Living alone loses its stigma

  • Star Tribune
  • June 30, 2012 - 2:43 PM

If the famously single Bridget Jones were living in Minneapolis today, she'd have a lot of company -- and many of them wouldn't be crying in their pints of Ben and Jerry's about it.

Being single no longer carries the stigma it once did, largely because an unprecedented number of people are. More than one-quarter of U.S. households are now occupied by a single dweller. Time magazine ranked the rise in people living alone as No. 1 among the life-changing trends of 2011. And Minneapolis is among cities leading the nationwide "going solo" trend, with more than 40 percent of its households consisting of just one person.

Recent research shows that societal attitudes are changing -- singles are now sometimes envied by couples rather than universally pitied -- but some singles still feel judged, at least occasionally. It's just that not so many are letting it bother them.

Lisa Baker, a 29-year-old health care marketer, splits her time between Uptown Minneapolis and a small farm she bought near Avon, Minn. She said she's had her share of relationships, but at the moment is so busy living her life that "I'm practically Fraulein Maria" in the romance department.

"I don't feel disapproved of," she said, "though I get a sense that people wonder what my motives are, not having been in a committed relationship for years."

Even people who hope to settle down with a certain someone at some point are in no hurry, not feeling their lives are lesser for their single status.

"I see too many people taking relationships and commitment too lightly, and when I find a partner, I want it to be a real connection," said Erin Darsow, a 28-year-old law student who, despite watching a lot of her friends get married by age 20, had no desire to walk down the aisle herself. "Being single is better than being in an unhappy relationship."

Strength in numbers

In 1957, psychologists reported that 80 percent of American adults thought those who wanted to stay single were sick, neurotic or immoral. Women were expected to marry and raise a family; men were expected to marry and provide for a family.

These days, fewer and fewer people see that tradition as the only path to happiness. Today, nearly half of all U.S. adults are single.

"The more of us there are, the harder it is for people to say there's something wrong with you if you're single," said Bella DePaulo, a professor of social psychology at the University of California in Santa Barbara and chair of the Board of Academic Advisors of the American Association for Single People. "When you're starting to make up this big a part of the population, it's harder for people to tell you that you have issues."

In her book "Singled Out," DePaulo noted the many myths that singles have had to battle.

It used to be that "women couldn't win. Either you're promiscuous or you're not getting any," she said.

But men hardly got off scot-free. Single men who work with children, for example, have been far more likely to arouse suspicion than women.

Single guys used to get labeled as "horny, slovenly and irresponsible," DePaulo said. "They're either the scary criminal or the fastidious bachelor."

The once commonly held belief that single people are missing out is a powerful one, she said. "The idea that no matter what you do or how positive and fulfilled you think you are, you'll never experience genuine happiness until you get married is a way of undermining the single experience."

Single but connected

Cultural trends that indicate more acceptance of singledom abound. First came "meals for one" cookbooks. Now all sorts of social clubs and travel organizations cater to singles. They are also seen as an important consumer market, because they have more to spend on themselves: A harried mother of four might not dream of dropping $400 on a pair of noise-canceling headphones, when some single frequent fliers wouldn't think twice.

Eric Klinenberg, a professor of sociology at New York University, recently published a book on the living-single trend, "Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone." He said he expected to find "that singletons are less connected and civically engaged than married people, but the reverse is true." His research showed that singles are more likely to spend time with friends and neighbors than are married people, and even more likely to volunteer in civic groups.

A major driver of living alone has been the leaps and bounds made in women's economic independence, Klinenberg said: "An unprecedented number of women can afford to have a place of their own, so they can delay marriage or escape one that doesn't work."

While higher incomes make it easier to choose to live alone, so can living in a state with generous benefits.

"Interdependence can make independence possible," he said. "When cities or nations invest in public services and amenities such as health care, home care and public transportation, they allow people to live the way they want to. That's why living alone is so common in the Scandinavian nations, and why it's more common in cities than in rural areas."

As for why Minneapolis is out front on this trend, Klinenberg speculated that factors could include the city's high level of social services, which makes it easier for older people to age alone and still get care, and that young professionals can live well while single here.

Changing attitudes

While millennials don't seem to notice much singlehood stigma, older generations -- Gen Xers and baby boomers -- battle traditional attitudes more often.

Middle-school teacher Debra Krawetz, 52, of Minneapolis has been single her whole life. In her circles of friends, she said, she's rarely made to feel like the odd woman out, but "the worst place to go is a wedding. They don't know where to seat you, and someone will say, 'Oh, I just know you're going to be next.'

"There's always some wishing you had what the other side has, but I feel like my life is pretty good," she said.

Single women still get judged more harshly than single men are, both experts and singles say. While "spinster" and "old maid" seem laughably antiquated terms now, single women are still more likely to be looked upon as sad or lonely than are single men. Also, while singles may no longer automatically be considered weirdos, they are sometimes still seen -- unfairly -- as threats, said Baker, the health care marketer.

"No one believes that a cute, educated, employed, single 29-year-old gal can really just be OK on her own and isn't trying to steal boyfriends and husbands," she said. "I've seen this happen with other girls, too. The people in relationships rarely seem secure enough in themselves and their mates to believe that benign quality friendships are possible."

When she first started studying the social psychology of singles in the late 1990s, DePaulo was puzzled that the single people who were criticized the most were those who seemed to like their lives the most -- especially women.

"Why are people set off by single women who aren't complaining or whining? A lot of nasty things were said about Condoleezza Rice just because she wasn't married. If you're single and successful, it's perceived as some sort of threat."

Discrimination also still exists against singles on the job, DePaulo said.

"Who gets the best vacation time, who is expected to work holidays and stay late to cover for others is often the single people because it is assumed you don't have a life. But with more and more and more singles in the workplace, things are changing."

To illustrate the point, she recalled the minor dust-up that Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell caused in 2008 when he said that Janet Napolitano, then Obama's nominee for Homeland Security secretary, was a good fit for the position "because, for that job, you have to have no life. Janet has no family. Perfect. She can devote, literally, 19 to 20 hours a day to it."

That was less than four years ago. If that same statement were made today, DePaulo said, Rendell would appear even more out of touch.

"That would really cause a backlash now," she said.

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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