If find yourself single, are you ok with that or distressed by it? Do you feel judged by others — or perhaps judge yourself for your current status?
Growing up in our society, it’s hard to avoid the message that being married is required for happiness. We may feel pressured to believe that if we’re not in a partnership, there’s something wrong with us — that it’s shameful to be single.
But is being single so horrible? Are married or partnered folks really happier than the single people among us?
In a fifteen year study of 24,000 people living in Germany, researchers found that marriage offered a boost to life satisfaction, but the increase was tiny — one-tenth of one point on a ten-point scale. And that difference was likely due to the initial effects of marriage.
The lead author of the study, Dr. Richard E. Lucas of Michigan State University, concluded that most people were no more satisfied with life after marriage than they were prior to marriage.
Comparing life satisfaction between those who are married or partnered versus those who are single is not easy to do. Studies offer varying results. One study suggests that happy singles are more likely to marry and that there are wide differences in the benefits of marriage for different couples.
I’ve often seen clients who are unhappy with their single life. I’ve often observed that some of that dissatisfaction comes from the loneliness of being single or the fear of being single forever (when one doesn’t want to be). But an often overlooked part of their dissatisfaction is due to the shame experienced around it — the shame that stems from social norms and self-inflicted shame.
The Buddhist parable of the two arrows offers a useful parallel. The first arrow is the unpleasant circumstance we might find ourselves in. The second arrow is our mental and emotional reaction to our circumstances.
So let’s say we’re single. Perhaps there are times we feel sad or lonely about that. These are feelings we can notice and be gentle with. But then on top of that comes the second arrow — the belief that there’s something wrong with us for being single. There may also be internalized shame from societal beliefs that we should be partnered.
If we choose to buy into these beliefs and norms — accepting them as truth — then we add a self-inflicted wound to whatever dissatisfaction we might feel around being single. If we take a step back and notice these beliefs — bringing mindfulness to them — then rather than merge with these beliefs and be ruled by them, we can explore whether they are really true.
Is it true that married people are happier than single people?
Perhaps it depends on the person. Perhaps happily married people were fairly happy before they got married. Perhaps some married people are pretty happy at first. And then they discover differences or reach impasses that they don’t have the skills or willingness to work through. Maybe they divorce and are thrown back into their single life, perhaps with children to now be raised in separate households. Or maybe they remain together and put on a happy face, but underneath one or both of them are struggling or quietly suffering.
Attachment Theory tells us that we’re wired for connection. We’re social creatures who need healthy connections in order to thrive. A fulfilling partnership or marriage can meet our needs for connection and intimacy, freeing us from the burden of unmet needs, furthering our joy, and improving our quality of life.
However, friendships are often an underrated source of satisfaction. Creating relationships where we feel safe to reveal our true feelings and thoughts — and share activities with — can go a long way toward meeting our need for connection. We can be single without being alone.
The learning, growth, and joy of a marriage or partnerships can offer extraordinary blessings. But whether or not we’re in a partnerships, friendships can add an important dimension of satisfaction to our life.
Periods of being single can be helpful opportunities for growth. Being alone can allow us to work on ourselves — perhaps exploring how past relationships got off track and how we might approach them next time around. Psychotherapy or coaching might help us learn more about ourselves, what we really want, and how to move forward in our lives.
We might also discover that there is joy in relishing our own company. We can cultivate resources, perhaps through exercise, meditation, spiritual practice, art, writing, or music to deepen our well-being and expand our creativity.
Perhaps you’re content with your single status. If not, I don’t want to minimize the dissatisfaction you might be feeling. But at the same time, I invite you to consider if you’re carrying any shame around it (the second arrow). If so, perhaps you can be more gentle with yourself, remembering that the grass always seems greener somewhere else.
You may still want to keep your eyes open when opportunities present themselves—or search more actively if that feels right for you. But consider that you have the capacity to cultivate your inner life, while also availing yourself of the telephone, internet, and perhaps safe social opportunities to connect with people who might add joy and meaning to your life.
Happy people tend to have happier partnerships. Do your best to create a satisfying life for yourself. And be open to opportunities and synchronicities that might bring a lovely partner into your life. If not, consider the prospect that you can have a satisfying, meaningful life whether you happen to be single or partnered right now.