Research, opinion: More than 4 in 10 young adults find singlehood empowering

Bella DePaulo

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Is singlehood empowering or disappointing? In “Empowering, pragmatic, or disappointing: Appraisals of singlehood during emerging and established adulthood,” Jonathon J. Beckmeyer and Tyler B. Jamison reported the results of their research on that question. Their findings were recently published online at Emerging Adulthood.

Participants were 168 adults in the US, ages 18 to 35, who answered an online survey about relationship histories. They all answered “no” to the question, “Do you consider yourself to be romantically involved with someone right now, even if it is casual?”, and on that basis, were considered to be single. The younger single people, ages 18-29, were the “emerging adults.” The older ones, ages 30-35, were the “established adults.”

Wanting or not wanting to be in a romantic relationship

One out of three people in the study had never been in a romantic relationship. Even in the older group (ages 30-35), 20 percent were romantic relationship virgins.

The participants were asked to indicate their interest in a romantic relationship by choosing one of the following:

  • No, I don’t want to be in a romantic relationship.
  • I am not sure if I want to be in a romantic relationship.
  • I would like to be in a romantic relationship, but it is not that important to me right now.
  • Yes, I would really like to be in a relationship right now.

The most common response, chosen by 42%, was the third: they want to be in a romantic relationship, but it is not important at the moment. Twenty-seven percent said they did want to be in a romantic relationship, 20 percent said they did not, and 11 percent said they were not sure. Looking just at the older group (ages 30-35), the exact same percentage said they did not want to be in a romantic relationship as said that they did want to (29 percent).

Participants were also asked about the statement, “Being single is an intentional choice.” On a scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 6 (strongly agree), the average answer was on the positive end of the scale (4) for both the emerging adults and the established adults.

Empowered, free to pursue goals and interests, disappointed

Participants were asked separately about feeling empowered, free to pursue their goals and interests, or disappointed – they did not have to choose just one.

Empowered: 43% of the participants agreed with the statement, “I feel empowered by being single.” (They said the statement was “true” or “very true” of them.)

Free to Pursue Goals and Interests: 75% agreed that “being single allows me the time and space to pursue my own goals and interests.”

Disappointed: 37.5% agreed with the statement, “I am disappointed to be single at this point in my life.”

It is telling that, despite all the deficit narratives about single life perpetuated not only in the media, but in scholarly writings, too, a substantial number of single people – 43% -- said that they felt empowered by being single. Saying that “being single allows me the time and space to pursue my own goals and interests” is also a positive statement about single life, and three out of every four single people endorsed it. Because only 37.5% said that they were disappointed to be single, that means that even people who did not want to be single recognized that single life has its advantages, such as getting to pursue your own goals and interests.

The proportions who felt empowered, free to pursue goals and interests, or disappointed by being single were no different for the established adults than for the younger emerging adults. Anecdotally, the thirties are often described as a time when single people feel especially pressured about their single status, so it is interesting that the single people in their thirties did not feel any more disappointed about being single than the younger singles did.

Who found singlehood empowering? Disappointing?

Three categories of people were especially likely to find singlehood empowering:

Singles who were flourishing. Single people who were flourishing were those who were especially likely to say that their life was purposeful and meaningful, their social relationships were supportive and rewarding, they were engaged and interested in their daily activities, that they contribute to the happiness and well-being of others, and they are optimistic about the future (among other items on the Flourishing Scale). The singles who were flourishing were especially likely to find singlehood empowering. They were also particularly likely to say that being single allowed them to pursue their own goals and interests.

Singles who were intentionally single. Singles who said that being single was an intentional choice were especially likely to find singlehood empowering. They were also particularly likely to say that being single allowed them to pursue their own goals and interests.

Singles who were not white. Participants who identified as Black, Hispanic, or another race/ethnicity were more likely to find singlehood empowering than those who identified as non-Hispanic White. Black scholars and authors, such as Jessica Moorman, are among those who have shown how adeptly many Black adults navigate single life.

Unsurprisingly, the people who said that they wanted a relationship were especially unlikely to find singlehood empowering. They were also less likely to say that being single allowed them to pursue their own goals and interests. They were most likely to say that they were disappointed to be single.

The single people who were employed part-time or who were unemployed were more likely than those who were employed full-time to say that being single gave them the time and space to pursue their own goals and interests. The unemployed were also especially unlikely to say that they were disappointed to be single. Mainstream narratives are sometimes quite negative about single people who are underemployed, but these single people appear to be using their time constructively.

Among the single people who were least likely to be disappointed that they were single where those who were most highly educated. In popular writings, there is a lot of fretting over single women and whether they may be undermining their marriage prospects by attaining higher levels of education. These results suggest that the most educated single people aren’t worried about that -- they are least likely to be unhappy about being single (though the authors did not report their results separately for different genders).

The authors had this to say about their findings about education: “For these emerging and established adults, a college degree may be perceived as a worthwhile trade-off to currently being single.” Perhaps there are single people who really do think that way. But not the Single at Heart, who love being single and prefer single life over every other option. For them, a college degree isn’t a trade-off. It is not some compensation for being single. Being single is the prize.

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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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