As a behavioral economist and lifelong bachelor, I should no longer be surprised by how comfortable married people are telling single people how to live. Among elsewhere, this unsolicited advice can be found on high-profile opinion pages, with an array of articles advising singles to marry sooner rather than later in order to live a more fulfilling life.
A recent Deseret News op-ed urged 34-year-old Taylor Swift, currently dating Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, to get married. According to this piece, Swift could then find stability and contentment, diverging from a path of serial monogamy and public heartbreaks (often referenced in her lyrics). And by marrying now, she would improve her chances to have kids, something the pop star has acknowledged as a potential goal.
When I was 34, I threw myself a bachelor party as a new professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. Fifteen friends visited my new home for a weekend of hiking, poker, wiffleball, tailgating and the obligatory bar crawl.
There was just one hitch: I wasn’t getting hitched.
Instead, after a recent “near miss,” I began to doubt that matrimony was the right path for me. I thought, Who gets to decide that you need to get married in order to celebrate your singlehood?
And there is a lot of singlehood to be celebrated.
In the United States, 50% of adults are unmarried, 28% live alone, and Pew Research projects that by the time they reach middle age, as many as 25% of millennials will never marry. Pew also reports that 50% of single adults in the United States are not actively looking for sex or romance. Their temporary or permanent disinterest in love or lust is varied and revealing. Forty-four percent simply enjoy being single, and 47% have other life priorities taking precedence. Like Swift, they may be making art, building a business or both.
I don’t know Taylor Swift, nor do I know most of the 127 million unmarried adults in the United States. Yet I contend that the former serves as a powerful, positive role model for the latter — especially young women. By all the evidence, Swift is resilient, creative and courageously embracing her wholeheartedness, whether dating or not.
Taylor Swift appears to exemplify a subset of singles that I call “Solos” — distinct from the kind of person who feels incomplete until they someday find “the one.”
Solos are wholehearted and celebrate their autonomy while remaining connected to friends, family and community. They think unconventionally about relationships, and about life in general. These perspectives challenge traditional notions of singlehood, offering an empowering alternative to waiting, sometimes hopelessly, for Mr. or Ms. Right to come along.
Solos may welcome romance — for example, making plans to spend a cozy holiday season together in their beau’s new $6 million Kansas City mansion. Solos, however, do not feel incomplete in the meantime. Swift seems not to be one of those people who drop their friends every time a boy comes along. She is dedicated to her girl gang — as the almost nonstop coverage of her nights out with her female friends shows — and her community of Swifties.
If you have any doubts about Swift’s unconventional perspective, check out her Time Person of the Year Instagram post featuring the magazine cover of her and one of her three cats. In her announcement, she makes the stereotype of the “cat lady” look cool to her 278 million followers.
Time Magazine: We’d like to name you Person of the Yea―
Me: Can I bring my cat.
Being single is about one’s relationship status. Going Solo is about one’s perspective.
My transformation from single to Solo occurred in three phases. My autonomy and self-reliance began to develop early in life, being the son of a financially struggling single mom. I had to learn to parent myself at a young age, becoming so adept at self-sufficiency that a girlfriend’s mom remarked to her, “He doesn’t need you.” Mom thought that was a bug, but I believe it to be a feature of a healthy relationship in which partners choose each other — interdependent rather than co-dependent.
I recognized my wholeheartedness as a result of an acute heartbreak in my 30s. I thought I would ride the relationship escalator with a smart, funny fashionista. However, she wanted kids, and I did not — which brought the relationship to an end. As I was grieving (hard), I had a moment of insight when I realized, I am happy when I am single. Not “less than.” Not “incomplete.”
My unconventional perspective about relationships, and about life more generally, occurred as part of my “Solo” podcast, as I realized how fulfilling a broad array of relationships can be — and why important relationships should be given the same high status that a marriage has.
Fortunately, people have given up and stopped asking me, “So, is there anyone special?” However, with the holidays here, too many singles — especially women, who typically experience more strident and insidious pressure than men — will face that question.
Besides the inappropriateness of telling singles what to do with their lives, the pro-marriage crowd unfortunately gets the research wrong. The conventional belief that marriage automatically leads to happiness is based on studies that find married people often report being happier than single people. However, it is impossible to say that marriage causes this happiness, because it’s impossible to conduct an experiment where people are randomly chosen to either get married or stay single.
As behavioral scientist Bella DePaulo said, “No study has ever shown that getting married makes people happy or healthier, and no study ever will.” In fact, longitudinal research that examines happiness before and after matrimony shows that married people tend to be happier before marriage. Finally, the so-called happiness advantage of marriage is only present when divorced people are removed from the sample. And here’s a fact especially relevant to Swift: Whereas the divorce rate in the United States is about 33%, the divorce rate for NFL players is 70%!
Marriage and family are ideal for many people, but there are many ways to live remarkably. The first step is to take care of the foundational elements that make up well-being: health, wealth and social connections. After taking care of their foundation, people can flourish by finding joy, purpose or creative engagement in a world where people are no longer in lockstep toward the same goals.
I am living the life I want to live. I contribute to science and education as a professor. I have been the sole caregiver to an ill mother. I have traveled the world. I experience a balanced mix of solitude, for recovery, reflection and creativity, and connection, through rich friendships and by supporting a community of proud (and not-so-proud) singles.
It is difficult for me to imagine that Swift’s life would be a failure if she did not get married and raise a family. Swift pursues a life of engagement (making art), achievement (building an empire) and meaning (inspiring her community of “Swifties”) — thus living remarkably whether she is dating or not. Besides, there is really nothing stopping her if she wants to have a baby to join her family of cats — with or without a partner. (Though Kelce might be useful to have around if she wants to raise professional athletes.)
Swift’s songwriting is often praised for its honesty and emotional depth. She has a knack for capturing the complexities of human relationships. Her song “All Too Well” shows her ability to write about single experiences filled with vivid details and poignant lyrics. Indeed, Swift’s journey, marked by professional achievements and personal growth, resonates with young audiences, showing how to navigate life’s challenges while maintaining wholeheartedness whether in or out of a relationship.
Given the global rise of singles, it is fortunate there are other ways to live remarkably besides starting a family. Rather than pressure people to conform to traditional relationship trajectories in order to avoid heartbreak, we can better teach young people to manage the inevitable ups and downs of love and life.
Failure is inescapable in areas like art, business, athletics and love, but it does not define life. It’s about embracing the journey, with its successes and heartbreaks, and the personal growth and meaning we find along the way. In this way, I hope Swift and her fans determine the success of a relationship not by its length or whether it results in a wedding, but rather by the meaning and the growth it spurs.
The societal narrative presenting marriage as a pathway to fulfillment overlooks the rich diversity of life choices. It’s time to recognize and celebrate the different paths, whether they involve marriage, singlehood or some other style of relationship. Ultimately, it’s not about whether I or anyone else ― Taylor Swift included ― marries or not. May we all craft our own epic anthems from our unique adventures in love and life.
Peter McGraw is a behavioral economist and business school professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. He hosts the podcast “Solo: The Single Person’s Guide to a Remarkable Life,” and is the author of the forthcoming “Solo: Building a Remarkable Life of Your Own” (Diversion Books).