For some single people, what hurts isn’t loneliness, but getting excluded

Bella DePaulo

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Judging by the stories that are out there, both in the popular press and in academic writings, you might think that the most painful problem plaguing single people is loneliness. That’s never been much of an issue for me: I’ve been single all my life. I rarely get lonely. More importantly, systematic research shows that the conflation of being single or living alone with being lonely is greatly overstated, and sometimes, exactly wrong.

Although I rarely experience the loneliness that other people expect to be a big part of single life, I have experienced painful moments that I do attribute to being single. Those moments are not about being lonely but being excluded.

Realizing I was getting excluded because I was single

I became most acutely aware of what it meant to be single in a coupled world many years ago. It was when I first made the transition from being a graduate student among other mostly single fellow grad students to being a new assistant professor in a department in which most of the faculty members were coupled.

I liked my new colleagues and looked to them to be my friends. During the week, we went out to lunch nearly every day, stopped by one another’s offices just to chat, and served on committees together. On the weekends, I occasionally had invitations to out-of-town events, but I made a point of staying in town during those early months when patterns of socializing were likely to form. At the end of the day one Friday, as a work-related social event was drawing to a close, I watched two of my coupled colleagues and their partners head out together to dinner. I wasn’t invited. That hurt.

Learning that many other single people were getting excluded by their coupled friends, too

As a single person in a place dominated by couples, I would experience that sort of exclusion over and over again. For a while, it stung every time. Then it became the stuff of my intellectual explorations. I began tentatively, by asking other single people if they ever felt that they were excluded by their coupled friends or relegated to lesser social events (lunch instead of dinner, weekdays instead of weekends), because they were single. The first time I did so, the person I approached responded with a torrent of stories. We were at a social event, and soon another person joined us, then another, then a few more after that. Everyone had their own examples to offer. The next morning, when I opened my email, I had messages saying, “oh, and another thing…”.

When I was invited to give a talk at another university a month or so later, I broached the same topic in the same way at the reception after my talk. The same thing happened. One single person after another had their own stories to offer up. Clearly, the issue was striking a nerve.

All these years later, I’m still single, just as I’ve always wanted to be. Those early forays have evolved into books and scholarly articles and hundreds of blog posts and other writings about single life. What I’ve learned is…it’s not personal – or not just personal. The over-the-top hyping of marriage and weddings and coupling that I call matrimania is relentless. The stereotyping and stigmatizing of single people are pervasive, too. Unlike more familiar varieties of prejudice and discrimination such as racism or sexism, singlism slips by mostly unnoticed and unchallenged. Why wouldn’t married people feel superior?

My whole new attitude toward coupled people who exclude single people because they are single

Now, when I think that coupled people are excluding me because I am single, and I see that they do the same thing to other single people, I have a whole new attitude. I feel sorry for them. Despite all the other ways in which they may be enlightened and open-minded and would not in a million years practice any other form of discrimination, when it comes to single people, they are bigoted. They don’t think that they are. They are not banishing their single friends to be mean. At some level, though, I think they feel superior to people who have not entered the Married Couples Club. And that’s just sad.

Focusing on loneliness rather than exclusion serves the interests of the people doing the excluding

I’m still left with the question of why so many of the popular and scholarly writings about single people focus on loneliness rather than the many ways in which they are excluded and marginalized by matrimaniacal societies. I think that one of the answers is that it is easier to pin loneliness on single people, to say that if there is something they don’t like about their single life, it is their own fault, and it is up to them to do something about it. In contrast, if it is couples who are systematically excluding single people, egged on by the social norms that encourage them in their singlism, then it is not just on single people to make things right.

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Expert on the profound rewards of single life. Author of “Singled Out.” Popular TEDx speaker. Harvard PhD.

Summerland, CA
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