While the nuclear family continues to be held in high esteem throughout the world, single people are quietly cast as outliers; too weird or ugly or old to find a partner, doomed to die unhappy and alone. Despite the near 40 percent divorce rate (not to mention the outrageous cost of raising children) we’re only too happy to buy in to the wedding-industrial complex. If you stay single, you’re pitied. If you don’t marry someone to take care of you in your decline, after all, you’ll probably die alone and be eaten by your cats. But new research suggests a shift is afoot.
According to a new book, singles are far from being in the minority—and they are far better positioned to realize happiness and fulfillment throughout their lives. In Happy Singlehood: The Rising Acceptance and Celebration of Solo Living , Hebrew University sociology researcher Elyakim Kislev examines the factors that have converged to make single people the fastest growing demographic in many countries throughout the world. From access to education and the influence of feminism, to consumerism and the rise of urbanization, he breaks down the reasons why people choose to to be single despite significant social pressure, and why they are happier and less selfish than their married counterparts. He investigates how some find intimacy in unconventional ways, meaning in their work (despite being paid less than married counterparts), and configure their own communities as they age.
VICE spoke with Elyakim this week.
VICE: First off, why are singles becoming the fastest growing demographic throughout the world?
Elyakim Kislev: People want more privacy in their lives. The other reason is the growing status of women in society; they don’t need men to provide anymore and are more independent. Women can manage alone, and from this perspective they don’t push for marriage. Getting an education and career going takes time, so more are delaying marriage. International immigration and internal migration—people move more often and don’t need to be tied to other people. We are more individualistic, more globalistic.
Despite this, society gives singles a hard time and sees them as a threat or burden. Why is this?
I suspect that that it’s because the change was very fast. We used to think of people who had responsibilities as people we could trust. If you’re responsible for your spouse and children, you probably won’t be a threat to society. So we need something tangible to know you’re responsible. This reality is changing fast; we are well-connected but the connections are less tangible. We are well-networked, people have friends all over the world, people even take care of their elderly parents. Our thinking didn’t change at the same pace as reality; we still think that we cannot trust singles.
What is matrimania?
This is actually a term coined by professor Bella DePaulo, one of the experts in the field of singles studies. She argues that our society is occupied with the idea of marriage; we want people to get married early, and have children. Matrimania leads to singlism, so we want people to get married, and we don’t like single people because we don’t trust them.
How prevalent is singlism, and why is it so pernicious?
We don’t know exactly. This touches on a crucial point: We don’t talk about the status of single people. We assume they want to get married, because we don’t talk about it, we don’t have enough data. No one is surveying and asking what people think of single people. So we have little data as such when it comes to public attitudes about singles.
I found that the first step to deal with discrimination and social pressure that singles face, is to be aware of the pressure and social exclusion they experience. We internalize this idea that everyone should marry at some point. On one hand, we don’t want to get married, but on the other, we are made to feel bad about it, like we should be looking for the one. People are torn. The first step is to be aware of the social exclusion, and be acceptant—even embrace—a single lifestyle. You can have a rich and happy life with this status.
Your research uncovered that happily single people are perceived more negatively than those who are single but are looking to couple up. Why do you think that is?
It’s the same with every type of discrimination; we have a tribal mindset. We need people to be like us and share the same values. If someone tells us they want to get married, we think, OK, they belong to our camp so it’s fine. But if they say I don’t want to get married—we suddenly think they are deviants. They don’t share our values. They are not part of our camp.
What is the biggest misconception about singles that you came across again and again in your research?
That single people are miserable. Single people can be very happy on their own, and can live a full and rich life. Single people are perceived as ugly, immature, anti-social. We have so many misconceptions about single people.
Which is weird, because we all know single people that prove otherwise.
Exactly! It’s not only that we know single people—we were singles, and most of us will be singles. Basically, 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. Almost everyone will be single in their adult life.
Yet, we’re taught from a young age that marriage is the be-all and end-all. You suggest we should be teaching kids how to be single.
We need to teach people the basics of how to be single: how to connect with each other, how to find meaning in our lives besides being a part of a family unit, or part of a couple. We need to find our own place in the world without the context of the nuclear family.
People cited not wanting to die alone as a big motivating factor in getting hitched. Why is this line of thinking a mistake?
People think something will happen to them down the line. Because of this fear, many people will compromise—one study showed people will even go back to their exes—and get married.
We have this fear so it drives us to make a bad decision, and there are a huge proportion of people that get married for the wrong reasons, they have bad marriages, live 10 or 20 years together. Then we are seeing what they call the ‘grey’ divorce; divorce when people are over 50. The divorce rate can double and triple. By this time, people don’t have any support system—they are even worse off than people who were never married, because they don’t have the skills to navigate single life. They gave up on their friends, their networks, their communities—they find themselves worse off.
So their fear drives them to put all their eggs in one basket, so to speak. Singles are often seen as more selfish than married people. How has your research revealed that this isn’t the case?
It’s actually totally the opposite. Single children take care of their parents more than their married siblings. They are more social and well connected, they derive happiness and life satisfaction from their friends, and networks, and social activities, and volunteering.
Your book mentions several ways we can structure our society to better support singles. Which of these is most crucial, in your opinion?
Singles studies, starting in elementary school. We need to prepare children to grow up as responsible individuals, who know how to take care of themselves, to navigate their life, to know how to connect with each other and forge social networks in their communities. We really need to start from early childhood.
Your book covers how singles culture is especially prominent in Japan ( one survey concluded that 75 percent of Japanese men in their 20s and 30s considered themselves herbivores —or men not interested in sex and relationships). But in terms of policy, housing, social attitudes, which country is the best for singles to live, in your opinion?
Portugal. I measured the relative happiness of singles compared to the general population in each country. Southern Europe is quite good for singles; Spain, Italy and Greece. But I need to check these findings again because I suspect there is more to that, we need to distinguish between different ages and see what the general population think of singles. More research needs to be done.
Who typically fares better in terms of personal happiness: single men or single women? Why?
Single women are very happy with their situation. They are adept with forging social networks. Married men forget about their friends and don’t invest much in their social networks as women do. When they get divorced, they find themselves more alone.
What is ‘greedy marriage’?
People get married and turn inwards. They take care of their families and think their families are the ultimate goal of life, so they invest all of their efforts and resources into that. They abandon their social networks. They put all their eggs in one basket.
All else being equal, are single people happier than married people?
That’s a tricky question. The simple answer is no. Different studies will say that married people are happier—but it’s not necessarily that marriage makes them happy. The happier you state you are, the more likely you are to get married in the first place.
It’s unfair to compare the married population with the unmarried population. One day, the married population will be divorced or widowed. We know that their happiness levels will plummet below their baseline, while the never married are more resilient to fluctuations in their lives. If you take the overall—the never married vs. divorced/married/widowed; the latter are much less happy and much less prepared for single life. We need to compare this overall population to the never married population to see how they fare.
What can unhappy married people learn from singles about how to be happier?
Married people have a lot to learn about life from single people. Happily single people can teach several lessons. One is that you shouldn’t abandon your friends, relatives and social networks. You should say connected all the time. So many people are lonely within their marriages. Happy single people can teach them how to be connected. Also, happy single people have a perception that they make a decision and are responsible and accountable for the trajectory of their lives. Many married people at some point think they lost something in their ability to choose their path in life. They blame their partner, they’re tied to another person and so on. Try to be independent as much as you can. Be accountable for your life and the decisions that you make. Happy single people look back on their lives and say I chose that, I’m fully aware of my decisions and consequences and I’m happy with it. They take responsibility for themselves.
Do you think marriage will eventually become obsolete?
No. Marriage is a way to commit yourself to another person, it’s an expression of commitment. I think some people need it. I think at some point though, we will have a scale of commitment; married people, cohabitating, couples that live apart together (LAT), less commitment, casual relationships. In the future we will see the full scale.
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