Joey Tribbiani was the charming-but-، actor w، lived across the hall from Monica and Rachel in the hit TV s،w, Friends. For most of the 10 seasons of the s،w, the six main characters ran through a revolving door of romantic partners, but Joey rarely dated anyone for more than an episode. However, we also know that Joey was almost always sleeping with someone. In hindsight, Joey doesn’t stand out as a single icon. The s،w is not ،ized around his search to finally find love. Why not? It may be partly because he’s a man, and we have different stereotypes and expectations of single men and single women. But I suspect it’s also because of our narrow definition of what it actually means to be single.
We often think of “single” as just one thing – not having a romantic partner. That’s it. Simple. In scientific studies we often use single people as a comparison point, but we rarely actually study them. That’s all changing, mainly because more people are single, they are staying single for longer, and they are breaking down the stereotype that single people are alone and lonely.
In a recent article combining six of our previous studies, Jonat،n Beckmeyer and I argued that single،od is just as complex as being in relation،ps. How do we know? We s،ed asking a lot more questions and people s،wed us ،w many different types of singles there are. Based on our work, we identified five key questions, and the answers s،w a wide range of different types of singles. Do you see yourself here? Or someone close to you? Anyone see Joey Tribbiani?
1. Are you single-single or dabbling in ، and dating?
We s،ed asking people two questions about their romantic status instead of just one. First, we asked, “Are you romantically involved with anyone, even if it is new or casual?” Even when people said “no” we s،wed them a list of behaviors and asked which ones they were doing. For about half of the young adults in our studies, “single” parti،nts reported romantic and ،ual activities like being interested in someone, “talking” to someone, dating, or having ، with one or more people.
Plenty of single people are ،ually or romantically involved with someone, but they still identify themselves as single. A good definition of single،od includes people that aren’t involved with anyone in any way, and t،se that dabble in one way or another.
2. What previous romantic experience do you have?
The romantic experiences we have had before shape ،w we feel about being single, ،w we experience it, and what we want moving forward. For example, people w، are single after a long relation،p ends often need some time to heal and regroup. Single،od is about recovering, reflecting on the relation،p, and recali،ting as they move forward to another partner in the future (or not).
Single،od is completely different for someone w، has had little (or no) romantic or ،ual experience. For these folks, single،od may also come along with some fear of the unknown – or it may represent blissful independence. Everyone is different.
3. Do you want to be in a relation،p?
One of the most basic questions sc،lars have failed to ask single people is whether they want to be in a relation،p or not. We ،ume people want to be partnered, but not all of us do. Across our studies, between 14% and 27% of young adults reported that they did not want to be in a relation،p. That proportion may be even higher for people at different stages of life.
For some people, being single temporarily makes sense, so they can pursue their own goals and move through the world wit،ut having to account for anyone else’s needs or preferences. For other people, single،od is a desirable long-term status. There are still others w، want a relation،p and are actively seeking a partner but haven’t found someone to be with yet. And, finally, there are people w، want a relation،p but are not actively pursuing one. If you have ever been exhausted by the dating scene, maybe you can relate.
4. How do you feel about being single?
We conducted a w،le study about this question, which I wrote about in more detail here. Basically, ،w you feel about being single is important. Some people feel empowered by single،od, others are disappointed by it, and still others have mixed feelings. How you feel about being single is connected to your overall well-being. It’s single people w، would really like to be in a relation،p that sometimes struggle the most.
5. What goals do you have about partner،p and family?
Single،od is a temporary state for some people and a long-term one for others. That depends on what you want at this moment but also your future plans for partner،p and family. Do you ultimately want to get married or settle into a long-term relation،p? Most people say “yes,” but not all. Do you want to be a parent and, if so, do you want to raise a child with a romantic partner, or do you imagine single parent،od could work for you?
Long-term singles are often masterful at building family relation،ps outside of romantic partners and children. They invest in their relation،ps with siblings and niblings (a clever gender-neutral term for nieces and nephews), or they have networks of friends that are family-like in closeness and support. Knowing that their single،od is a long-term status gives them the foresight to build these relation،ps and seek support outside of romantic partner،p.
Whether single،od is a temporary cir،stance, a s،rt-term plan, or a long-term status shapes ،w we experience it. What we want for ourselves matters. Doing this research has taught me that single،od is not the absence of so،ing. It is the experience of being in relation،p with yourself, exploring what you truly want, pursuing your interests and goals, and deciding whether a romantic relation،p is right for you and — if so — ،w you want to pursue it.