Life

Thankful to Be Alone

If I had surrendered to society’s expectations, I’d have a life I never wanted.

A woman sitting at Thanksgiving dinner alone, reading a book and looking happy
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

This year, I’m spending Thanksgiving alone. I’ve enjoyed countless permutations of the holiday, from traditional family gatherings when my parents were alive, to intimate gatherings with friends, to feasts with many new faces, to traveling to a special place. Yet at age 65, as a lifelong singleton, I have never had Thanksgiving with a husband or children of my own. If you are tempted to pity me, please don’t—I am proud of the decision I made decades ago to veer from life’s conventional road map, and I have no regrets about it. I cherish being alone.

In my 20s and 30s, I had a deep knowledge that I loved being single. Still, I spent those years wondering whether I might change my mind about not wanting to marry. I do regret that, and I hope to help others avoid that fate. You may think, as many do, that I came around to settle for the life I have. But I had seen the best that coupling could offer, and it did not tempt me. My parents raised four kids and stayed together for 42 years, until the day my dad died. I’ve attended my fair share of weddings, but I’ve never wished that my turn was next. I tried dating in high school and college and have fond memories of all those partners. When each relationship ended, I was delighted to return to the life that I loved: my single life.

As I waited for a change of heart that never arrived, I lived my life in buts. I’m not married, but I have friends and relatives. I’m not a parent, but I have ties to the next generation. In thinking this way, I had unwittingly accepted the premise that a spouse and children should be at the center of adult life and tried to cast my own life as a reasonable approximation to that ideal. I was not completely free of the road map I had rejected—and casting my life in buts ran contrary to the way I felt inside about my life.

I had found engaging work as a tenured professor at the University of Virginia, teaching and studying the psychology of lying and detecting lies. I was profoundly involved in others’ lives as a teacher, a mentor, an aunt, and a presence in the lives of my friends’ children. I became the proud owner of a bright, open, airy home that I cherished. I traversed Charlottesville’s nature trails. Several times a week, I met friends for dinner at the downtown mall. I hosted get-togethers to watch bad TV, and I joined a cooking club. For years, I was the sole single person around tables of couples.

When I was 47, I headed to the University of California–Santa Barbara for what was supposed to be a one-year sabbatical. I basked in the sunshine, the spectacular beauty, the progressive politics, the brilliant intellectuals, and my newfound friends.

I found my life deeply rewarding. At the same time, I was fascinated with the question of why my adult life as a single person was not as valued by the people around me or by society. When new acquaintances learned I was single with no children, they assumed my life had a hole that needed filling. One married mother even told me, “I have the perfect thing for you! My daughter’s Girl Scout troop needs a new leader!”

I wondered: Was it just me, or were other single people viewed the same way? I had been pondering questions like this about singles’ place in society for several years. With my background in research and academia, I seized the opportunity to study this systematically. At once, I decided to sell my home, give up my tenured job and salary, (mostly) leave behind my previous area of study, and stay in Santa Barbara even though there was no professorship available for me. Making this huge, financially risky series of life changes without consulting a soul was thrilling.

I threw myself into research on single people. I teamed up with my colleague, Wendy Morris, and she and I launched a series of studies investigating how people characterize single and married people. We used a variety of approaches, including asking people outright how they perceive singles vs. marrieds as well as creating pairs of biographical sketches that were identical, except that one sketch profiled someone single, and the other profiled someone married. Regardless of how we asked our questions, single people were judged more harshly than married ones. They were derided as less mature, less happy, lonelier, less secure, more self-centered, and more envious—though they were seen as more independent.

Were single people unfairly stereotyped, or was this true? Maybe I, as a happy single person, was a lone exception. I started to read research reports on how marriage affected well-being, and I was stunned: The very best studies that followed the same people over the course of their adult lives found that single people, on average, were happy and healthy. If they got married, they typically became no happier and no healthier than they were when they were single. Contrary to characterizations of single people as isolated and lonely, research shows that single people typically have more friends than married people do. They also do more to help, support, and stay in touch with their siblings, parents, friends, and neighbors.

I’ve lived my life in cheerful, unapologetic defiance of the “get married, have kids” road map that was supposed to define it. But the marital imperative is deeply ingrained in our society, and even for those like me who have never wavered in our decision, it can be difficult to break completely free of the marriage-plus-children ideal. These studies help eliminate the stigma. And the record numbers of single people validate the lifestyle as well—according to a Pew research report, when today’s young adults reach the age of 50, about 1 in 4 will have been single all their lives. Unlike when I was growing up, single people with few single friends or relatives nearby only need search online to find camaraderie. They can also read more and more books and essays that offer positive accounts of the single life.

The research and the books, though, are not enough. We all need to think about life more open-mindedly. Instead of asking whether you do or don’t want to marry or have kids, ask: What will make your life meaningful and fulfilling? When you think about it that way, the possibilities are limitless.

For me, my work on single people has been more meaningful than I could have imagined. My fulfillment also comes from the people in my life and the place I live—so reliably sunny, I can walk along the bluffs of the Pacific Ocean all year round.

And I am deeply fulfilled by being alone—an aspect of my life that is (and was) supposed to scare me out of being single. When I say alone, I don’t mean that I don’t have friends or relatives who matter to me—I do. I mean that I live alone. In a place all my own, I find peace. I hope that I will continue to grow old alone and even die alone.

This Thanksgiving, on my own, I will turn off my computer, mute my phone, and head to a nearby town to stroll the new boardwalk along the beach. Back home, I’ll prepare my family’s Italian version of Thanksgiving dinner—the usual turkey and trimmings, plus ravioli as a first course. I’ll dip into my collection of favorite books and Netflix offerings that I save up for special days like this.

Or if I wake up and feel like doing something else entirely, I’ll do that.