Is Single Life Something To Lament Or Celebrate?

Yesterday, some singles saw Valentine's balloons and heart shaped boxes as reminders of the single life. With more Americans flying solo, how important is it to find "the one"? That's the question Ellen McCarthy set out to answer in a piece for The Washington Post Magazine. Host Michel Martin speaks with McCarthy and author Bella DePaulo.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, this lunar New Year marked the start of the Year of the Dragon. It's thought to be one of the most auspicious years in the lunar cycle and that means a lot of couples across the Chinese Diaspora are trying to have Year of the Dragon babies. We'll find out more about that in a few minutes.

But first, what about those people who don't have that urge to merge or just haven't done so, for whatever reason? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, just 51 percent of the adult population in the U.S. is married now. That's down from 72 percent in 1960.

But just because more people are flying solo doesn't mean that the quest for that special someone has ceased to be the focus of popular music, books and films and that's something that can make single people feel, well, a world apart.

The Washington Post's Ellen McCarthy wrote about this in this week's Washington Post Magazine. The piece is titled "When You Never Find the One," and she joins us now in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

ELLEN MCCARTHY: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Also with us is Bella DePaulo. She is the author of "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized and Ignored and Still Live Happily Ever After." She's one of the people featured in the Post story.

Bella, welcome to you. Thank you so much for joining us, also.

BELLA DEPAULO: Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: Ellen, one of the ironies of this piece is that you write the wedding column in the Washington Post every week, so I'm curious about how this particular article came about.

MCCARTHY: Yeah. I mean, I think it came about in reaction to my day job, which is covering weddings. You know, I go to a wedding every weekend and I was actually on my way to a wedding when this story idea occurred to me, then it just, it dawned on me that the other side of the coin is not very well explored.

MARTIN: Bella DePaulo, the title of your book is pretty aggressive, if you don't mind my saying. Is it really that bad, in the sense of how you think singles are viewed as kind of like a separate species to be pitied or...

DEPAULO: Oh, yes. We've done systematic research, finding that people think that single people are miserable and lonely and they don't have anyone. So, yeah. It really is true.

MARTIN: Ellen, did you find that in the people whom you interviewed, that they felt that they were sort of looked at askance?

MCCARTHY: Yeah.

MARTIN: The reason I'm pushing back on this is that I feel, as a married person - I can't remember the last time I saw a movie where married people were portrayed as functional. So I'm kind of wondering...

MCCARTHY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Is it really that single people are really that singled out, if I may? No pun intended.

MCCARTHY: Yeah. I think - sure. And one of the differences may be that marital dysfunction is really well explored. But, yeah. I think if you talk to long time single people, they will say, you know, that certainly there is a stigma and they often feel excluded. There are dinner parties where they just don't get the invite or they are asked to sort of work the late shift or work over Christmas or Thanksgiving because, oh, you don't have a family or whatever. And I think it is hurtful and can be very painful.

MARTIN: Bella, do you feel that - I know that you were evaluating this, both from a personal and a professional standpoint. Could you talk a little about your own personal experience? Do you feel that you've been disadvantaged in the world because of your single status?

DEPAULO: Yes. I felt there are times when I'm left out of social events, but even more importantly, there are ways in which all singles are disadvantaged by law. You know, we're familiar with the arguments about same sex marriage where the advocates say, why should we have to be a certain kind of a couple to have access to these benefits and protections?

And my argument is even broader. Why should we have to be any kind of a couple at all? So, for example, under Family Medical Leave Act, I can't take time off under Family Medical Leave Act to care for someone important to me and...

MARTIN: Well, you could for a parent. You could for a parent or a child.

DEPAULO: Yes.

MARTIN: But you're saying you couldn't for someone who just happened to - not happened to be - but with whom you had a strong personal bond. Say, a...

DEPAULO: Right.

MARTIN: ...a very close friend with whom you had a very, you know...

DEPAULO: Right.

MARTIN: ...companionate relationship.

DEPAULO: So I'm saying - so if you're married, you have three categories of people you can take time off to help: parent, child or your spouse. For single people, it's two.

MARTIN: Ellen, is there a middle ground here between, you know, crying in your pillow and, you know, out loud and proud about just being single? Like, you wrote about some folks in your piece who just feel they're meant to be single, but then you also met other people who really would prefer to be partnered. Is there some middle ground there?

MCCARTHY: Yeah. I mean, I definitely found these two categories of people. The first was - it was people, you know, like Bella, for whom being single is this natural state. And then there are other people who really want to be partnered and it doesn't happen. But that doesn't mean that they're crying in their pillows. For most of them, they find this level of acceptance and they learn how to live a great, fulfilling life without having, necessarily, everything they want.

One of the women I interviewed, Wendy Braitman, writes a blog about being single and she talks a lot about how she has this great, really rich life. You know, it just doesn't include a partner and she's accepted that.

MARTIN: One of the main ideas of your piece is that so much of our kind of a cultural narrative hinges on finding the one. I mean, so much of music and movies and books are about, like, the quest. Can you think of a way to make being single romantic? I mean, the only thing I can think of is like George Clooney in "Up in the Air." I mean, George Clooney is so fabulous that people would watch him read the phone book, so there's that piece. But in that movie, he ended up single by choice.

MCCARTHY: Right.

MARTIN: Kind of.

MCCARTHY: Yeah. And you could turn to "Sex and the City," too.

MARTIN: He wasn't pitiful.

MCCARTHY: Right? Where, for a while, they had these great single lives that seemed like, you know, the envy of every woman in America, but then what happened in the end? They were all coupled off. I think we don't break that narrative very often and when we do, we certainly don't glorify it in movies and in songs.

MARTIN: Bella, what do you think?

DEPAULO: Oh, yeah. You were saying before that, often, married people are portrayed as dysfunctional, but the theme of the other movies and TV shows are that people are aiming for that diamond ring as if that's what's the most important thing in their life, no matter how many great friends they might have or how many wonderful skills and passions and accomplishments.

And so that, I think, is trivializing all the other parts of our lives, not just single people's lives, but married and coupled people's lives, as well.

MARTIN: If you're just tuned in, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about living single on this Valentine's Day week. Our guests are Ellen McCarthy. She wrote about the growing number of unmarried Americans for The Washington Post Magazine. Also with us is Bella DePaulo. She's author of "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized and Ignored and Still Live Happily Ever After."

So, Bella, you say in the piece that you're - we're calling you out loud and proud about being single. So...

DEPAULO: OK.

MARTIN: But what about people who are not? I mean, they're in that middle space between crying in their pillow...

DEPAULO: Yeah, right.

MARTIN: ...and then having accepted that that is kind of their natural state. Do you have some advice about how one can achieve, you know, happiness about that state?

DEPAULO: I think that it's always great to find other people who are in similar situations and there is a website called Single with Attitude that has feeds from singles bloggers. And I think that's one possibility, is to have a community so you understand that other people have the same experiences.

MARTIN: Ellen, what do you think about that? Did you discover in the course of reporting this piece that there were ways to be happily single if you weren't?

MCCARTHY: Sure. Yeah. You'd be happy in all the other ways that one can be happy. Right? By having, yes, rich relationships and your siblings and your friends and your work life and your creative pursuits and your spiritual life. And I do think that finding community with other people in the same situation is very crucial.

MARTIN: Well, you know, I have to say I think one of the reasons I'm struggling with the premise of the piece is that the marriage rate in the African-American community is the lowest among all ethnic groups in this country right now, which is a relatively recent phenomenon historically.

Now, though, there seems to be this sort of attitude in the African-American community that if you're a single woman and you want to be married, then you should just toughen up. And so maybe that's one reason I'm struggling with that. I think it's different, you know, culturally.

MCCARTHY: Yeah. Oh, I definitely think it's different culturally and it's different generationally, too. You know, we didn't always expect of marriage what we expect of it today, which is a life partner, a soul mate, a best friend. We put everything on that person.

MARTIN: Do you think that marriage is obsolete? And, Bella, I want to ask you this, as well. Ellen, I'll start with you. Do you think marriage is obsolete?

MCCARTHY: You know, as somebody who writes about weddings every week, I have a hard time buying that. I think that people want to be married. I think there's a reason we have a zillion crazy wedding shows on television and the bridal magazines are chock full of ads. Look, you know, I think we're struggling, but I don't think it's obsolete.

MARTIN: Bella, what do you think?

DEPAULO: I think the reason that there's so much of this glorifying of marriage and the wedding shows is not because we're so secure about the place of marriage in our lives, but because we're so insecure. I mean, think back 50 years or so. You know, "Leave it to Beaver" didn't end up with some grand finale wedding. Even "Mary Tyler Moore" didn't end up getting married.

I think we have so much of this match-o-mania because marriage - we don't need it in the way we once did, so we don't - women, especially, often do not need marriage for financial security. They don't need to marry to have kids, so a lot of the big important ways that marriage used to be a gateway to big important parts of our lives are no longer relevant.

MARTIN: Before I let each of you go - and, Bella, you mentioned that, years ago, we wouldn't be having this conversation. Let's project forward, maybe - I don't know - how far should we go? Ten years, 20? What kind of conversation do you think we would be having if we were to get together 20, 25 years from now about marriage? What kind of conversation do you think we'll have?

DEPAULO: I would like to think that we'd be talking about the many ways to live our most fulfilling and meaningful lives and that the potential of marrying would just be one of them.

MARTIN: Ellen, what about you, just based on all the people you talk to and your thinking about this issue?

MCCARTHY: Yeah. I guess I hope that we're talking about how far we've come in terms of acceptance. You know, of acceptance of whatever lifestyle happens to be working best for you. Maybe it is long term cohabitation or maybe, you know, you're like Bella and you want to be single for your whole life because that's your best life. Well, then there should be no judgment about it. You know, we should just be able to allow people whatever life works best for them.

MARTIN: Ellen McCarthy wrote the story, "When You Never Find the One," for this week's Washington Post Magazine. She was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Bella DePaulo is one of the people she profiled in her piece. She's the author of "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized and Ignored and Still Live Happily Ever After." And she joined us from Santa Barbara, California.

Thank you both so much for speaking to us.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

DEPAULO: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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