Bella DePaulo had romantic relationships when she was in high school and college. And they were fine, as far as they went.
“I have not a single horror story,” she says now, decades later. “But every time a relationship ended, I was so relieved—not because there was anything bad about the relationship. I was just so happy to return to my single life.”
For a long time, DePaulo figured that the desire to couple up and to marry was like a bug. “You got bitten by it, and I just hadn’t been bitten yet.”
But as the years passed and the bug still didn’t bite, “It dawned on me that no, I am never going to want that. Single is what I am.”
And, over time, she also started realizing that as a single person, she was treated differently.
In the mid 1990s, DePaulo was researching the psychology of lying and detecting lies at the University of Virginia. But she was also secretly keeping a file of clippings, notes, and observations about her experiences as a “singleton.”
“I felt like people treated me differently, almost lesser than, because I was single,” she says. “I wasn’t sure. This is why the note-taking and observations and trying to figure it out started.” For example, she noticed that during the week she might have perfectly pleasant lunches with colleagues, but on the weekends, the coupled colleagues would get together socially and leave her out.
After a few years of secret research, she decided to start investigating whether others had similar experiences So one day, she approached a single colleague at a social event and asked if she ever felt like she was treated differently because she was single.
“Oh my gosh, did she ever!” DePaulo remembers now. And then someone else came up and joined the conversation who had the same experience, and they talked the rest of the evening. Later DePaulo received “And another thing!” emails on the subject.
“Then I was invited to give a talk at another university, and afterward they had a reception for me,” she says. “I did the same thing, and the same thing happened.”
At that point, she knew she had hit a nerve and her experiences were not just about her. “There is something about being single that stands out, and not in a good way.”
DePaulo now writes the Living Single blog for Psychology Today with the goals of destigmatizing remaining single by choice, and helping people who are “single at heart” feel good about themselves and their perfectly fulfilling and happy lives. (Want to know more about those perfectly good lives? There’s lots of research out there on the subject; learn more on DePaulo’s blog, and watch her TED talk here.)
While I was talking to DePaulo about the treatment of singletons, I was struck by how similar it was to the stigma introverts often face—how many of us feel, and are treated as, lesser because we don’t subscribe to “more the merrier,” are perfectly happy doing things alone, and consider an empty house a happy house. DePaulo says some people who choose to stay single even go into therapy to try to figure out what’s “wrong” with them—and I have heard from many introverts who have either put themselves in therapy or, when they were kids, been put into therapy because of their introverted ways.
So far, DePaulo has found no strong connection between being single at heart and being introverted, although she has found that people who remain single tend to be less extroverted than those who couple up. And that makes sense. (Although I also wonder if being very introverted and single at heart might put one at risk for isolation. Single people, research finds, tend to have more friends than married people, but I’m not sure how that works if you’re single at heart but also not motivated to reach out to people.)
It can be difficult to figure out if your yen to find a one and only is genuine, or if you have internalized society’s message that coupled is better. How do you know if you’re single at heart and not just single for now? DePaulo says there are some telltale signs.
- “Your single life just feels right. There’s a certain attraction to it, a lure to it. That’s just where you want to be.”
- Being single feels more comfortable than being in even a good relationship. People DePaulo talks to tell her, “Even when I’m in a romantic relationship I have this yearning to be single again.”
- Attending a wedding doesn’t make you envious. “You might feel badly at weddings because [these newly married] friends are going to leave you out of their plans,” says DePaulo, but you don’t get blue because you yearn for the same kind of starry-eyed love. “I don’t envy couples even when they’re getting along beautifully because it’s just not what I want.”
- You can fill out DePaulo’s survey about being single at heart, which concludes by listing answers to the questions most likely given by people who are single at heart.
And if you find you are single at heart, celebrate it this Valentine’s Day. Buy yourself some flowers and chocolate, curl up with yourself on the couch, and watch whatever darn movie you want. No compromise necessary!