A few years ago, I held a Fourth of July barbecue in my newly adopted city, and afterwards I noticed something interesting: the friends who came early to help set up and stayed late to help clean up had one thing in common: They were single.
This isn’t a criticism of my married guests. They came too, bearing pies and hot dishes. They stayed for a time and then went home—because that’s what people do. But my single friends, I realized, had gone the extra mile, and not just during the barbecue. They had also been extremely helpful during our move—loaning my husband and I trucks, offering up guest rooms. They were the ones who organized group dinners and other outings. And because I didn’t yet have a car, they drove me to these activities.
Although perceptions are slowly evolving, there is still a persistent myth that single people are less mature than their married cohorts, who are often viewed as the sturdy builders of society while singles are treated like overgrown teenagers, who care for themselves and little else.
These stereotypes don’t jibe with reality. A data analysis by sociologists Naomi Gerstel and Natalia Sarkisian found that single people devote more energy to friends and family than their married peers do. Unmarried people are more likely to give loved ones a phone call, a visit or practical support—driving a relative to a doctor’s appointment, helping with household chores, etc.
When they first examined the data, Gerstel and Sarkisian assumed that parenthood explained the gap, but they later found this wasn’t the case. Once people have children, they usually become more engaged in their communities, as they are pressed to be involved in their kids’ school and sports activities. Married non-parents are actually the least involved bunch.
The notion that single people are “carefree” is also illogical. The last time I checked, being unmarried didn’t exempt you from the need to pay rent or taxes. In fact, the challenges of adult life are arguably greater for single people. Couples can split bills, tasks, and areas of expertise. For example, I have never turned on the lawn mower or snow blower in our garage, and I’m not sure I’d even know how to—you pull a cord or something, right? The single woman who lives next door to us doesn’t have the luxury of such ignorance—in fact, she surprised us one winter morning by clearing our driveway when our snowblower was on the fritz.
It’s time to shed outdated (and never accurate) ideas of what it means to be single. Singles are now more than half the population, and they’re ushering in a new era, one where people combine independent living with community engagement. Let’s have some fireworks about that.
Sara Eckel is a personal coach and the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. You can get a free bonus chapter of her book at saraeckel.com. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook. Ask her any questions here.