Women: Single and Loving It

Are women better off alone? Marriage is no magic bullet for happiness, some say.

From the WebMD Archives

The Sex and the City ladies were feisty, gutsy. Our Friends girlfriends had great ... friends. Thirty years ago, our mentor was Mary Tyler Moore. In the 1960s, our guru was Helen Gurley Brown with her liberating book, Sex and the Single Girl.

But medical studies show just the opposite -- that married people are happier and healthier than single women. The pressure to marry is even greater than ever, says Bella M. DePaulo, PhD, social psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of the book Singled Out.

"It's an old-fashioned message, that you're better off if you find a man," DePaulo tells WebMD. "It's this idea that you can be single, have your big career and all your friends, but that's not the route to happiness, it's not deep or meaningful like marriage is. That's ridiculous. The best friendships often last longer than marriages ... you don't have ridiculous expectations of your friends like you do a spouse."

Yes, those old, mopey stereotypes are still alive and kicking.

"The stereotypes that single women are either promiscuous or don't get any are a scam," she says. "It's like if you're married, all you have to do is roll over and have perfect sex. Anyone who reads the divorce columns knows that's not true! Single women can now get sex outside of marriage. It's probably quaint not to. Single women can even have kids without a husband, and without having sex!"

DePaulo's favorite line: "Single women can pick up the check at work and sperm at the bank."

The Happiness Bullet?

Marriage isn't a magic bullet for a wonderful life, says DePaulo. "But it has that appeal that you will meet this person and everything falls into place. Yet if you look to one person to be everything, it's not fair to that person, not fair to you, and it's not healthy. And if the marriage doesn't last, it's devastating."

One study tracking 1,000 couples for 15 years found that marriage brought only a "tiny blip" of happiness during the brief time closest to the wedding ceremony. "But on average, afterwards, people go back to way they were before. The researcher's perspective is that we each have a baseline of happiness, and marriage on average isn't going to change that -- except for that little blip," DePaulo says.

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In fact, most married vs. single "happiness studies" are seriously flawed, she adds. "They lump all single people together - divorced, widowed, always-single - without factoring in the transition period, the really unnerving period in your life after divorce or becoming widowed," she tells WebMD. "Over time, you go back to the person you were before. But studies don't take that transition period into account."

Here's an eye-opener: In one survey, moms were asked what they most wanted as a Mother's Day gift. "The overwhelming answer was 'time to myself.' Women who have the dream -- marriage and kids -- just want time to themselves," says DePaulo.

Loving Single Women

It's no wonder single women have great networks of friends. More women are single today than ever before, DePaulo notes. "The age at which people first marry has been climbing for some time now. The divorce statistics are still high. Women are less likely to remarry after divorce than men. Women live longer than men. There are more widowed older women than men."

Most women, by nature, make friendships fairly easily, she says. Men have a tougher time bonding with other guys.

"Men tend to have a certain homophobia about hanging out with another guy," DePaulo tells WebMD. "Things women do, like hanging out with female friends, men don't feel comfortable doing. For men it's not so easy to sit down and have coffee or a long leisurely dinner with another guy. There has to be some pretext for it, like a business lunch, our eating before playing basketball. If men could have real relationships with men, it would be different for them."

Wives or girlfriends are typically a man's confidantes. When that relationship is over, the emotional support often ends for him. For women, female friends are their best friends, too. Also, women tend to make new friends as they get older, she adds.

Not All Sex and Roses

However, being a single woman isn't all sex and roses. You've got all those household bills, too - and you're the only one paying them.

"A single woman's happiness depends partly on whether she can carry herself financially ... so she can do the things she wants to do," says Pepper Schwartz, PhD, a professor of sociology, psychiatry, and behavioral medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle.

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"In the past, many women turned to traditional married life because financially they had a difficult time on their own," Schwartz tells WebMD. "If they found a man who made a good-enough living, it made life easier. For some women, it's still that way. But now women can get high-paying jobs, which make a huge difference for them."

Also, some women aren't good at making friends, Schwartz says. "People have different talents, and surrounding themselves with friends is one that not all have. A friend to go on a trip with, to movie festivals with, to drop in when you're feeling sick -- all those people can substitute for a mate."

Those single women must realize that they are "the architects of their own expansion," Schwartz tells WebMD. "Develop a broad number of interests -- classes, volunteer work, travel plans, political involvement. What you're fighting is that home-alone syndrome. You're making sure people will take you out of everyday life maintenance. When you have a partner, their interests help extend your life. When you're single, you have to build that in."

Single Women & Retirement

Some single women hit the road when retirement comes. Life in an RV, touring the country, works fine for them.

But on their worst days, single women worry about old age and dying alone -- or with only their cats at their side. "Do you think marrying cures that?" asks DePaulo. "You and your husband would have to die at the same instant for that not to happen to you! If you get sick, don't assume your mate will be the one nursing you. Maybe he just can't deal with your illness. Or he could be the one with the big physical issues, and that will tie you down. There are certainly cases of younger women marrying older men. Then he gets sick, and she ends up taking care of him."

Women are more unlikely to be alone in old age because they have nurtured friendships. They are more likely to have people in their lives. That's why a sense of community is so important, she says.

"Most of us are happier with a sense of community inside the larger, less friendly world," DePaulo tells WebMD. "Life gets a little harder as we get older. There are more chances of health issues, which would be unpleasant under any circumstance. You have to make sure you have someone looking after you."

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New-Style Communities

"Cohousing" is one answer. It's a form of group housing much like a '60s commune, but yuppie-style. These are condo-style developments built around a "common area" with kitchen, dining, laundry, exercise, and children's playroom facilities. Cohousing communities are typically designed to resemble old-fashioned neighborhoods. Members get together often to share meals, socialize, and handle the ordinary stuff of daily living although they live in individual units.

"Intentional community" is an inclusive term for ecovillages, cohousing, residential land trusts, communes, student co-ops, farms, urban housing cooperatives, and other projects. Intentional communities can be found all over the U.S. and Europe, their growth spurred by the Internet. Typically, community members jointly own land that has multiple dwellings. Frequently, members share a common bond - a religious, political, or social philosophy that brings them together.

Ethan Watters was single, in his 30s, and living alone in San Francisco when he coined the concept of "urban tribes." Most single people belong to at least one such tribe even though they don't realize it. A vegetarian dining group, a hiking club, or a running group could qualify as an urban tribe if they meet frequently enough, says Watters, author of the book Urban Tribes.

"Urban tribes form in a vacuum," Watters tells WebMD. "Our generation has not joined the traditional social organizations our parents did, the churches and civic groups. We don't stay in our jobs as long. That leads to a social vacuum, and humans don't do well in a social vacuum. Something will fill it. That's where Thanksgiving dinners started out as stopgap measure, then 10 years later, we realize these friends have become our family."

While Watters was figuring out his life in San Francisco, "my mother was leading a very parallel life. She was in her 70s, living entirely in this group of friends, and they did everything a family would do. She had a very fulfilling life," he says. Retired people have long formed these types of communities. It's people younger than 65 who are new to the concept, he says.

"Single women have helped provide the momentum for urban tribes," Watters tells WebMD. "The key thing is ritual ... the Tuesday night potluck dinner, so everyone can get together regularly. But you have to realize an urban tribe is an ephemeral thing, it changes. People leave, others come in. It's a very informal contract you make with your friends. But it never has a sense of reciprocity. It's about giving genuinely and freely."

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on February 07, 2005

Sources

SOURCES: Bella M. DePaulo, PhD, social psychologist, University of California, Santa Barbara; author, Singled Out. Pepper Schwartz, PhD, professor of sociology, psychiatry, and behavioral medicine, University of Washington, Seattle. Ethan Watters, author, Urban Tribes. Fellowship for Intentional Community. Cohousing Association of the United States.

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