Every few months, a film critic or culture writer will pen a think-piece about the death of the rom-com film. There have been a number of theories as to why it's pretty much dead as a movie genre; mine is that it's because the stakes are too low.
It's no longer the end-all, be-all of a single person's life to get married, and therefore, whether the lead in a film gets her mate isn't all that interesting. Marriage is just not a compelling modern plot driver, unlike it was in the past. (Take Jane Austen's novels, in which we understand that if a woman didn't marry a particular man — hopefully kind and handsome, and always possessing a certain income — her life was basically screwed.)
Of course, marrying the wrong person can still ruin your life today — it can be emotionally painful, and you can lose some cash. But a bad marriage is unlikely to permanently destroy your life in the way that it once did, primarily for women, who had few other ways to support themselves and weren't allowed to own property, secure their own medical care, own businesses, or even have bank accounts. Women were dependent on men to have a decent life and a healthy future. It was a precarious situation for any single woman to find a husband, but doubly so if you weren't conventionally attractive, were considered "too smart," were poor, had ambitions outside motherhood, or had any kind of disability or disfigurement. What stakes could be higher than that?
Single living is good for communities
But today, despite the pay-gap issues that persist, women are now able to support themselves and don't have to marry someone (or stay married to them) or face stigma and poverty. Or as Rebecca Traister says in the video above, "Women are not marrying in the same numbers that they used to because they don't have to anymore."
And the (maybe surprising) truth is that this greater number of single people positively affects our communities. So the fact that about 25 percent of us won't marry by the age of 50 isn't something to bemoan but to celebrate.
As Bella DePaulo, a social psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who studies single people writes in Quartz: "I’ve found that the rise of single living is a boon to our cities and towns and communities, our relatives and friends and neighbors. This trend has the chance to redefine the traditional meaning — and confines — of home, family and community."
DePaulo cites a number of studies showing that single people are more likely to help friends and neighbors in need, and are also more likely to "... visit, support, advise and stay in touch with their siblings and parents."
Since married people usually focus their energy and attention on their spouses (and kids, if they have them) this leaves less room for others — and less time for being involved in local groups and attending events, taking classes, or even just going out to dinner with friends. This means that single people are important drivers of their local economies because they're creating and engaging in life outside the home at higher rates.
And it's well known that single people volunteer at higher levels in almost every category, from arts to social service organizations, hospitals to environmental groups. The idea of the lonely, sad single person who spends evenings alone is shaping up to be mostly a myth.
Going solo also has benefits to the self, not just the community: DePaulo points to studies that show having a more diversified community of friends and acquaintances, which is more common in single people than coupled, leads to better mental-health outcomes. Obviously, some married people are plenty social, but it's also easy for them to fall into a rut where they only hang out with each other — and as we all know, no one person can help you figure out all the issues you might have in your life; different friends can help you with different problems.
All that time without the distraction of a partner can have some other profoundly personal positives. "Studies have shown that people who stay single develop more confidence in their own opinions and undergo more personal growth and development than people who marry. For example, they value meaningful work more than married people do," writes DePaulo.
There's no 'right' answer
Of course, all of the data above isn't to argue that being single is "better." That would be just as problematic as past conventions suggesting marriage is the ideal state for all people. Because no one way to live is best for everyone — the important thing is to find out what's right for you and create a positive life around that, whether that's marriage and kids, single parenting, married without kids, foster parenting, serial monogamy, or singledom. And it may be that single is best for you at one time of life, while married is best at another. There is no "right" answer for everyone.
Suggesting there's only one path for all has always led to significant problems, because many people attempt to fit their personalities into a life that doesn't suit them, as during the 1950s and '60s when married with kids in the suburbs was the prescription for happiness — for everyone. People who lost spouses or divorced faced and uphill battle for social acceptance.
My own grandmother, a divorced single mom to two boys in the '50s, told me stories about how cruel people were to her — some treated her as a pariah since she was divorced — and how that even affected who her kids were allowed to play with. The truth is that my grandmother was a wonderful parent, a committed and involved member of her community, and was also happiest and most fulfilled as a single woman, but she felt she had to keep trying at relationships because it was "expected."
"If current trends continue, successive generations will have unprecedented opportunities to pursue the life that suits them best, rather than the one that is prescribed," writes DePaulo. I only wish that my grandmother had been able to.
Now, we get to make the best choices for ourselves — single or not — and that's something to celebrate.