It’s been an interesting week for single people all over the place. Not only did the Atlantic offer a rather lengthy dissection of how costly it is for single women to live in America compared to their married peers, but the Globe and Mail ran a series on the Single Situation in Canada, asking such questions as whether living with someone could make you healthier.
This is the kind of stuff you read when you’re single and either briefly take it all to heart and have a small anxiety attack, or, alternatively, dismiss it all as another facet of the conspiracy you rail against every day, perpetrated by friends and family alike — that one that supposes you should be married just because.
It hardly helps when someone like Margaret Wente weighs in with a kind of Final Word tone to tell you the “awful truth” about being single is that it really doesn’t look anything like the Mary Tyler Moore Show, and that you’ll just end up lonely and dead while your married friends end up healthier and happier – presumably until they, too, are dead.
“The big thing people get wrong about being single is to imagine that singlehood allows you to define and perfect yourself, and that discovering who you really are is the most important task there is. [...] I used to think that way, too. But now I know I was exactly wrong. Self-love is not, in fact, the greatest love of all. And the road to self-actualization isn’t through perfection of the independent self, but through imperfect, messy, long-term relationships. Everybody needs someone else to nurture, and someone to stand up for them, and someone to plan the future with, and someone with whom they share a past.”
Even all the sex and parties that singletons are apparently having is terrible, Wente says. She even uses Girls creator Lena Dunham — It Girl of the moment — to back that up.
“Even at the best of times, the single life is overrated. It’s not like Sex and the City. It’s more like Girls. The parties are depressing and the sex tends to fall dramatically short of expectations,” Wente lectures, before mischaracterizing a quote from Dunham. “As Girls creator Lena Dunham told the Independent, ‘It’s hard for me to write from a place of fantasy to see sex as glamorous. I think it can be kind of a battleground.’”
There is a kernel of truth to what Wente says about why more people might be single, but is that really such a problem? Are feelings of isolation occurring simply because more people aren’t in long-term relationships? Does being part of a couple necessarily make things any better for anyone?
First, it’s true there has been a rise since the 1970s in the search for self-actualization above all else. That’s been blamed for what people like researcher Jean M. Twenge have called a “narcissism epidemic.” How else to explain reality television, self-branding, the over-glorification of babies via things like ridiculous — but unique! — names, etc. etc. With a pronounced focus on self, a burgeoning middle class and more women living independently, people are putting off buying a house and getting married.
In her 2006 book, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before, Twenge notes that “twice as many 15-to-24-year olds are in one-person households now compared to 1970, as are almost three times more 25-to-34-year-olds. More than one out of three people aged 25 to 29 live alone or with roommates.” And when we singles are living somewhere (alone), it’s not for long. More than a quarter of people aged 25 to 29 moved between 2002 and 2003, Twenge writes. So, as much as the self-centeredness might contribute to a society of singles, it also probably means those singles have led some very interesting lives, likely in more than one place. This trend might make people more open to new ideas and, perhaps, less isolated in their worldview.
Add to this a global network of friendships built on electronic communication and you sort of have a perfect storm brewing for a nation of pod people, living their lives in isolated chambers (one or two steps from Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, maybe, if you want to get apocalyptic about it). All of this isolation and separation is one of the things that’s contributed to what Robert Putnam wrote about a decade ago in Bowling Alone, when the fear was we were losing the sense of community that once made society tick. And while that might be true, it also could be we’re just shifting from one kind of society to another.
Post-war urbanization also contributed to the rise of the single life. Modern cities have opened opportunities and high-density residences that have created “places where young people who wanted to prolong the transition to adulthood could indulge in all kinds of new experiences while living in places of their own,” Eric Kleinenberg writes in Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. However, the cosmopolitan advantages are not restricted to single people in downtown cores. “Singles and people who live alone are twice as likely as married people to go to bars and dance clubs … are more likely to take art or music classes, attend public events, and go shopping with friends,” Kleinenberg writes. But couples, both young and old, take advantage of all that stuff, too – just not as much. They might even go there to meet their single friends.
Is there a link between urbanization and loneliness? It’s “complex,” according to a 2010 study from the UK’s Mental Health Foundation. It considers New York City’s “‘urban village’ model,” which “sustains social networks because people habitually use alternative meeting places, including cafés and public spaces.” In fact, it continued, cities might be our perfect environment “because of the demands they make on our complex social brains” – if those cities are designed well.
Even when people take up a house in the suburbs, they tend to choose ones that promote personal privacy and isolation. As Kleinenberg also notes, not only has the size of the average American house doubled since 1950, but kids these days have more than one room each in the family home, a place that would seemingly be ground zero for that collective nurturing Wente talks about.
Simply put, it’s not just a failure to be in a couple, or pure self-love, that’s behind our growing isolation. And, having a lot of people living alone is not necessarily so terrible for everyone else.
What about all those depressing parties and sex? Well, that’s one’s easy.
If it is the case that they’re both a sad state of affairs, is that caused by Wente’s other diagnosis for singletons, loneliness? Anecdotally, sure, single people do have moments when they feel lonely. And we do live alone a lot. So there’s a correlation, but is there causation? Relationships are definitely good for you, but single people also have those even if they’re not in a couple – friends and family count, too. Loneliness is not simply a factor of living the single life.
“Many occasionally struggle with loneliness or with the feeling that they need to change something to make their lives feel more complete,” Kleinenberg says. “But so, too, do their married friends and family members and, really, most everyone during some period of their lives.”
Essentially, being single is, like just about anything else, what you make it. It’s not inherently awful, nor inherently great. It’s an alternative, sure. But it’s just an alternative. Singledom doesn’t have any fewer problems than being in a long-term relationship; it simply has different ones.
Colin Horgan is a frequent contributor to Macleans.ca. He currently writes a weekly column on Girls.
Tuesday, January 22, 2013