Bella explains why singles are not the selfish people you might think they are, and writes about why singles should stop describing themselves as selfish. Bella also suggests we might want to rethink what selfish means.

It has always seemed important to me to challenge the demeaning stereotypes of single people, especially since the data so convincingly support a whole different narrative of who single people really are, but it’s more than that. Stereotypes aren’t just passive, innocuous beliefs. Sometimes they motivate policies and practices that deeply disadvantage people who are single.

Singles, Stop Calling Yourself Selfish!

Single Life | 22nd May 2023 by Bella DePaulo

Following on from part 1, where Bella explains why singles are not the selfish people you might think they are, she continues here and writes about why singles should stop describing themselves as selfish. Bella also suggests we might want to rethink what selfish means.


Singles, Stop Calling Yourself Selfish!

Single people aren’t the selfish ones — not in the usual sense of the word

In part 1, Why Singles Aren’t The Selfish People You Thinks They Are, I reviewed the evidence showing that single people are more generous than married people with their time, their money, and their caring. The selfish stereotype just isn’t true (quite the opposite), and we should all stop talking about single people as if it is true.

It has always seemed important to me to challenge the demeaning stereotypes of single people, especially since the data so convincingly support a whole different narrative of who single people really are, but it’s more than that. Stereotypes aren’t just passive, innocuous beliefs. Sometimes they motivate policies and practices that deeply disadvantage people who are single.

I will continue to challenge false and bigoted characterisations of people who are single. But something about the whole enterprise has always bothered me. It is as if we are all on the defensive. It is on us — single people and anyone who wants to stand up for them — to show that we are not selfish. That shouldn’t be happening. We have nothing to prove. Married and coupled people, on the other hand, get a free pass. They are deemed as not selfish just because they are coupled.

On Twitter, I objected to a single person who called herself selfish in a personal essay. ‘Socially Distant’ wisely pointed out that she “sounds like she’s apologising for her solo life; a concession she has to give to appease those who might question her choice to be single.”

Look closely at how single and coupled people behave, and how their behaviours are regarded, and you will find ample evidence of double standards. In my book, Singled Out, I wrote about the example of self-celebrations that are weddings and honeymoons, and how they get described not as selfish but as romantic. I have shared that section of the book at the end of this article.

What does selfish really mean?

In her brilliant book, No Thanks: Black, Female, and Living in the Martyr-Free Zone, Keturah Kendrick unpacked the selfish slur when a student proclaimed that Oprah was selfish for not having a husband or kids:

“The suffix ish is key. It suggests the word “as” or “like.” …If you are womanish, you are behaving as if you are a woman. If you are mannish, you are acting like an adult male who has a set of expected behaviors and actions dictated by culture and community…So what about this ish when added to the root word self? It is my hope that my student examined the word she initially intended as a criticism of Oprah.

“She is selfish”.

“She is acting like herself”.

“Oh, what a precious privilege.”

How about that reinterpretation — acting self-ish is actually acting authentically? I like it. I think authenticity is key to people who are single and who are living or want to live their best, most authentic lives. 

In our Twitter conversation, KM Fikes made another wise distinction, between an egotistical version of selfish and a self-confident one:

“Noticing too misuse of “selfish”. Maybe the issue is vocab. Like the gulf btw. self-centered & self-possessed. Distinguishing egotistical/nigh narcissism of ‘selfish’ from brave as healthy self-esteem/conscientious confidence of ‘self-full’. Or whatever word best empowers”.

KM Fikes is also no fan of “selfless.” As she explained: 

“I don’t want ‘less’ of myself in my decision making; I hope I am fully present, possessed, rooted more in the great responsibility to stand in my conviction compassionately.”

Navigating the tricky language of selfishness

So, single people, let’s continue to live authentically — being who we really are and fully present in our convictions. But until everyone else understands a renewed meaning of self-ish, let’s not call ourselves “selfish” (or at least not out loud) and let’s never internalise other people’s demeaning claims about us. And, if you have the nerve and the social skills to do so effectively, challenge those claims. They don’t deserve to remain standing.


Here is an excerpt from my book, Singled Out. This section comes after a discussion of what weddings and honeymoons were like in the past.

The historical perspective helps us cut through the mist of the contemporary lavish wedding to recognize what a profoundly self-centered and self-celebratory ritual it has become, especially at the hands of its most out-of-control practitioners.

First, the attire. Today, no one could mistake the bride for a random guest.

Second, the gifts. All guests are expected to make offerings, and substantial ones at that, no matter what their own personal circumstances may be. These contributions to the couple are especially remarkable at a time when the bride and groom are at such a different place in their lives than newlyweds were in the past. The age at which adults first wed is trending ever upward. The two people who are coming together often have their own jobs, and a household that they share. Their joint household may well have been created from the merging, in the past, of their own individual households, already well stocked with linens and demitasse cups.

Some observers have acknowledged that the showering of gifts on well-off recipients does not always sit well with guests, but do not find that troublesome. The authors of Cinderella Dreams explain that “the most dissatisfied guests seem to be nontraditional women.” In contrast, “the satisfied guests are recent or future brides who recognize the reciprocal nature of gift-giving and understand that when it is their turn they will also ‘pick up the loot’ from all of the brides whose showers they had attended.”

What the authors do not mention is that the “dissatisfied guests” (translation: the bad ones — the women who are single and intend to stay that way) do not “recognize the reciprocal nature of gift-giving” for a reason. For them, it doesn’t exist. For life singles — especially those who live alone or with dependents — showers and weddings are occasions for the redistribution of resources from those who have one paycheck to cover one set of household expenses to those who have the same one set of household expenses but two paychecks to cover them. When the bride and groom are serial remarriers, the inequities are greater still.

Discussions of gift-giving at showers and weddings tend to focus on presents and cash. But couples receive far more than that. They also enjoy the gift of their guests’ attention, time, and validation. For no other event in a person’s lifetime do so many people show up at your side at the appointed time and place, regardless of whatever else may be happening in their own lives.

The guests who come from near and far to attend a wedding have a new role to play at the ceremony. In the past, wedding guests welcomed the new couple as part of the community. They would all be neighbors and friends. Now guests at weddings serve as fans who look up to the couple as the stars of their own show. They subsidize the twosome emotionally as they ooh and ah at the choreographed spectacle.

In one of the ways of upping “the wow factor” that USA Weekend so admired, the people closest to the bride and groom — the members of their wedding party — are literally hidden away so that more stunningly beautiful actors and actresses can play their roles for them and give the guests a greater thrill. In one of the other wow factors, community members with no relationship whatsoever to the couple are inconvenienced for the sake of the couple’s show. That’s the one in which the newlyweds are encouraged to get a permit to shut down a city street. In the orgy of self-celebration that some contemporary weddings have become, no gesture is a bridge too far in setting the couple above everyone else in their lives, and above so many others who should not have to go out of their way, literally, to accommodate the wedding of a pair of strangers.

The glorifying of the newlyweds that begins at the wedding ceremony kicks up a notch at the reception. There, the distinction between the awesome wedded couple and everyone else is relentlessly telegraphed. Singles especially are singled out. In an essay, “It’s a paired, paired, paired, paired world,” Paul Jamieson described the Singles Table. It is “all the way in the back, right by the door to the kitchen” and “farthest away from the head table.” In theory, a place near the kitchen door could mean super service, but that does not happen, either; “the guests at the Singles Table are invariably the last to get their Chilean sea bass with mango salsa.” 28 Single women are treated to an additional indignity, when they are asked to gather round for the bouquet toss. They are presumed to want to catch the wilted flowers, and to feel fortunate if they do. That’s because, in the marriage mythology, the bouquet is a talisman signaling their imminent escape from the Singles Table to the place of honor. With both practices — seating the singles with each other, so that they, too, might meet someone and become coupled, and tossing the bouquet — the newlyweds say the same thing to their single guests: “We know you want to become married and special, just like us.”

On to the honeymoon. The contemporary version could hardly be more different than it was in the past. Today’s honeymooners travel far away from all of the other people in their lives, to celebrate and seal an intense emotional and physical connection only to each other. They recreate, as if on cue, the cloying romantic ideal: “just the two of us.”

Back from their wedding trip, the newlyweds retreat into their own home. They are still apart from everyone else. They will emerge now and then, as a pair, often to socialize with other look-alike pairs. Then to their own place they will again return, “just the two of us.”

Think back, now, to the singles I described at the beginning of this chapter — the ones who were castigated as “parasite singles” and as selfish. Their gatherings — dinners out, travel adventures, shopping trips — really were communal. Whole groups of women participated as equals. No one woman, and no pair, was singled out as special and above all the rest. The bonds they cherished as lasting were with each of the other women. These women were not narrowly linking themselves to just one other person.

The women who lived with their parents were nurturing interpersonal bonds as well. The parents and their daughters all anticipated reciprocity down the road, when the parents would need help and their daughters would willingly provide it.

It is true that the single women described by Yamada buy themselves pricey handbags and clothes. Unlike bridal wedding ware, however, the adornments purchased by singles are worn over and over again.

How is it, then, that singles are so readily presumed to be selfish and self-centered while the far more self-indulgent newlyweds are instead deemed romantic?

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Bella DePaulo
Bella DePaulo (PhD, Harvard) has been described as “America’s foremost thinker and writer on the single experience.” Her TEDx talk, “What no one ever told you about people who are single,” has been viewed more than a million times. With her writing appearing in high-profile publications, Bella is increasingly globally recognised not only for her expertise and knowledge of the single experience but also because of the links she makes between single life, living alone and spending time in solitude. We are delighted Bella is a Solo Living contributor.

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