If you are single, you have probably been invited to pity parties. That’s where people feel all sorry for you, thinking you live a boxed-in, sad, and lonely life because you are not coupled. Quiet desperation is probably what they imagine.
I have a different idea about that and not just because I’ve been single my whole life and I don’t recognize that description as having anything to do with how I have lived. I’ve also discovered hints about how big and expansive single life can be from research on personal growth and development.
A study of young and mid-life adults found that over a five-year period, the continuously single people were more likely to agree with statements such as “For me, life has been a continuous process of leaning, changing, and growth.” The married people were more likely to agree with different kinds of statements, such as “I gave up trying to make big improvements or changes in my life a long time ago.”
I think there are big, important, exciting, meaningful things that people do because they are single that they may not have done if they were coupled. In search of the personal experiences that may be at the heart of the research findings on personal growth, I asked dozens of single and single-again people to answer this question: “Have you ever done anything really big in your life that you probably would not have done if you were married or in a serious romantic relationship?”
Writing for the Solo-ish blog at the Washington Post, I described four of the stories single people told me. I explained why single people are sometimes more likely than married people to pursue their dreams, even though the latter, in theory, have the advantages of the emotional and financial support of a spouse. Here I want to tell you some of the other stories that single people shared with me, and mention some other relevant research.
The big adventure for Steve Thomasson, 38, a translator from Bolton, England, was in Greenland. That’s where he conquered the grueling Polar Bear Challenge, a back-to-back marathon and half-marathon – some of it on a vast sheet of ice.
When Anna Hanlin, 52, was in her late 20s, she bought a one-way ticket from Colorado Springs to London, then traveled all over Europe for six weeks. Her adventures have continued throughout her single life. She has gone out west to herbal medicine school, visited the Cayman Islands, gone to DragonCon and TeslaCon. She has added fireworks to other people’s lives – literally. She’s a trained pyrotechnician and has put on a few 4th of July shows.
The Big Career Risk – Walking Away from Something Secure to Pursue What You Love
Anitha Balaraj, 36, of Chennai, India, abandoned a 10-year corporate career. She spent a year getting certifications as a professional coach and a Yoga instructor and is now an executive coach. “I’m doing the work I love,” she said, “and I am truly at bliss.”
Carol, 46, a lifelong single woman, resigned from “a comfortable and fulfilling job.” She moved “from one side of the world to the other,” she told me, “to be closer to the music that I love and those who make it.”
Following Opportunities, Whenever and Wherever They Arise
When Mavis Green, 65, was in her mid-20s, she had a day job in the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Nights and weekends, she worked as a flight instructor. One year, she used her vacation time to fly her very own “2-seat classic airplane, a 1948 Cessna 140,” to Denver to visit family. Before heading back, California beckoned, so she flew there and fortuitously learned about a fly-in of other Cessna 140 pilots. She joined them, and in a hot tub that evening, they encouraged her to stay. She quit her job in Jersey and has made California the home base for her escapades ever since.
Other single people have used their freedom to pursue attractive opportunities within their chosen professions whenever and wherever they appear. Craig Wynne, 40, an English professor in Virginia, has crisscrossed the country. He also taught in Malaysia.
When Sarah (not her real name) completed her PhD, she was offered a job in another country. Her husband did not want to move, so they split. She has since moved again, for a job in a place she loves. Ilona, 34, from Germany, has always been single. She moved to Austria, then back to Germany, and tried country living as well as the urban setting where she is now. If something tempting comes up, she will move again.
Passion Projects and Other Dreams
For Kristin Noreen, a 54-year-old environmental permitting consultant in Bellingham, Washington, being single again has enabled her to pursue her passion of long-distance bike touring. “I couldn’t prioritize the time to train, nor could I spend money on the needed equipment, when I was married,” she said. “Two years after I left my husband, I rode my bike 450 miles to my friend’s house in Eugene.” She continued racking up the miles until a distracted driver crashed into her, causing a catastrophic injury. She rehabilitated her vintage touring bike and her body, and just kept on riding.
Barbara Hart Wilson, 69, of Hartwell, Georgia, has been married several times. She always wanted to live and work in the same place. When she told her most recent husband that she wanted to move into the back of an art studio in a 1908 building, “I thought he was going to have a coronary.” Single again, she’s there now, contentedly working on her art.
Amy Gahran, a 52-year-old in Boulder, Colorado, believes in unconventional approaches to intimate relationships, and in a survey she conducted, 1500 people told her about theirs. Amy described her research in the book, “Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator.” That happened once she was single. “When I was married, I was too consumed with feeling hyper-responsible for another person to throw myself into that book project.”
In Melbourne, Australia, 56-year-old Louise Harper, a lifelong single woman, has been cooking for herself for years. “Comments from single people that they couldn’t be bothered cooking ‘just’ for themselves” inspired her to write several “Single Serve” cookbooks. Had she been coupled, she said, those comments “would not have registered with me.”
Allyson Marie Penaloza, 48, used to be married. Now, she told me, “I have immersed myself into the Tantra community and have developed a passion for openness, gentleness, kindness, and a love for beautiful, intimate sensual experiences. This would not have happened in my marriage or in a monogamous relationship.”
Liisa was once married. She tells a story that starts out in a familiar way. She wanted to pursue her education but first she worked so her husband could pursue his. When it was her turn, well, her husband was gone. She did not let that deter her. She and her adult son moved to the state where she would enroll in college. On the first day at the campus, other parents were helping their kids move in. Her family flipped that script – her son helped her settle in. She completed her degree, got a masters, and is now doing meaningful and important work in a field that she loves.
Being There for the People You Care About
Barb Shelley, a public relations professional, married young. After divorcing, she said, “I was able to pull up stakes – again and again – to follow my soul’s longing for happiness and home.” When both of her parents died within an hour of each other, she decided to go back to the place where she was raised to be with her aging relatives. “So now at 66, I am in Boise, single and happier than I have ever been in my life.”
Not Just One Thing
Riza Hariati, 42, a freelance interior designer in Indonesia, does not think she would have had the time or energy to do all the things she has done if she had married. They include, among other things, learning to sew and play the piano, learning Mandarin and French, perfecting her English, working on her writing, and figuring out “how to fight for single status and be funny about it.”
Sonya Ashby, 46, a library media specialist in West Virginia, has pursued career opportunities all across the country. “My career is only part of the advantage of being single,” she told me. “I am active in my local arts community and have spent many hours on the stage as an actress and musician. I have time to draw, paint and write in my studio. In 2003, I published a book of tall tales. My graphic design work has been used by international corporations. I have the time to take care of my aging parents, volunteer for causes I care about, and enjoy the fellowship of friends and family. Because I live alone, I have acquired an arsenal of diverse skills. I can handle basic carpentry, electrical and plumbing repair, cooking, sewing, landscaping, and financial planning. I do not play the role wife or a mother. But I do play the roles of educator, artist, musician, author, actress, technology coach, caregiver, public speaker, activist and DIY Goddess. I have the privilege of learning and doing anything I please; all because I’m single.”
The Autonomy and Confidence That Fuel These Big Changes
One of the myths about single people is that they suffer from low self-esteem. In fact, though, a study more than 30 European nations comparing married people to lifelong single people found that their average levels of self-esteem were identical.
The results from the 5-year study I described earlier (the one that documented greater personal growth among single than married people) were even more affirming of single people. Those who stayed single, compared with those who stayed married, scored higher on autonomy and self-determination. They were more likely to agree with statements such as “I have confidence in my opinions, even if they are different from the way most other people think.” Maybe it is that confidence that helps fuel the big things they do in their lives.