In her recent interview with British Vogue, actress Emma Watson offered a new way of thinking about singlehood. She first confessed that she "never believed the whole ‘I’m happy single’ spiel," but then she makes an interesting reframe, stating, "it took me a long time, but I’m very happy. I call it being self-partnered.”
Why say self-partnered instead of saying you’re single?
Self-partnered has a different connotation than being single, potentially capturing aspects of singlehood that are overlooked or under-appreciated by most people. Single individuals are generally perceived as less physically attractive, less happy, and more immature than married individuals, and these perceived differences are particularly pronounced in judgements of adults older than 40 (DePaulo & Morris, 2006). Observers judge single individuals as lonelier and more miserable than people in relationships, an effect heightened for self-proclaimed "single by choice" individuals (Slonim, Gur-Yaish, & Katz, 2015). These stereotypes are not benign. Bias against single individuals, known as singlism, is accompanied by discrimination in a variety of arenas (e.g., workplace, housing, service experiences), and is particularly insidious because it is largely unrecognized as a status linked to discrimination (DePaulo & Morris, 2006).
Is "self-partnered" a better term than "single"?
Self-partnered suggests contentedness rather than loneliness. As such, it may do a better job than "single" – with its associated stereotypes – of capturing an important reality, which is that single individuals are in fact better connected to their friends, family, and communities than married people (Sarkisian & Gerstel, 2016). Data were obtained from nearly 16,000 people in multiple waves of the General Social Survey and the National Survey of Families and Households, and results showed that single individuals stay better connected with others, provide more help to family and friends, and receive more help from people in their social network (Sarkisian & Gerstel, 2016).
It’s the married people who tend to isolate themselves from the other people in their lives, not the single people.
Despite these connections, single people do not appear to be happier than married people; they might be less happy but are probably just as happy, although the evidence is messy (DePaulo & Morris, 2006). Evidence claiming that single people are less happy often includes divorced individuals among single individuals or does not discriminate between involuntary singlehood and chosen singlehood. Married people tend to experience a boost in happiness right after they marry but then return to their baseline happiness; long-married people tend to be particularly happy, but it could be that happy people marry more often than less happy people. In other words, without the possibility of experimental research (in which people are randomly assigned to be married or stay single) we don’t really know if relationship status causes a change in happiness.
Should self-partnered be the new term for single individuals?
Watson is not the first celebrity to endorse alternative ways of thinking about relationship status; remember Gwyneth Paltrow’s divorce from Chris Martin? Paltrow reframed their divorce by referring to conscious uncoupling, an approach to separation designed to ease an often difficult and contentious process. While Watson’s language change appears less process oriented, it – like Paltrow’s use of conscious uncoupling – could be an attempt to manage others’ perceptions. Celebrities, afterall, are subject considerable judgment.
Beyond self-presentation, the term self-partnered could be a reaction to singlism, the negative stereotypes linked to being single, or the general pressure to conform to a partnered standard. If you’re weary of being asked if you’re dating anyone or if you’re "still single," a term like self-partnered suggests that not only are you comfortable with yourself and enjoy spending time with yourself, but you’re also not actively seeking someone else, at least at the moment.
DePaulo, B. M., & Morris, W. L. (2006). The unrecognized stereotyping and discrimination against singles. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15, 251-254.
Sarkisian, N., & Gerstel, N. (2016). Does singlehood isolate or integrate? Examining the link between marital status and ties to kin, friends, and neighbors. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 33, 361-384.
Slonim, G., Gur-Yaish, N., & Katz, R. (2015). By choice or by circumstance?: Stereotypes of and feelings about single people. Studia Psychologica, 57(1), 35.