TEDx Talk audiences are no strangers to hearing sweeping statements and powerful narratives but even by regular standards, Bella DePaulo’s opening gambit during her recent TEDx Talk in Belgium took some beating.
“I’m 63 and I have been single my whole life,” she told a cheering crowd.
‘When I was in my 20s and 30s I knew I was supposed to get married. Even now I keep getting reminded of it.”
DePaulo very much identifies as “single at heart”. The psychologist coined the phrase to describe a person that is living their best, most authentic self as a single person. Single-at-heart people see themselves as self-sufficient, don’t need a plus-one for every occasion, and generally have a sense of personal mastery.
“This isn’t a person who is single because they have had horrible experiences in other relationships or faced issues,” explains DePaulo. “It’s a way for people to identify positively by saying, ‘this way of life works for me’.”
Crucially, and contrary to widely held belief, they are not all that interested in finding a romantic partner.
“It’s believed that you don’t have a life, you don’t have anyone, no-one wants you, and that single people are selfish and self-centred, when research actually shows that single people are more kind and likely to volunteer and so on,” says DePaulo. “That’s why it’s hard to know exactly how many single-at-heart people are out there. It’s hard to recognise that in yourself if it’s not recognised in the culture at large.
“The parallel I like to use that in the ‘50s, most women of a certain class said that they wanted to stay home, make house and have children. It doesn’t mean that this is what every woman, deep in their heart, was really like.”
DePaulo is very much single at heart. She loves solitude and can go for days at a time without feeling lonely or isolated. She has never had a serious relationship and never lived with a romantic partner.
Certainly, DePaulo is very much living her life on her own terms. Even while scheduling in a phone interview, DePaulo asserts that she likes to sleep late, is more comfortable talking at night, and won’t be around in the mornings. In the end, she makes herself available to talk between 1am and 3am, her time.
DePaulo, unlike many single women, doesn’t recall a time in her younger years when she ever truly fretted about her solo status.
“I thought I was just slow in getting to where everyone else was, and that eventually I would want that,” she says. “I don’t remember a point when I realised that being single is who I am.
“I try to get it out there, it’s not just totally okay to be single – if this is the way you live your best life, it would be a sad thing not to do it.”
Happily single though she may be, DePaulo has felt the sharp end of singlism – negative stereotyping of and discrimination against singles – many times.
“There are the ways, say, that single people are ‘less than’ in the workplace,” says DePaulo. “If you’re single, there’s this assumption that you can work at the times that no-one wants, and you can come in on holidays. People expected me to teach at night and said, ‘you don’t want to ask married people to do it’. This was even before they had kids.
“You’ll find that your coupled friends might invite you to lunch on weekdays, but will go to movies or dinner on the weekends with their coupled friends.
“In universities, where I’ve been my whole life, people think of themselves as being open-minded and wouldn’t want to say anything prejudiced against, say, LGBT people, but will say hugely dismissive things about single people.
“Only later I realised the more serious aspects of singlism, like laws that favour married people,” she adds. “Politicians say they’ll fight for married people, and there are all these laws and tax breaks on things like inheritances and retirement funds that favour married people.”
DePaulo asserts that long-time singles face the stigmatisation that divorced people once endured decades ago.
“I think it’s because the subtext is that somebody, once, actively chose you,” she says. “Half a century ago it was more of an issue to be divorced rather than be single your whole life, but it has flipped.”
Much of this has to do with the idea that we are living in the grip of what DePaulo calls “matrimania” – our cultural obsession with marriage.
Oprah Winfrey, for instance, may be one of the most powerful women in business, but as the world will never tire of asking her, “You’ll get married?” Not for the first time, the media mogul was asked recently about when she would put a ring on it. Winfrey pointed out again, patiently, that her dreams have never involved a white wedding to her partner Steadman Graham, whom she met in 1986.
“Nobody believes it, but it’s true. Marriage requires a different way of being in this world,” she says.
“His interpretation of what it means to be a husband and what it would mean for me to be a wife would have been pretty traditional, and I would not have been able to fit into that.”
DePaulo has made it her life’s professional work to push back, with writing and psychological research, against this conceit of single people as sad, lonely, unlovable, or undesirable.
Graduating from Harvard with a PhD in 1979, DePaulo is now a project scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
And in her line of work, some of the findings have been disheartening. She found in some research that relationship virgins are evaluated harshly by others, and seen as less well-adjusted and more lonely.
Yet she has also discovered several studies that challenge the long-held claim that people who marry get healthier.
"A review of 18 happiness studies in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2012 concluded that well-being does not typically improve when people marry," she notes.
For her part, DePaulo is hopeful that a sea-change is afoot for those who are ‘single at heart’, not just culturally, but systemically. In the meantime, DePaulo hopes that more single-at-heart people can unpack their real needs and desires from years of cultural conditioning. We may have been told that coupledom and marriage is a meritocracy, a vital milestone in life, and a signifier of our desirability. Yet when it comes to relationship models, the truth is that one size doesn’t fit all.
“It was a real important revelation to me that I was always going to want to be single and that I wasn’t going to change,” she says. “The people around you see a ‘project’ and they want to fix you up with this person and that person. But the thing is, I’m not broken.”
For more information on Bella DePaulo, see belladepaulo.com. Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatised & Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After is out now via St Martin's Press.