Are you married? If not, you’re in good company. In around 2014, the number of singles in the U.S. surpassed the number of married people. Americans spend more of their adult years unmarried than married, and that’s not even a new statistic: "It’s been true for over a decade," social psychologist Bella DePaulo, PhD noted in her plenary at the American Psychological Association's annual convention on Friday. Given the way our society touts marriage as both the norm and a universal goal, however, you might not be aware of single people's dominance. This "over-the-top celebration of marriage and weddings and coupling" is what DePaulo calls "matrimania," and she's combating it by highlighting an overlooked and yet critically important reason there are so many unmarried people today: It's because they want to be. "They are already living their dream," DePaulo stated in her talk. "Living single allows them to live their best, most authentic, and most meaningful life." Read on to learn why she considers marriage a choice that suits some and not others, and why we shouldn't consider matrimony a one-size-fits-all milestone.
Most research that claims that getting married improves your quality of life is fatally flawed. "The story out there — that married people are better off and they’re happier and healthier and all that, [that] everybody of course wants to get married — is so dominant and not really challenged," DePaulo tells Refinery29. One reason is that the majority of the research that seems to support this narrative is methodologically unsound. "People are so sure that marriage makes people happier and healthier, because there are so many studies in which the currently married people are doing better than the others," DePaulo pointed out in her talk (emphasis ours). People who try marriage and then opt out — divorced people — may well end up worse off than people who never marry, but they're categorised as simply "unmarried" for the purposes of these studies. DePaulo's metaphor: If a study of a drug that many patients had stopped taking because it wasn't working for them only looked at the health outcomes of people who had continued taking the drug, we wouldn't consider it a very good study.
Your level of self-sufficiency is a clue as to how well marriage will work for you. In one of the 814 studies of never-married participants that DePaulo analysed for her presentation, each of a nationally representative sample of never-married Americans was asked to rate his or her self-sufficiency or desire to do things independently. The more self-sufficient participants were, the less likely they were to experience negative emotions. "Single people value autonomy, deciding things for themselves, and so I think they like to stand back and say, 'Now what do I want my life to be like?’" DePaulo explains. In the same study, researchers observed the opposite effect among a sample of 3,000 married people: The more self-sufficient they were, the more negative emotions they experienced. "We’re all different as individuals, and some of us really are suited for marriage," DePaulo says. "I think that if social scientists took single people more seriously, and weren’t just out to show that married people are better, we’d know what kinds of people thrive by living single and what kinds of people thrive by being married — and of course there’s going to be in-between examples, too."
Single people enjoy more connected social lives. "When people marry, they become more insular," DePaulo tells us. "Single people have bigger, broader meanings of relationships and love, so single people are actually more likely to be connected to their friends and siblings and parents and neighbours." Rather than investing the vast majority of their time and energy in "The One," unmarried people tend to invest in "the ones." They have more friends and form genuine attachment relationships with multiple people instead of a single person. Single people experience more psychological growth. DePaulo points to research that suggests that unmarried people are more likely to experience "a sense of continued growth and development as a person" than married people, and that they value meaningful work more — a difference that one study showed existed even before any subjects married. "Single people get to design their own lives more," DePaulo says — and people who prefer to design their own lives are often those who prefer to not marry. "There’s such clear frameworks for what your married life is supposed to be like, but when you’re single, we get to define our lives for ourselves." As many a single person can attest, though, our society's faith in the superiority of marriage to the single life is deep-rooted. "People want to think that if only they get married, then all the other pieces of their life are going to fall into place and they’re going to be happier and healthier and live longer and be more connected," DePaulo states. "If you arranged your life around that assumption, why would you want to give it up?" One possible reason: realisation that the single life could be the best, most authentic, and most meaningful one for you.