According to recent research, single people are the fastest growing demographic in many countries in the world. Adults are marrying later and getting divorced earlier, whilst attitudes towards marriage, relationships and the family are reshaping the ways in which many navigate their romantic lives. In his new book Happy Singlehood (2019), sociologist Elyakim Kislev traces the economic, geographic and cultural changes contributing to the rise of singlehood, and examines the challenges, stigma and rewards of solo living.
Happy Singlehood describes the rising acceptance and status of singlehood as a global phenomenon. What do you think are the social and cultural changes contributing to this?
I detail the major reasons for this rising trend in my book. But in essence, we are more mobile today in search for opportunity and economic mobility and we don’t want to be tied down; we want more privacy and time to develop ourselves; we, especially women, are more independent and educated, and we don’t need others to support us; and finally, we are less conformist and traditionalist, so we need to be convinced that marriage is good for us and, after marrying, that we should hold on to marriage, especially if we see the dire consequences of unhappy marriage all around us.
Can you tell us something more about what it means to be happy in singlehood?
There are many aspects, but one example I found is that those who were happiest insisted they simply enjoyed their solitude and did not feel lonely or out of contact. In my study, some singles even testified that spending time with themselves is something they could not give up on, and that having that solitude relaxes them and makes them feel comfortable. For them, solitude is a time to be relished, even to be celebrated.
In what ways is solo living a solitary state of being?
I found that many singles are actually very social and friendly. They developed strong interpersonal networks. Often, these singles were the friendliest people my team and I interviewed, yet they needed that private space at the end of the day. Interestingly, some even reflected that their friendliness may even be the exact reason they yearned for solitude. When they returned home from an evening with friends, full of laughter and joy—the most important thing they needed was the chance to balance that joy with some quiet time.
What can those who are coupled learn from Happy Singlehood?
It is extremely important to feel complete by yourself, even if you are coupled. It is quite amazing how so many people force themselves into marriage because they need someone to assuage their fears. Studies show that people even go back to their exes just to escape the worries and feelings of loneliness. Happy Singlehood develops this inner feeling that no matter what, being yourself and by yourself is totally ok.
There has been much written (particularly here in the UK) about the apparent rise of loneliness. How does your work challenge stigma relating to singles and loneliness?
There is a huge misconception that being alone and lonely are the same. Similarly, married people can sometimes still feel lonely even if they are not “alone.” It was proven time and again in many studies that married people can be very lonely and emotionally deprived within wedlock. In contrast, single people can flourish outside of the marriage institution. Marriage is a certain level of commitment that doesn’t fit everyone.
Many can feel suffocated in such a perpetual and high level of commitment. We need to accept the notion of a wider scale of what it means to be committed: marriage, cohabitation, living apart and being together, occasional couplehood, and so on.
How might policy cater to the growing singlehood demographic?
Effective policies I’ve seen include development of suitable, small apartments with shared spaces so that singles will be able to interact with others and to create communities. As I said, my study shows that singles are more social than married people, so we just need to make sure they have ways to nurture their connections. Even more profoundly, we need to start educating students on how to accept singlehood and live happily even if they will find themselves alone. The Pew Research Center predicts that a quarter of today’s children will never marry, and around half of those who marry will get divorced. We must not ignore these statistics. More than anything, it is crucial to prepare today’s children for single living and even if married, to teach them to accept those around them who chose going solo or have lost their spouses through divorce or death.
Elyakim Kislev is a faculty member at the Hebrew University. His book, Happy Singlehood: The Rising Acceptance and Celebration of Solo Living, is available now.