To be or not to be married: An interview with ‘Happy Singlehood’ author Elyakim Kislev

Graphic poster displays a three story building in which people look out from every window.
University of California Press/Courtesy

Seldom does a single person divulge their relationship status and receive positive reinforcement. On the contrary, singles usually encounter responses sympathetic in nature, as though there is a need for consolation because of their lack of a partner. There is a common societal belief that single living is a temporary block rather than a personal choice.

Consequently, the idea of a committed relationship — usually institutionalized through marriage or a civil union — as this charming and necessary piece of life is ingrained into our psyche at a very young age. It seems as though we are never given the opportunity to form our own opinion on marriage or to even consider a life of being single. Instead, we allow societal expectations to affect our decision-making process in the years after adolescence.

While a large number of singles have begun to feel comfortable with taking a more unconstrained approach toward relationships — especially in our generation of millennials who often diverge from traditional standards and standards of societal acceptance — society continues to be hyperfocused on settling down.

Elyakim Kislev, a 37-year-old single man himself, explores this subject in his book “Happy Singlehood: The Rising Acceptance and Celebration of Solo Living. Through analysis of databases in more than 30 countries, surveying hundreds of thousands of individuals, personal interviews and the use of media outlets, he was able to address the question: “What makes today’s singles happy?”

In an email interview with The Daily Californian, Kislev described the main points of his research into relationships and how best to overcome the singles stigma.

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The Daily Californian: What sparked your interest in singles studies?

Elyakim Kislev: I am single myself and over the years I realized that there is a good chance I won’t get married. In fact, I have started to realize that maybe I’m not a good fit for the institute of marriage, in principle. I like my freedom and my way of living and I am not sure I will enjoy marriage as much as society claims it to be so wonderful. At the time, I thought about it and realized that it is not me that is weird, but rather it is the social pressure around me that makes me think I’m an outsider. I started to talk about it with married and unmarried friends and realized that people all around me feel the same. It didn’t matter whether they were married or unmarried, they felt the pressure to marry and weren’t sure this is the right choice for them.

Later on, some of my friends and relatives divorced. This exposed me to a whole world of unhappy marriage that people don’t talk about it so much. We do talk about divorce, but we often don’t really know what’s going on in families’ private lives until people take the decision to break up. I started to research this and discovered a phenomenal growing trend of leaving the wedlock or staying unmarried, a trend that is mostly treated as a problem instead of being thought of as a legitimate choice to make for a long period of time, if not forever.

The next step was simple: if this is the demographic trend and if people all around me feel more reluctant to enter the wedlock and stay married, then we need to start talking about quality of life in being single. We know a lot on the demographic change itself, but we need to start thinking about one simple question: if we live in an age of singlehood, and that’s given already, then what makes singles happy? How do we make this an age of happy singlehood?

DC: What would you attribute the rise of single men and women to?

EK: I detail the major reasons for this rising trend in my book. But in essence, we are more mobile today in search for opportunity and economic mobility and we don’t want to be tied down; we want more privacy and time to develop ourselves; we, especially women, are more independent and educated, and we don’t need others to support us; and finally, we are less conformist and traditionalist, so we need to be convinced that marriage is good for us and, after marrying, that we should hold on to marriage, especially if we see the dire consequences of unhappy marriage all around us.

This change has rattled societies everywhere. Starting in the developed world and spreading globally into developing nations. This trend demonstrates a transition from focusing on the social collective toward supporting the aspirations of each individual. Such a shift influences the way we think about every social and interpersonal function in our lives. In particular, it changes how we think of family nowadays.

DC: How should singles deal with the pressure and discrimination against them?

EK: Discrimination against singles is the most hidden type of discrimination I know and the least talked about one. But, in fact, I show that singles are burdened with more workload and get less pay. Another example is a study that shows that real estate agents are less willing to rent out apartments to unmarried people because many consider them less reliable and stable. Just think of what many feel when they see an unmarried old guy, for instance. They feel pity, sometimes even disgust, and they are suspicious that something is wrong with him. We see all these stereotypes in studies on this topic and it only becomes worse with age.

In turn, singles are not invited to certain social events and if invited, they are pushed away in order to prevent “awkwardness.” And these are really just a few examples. We need to cater to this growing population that in many places is the majority of adults. Efficient policies I’ve seen includes an approval and development of suitable, small apartments with shared spaces so that singles will be able to interact with others and to create communities. In fact, my study shows that singles are more social than married people, so we just need to make sure they have ways to nurture their connections.

Even more profoundly, we need to start educating students on how to accept singlehood and live happily ever after even if they will find themselves alone. The Pew Research Center predicts that a quarter of today’s children will never marry, and around half of those who will marry will get divorced. We must not ignore these statistics. More than anything, it is crucial to prepare today’s children for single living and even if married, to teach them to accept those around them who chose going solo or lost their spouses through divorce.    

DC: What do you suggest should be done alternatively for singles on Valentine’s Day?

We’ve seen people talking more openly about things like “sologamy” (marrying oneself) and “romansturbation” (romancing oneself rather than a sexual partner), as well as things like Singles Awareness Day, which celebrates those who are not in relationships. These are great examples to the change we are going through and I write about it extensively. Self-marriage, sologamy and so on might sound whimsical, but they are only examples of a fundamental focal change from traditions to independence and from obedience to self-expression. We should celebrate all of those as a full spectrum of emotional possibilities.  

Kislev’s book “Happy Singlehood: The Rising Acceptance and Celebration of Solo Living” is now available via UC Press.

Contact Mellissa Del Barrio at [email protected].