Here is the full transcript of social psychologist Bella DePaulo’s TEDx Talk presentation: What No One Ever Told You About People Who Are Single at TEDxUHasselt conference. She is the author of the book Singled Out.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: What no one ever told you about people who are single by Bella DePaulo at TEDxUHasselt conference
I’m 63, and I have been single my whole life. Thank you! I love you already.
When I was in my 20s and 30s, I knew I was supposed to get married, and I knew I was supposed to want to be married. Even now I keep getting reminded.
So in the United States, a month ago, these wedding planners made national news they spent months fussing over the flowers and the music and the invitations and every imaginable detail. On the day of the wedding they were so excited. Who were these wedding planners? They were a class of five-year olds and the bride and groom were ducks. By putting on a wedding the five year olds became our storytellers and they were telling the same stories we all grew up hearing: get married and you will live happily ever after and you will never be lonely again.
As children, we hear those stories in fairy tales. As grown-ups we keep hearing them in all the novels and movies and TV shows that build up to a wedding. The Supreme Court of the United States is telling those same stories in the landmark ruling that legalized same-sex marriage. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote: “Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out and find no one there”.
But here’s the thing. That was never my story. I never wanted to get married. Everything about my life added up to a different story, that living single was my happily ever after. But for the longest time I never did add it up, I never heard of such a thing as living single and loving it.
And it turns out the same thing is still true of many people even today. They don’t realize that embracing single life is a thing and so they tell themselves, “Sure, I’m looking for the one. That’s what I want”, but then when you look at their actual behavior, you see that doing what it would take to find that person seems to rank somewhere between deleting ancient emails from their inbox and cleaning out their sock drawer.
Now other people do realize that this marriage issue is a question for them. They’re talking to therapists. They’re writing to advice columnist. Joan DelFattore told the story of a conversation she had with her therapist. Her therapist said, “Joan, if you do decide to get married, what kind of man would you look for?”
And Joan said, “Someone with a challenging job, has lots of outside interests, does volunteer work, play sports, like that.”
And her therapist said, “Oh, so you want someone well-rounded and intellectually stimulating.”
And Joan said, “No, I’d want someone who’s never home.”
Another example is a letter that Kaye wrote to an advice columnist. Kaye said, “She was in a long-term relationship with a ‘wonderful’ amazing man. When he kisses me, I still get goosebumps. When he walks into the door, I’m mesmerized. So why is it that sometimes I just feel like I should be alone?” She offers the beginnings of an answer to her own question by saying: I’ve always been kind of a free spirit, an independent kind of person. And she signs her letter: “Is love enough?”
Positive affirming stories about single life would have resonated with Joan and Kaye just like they would resonate it with me all those years ago. But those stories have never been part of our lives the way fairy tales have.
I’ve made it my life’s work to find the true stories of single life, stories no one is ever telling us. At first, though, I wasn’t so sure I was going to like what I found.
I had two main worries. The first one was that as much as I loved my single life, I didn’t love everything about it. It hurt when my friends got married and went out to dinner with other couples. And I got demoted to lunch.
At work, I thought it was unfair when I got asked to take the teaching times that nobody else wanted, because I was single. Later, I realized that’s just the small stuff and that the special status of married people is far more sweeping. In the United States, for example, there are more than a thousand laws that benefit and protect only people who are legally married.
My second worry was that science was against me. Before I ever read any of the scientific journals for myself to see what they really did say, before I did any of my own studies, I believed what I was hearing in the media. I thought science had already shown what the fairytales promised: get married and you will live happily ever after. Not like those single people.
That’s what college students think too. Asked to predict how happy they would be if they stayed single year after year, this is what they said. They think they’d be miserable.
Now look what they said when asked how happy they would be if they got married. They think they would be about as happy as they could possibly be. What you see there is the fairy tale version of marriage in single life.