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Bella DePaulo never fantasized about a dream wedding or being a bridesmaid. Instead, she saw herself as “single at heart,” pursuing intellectual refinement, friendship, and solitude as a young psychologist. Still, she had internalized the popular idea that married people were happier and healthier than the unmarried, and took her own pleasant experience to be exceptional. That is, until she looked into it, and found the claims about the “transformative power of marriage” to be, she says, either “grossly exaggerated or totally untrue.” From then on, she’s focused on how singles actually live.

Now at the University of California, Santa Barbara, DePaulo has written widely about how marriage and the nuclear family are making way for other social arrangements. (Read her Nautilus feature about these new kinds of families, published today.) She’s not fooled by shows such as The Bachelor or romantic comedies that end with a storybook wedding proposal. Those narratives exist, she says, “not because we as a society are so secure about the place of marriage in our lives, but because we’re so insecure.”

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At least one cause of that insecurity is the empowerment of single women, which she writes about in her book, Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. Nautilus caught up with DePaulo to discuss how single women are transforming social and political life, how they’re settling down, and what that says about living happily.

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Could the end of traditional marriage and nuclear families be a good thing?

I think it is a tremendously positive thing! Once upon a time, just about everyone in the U.S. thought that they needed to squeeze themselves into the heterosexual nuclear family box, even if they weren’t heterosexual or weren’t interested in getting married or had no interest in raising kids. Now, people can create the lives and the families that allow them to live their best, most authentic, and most meaningful lives. They can choose to put friends at the center of their lives. Or they can assemble their very own combination of friends and family to be the social convoys that sail beside them as they navigate their lives. They can have kids in their lives without having children of their own. They can live under the same roof with friends or families or children or any combination. They can live in a place of their own, but within an intentional community, such as a cohousing community. They can share a duplex with a friend or relative, so that they have their own space while also having someone else they care about just steps away. Or they can live entirely on their own. The possibilities are endless.

What determines how a single woman chooses her living arrangement?

It depends on life stage, but it also just varies by preference. Some people like me really like having their own space, so love living alone. But there are other single people who really like being with other people a lot of the time, so they might want to live under same roof, like a Golden Girls kind of thing. Also, single mothers are great at finding innovative ways of living as single parents. One of the people I interviewed, Carmel Sullivan, was devastated after her divorce. She felt so lonely. And then she put out this ad saying that she wanted to share a place with another single mother and her kids, to help each other raise the kids and have friendship. She got all these responses and ended up starting this online platform called CoAbode, where single mothers can find other single parents to share a home with. When I talked to Carmel a few years ago, she already had 70,000 single mothers signed up.

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Is having more living arrangements to choose from fundamental to happiness?

Yes, I think it really is. And that is really what is so different about the way we’re living now is that we have more options than ever before to choose the life we want. Of course we are constrained by whatever resources and money we have, but I found in writing my book How We Live Now, that even people who were very constrained in their finances could still find a very satisfying life to live.

A number of books have recently come out touting single women, such as Kate Bolick’s Spinster, and Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies. How will single women shape the future of society

Their impact on politics could in theory be tremendous. By staying single when marriage is still idealized, single women are already pushing back against conventional expectations and constraints, creating 21st century connections and intimacies beyond the old nuclear family model. They vote overwhelmingly democratic. So the democrats should be beating down their door, promising to wash their cars, watch their kids. But they don’t vote typically in the same proportions that married people do. I think they’ve been so left out of the process by the way politicians talk about single women, the way they leave them out of the conversation when they talk about families. As a single woman, I want a choice about which role I want to fulfill. If I had to be a wife, I would go stark raving mad. So having a role can be very important, but we don’t all fit into the same roles. 

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Regan Penaluna is an assistant editor at Nautilus. Follow her on Twitter @ReganJPenaluna.

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