What Does It Take to Live a Happy Life If You Stay Single?

A single person’s toolkit: What should be in it?

Posted Jan 13, 2020

Many people still think of single life as a way station, a place where you mark time until you get married. Increasingly, though, that is changing. People are committing to living single, not just for the moment, but for life.

One such person is the feminist writer from India, Sharanya Gopinathan. She contributed one of the 13 essays in the book Single by Choice: Happily Unmarried Women. When she decided to stay single, she found little advice and few role models. So she set out to generate a “toolkit for the single woman: the skills, knowledge, and beliefs I would need in order to lead a happily single life.”

Tools for a Happy Single Life

Here are Sharanya Gopinathan’s five tools for a happy single life:

1. Self-love. Commit to being kind to yourself and forgiving too.

2. The ability to sort out your emotions. You need to learn to deal with your feelings on your own.

3. Confidence. Especially important in societies designed for couples (are there any that aren’t?), in which single people are stigmatized and asked inappropriate questions.

4. Friends. Gopinathan thinks that friends become even more important (though harder to find) as you grow older.

5. Financial skills. You can’t count on a spouse to cover this.

I shared these five tools with the Community of Single People and asked them for any additions. They had some. Even more significantly, they raised some profoundly important questions about how to think about this.

Here are some of their suggested additions to the toolkit for a happy single life. I’ll credit the members by name if they gave me permission to do so. In no particular order:

6. Resourcefulness. (Peggy Duszynski)

7. The ability to make major life decisions on your own and take responsibility for those choices. (Kristin Noreen)

8. The ability to be alone for long periods of time. Understand the difference between being alone and being lonely. Be comfortable with your own company. (Kendra and others)

9. Curiosity and an open mind.

10. Effective communication skills to successfully obtain the things you need, to the extent that you aren’t completely self-sufficient. (DC)

11. Plans to ensure your safety and security. (DC and others)

12. One’s people. they could be digital tribes, for instance.

13. Things you enjoy doing for fun.

14. Pets.

15. Ways to meet your sexual needs if you have them.

16. A health care advocate or other ways of ensuring appropriate treatment and protection in the health care system.

17. The money to pay people for the help you need. (Peggy Duszynski)

18. Resilience.

19. A sense of meaning or purpose.

Undergeneralizing: Are These Tools for Single People or for All People?

I think the members of the Community enjoyed generating suggestions for the single person’s toolkit. Lots of people participated. But the first three people to respond (Michelle Bloom and two others) all made the same very important point—hey, aren’t these tools that everyone needs, not just single people?

For many of the tools, I think they may be right. Who wouldn’t be better off with emotional skills, for example?

Maybe a better question is, what kinds of tools are especially important to people who stay single? One way to think about this: If you are single and live alone, you can’t split up different tasks the way some married couples do who live together. You need to either learn how to cover everything yourself or be able to persuade or pay others to help you.

Another angle: There are well-documented ways in which single people are treated less fairly than people who are not single—for example, in the American health care system. Single people need special tools for dealing with singlism; married people do not.

A few people advanced the discussion in even more significant ways, asking, for example, whether it may be married people who need some of these tools even more: “Often married people lack these psychological tools much more than single people. It’s much harder to sort out your emotions when you have blurred boundaries with a partner… When someone depends on a partner for self-love or self-confidence, it’s on very shaky grounds.”

In our discussion of safety concerns, DC said, “When many of my friends were single, we would go through a plan if we were sick or injured. How would we call the ambulance? Who knew our emergency contacts? Who knew our living will?”

I thought that was a very important discussion. And yet, pushed to think more deeply, I ended up uneasy about the implication that single people who live alone may be singularly vulnerable. In some consequential and scary ways, it is people with intimate partners, perhaps especially those who live with them, who are at the greatest risk. The statistics on violence and abuse, for instance, are stunning.

And let’s talk about sex. It is easy to trot out concerns about whether single people are getting any. But being married is no guarantee of getting the exact amount and kind of sex you want when you want it. Or avoiding it when or if you don’t want it.

Overgeneralizing: Does Everyone Need All These Tools?

I have been writing about the importance of friendship for years. DC really made me think when she said, “I strongly disagree with needing friends.”

She’s right. Lots of people want friends. They are miserable without them. But other people do not have friends, don’t care that they don’t have friends, and are doing just fine.

How many fit that description? We just don’t know. Quoting DC again: “There could be many people who feel this way, but are afraid to say so because society tells them they are wrong.”

Truisms such as “we are a social species” have some truth to them. Infants would not fare very well on their own. And yet, those nuggets of conventional wisdom can also be used as cudgels to beat up on people who are not very social and totally contented with their life.

This cautionary tale about overgeneralizing applies to many of the tools that were suggested. I’ll address just one more: sex.

Michelle first suggested, for fun, that maybe vibrators should be added to the single person’s toolkit. Then she quickly added that there are other routes to sexual gratification, such as humans. And, importantly, no other people at all, for asexual people—they just aren’t interested in sex with other people.

How should we think about people who just aren’t interested in sex? One woman in our group said, “I never had sex in my whole life… Do I need to be fixed? Only if I suffer.” That’s the conclusion that got incorporated into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 2013.

A lifelong lack of desire is not a disorder for people who are asexual. They don’t suffer distress from not having sex. The pain, if they experience any, comes from other people’s judgments about them. (Questions about asexuality? You can learn more here.)

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