In this pandemic year, many Americans are focused on how to have a socially distanced romantic dinner or prepare the perfect date night at home.
There’s nothing wrong with celebrating romantic love, but the focus on such celebrations drowns out the voices of those who are fine as they are - single and happily so.
As I’ve argued in my research on the ethics and politics of the family, social practices that celebrate romance, while ignoring the joys of friendship and solitude, reflect widespread assumptions. One is that everyone is seeking a romantic relationship. The second is more value-laden: Living in a long-term romantic, sexual partnership is better than living without one. This fuels beliefs that those living solo are less happy, or lonelier, than couples.
These assumptions are so prevalent that they guide many social interactions. But research shows they’re false.
Why more Americans are living single
The truth is that more Americans are living unmarried and without a romantic partner. In 2005, the census for the first time recorded a majority of women living outside of marriage. By 2010, married couples became a minority in the United States. While many unmarried people may have romantic partners, a 2017 Pew survey showed more young adults were choosing to live single.
Personal finances likely play a role in such choices. Millennials are worse off than earlier generations. There is a proven connection between economic resources and marriage rates – what legal scholar Linda McClain calls “the other marriage equality problem.” Lower incomes correlate with lower rates of marriage.
But changing family patterns are not simply the result of financial instability. They reflect choices: Not everyone wants romantic partnership and many single people see solo life as more conducive to flourishing and autonomy.
Single by choice
As I show in my book “Minimizing Marriage,” people have many different political or ethical reasons for preferring singlehood.
Some women become single mothers by choice. As sociologist Arlie Hochschild has argued, marriage brings extra work for women, making it less attractive than single life for some.
For other people, being single is simply a relationship preference or even an orientation. For example, there are those, referred to as “asexuals” and “aromantics,” who lack interest in sexual and romantic relationships.
Who are asexuals and aromantics?
Data from a 1994 British survey of more than 18,000 people showed 1% of the respondents to be asexual. Because asexuality is still little-known, some asexual people might not identify as such. And so, it’s possible that the true numbers could be higher.
Asexual people do not feel sexual attraction. Asexuality is not simply the behavior of abstaining from sex, but an orientation. Just as heterosexual people feel sexual attraction to members of a different sex, and gay and lesbian people feel attraction to members of the same sex, asexual people simply do not feel sexual attraction. Asexual people can have romantic feelings, wanting a life partner to share intimate moments with and even cuddle – but without sexual feelings.
But some asexual people are also aromantic, that is, not interested in romantic relationships. Like asexuality, aromanticism is an orientation. Aromantics may have sexual feelings or be asexual, but they do not have romantic feelings. Both asexual people and aromantics face a lack of understanding.
Angela Chen, a journalist who wrote a book about asexuality, reports that her asexual interview subjects suffered from a lack of information about asexuality. As they failed to develop sexual attractions during puberty - while their classmates did - they asked themselves, “Am I normal? Is something wrong with me?”
But while asexuality is sometimes misunderstood as a medical disorder, there are many differences between an asexual orientation and a medical disorder causing a low sex drive. When asexual people are treated as “abnormal” by doctors or therapists, it does them a disservice.
Since the early 2000s, asexual people have exchanged ideas and organized through online groups. One such group, The Asexual Visibility and Education Network, for example, promotes the understanding that lack of sexual attraction is normal for asexual people, and lack of romantic feelings is normal for aromantics.
Asexual people, like aromantics, challenge the expectation that everyone wants a romantic, sexual partnership. They don’t. Nor do they believe that they would be better off with one.
Single and alone – or lonely?
Far from the stereotype of the lonely single, lifelong singletons are less lonely than other older people, according to psychologist Bella DePaulo, the author of “Singled Out.” Nor are singles alone.
Many singles have close friendships which are just as valuable as romantic partnerships. But assumptions that friendships are less significant than romantic partnerships hide their value.
Understanding the reasons people have for remaining single might help to handle family pressures. If you’re single, you could take unwanted questioning as a teachable moment. If you’re the friend or family member of someone who tells you they’re happily single – believe them.
And if you’re single on Valentine’s Day, consider celebrating the varied loves of your life: your friends, your family, your furry companions, and, most of all, yourself.
This is an updated version of a piece first published on Dec. 20, 2018.