I’m single. I always have been. I also live alone. Because of the pandemic, I have not stepped foot in a restaurant or even a grocery store for nearly a year.
Apparently, I am supposed to be suffering. At the Washington Post, a story about the consequences of being “cooped up with our families for nearly a year” paraphrased an economist reassuring families that “the steepest consequences ... will fall on the folks who are stuck at home alone.” The New York Times then tapped the same source for a story on boredom. “The real burden's going to be on people who are single, who are by themselves. ... The boredom-loneliness nexus has to be pretty close, I would think,” he said. On Twitter in December, a single man posted a 15-part thread that began with, “I don’t know who wants to hear this, but being single during this pandemic has been downright dreadful.” The thread immediately went viral.
I fully acknowledge that for some single people, the pandemic has been a miserable experience (as it also has for many couples and families). But I am not one of them. Sure, I miss meeting my friends at restaurants and movie theaters and meandering through crowded farmers markets, and I would love to go get my own damned groceries. I have also lost a substantial chunk of income. But in other ways, I am doing fine, and nothing about the pandemic, not even after all this time, has made me yearn to be coupled or to even live with other humans.
This story isn’t just about me. I’m part of a category of single people I call “single at heart.” We didn’t end up single by default; we choose to be. Single life is our most authentic, meaningful and fulfilling life. We know we are defying the relentlessly touted cultural script that insists that what adults want, more than just about anything else, is to have a romantic partner at the center of their lives. But that’s not what we want.
Our comfort with our single lives helps explain why we are surviving and even thriving during the pandemic.
I began collecting data on people who are single at heart in 2012, when I posted a brief quiz online, “Are You Single at Heart?” By 2019, more than 8,000 people from 103 nations had responded. To dive in deeper, I posted a request on my website and at my Community of Single People Facebook group asking people who identify as single at heart to tell me their life stories, for possible publication. Before the pandemic, 42 people had done so. Then, nearly a year into the pandemic, I asked 17 of those volunteers to tell me about their experiences during lockdown. Fifteen responded.
Like me, many people who are single at heart live alone. That should add up to a double whammy: We don’t have a long-term romantic partner and we don’t live with anyone, either. It has become nearly a truism that humans are social animals, yet here we are, single and living alone. And contented.
But are we really alone? If “alone” means spending lots of time on our own, then yes, people who are single at heart are often alone. We like it that way. But the more profound meaning, alone in the world, describes very few of us. Most of us have meaningful relationships with friends or relatives and we have nurtured them during the pandemic.
Scholars of solitude such as Thuy-vy Nguyen have found that having an attitude of happy anticipation toward alone time, instead of a feeling of dread, makes a tremendous difference in how solitude is experienced. The people who worry about feeling lonely are in fact more likely to experience that “boredom-loneliness nexus” we’ve been warned about. On their own, they don’t know what to do with themselves. They ruminate. They restlessly scroll social media.
For people such as the single at heart who enjoy their time alone, the experience is entirely different. We are more relaxed and less stressed when alone. On our own, we feel more like ourselves. Some of us see this alone time as an opportunity to pursue the passions we have been wishing we could indulge or to redesign our lives in ways that make the most of what the pandemic has to offer.
Solitude, respondent David P. Crews told me, is “the wealth and coin of positive singleness.” Crews, 66, works in broadcast video post-production in Austin, Texas. “I have always been a creative introvert who enjoys being alone,” he said. During the pandemic, his income was decimated. That has been challenging. But he has been luxuriating in having “almost complete freedom” of his personal time. With no work, no school and no one else in the house, he can devote himself to projects that have long been on his list. He is producing a new film documenting his 45 years of travels, adventures and vision quests, complete with a full symphonic score. He is also focusing on his health. He has lost weight and is experiencing less pain than he has in years.
Eva Papadopoulou, 45, loves her alone time but doesn’t consider herself an introvert. A London-based business lead for a digital company, she has a busy, exciting life. When she was 34, she spent the year traveling the world on her own. The pandemic presented a new reality. She has been using it as “an opportunity to pause and reflect, a chance to stop my frantic lifestyle of endless traveling and adventures and take a breath, learn to appreciate stillness.”
The day-to-day lives of many of the people who told me their stories have a comfortable continuity with the before times. Because they cherished their solitude before the pandemic, they had already cultivated the kinds of interests that have turned out to be pandemic-proof. Andrea Pitio, 30, an administrative assistant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, has enjoyed reading, meditating, writing, running and strength training, both before and during the pandemic. She said her friends, “who prefer to spend most of their free time on dates, at various live shows, and at bars or nightclubs,” have in fact been more distressed about the isolation than she has.
Perhaps because we greatly value our solitude, some of us who are single at heart have attended lovingly to our homes. We don’t feel “stuck at home alone.” Our homes are our sanctuaries, not prisons.
The man who posted the Twitter thread about the dreadfulness of being single during the pandemic was particularly pained by the pandemic’s impact on dating. “This year has been one of stagnation and even regression as the already slim chances of developing a connection become vanishingly more thin,” he said. Many other single people jumped into the conversation to share their own tales of romantic woe.
But being single at heart means not feeling troubled by the difficulties of finding a date or a mate; we are simply not interested in putting a romantic partner at the center of our lives. We don’t buy into the typical valuing of romantic relationships above all others. Many of us treasure our relationships with friends and relatives and have found pandemic-friendly ways to sustain those bonds.
We don’t feel “stuck at home alone.” Our homes are our sanctuaries, not prisons.
Joan DelFattore, 74, is a professor emerita at the University of Delaware who writes about living single in a couples-oriented culture. Before the pandemic, she used to spend weekends in Manhattan, New York, where she met friends for meals, plays, concerts and book groups. Now they connect in other ways, such as gathering on Zoom to watch streaming productions from the Met. “Feeling close to important people in my life, feeling cared about and caring, is the ambience in which I move,” DelFattore told me. “I’d rather meet in person, but I don’t feel abandoned or lonely, because nothing has disrupted the connection itself.”
When single people aren’t planning their lives around the goal of finding a romantic partner, they are more likely to invest in their friends and value them. Elyakim Kislev showed that in his analyses of a multiyear study of nearly 6,000 German adults who did not have a romantic partner. Over time, the single people who became more and more committed to being single also valued their friends more. And correspondingly, the single people who valued their friends more also became more committed to being single. It was a virtuous cycle.
The most important question I asked during my coronavirus singles survey was whether, after nearly a year of pandemic life, they still believe single life is their best life. After months of social distancing, masks, financial distress, canceled plans and disruptions, many people not surprisingly told me they are eager to get back to the before times. But no one said they had changed their minds about wanting conventional romantic coupledom instead. Most feel reaffirmed, and some feel even more secure than before, in their single lives.
For some people, living single is a lifestyle. For others, it’s something deeper. That’s the “at heart” part. Single is who we really are.