, these tens of millions of people who live alone, and yet society hasn’t really caught up to them. I think there’s this concept of cultural lag in a lot of this research, in sociological research—where society changes in the numbers and demographically, but it kind of takes a while for culture to actually catch up. And so we end up in these weird situations where the way life is for a lot of people is being governed by a lot of the norms and taboos of almost a previous generation.
Khazan: You wrote a piece in 2015 called “The Unexpected Pleasure of Doing Things Alone.” And I was wondering why it was unexpected.
Pinsker: I had prepared some thoughts on—sometimes referred to it as my winter of Eat Pray MoviePass. And I basically just went and watched a lot of movies on my own in theaters. I had been dating on and off for a few years and hadn’t really found anybody that I thought I would be in a long-term relationship with. And I ended up kind of leaning hard into being single and doing basically whatever I wanted.
During that winter, I think I got more at peace with being single and just enjoying it for what it was—not judging it at all or wishing that it wasn’t the status I was, but just kind of, like, basking in the parts of it that are really wonderful. And the funny thing is—I couldn’t have known this at the time—but it was right before I started dating my current partner. And sometimes I think it was in retrospect the perfect mentality to be in before diving into a committed relationship. Because I wasn’t doing it out of fear of the alternative of being single. I was kind of actively choosing it from a base of already being secure and happy with what I was.
Rashid: I went on a couples trip, essentially, this past Memorial Day weekend with two couples. And I love my friends, and they did everything they could to make me feel included and not make me feel like I was imposing in any way. At some point we were going to go kayaking, and the number of seats in the kayaks were just enough for the two couples.
I was the one who had to make the awkward decision of, “No, you guys go ahead.” I think that is just so emblematic of always kind of tiptoeing around this structure of everyone being coupled. I think those are the moments for single people that lead to inadvertent shame.
Khazan: Oh yeah. And I totally think that society is designed around the idea that everyone will end up in a couple. But would you say that you are, quote unquote, single at heart or not?
Rashid: I think that idea scares me to a certain degree. Weirdly, because there are so many single-at-heart people in my family, I always assumed that I was that way as well. It took me a long time to reconcile those two realities: that I love to have things my way; I love to do what I want when I want. But I also love having someone else around to engage with that side of me. And I think a lot of people tell you that you can’t have those things coexist.