Here are two different stories about people who choose to be single. In the first, they are sad about being single. They didn’t really choose to be single – they are just stuck with that status. When it comes to social life, they aren’t doing that great. They don’t have a romantic partner and they don’t have many friends either. The more they say they want to be single, the less likely it is that they are satisfied with their social lives or value their friends. That’s why “alone” is so often used interchangeably with “single” – because people who choose to be single “don’t have anyone.” Don’t take this story too seriously until you hear about the next one.
In the second story about people who choose to be single, they have deeply satisfying social lives. The more they embrace being single, the more satisfied they are with their social contacts and the more they value staying in touch with their friends. In fact, over time, as their satisfaction with their social lives grows, and as they come to value their friends even more, they are even more likely to choose to be single and less likely to want to have a romantic partner.
Of course, I like the second story better. I’ve been single all my life. That’s what I chose.
But this isn’t about my preferences. It is about a study by Elyakim Kislev, published online in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. That study showed that people who choose to be single do in fact value their friends more and have more satisfying social lives.
Who were these single people and how do we know about their social lives?
For his study, Kislev analyzed data from a multi-year survey of nearly 6,000 German adults who were older than 30. They were either divorced or separated, or they had always been single. None of them had romantic partners.
Every year, starting in 2008 or 2009, the participants were asked about several aspects of their lives. Kislev studied nine waves of data and focused on three measures.
Choosing to be single. The participants who chose to be single were those who said that they did not want to have a partner. The measurement was straightforward. They were asked to indicate, on a 5-point scale, the extent to which they agreed with the statement, “I would like to have a partner.”
Feeling satisfied with their social lives. Participants indicated, on a scale ranging from 0 to 10, how satisfied they were with their “friends, social contact.”
Valuing their friends. The participants were asked to distribute 15 importance points among 5 different domains: “pursuing my education or career interests, pursuing my hobbies and interests, keeping in touch with friends, living in a partnership, and having a(nother) child.” Participants valued their friends relatively more, the more points they assigned to the goal of keeping in touch with their friends.
Friendship and choosing singlehood go together like a horse and carriage
At any one point in time, the single people who chose to be single were especially likely to be satisfied with their social lives and to say that keeping in touch with their friends was especially important. The participants who expressed the least interest in having a partner enjoyed the greatest satisfaction with their friends and social contacts. Those who expressed the greatest interest in having a partner were the least satisfied with their social lives.
Similarly, the single people who said they were not at all interested in having a partner were most likely to say that keeping in touch with friends was important to them. Those who were most interested in having a partner were least likely to say it was important to maintain their ties with their friends.
Because the participants answered the survey questions every year for nine years, Kislev was also able to see how their experiences changed over time. Some people became even more committed to being single from one year to the next. Those people also valued their friendships even more over time. (Their satisfaction with their social life did not change.)
It worked the other way, too. Single people who valued their friendships more from one year to the next were also, over time, even more likely to say that they wanted to be single (that is, they were not interested in having a romantic partner). Similarly, the single people who became even more satisfied with their friends and social contacts from one year to the next also became even more committed to being single.
Friendship and choosing to be single: Why do they go together so beautifully?
Perhaps, as single people invest more in their friendships and find them especially fulfilling, they realize that being single does not at all mean being alone. Maybe they learn that all the celebrations of marriage and romantic coupling (what I call “matrimania”) have oversold one particular kind of relationship at the expense of other kinds of deeply fulfilling relationships.
And, as single people commit to being single, they may also value their friendships even more. Maybe they are no longer holding out for that romantic partner (if, indeed they ever were); instead, they embrace the single life that they have found fulfilling all along.
It is a virtuous cycle – people who value their friends more and become more satisfied with their friends and social contacts become more committed to single life. And those who embrace single life more enthusiastically, over time, invest even more in their friendships.
The true story of choosing to be single, according to these nine years of data from nearly 6,000 people, is not a tale of people stuck with their single status, feeling alone and disappointed. That story is more likely to fit the single people who are pining for a partner. They are the ones who are most dissatisfied with their social lives and least likely to value their friends. The story of single people who want to be single it is a story of connection, fulfillment, and a life full of “the ones” instead of The One.
We had lots of big hints that the story of meaningful and fulfilling friendships is the one that would prevail. As I explained in more detail previously, there are dozens of studies showing that single people have more friends than married people, that they do more to maintain their ties with the friends and relatives and neighbors, and that they get more emotional fulfillment from their friendships. But those studies compared single people to coupled or married people, whereas the question addressed by Kislev’s research was about different kinds of single people – those who want to be single compared to those who want a romantic partner.
There are always exceptions
Friendships are not of great importance to all single people who choose single life. Some care relatively more about other things, such as pursuing their passions or savoring their solitude. And, of course, there are single people who want to find a romantic partner who greatly value their friendships and have great social lives. The results of scientific research are based on averages across all the people who participate in the study. There are always exceptions.