The Emotional Inequality Of Being Single

Emotionally, singles are systematically disadvantaged, but they are advantaged too.

Emotional inequality of being single Ron Lach | Canva

In a previous essay, I documented many of the ways in which, in the U.S. and elsewhere, single people are systematically disadvantaged by laws, policies, and practices that privilege married (or coupled) people and shortchange single people. Singlism also includes stereotypes about single people, deficit narratives of their lives, and how coupled people are valued and celebrated in everyday life, while single people are often devalued and marginalized.


In “Affective intensities of single life,” published in the journal Sociology, the Finnish scholars Marjo Kolehmainen, Annukka Lahti, and Anu Kinnunen argue that singlism shapes our emotional lives, and contributes to “affective inequalities and affective privileges.” Systemic biases make it more likely that single people will be disadvantaged emotionally and coupled people will be advantaged, and in some ways, that’s true. 

And yet, perhaps even more impressively, the reverse happens, too. There are considerable emotional advantages to single life, especially for people such as the single at heart who embrace what single life has to offer rather than focusing on becoming coupled. Drawing from the work of Kolehmainen and her colleagues, and adding some ideas of my own, I’ll describe, first, some of the emotional disadvantages of single life, and then some of the advantages.


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Here are 4 emotional disadvantages of single life:

The emotional disadvantages of single life do not just accrue to restless single people who are yearning to be coupled. In fact, in some ways, it is the people who are happily single who are treated especially harshly.

1. Single people are not believed when they say they are happy

One of the truly exasperating aspects of being a happy single person is being disbelieved. Tell someone you are happily single and they will respond that you don’t feel that way, you will change your mind, or you just haven’t met the right person yet. 

Wendy Morris and I tested whether single people’s happiness is discounted in a series of studies in which we created profiles of pairs of people that were identical except that in one profile, the person was described as single, and in the other, as married. We showed the profiles to the participants in our research and asked them to predict how happy each person would say they are, and how happy they are. The participants consistently judged the single people to be exaggerating their happiness more than the married people.


In other research, single people who said they wanted to be single were judged more harshly than single people who wished they were coupled; for example, they were believed to be less happy, even though they were the ones who liked their single lives. (I discussed the psychology of all this in more detail in Chapter 9 of Single at Heart.)

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2. Negative feelings are blamed on their romantic relationship status for single people, but not for coupled people

When single people experience negative emotions such as sadness, there’s an easy explanation: they are sad because they are single. Sometimes even single people are tempted to believe that. But when coupled people experience negative emotions, it is not assumed that has to do with being coupled. Everyone is sad sometimes. Or, if the negative emotions are about being coupled, it’s not personal — after all, everyone knows that romantic relationships are hard work.

3. Some sources of joy are made less accessible to single people

When couples move in together or get married, they tend to become more insular, often spending less time with their friends. Getting marginalized diminishes a potential source of joy for single people, and it can be hurtful. When certain holidays or days of the week are organized around couples or families, that, too, can leave some single people feeling left out and disappointed. (Others, though, are delighted to create their own special experiences; some shared their stories in Single at Heart.)


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4. Deficit narratives of single life can shame single people

The conventional wisdom (or what Sasha Roseneil and her colleagues call “the couple norm”) maintains that being coupled is the normal, natural, and superior way to be. Coupled life is the privileged status, against which single people are measured and found wanting. The couple norm can shame single people, putting them at risk of feeling anxious and insecure. 

Many single people successfully resist all that shaming, but in the process, they are put on the defensive. Coupled people, in contrast, are not asked to defend themselves or explain why they are still coupled.

Here are 5 emotional advantages of single life:

People who are married with children have a life path with conventional milestones such as marrying and having children. Without a romantic partner at the center of their lives (and for some single people, without children either), single people are free to design their paths through life. Although that can be daunting or even dispiriting to the reluctantly single, it can be thrilling to single people who embrace their single lives.


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1. The joy of following your passions and building a life of your own

In her book, When the Church Burns Down, Cancel the Wedding, Sara Braca described how she felt while she was married and then when she became single again. Here’s the marriage part:

“Over time, I had lost touch with anyone my husband didn’t like, which was pretty much all of my friends and most of my family. I lost my confidence as I grew more and more dependent on him and his friends. I lost my passions as I stopped doing many of the things that mattered to me, even traveling less to appease his worries about being away from home for too long and spending too much money.”


Surprise! Her husband left her for a younger woman after she had supported him while he built his career. Newly single, she went back to traveling, which she had always loved. Here’s her report from her stroll along a canal in Amsterdam:

“I felt pretty and vibrant and fully alive like I hadn’t felt in years. And I realized why. I was exactly, precisely where I wanted to be, doing exactly what I wanted to do, and I had made all that happen through my own efforts . . . I felt empowered. Independent. Free. It was like a simultaneous flashback to the old adventurous, pre-marriage me, and a flash forward to the new me I could be . . .”

As Sara Braca discovered, single life can be joyful, fulfilling, and psychologically rich.

2. The joy of sexual freedom

In one of their studies, Kolehmainen and her colleagues interviewed bisexual women who had recently separated, and in another, single heterosexual men, ages 32–52, wrote about their single lives. In the interviews with the bisexual women, Kolehmainen and her colleagues said, “There was an exhilarating feel to participants’ experiences of sexual encounters with more than one partner, which had often not been possible in their previous, monogamous relationships.”


The same theme showed up in the writings of some of the single men. For example, a man who did not have one committed sexual partner and enjoyed sexual experiences with several women said, “Life without a steady relationship has been the happiest time of my life ... I have female friends with whom I can live out both emotional intimacy and erotics very well.”

For other newly single people, one of the joys of single life is the freedom from feeling obligated to have sex they don’t want, or kinds of sex they don’t like. Similarly, lifelong single people who are not all that interested in sex enjoy the freedom not to have it. (For a discussion of sex in the lives of single people, see Chapter 7 of Single at Heart.)

3. The emotional depth afforded by solitude

In my study of people who are Single at Heart — whose most authentic, fulfilling, and meaningful life is single life — I found that just about every person who fits that description love their solitude. You can’t scare them by telling them they are going to end up spending a lot of time alone or that they are going to be lonely; they savor the time they have to themselves, and they are rarely lonely. 

Time spent alone, for those who like having time to themselves, can be relaxing and calming, a chance to read or watch TV or play video games. It can also be an opportunity to go deep, to access emotions, and to think about what you want from your life. It can also be good for creativity, productivity, and spirituality.


4. The joy of deciding for yourself who matters, rather than defaulting to a romantic partner

People who are single at heart love their solitude, but most of them love having other people in their lives, too. The joy of not building a life around a romantic partner is that you get to decide for yourself how many people you want to have in your life, how much time you want to spend with them, and how meaningful a relationship you want to build with them. You can do that without worrying whether your romantic partner might not like them or might feel threatened by the time you want to spend with them or the deep affection you feel toward them. 

I’m not (just) talking about potential romantic partners. The important people in our lives, such as our friends, can be people with whom we develop deep attachments and close emotional bonds — or they can include people whose company we enjoy more casually.

5. The feeling of pride for living authentically, despite all the pressures to couple up

It is relentless, that messaging that insists that romantically coupled life is normal and natural and superior to being single. The single at heart who resist that messaging and embrace their single lives are living authentically. For that, they can enjoy another very positive emotion: pride.

RELATED: Why You Should Never Have To Defend Your Choice To Be Single


Bella DePaulo (PhD, Harvard) is the author of the award-winning Single at Heart: The Power, Freedom, and Heart-Filling Joy of Single Life. She has been writing the “Living Single” blog for Psychology Today since 2008 and her TEDx talk, “What no one ever told you about people who are single,” has been viewed more than 1.7 million times.