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What single people can teach us all about relationships

Single people can teach us all about relationships

The rise in singlehood is unprecedented. The share of the unmarried adult population in the UK is close the 50 percent. In the United States, it is predicted that approximately one-quarter of young adults will never marry; and in Japan, love and sex are simply out of fashion: a 2015 survey shows that one-third of Japanese adults under the age of 30 had never dated and over 40 percent were virgins.

There are many explanations for these numbers: women’s growing independence, demanding careers, individualism, commodification of love, growing mobility, and urbanization processes. But what do these numbers mean? Are single people lonelier than married people?

The Wall Street Journal recently published a piece titled The Loneliest Generation. Its authors argue that we are in the midst of an epidemic in which people feel lonelier than ever before. As always, we, the unmarried people, are the usual suspect. The authors’ argument is simple: singles have no one in their lives to whom they can turn to in times of need and, therefore, they are lonelier than married couples.

However, a quick look at existing data reveals something that might surprise some: single people, especially long-term single people, are the most networked and socially active individuals. My analysis of more than 300,000 people from 31 countries shows that singles meet their friends more frequently than their married counterparts. Accounting for all other variables (age, gender, education, income, etc.), widowed, divorced and never-married individuals meet their friends 17, 20 and 45 percent more frequently than married people, respectively. One of the main explanations for these findings is that those who choose to marry enter into what researchers call a "greedy” marriage, in which couples turn inwards and cut ties with friends and relatives. This, in turn, frequently leaves them feeling lonelier than their unmarried peers.

In the interviews I conducted for my book, Happy Singlehood, I have found that many singles develop strong social networks that support them in their everyday lives as well as in times of need.

Phil, a 47-year-old single man from Indiana, told me: “I cast a pretty wide net of friends, I have a network of people I can see and socialize with on a regular basis.” Sometimes, these kinds of networks were even the exact reason the singles I met yearned to be alone at the end of the day. When they returned home from an evening with friends, full of laughter and joy, the only thing they needed is the chance to balance that joy with some quiet time.

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