You’re so great — why don’t you have a boyfriend?”
This misguided compliment, often doled out to young successful women, has given birth to a new thought experiment: If a woman is great and no romantic partner is there to appreciate her, can she still lead a happy and fulfilling life?
Since 2000, the most common American household has been a person living alone. According to the 2012 census, 53.6 percent of American women over the age of 18 were unmarried. So why do singles often feel like the odd woman out?*
We may be living in a post-“Sex And The City” era, but we’re not as far from the conventions of “The Partridge Family” as we’d like to think (and it’s worth noting that even SATC’s cynical Miranda had her fairytale romantic ending when all was said and done). Over the last 15 years, we’ve watched pop culture heroines like Mindy Lahiri, Meredith Grey and Ally McBeal put their professional accomplishments on the back burner when things go south in the romance department. It’s not hard to see where these television writers are getting their material: Women often feel bad about being single, despite how satisfying their lives are otherwise.
Turns out, there are a few reasons you might feel that romantic ennui:
You might be putting too much stock in one type of relationship…
Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to devalue our platonic relationships when we don’t have a romantic one (if we want one, that is), but that doesn’t mean we’re not reaping the psychological benefits of all of the platonic love in our lives. In fact, when it comes to happiness, it seems that love is blind.
The Harvard Grant Study, one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies on happiness, followed 268 male Harvard undergraduates for 75 years to see just what brought them joy. After nearly a lifetime of tracking, researchers discovered that fulfillment was overwhelmingly found in one thing: relationships — but not necessarily romantic relationships.
“Joy is connection,” George Vaillant, the Harvard psychiatrist who directed the study from 1972 to 2004, told The Huffington Post last year. “The more areas in your life you can make connection, the better.”
“I was like, ‘Honestly, I’m really, really cool with what I have going on right now,'” Friedman said. Her outlook is obviously not one-size-fits-all, but it’s never a bad idea to stop and appreciate the wonderful relationships we do have in our lives, whether or not they fit neatly into a romantic box. Just ask Dr. Bella DePaulo, author of Singled Out and a permanent Visiting Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“What people sometimes overlook when they say ‘If you’re single, you’re alone’ is the possibility that if you’re single, you may have friendships that you pay a lot of attention to,” DePaulo told HuffPost Women. “In fact, you might have more support than someone who gets married and only pays attention to their spouse and puts all of their friends on the back burner.”
…or you may not be prioritizing what you really want.
Allowing what other people want for you to cloud your judgement can also send you down that dark, “I’m dying alone” spiral. Global surveys have found that cultural norms and expectations are what determine our self-esteem, even if we claim we’re above the pressure. When it comes to single women, this dual mentality can get tricky. The (obvious) truth is that marriage — or even long-term couplehood — won’t make everyone happier.
“I think that we are in a society that just so celebrates marriage,” DePaulo said. “There’s almost no voice for people who want to stay single and are doing just fine.”
This “matrimania,” DePaulo’s term for the over-the-top hyping of marriage and weddings, can be especially problematic when you factor in all of the complexities of romantic relationships that can come before marriage. “The cohabitation gap,” a term coined by researchers in 2011, describes the phenomenon of married couples being happier than non-married couples who live together. Why? Here’s how the researchers put it:
“We can speculate that in such societies, people tend to believe that a woman lives together with her partner out of wedlock not because she doesn’t want to marry him but because he doesn’t want to marry her. The society’s doubts in the commitment of her partner makes a cohabiting woman pitied and looked down upon, which could be detrimental for her self-esteem and psychological well-being regardless of her own perception of her partner’s commitment.”
Oy vey. Anecdotally, Friedman has experienced this condescending attitude towards single or unmarried women.
“Really great things happened to me in my life during this period when most people were kind of pitying me,” she said of a being single — a period during which her career took off, she took her dream vacation and her social life became more dynamic than ever. “But there was always this undercurrent of, ‘Don’t you want to meet someone?‘”
“I realized I was building up this resentment towards this condescension,” she told HuffPost Women. “Because there was this very strong part of me that knew I’m just as good as married people.”
And those fear-inducing headlines aren’t helping.
“It’s amazing how year after year after year, people are making this claim that if you get married, you’ll get happier,” DePaulo said.
She explained that many of those academic studies that make for splashy, fear-inducing headlines aren’t procedurally sound (see: her review of 18 long-term studies on the topic). The main problem is that conditions in clinical studies have to be randomly assigned — which isn’t possible when you’re researching single vs. married people. Another “methodologically shameful” tactic in these studies, she explained, is that many only compare those who are currently married to single people and completely ignore those who got married, hated it and got divorced.
Then, of course, there are media figures like “Princeton Mom,” who shame single women for not prioritizing dating, husband-finding and the like.
“I find it so confusing that whenever someone has a message that makes women feel bad, they’re immediately on ‘The Today Show’; they immediately have a platform,” Eckel said. “You don’t see the narrative of, ‘Yah, I had a wild time in my 20s and now I’m 35, married with two kids and really happy.’ It’s always the cautionary tale.”
As a result, many women are put off by the public discourse on singledom and marriage — and the Noah’s Ark-like frenzy it’s intended to spark.
“People would be like, ‘Are you dating?’ To me, that was like, ‘Do I hike? Am I writing?’ Is dating an activity?” Friedman said. “Going on a bunch of dates with random people doesn’t seem like a smart use of my time. That made a ton of sense to me — I realize that it doesn’t make a ton of sense to everyone.”
Moral of the story?
Yes, you’re still “great” and more than capable of living a happy, fulfilling life, whether or not you’re involved with someone romantically. But also know that feeling waves of self-doubt and insecurity are totally normal. You may never want to get married or even be monogamous — or you may be open to the possibility of meeting someone without actively looking for a relationship.
With barely half of U.S. adults married as of 2011 (a record low, according to the Pew Research Center) and delayed marriage on the rise (the median age for women at first marriage in 2011 reached 27, a record high), the conversation about singles is shifting. Considering the ever-growing population of women living abundantly happy lives without a partner, how could it not?
“All of this ‘matrimania’ isn’t happening because we’re so secure about the place of marriage in our lives,” said DePaulo. “It’s happening because we’re so insecure.”
Of course, downplaying the special role that marriage plays in many people’s lives isn’t the answer, either. Rather, it’s important to recognize that some people find happiness with a partner later in life or in a more unconventional form of coupledom.
According to Pew’s 2010 stats, 84 percent of unmarried people cite “love” — rather than “making a lifelong commitment,” “companionship,” “having children” or “financial stability” — as the reason to get married. Perhaps women are starting to feel empowered to only jump into matrimony on their terms, rather than relying on perceived cultural norms. Take a look at Hannah Horvath on “Girls” or Liz Lemon on “30 Rock,” and you’ll see that pop culture is already helping to redefine what it means to be single in contemporary society.
All of this awareness, however, won’t always assuage all of your fears and insecurities, and that’s OK. As Eckel points out in her book, “If you feel sad sometimes, it’s not because you’re single — it’s because you’re alive.”
*Obviously, not every single woman feels bad about her relationship status, so this statement merely applies to those who do.