‘I don’t yearn for someone to complete me’: Why more women are staying single
Jane Mathews has been single for eight years.
“Everyone sees it as a temporary thing, like I’m in some sort of a holding pattern on my way to the sunny heights of coupledom,” she said.
But for Jane, 57, coupledom is not the end goal.
“I’m getting happier and happier living alone. And the longer I do it, the more self-sufficient I become,” she said.
Jane is among a growing number of Australian women choosing to be alone or finding themselves without a partner later in life. In Australia, one in four women between the ages of 35 and 65 is single.
Jane said despite the spinster stereotypes and assumptions about being unlucky in love, solo living could be immensely rewarding, and was often misunderstood.
“I don’t have a cat, and I don’t have any of those clichés,” she said.
“I’m just very happy in my world … and I don’t yearn for someone to complete me.”
Challenging the stereotypes
The 21st century is the age of living single, according to US social scientist Bella DePaulo.
But despite more people choosing to stay single for longer, or for life, Dr DePaulo said single people, particularly single women, continued to be stereotyped and stigmatised.
“People think if you’re a single person, you’re miserable, you’re a little bit lonely … and you have nothing to do but play,” she said.
“Then there’s the other belief that if you’re single, what you want more than anything else in the world is to become coupled.”
It is an idea often reinforced by fictional narratives (think Bridget Jones, “destined to die alone”) and much of popular media — just Google Jennifer Aniston, “America’s favourite spinster”.
But Dr DePaulo said studies of single people showed the stereotypes did not stack up.
“It turns out that just about all of these stereotypes about single people, that are so widely shared, are either grossly exaggerated or just plain wrong,” she said.
A 2017 study published in the Journal of Women’s Health found older women who go through a divorce or separation are more likely to experience positive changes in their health. Other research has also shown women are happier than men being single.
“We have this whole mythology about marriage … and what it says is that if only you find ‘the one’ and get married then all of your life falls into place,” Dr DePaulo said.
“You’ll be happier, healthier, live longer, and be morally superior.
“But the most recent studies are showing that when people get married they don’t get any healthier at all … and they are just as happy or as unhappy as they were when they were single.”
Research has also shown single people tend to have greater involvement with the broader community than their married peers.
“From little things in everyday life, like a ride somewhere or help with an errand … single people are consistently there more often than married people,” Dr DePaulo said.
Single people tend to participate more in civic groups and public events, and volunteer more often in their community, she said.
“[A study of] Australian women aged 70 and older compared women who were single, had always been single, and have no kids to every other variety — women married with children, married without children, previously married — and it was the lifelong single women who volunteered the most,” she said.
For Jane, the best thing about being single was the sense of total autonomy.
“You have enormous freedom being single. You can do pretty much what you like, when you like,” she said.
Dr DePaulo said people were increasingly turning to single living because it was more possible than ever before to live “a full, complete and meaningful life” as a single person.
“You can have a whole circle of people who are important to you integrated into your life in a way that’s flexible and meaningful,” she said.
“You can have friends and family and children, and sex if you want it.
“You can also have your own home, and you can have financial independence.
“Every component of a good life is available to you as a single person in a way that has never been true before.”
Despite the many upsides, Jane said there were still times when living alone presented its challenges.
“It’s not loneliness, it’s not Christmas day, it’s not holidays by myself,” she said.
“It’s getting the top off a jar in the evening when I’m by myself, and I have to go to my next-door neighbour and say, ‘Can you take the top off?’
“That’s really awful.”
Otherwise, Jane said single living had reinvigorated her friendships and overall sense of wellbeing.
“I feel really happy at the moment,” she said.
“I think the perception of a single person is someone who is missing out, they are one of society’s outliers … they won’t leave as big a mark on the world.
“The reality is that I intend to leave a very big mark on the world.”