In defence of singledom: It’s lonely out there, but so what?

Colin Horgan responds to Margaret Wente


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.

Here’s Wente:

“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. 

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In defence of singledom: It’s lonely out there, but so what?

  1. Breaking away from the tribe and it’s customs is always a difficult but necessary stage of development. Indicates we need a larger tribe for one thing.

    And you can be just a lonely in a crowd as in….or out, judging by divorce stats…. a relationship.

    • I have a bet on with kcm2 that you’ve never once nailed another human being and that’s what’s wrong with you.

      • Just when I think that the comments around here are scraping the bottom of the barrel, someone finds a new bottom.

        • Well it’s a perfectly suitable comment in response to a despicable individual who plagues this board shouting “racist’ and “hater’ at everyone in sight and who only this morning made an insulting remark about young Prince Harry who is off risking his life and defending his country in Afghanistan.

          The comment is, by the way, an unattributed paraphrase of a remark made by the great American novelist, Norman Mailer, in a published work. He was referring to Henry James.

          • “She did it first” is no excuse, and you’re not Norman Mailer.

          • It wasn’t an excuse, Popeye. You should paddle back to Omdurman and beef up your rhetorical skills.

            At the battle’s conclusion (Omdurman), Churchill wept. He wrote to his mother on the 26th of January 1899: ‘Our victory was disgraced by the inhuman slaughter of the wounded and Lord Kitchener was responsible for this.’

            And you name yourself after this. Why you’re as goofy as your buddy Emily.

          • LOL

            I love it when my name gets tossed in my face. Yes, I’m one of Kitchener’s Own. Don’t blame me, blame the people who re-named the city I was born in.

          • Well you’re in bad shape. First they call it Berlin, the seat of the Third Reich and then they name the place after The Butcher of Omdurman.

            If I were you I’d be telling everyone that I was born on the outskirts of Waterloo.and change my avitar to a photo of the Duke of Wellington

          • First they call it Berlin, the seat of the Third Reich

            Berlin’s been around since 1307, and was a capital city as far back as the 1400s. More importantly, Berlin, Ontario was renamed Kitchener 20 years before Hitler became Chancellor. When the city was named Berlin in 1854, there was no Third Reich.

          • That’s right, in 1854 it was a village of Squareheads and judging by you nothing has changed.

          • I’ll give you this Chucky, you’re well prepared for a battle of wits with Emily.

            Arguing with you is surprisingly similar to arguing with her!

          • Well you’re a poor lost soul if you think wits are needed to deal with Emily, because it’s not so.

            What’s needed to deal with that pathetic B-diesel is a simple sparse recollection of primary school history and a sufficient lack of “political correctness” to allow a forceful rebuttal against stupidity.

          • Emily, is that you?? I could spot your idiot “LOL”‘s from a mile away.

          • I’ve gone round and round with Emily more than most, but I don’t think it’s really too much to ask that people keep their attacks against her civil, even if she doesn’t always reciprocate.

            Plus, pick your battles people. Save your ammunition for comments where Emily really goes off the rails. The comment above isn’t particularly crazy, nor insulting for Pete’s sake.

          • Well now you’ve all sorted each other out, is it too much to ask for some intelligent conversation?

            Without ANY attacks?

          • Yes.

          • Apparently. I wouldn’t want to be thought ‘off the rails’ or anything.

  2. Margaret Wente’s opinion generally means quite a bit less than nothing and her words here do little to change that.

  3. “Does being part of a couple necessarily make things any better for anyone?”

    I am 40 year old male who’s never married, and not likely to, but there are definitely benefits to being married. Horgan Your last sentence about number of problems and just having different ones – have you ever wondered how the problems were different?

    It is my understanding that males, in particular, do better when they are married because they drink/drugs/smoke less, not as reckless when driving a vehicle, support at home if ill so they recover from major illnesses quicker ….

    If I remember correctly, it also matters if people have been single their entire lives or are they divorced/widowed. Divorced people are more lonely, and die earlier, than people who have remained single their entire lives – something like that, can’t recall numbers at moment.

    • Huh. So it really *isn’t* better to have loved and lost than never have loved at all?

  4. What an absolute inane conversation! Don’t follow the guru!

  5. The writer banks money penning a weekly column about “Girls,” the television show? It’s hard to know if he’s lucky or cursed. It’s better than hosing down the local YMCA after date night, I suppose. Still, it’s got to give you pause before answering the question, “So…whaddaya do?”

    • Ha!

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