Stop Saying that Being Single Is Better Than Being in a Bad Relationship
That’s too generous to romantic relationships and too grudging to single people
I hear this all the time: “Being single is better than being in a bad relationship” (or a bad marriage). There are other versions, too, such as, “It is better to be single than to wish you were.” Sometimes I read those platitudes in the media and sometimes people say them to me, knowing that I am one who lives my single life fully, joyfully, and unapologetically.
I don’t like those sentiments and I wish people would stop expressing them.
My problem is not that I think the statements are inaccurate. It is true that being single is better than being in a bad relationship or a bad marriage. It is demonstrably true — research shows that. Actually, research shows more than that. Being single is even better than being in a romantic relationship that isn’t particularly bad. And look at this conclusion from the social scientists who conducted that research:
“…it appears that people who reported anything less than “strongly agreeing” that their relationship was high quality experienced more negative affect while around their partners than when separated from them.”
I think that research is very important. But those findings are not the main reason why I don’t like it when people say that being single is better than being in a bad relationship. What I really dislike is that the sentiment is just so grudging. It makes single life seem like the sad, pitiful choice you would make only if your only alternative was a lousy romantic relationship or marriage.
Some people really do want to be coupled — sometimes desperately so — and for them, single life would just be something they’re stuck with and not something they would ever choose. But there are other people very different from them. People who are single at heart lead their best lives, their most authentic and meaningful lives, by living single. Single life for them is not just better than a bad marriage, it is better than a good one.
A few years ago, a journal article got a lot of attention for its claim that happy single people are those who are avoiding conflict and disagreements in their close personal relationships. It may be true that some single people are happy living single because they dislike conflict in their personal relationships (though I think the research is not as strong as it should be methodologically). But again, like the claim that single is better than a bad romantic relationship, it is, at best, a backhanded compliment. It is a grudging way of acknowledging that some single people are happy. I had hoped that somewhere in the article, even if only at the very end when scholars admit the shortcomings of their research, the authors would have acknowledged that there are also very positive reasons that people live happily single. But they didn’t.
I’ve described many of those positive reasons in The Best of Single Life, Alone: The Badass Psychology of People Who Like Being Alone, as well as in my critique of that conflict-avoidance article. They include, for example, the love of solitude, the deep fulfillment that comes from designing a life that works best for you, the freedom to pursue your passions or devote yourself to meaningful work, and the opportunities to fashion the social life that works for you, whether that means attending to a whole network of friends and relatives or spending lots of time on your own.
Living single in a mindful way means thinking about concepts such as “relationships” and “love” in bigger, broader ways than is typical in our society. There are many kinds of relationships beyond the conjugal ones, and many varieties of love. There are many kinds of values and pursuits and experiences that make our lives meaningful and joyful. Coupled life is not the one and only good life; for many people, the best way to live fully and in a way that honors their values is to live single.
[Want to learn more? Take a look at this collection of articles on all sorts of topics relevant to single life. Watch my TEDX talk, “What no one ever told you about people who are single.” Check out my website. Find my other stories on Medium here. Disclosure: Links to books may include affiliate links.]