This blog started out as an informational site for my thesis research. I plan to continue to use it to publish related links and writing. Read about the original project and its motivation below…
I chose to do this research because I am a single person and have always identified as such, although I wasn’t always aware of it, and I’ve been in lots of different kinds of relationships. As I have gotten older, I have started to notice exactly how obsessed with couples American society really is, even though less people than ever before are getting married. We tend to elevate marriage and monogamous couples to such a superior status that all other relationships are devalued as a result, and I’ve spent at least the last decade or so trying to find, or construct, a counter-discourse to that.
Marriage as an institution is in decline and has been for about 40 years or so. As a result of that, along with increased acceptance of divorce, cohabitation, changes in parenting norms, and other things, the definition of family has become more inclusive, and people who choose more non-traditional paths are coming up with all kinds of unique ways of living and being in the world, and creating their own customized support structures.
The kinds of single people I’m interested in talking to may or may not be involved in one or more relationships, but have made a conscious choice to live independently and interdependently – they may not always feel content or happy with their status, but most of the time, they are happy being single and they realize that they don’t need a lifetime partner to be satisfied. They may not necessarily forgo traditional coupling if the perfect situation comes up, but they do not actively seek it out, nor do they assume that romantic intimacy will lead to life enmeshment.
The goals of this study are to talk to single people, including those who practice solo polyamory or are involved in other types of non-traditional relationships, and to listen to their experiences with a culture that is largely focused on couples. I’d like to find out why they made the choices they did, and how those choices have influenced the other aspects of their lives. How much a part of their identity is being single? What challenges do they face? What advantages and benefits do they have? How can institutions better support a wide range of relational choices? How do they define family and community?
So, what did I learn from the 25 people I talked to? Read on to find out.
Writing my thesis was a labor of love…it was trying at times, and it took longer than it should have, but I’m proud of the way it turned out. All of the people I interviewed were so interesting and really taught me a lot. Following are some of the main takeaways from the paper.
My study results showed that those who embrace being single or solo in all its forms, whether that means not dating at all or participating in alternative relationship structures such as solo polyamory, show a high degree of confidence and self-esteem. Many had to try traditional structures before they found they did not work for them, and learned as they went along. Online forums play a huge role in connecting those who are polyamorous, asexual, and/or aromantic.
Although some critics assert that online communication encourages people to hide behind their carefully managed images and avoid “real” conversation and intimacy, many participants in this study would not have found the very real connections and communities that they did had it not been for social media, independent journalism, and personal blogs and websites. Individuals are no longer socially bounded by place.
Online communities play a significant role in bringing people together, not only at an individual level, but within meso and macro-level structures, and may be supplementing or even supplanting the role that in-person community events once played.
Many on the asexual spectrum also find that online communication allows them to individualize the types of relationships they seek. The immediacy of online communication and increased accessibility to it may inhibit in-person social activity to some degree, but for introverted solos, it provides a comfortable barrier from behind which to slowly emerge into the social world.
The internet provides a unique service to introverts, those with particular disabilities, and those on the asexual and/or aromantic spectrum, and has been invaluable to those communities. Because of the status of some members of these communities as “hidden,” and due to the emotional and physical constraints that socializing in a traditional setting imposes upon them, online communities are essential for finding others who share their worldviews. Eventually, due to the increased visibility and acceptance that comes with the presence of these internet societies, perhaps the alternative will become part of the mainstream.
Some singles and solos surround themselves with large support networks while some are introverted and prefer to be alone. The common thread is that when participants stopped trying to meet societal expectations about what their relationships were “supposed” to look like and instead individualized them according to their own needs, they felt as if they were exerting their agency in order to live authentically and were much happier than when they were trying to fit into proscribed social norms. I also found that a huge variety of sexual and romantic orientations and gender identities are emerging and finding homes in internet groups, and those that fall into those more marginal categories feel legitimized as a result of finding others like them.
Younger participants were less likely to notice stigmatization, perhaps because they may not notice systemic oppression since postmodern culture is already beginning to accept alternative lifestyles as part of the socio-historical experience of the technological age.
Older participants were more likely to take note of subtle discrimination, especially when reflecting on past experiences. These instances include not being invited to weddings or similarly formal events, or being invited without the option to bring a guest, and observing the endless parade of consumer goods and services sold in pairs. On a larger scale, several solos brought up the struggle to find affordable healthcare, and some mentioned being treated as if they were invisible, or as somehow not worthy of a lifelong mate.
The data in this study suggest that agentic singles are reflexive and open to change. They do not necessarily see ideas in binary terms. Agentic singles are able to imagine a larger universe of possibilities than those oriented toward the typical escalator relationship(s). I argue that by allowing the stories of agentic singles to be heard, hence making positive conceptions of single/solo life more visible, they may become more normalized and legitimized as a result, perhaps even prompting policymakers to consider single people when making decisions regarding social security and pensions, tax incentives, sustainability, immigration, and urban planning.
What almost all participants have in common is a sense of purpose and contentment when they live according to their true desires and needs, exercise their individual agency, respect others, and do not acquiesce to external expectations. However, I argue that by claiming multiple, non-fixed, and newly created conceptions of identity descriptions, the participants in this study are constructing new ways of being and therefore may also be scattering binary, exclusionary categories instead of reifying them.
During data collection, I also encountered some pushback about the word “single.” Some solo poly people feel that it implies a temporary, liminal state, and perceive it to project an “in-betweenness.” Some accept it, and view it as more of a legal identity than a social one. For the purposes of this study, I define agentically single the way that most solo polys describe their “solo” status, therefore I did not anticipate such a strong negative reaction to the word “single.” Most polyamorous persons prefer the term “solo.” The monogamous participants had not necessarily thought of or heard the word solo used as an identity or organizing framework, yet none of them object to it. “Solo” may make a good fit for someone who is choosing to remain uncoupled, since ‘single’ can carry the connotation that one is looking to be “not single.”
The hegemony of monogamy, marriage, and coupling can sometimes make it difficult to imagine other possibilities, and many participants expressed a prior lack of awareness of any other way to interact romantically or sexually. It was only after they discovered others like them, who were relating in individualized ways, that they exerted their own agency. Often, the decision to be monogamous and stay on the escalator is taken for granted as the choice if the relationship is to continue, and that is when it can become problematic. It is not monogamy itself that is problematic, it is the concept of an unexamined (and therefore un-agentic) life.
Cultural control mechanisms can undermine free will. If specific examples of ways to break free from them are not presented, implicit compliance further strengthens the status quo. This is a central part of my argument; social controls are so coded and embedded in culture that sometimes even the simplest solutions to social problems are not considered viable by the general public. At the same time, I argue that the relationship between the individual and society is a reciprocal one, so as more people demonstrate, share, and celebrate their differences, social structures will respond accordingly.
I also find that romantic and sexual relationships can transform into deep friendships without sex, and that a rethinking of the traditional breakup script is being forged by polyamorous people.
Social scripts form one of the basic foundations of symbolic interactionism and phenomenology. Whether one participates in the dominant paradigm or rejects it, there is most certainly a distinct hierarchy among relationships, and a socially, culturally, and politically sanctioned set of set of unwritten guidelines that governs it. Breaking with those expectations carries social consequences. For some, the end goal may outweigh any ostracism or disapproval, for others decidedly not. But as we start to break from these norms in greater numbers, the negative consequences decrease in severity. We create new norms, and cultures change.
Solos and singles in this study worked to find the right balance between solitude and social support. For many, this process included some degree of sacrifice in an attempt to conform to a mononormative standard. Some participants were able to extricate themselves from the confines of these “boxes” while keeping their support structures intact, while for some it took a complete unraveling of the social fabric they had previously maintained. Participants have in common, however, an evolved sense of self-worth after surmounting these barriers to their own authenticity and creating their own unique social roles.
“Building your own box” is a version of finding or creating a social role that feels authentic, and participants in this research find happiness from achieving that integrity and agency. When they stopped trying to be what they thought they were supposed to be, they began to find out who they really are. Self-acceptance is achieved by progress and growth, and moving forward toward a goal, even a simple one, is integral to fulfillment.
As a society, we want to categorize people in order to understand them, and over the years these categories have become defining. While not all that makes up identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, and relational orientation have become parts of our collective identities and our biographies. Participants in this study are able to ease some of their anxiety, social isolation and discomfort by embracing their own versions of these concepts as valuable and self-affirming. In doing so, they are also facilitating the normalization of these practices and affiliations.