Our culture’s understanding of intimate relationships has grown considerably over the past few decades. Common-law relationships are increasingly accepted and carry with them legal rights and responsibilities. People can marry another person of the same or another gender. Parents can register more than two names on a child’s birth certificate. Children are often parented by multiple adults, all of whom have important connections with the child.
Underlying this broader understanding of what an intimate relationship or family can look like, though, is a pervasive assumption that people will couple and that those who do not are lacking in some way.
This assumption is reinforced by popular culture that makes sure we get the message: people in couples are happier and less lonely than people who are single. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the court’s 2015 decision to legalize same-sex marriage:
“Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out and find no one there.”
Research seems to indicate otherwise. Bella DePaulo, an American social psychologist, happily single for her whole life, studies single-ness and wants to change the public discourse from one that treats single people as in some way damaged and people in intimate relationships as always happy and fulfilled.
She noted, in a 2017 TED-x talk, that research about loneliness, depression and stress showed no significant difference between people based on whether they were married, in a common-law relationship, dating or single, as long as people who were married or in common-law relationships were still with their partner. People whose relationships had ended reported their levels of loneliness, depression and stress had begun to decline from the time they began the relationship.
Not expecting it all
I have never had the experience of living alone. I went from living with my family as a kid to, literally overnight, living with my then-husband when I got pregnant at 18 and, since then, have always lived with a partner and/or my kids.
There are days when I long to know what it would feel like to have no one to answer to but myself; to know that if I left the kitchen clean and tidy it would still be clean and tidy when I returned to it, to make all my plans without having to consult with anyone else.
But those days are the exception rather than the rule, because the relationship I have been in for the past almost 40 years is one that brings me great happiness. I have been able to grow into a person I mostly like in this relationship. My partner supports and also challenges me. I find both the solitude and companionship I need and want. My partner share a view of the world, a vision of what it could be and a belief in our responsibility to make a difference. We have weathered many challenges together and know how to have a good laugh. I know he has my back and he knows I have his.
Is it perfect? Of course not. But that’s okay, because I have never thought of him as my one and only. I have deep friendships outside my relationship with him. I am my own person and have my own life as well as my life with him. Because I don’t look to my partner to meet my every need, I am not overly troubled if we are from time to time briefly out of step with one another.
The research of DePaulo and others indicates that this is not true for everyone. Many married people’s lives become insular, with less and less connection to friends, extended family and the community, which can lead to higher levels of loneliness; whereas single people place a high value on friends and community engagement, thus fending off those feelings.
And, as we all know, for many women intimate relationships are much worse than lonely or insular.
It’s just no good anymore
In my work, I see the aftermath of those relationships; relationships in which a woman’s autonomy has been destroyed, her hopes and dreams have been shattered and her life left in tatters because of her partner’s abuse. There’s plenty of loneliness and lots of other bad things in those relationships. The tendency towards insularity becomes isolation, which provides a shield that allows the abuse to continue and escalate.
When I was new to the work, I assumed that the last thing on my clients’ minds would be getting into a new relationship.
It was not uncommon for a woman to show up for an appointment, before any of her family law issues arising from her previous relationship had been resolved, with a new partner in tow or in the wings.
DePaulo’s work, which looks at how differently single people are treated from those who are in a committed relationship in our “matrimania” culture, helps explain why even someone who is exiting a relationship in which her partner has abused her is already looking to the next one. Underlying all of the exclusions and subtle or not-so-subtle slights directed towards single people is the message that a person is not whole until they are paired with another. This message carries even more weight for women who have been told by their abusive partner over and over that they are worthless and that no one else will ever love them.
There are gender-based differences when it comes to happiness and health depending on whether people are in intimate relationships or single. Some research shows that married men live longer than single men whereas married women do not live as long as single women. More men remarry after the end of a previous relationship, and they tend to do so more quickly.
According to a 2019 article in the Guardian, single women without children are the happiest subgroup in the population and also live the longest. London School of Economics behavioural science professor Paul Dolan put it this way:
“If you’re a man, you should probably get married; if you’re a woman, don’t bother.”