Breaking the Mold

Social scientist Bella DePaulo’s research reveals a broader array of lifestyles—from our relationships to our living spaces—than many of us could dream up.

Jessica Gross | Longreads | August 2015 | 17 minutes (4,402 words)


Bella DePaulo, a Harvard-trained social scientist who is now a Project Scientist at UCSB, started her career researching deception. But it was when she delved into singlehood, her personal passion—she describes herself as “single at heart“—that she first felt enormous synchronicity with her research. “The singles work was something entirely different,” DePaulo told me over the phone. “It is really where I live in the literal and the figurative sense.” She has chronicled this work in scholarly papers, blogs for Psychology Today and PsychCentral, and written books including Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After and Singlism: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Stop It.

In her latest book, DePaulo continues to examine lifestyles that don’t quite fit cultural norms. For How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, she traveled around the United States, looking at alternative—that is, non-nuclear—ways of living. One example of this is co-housing, in which people live in separate dwellings but meet regularly in a shared common house. Another is Golden Girl Homes, an organization that helps “women of a certain age” live together. There’s also CoAbode, a registry for single mothers who want to live with other single-mom families. And there are even multigenerational homes, which function today in very different ways than we might imagine. Throughout, DePaulo stresses the balance between autonomy and community, and how our relative needs for each are so individual. The upshot is that, finally, no matter what our predilections, there is increasing space for us to create lifestyles that suit us.

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You’ve written a lot about being “single at heart” and knowing that you love being and living alone. Why were you drawn to study alternate living arrangements?

Well, part of the interest was other people’s interest: It was a topic that other people just really liked to talk about. There was a blog post I wrote, “Not Going Nuclear, So Many Ways to Live and Love,” that got a genuine response of people wanting to hear each other’s stories. I also noticed that it was a topic that was appearing not just in casual conversations, but in the media, too. It seemed to be something that was resonating.

As for me, I feel so, so committed, and always have, to living by myself. I wasn’t really exploring for myself—although I wonder if, at some level, I was wondering whether, if I ever really couldn’t continue to live by myself, there was some way out there that really would work for me.

Now that you’ve finished the book, what are your thoughts about that question?

I still really want to live alone. [Laughter] But the most reassuring thing I found was this Village movement. It started in Beacon Hill and it spread across the United States, and there is one in Santa Barbara—I’m in Summerland, which is just south of Santa Barbara. When you sign up as a member, you get access to resources and social events and people who can come to your place and help you if you have problems getting a ride or getting something fixed. So it really extends your ability to live in your own place longer. Any way of living that is more on the side of privacy and autonomy is more appealing to me than one that’s more about togetherness. And the book is organized in that way. It goes from the most togetherness, living together under the same roof, to the most independence. My personal inclinations are toward the end of the book. [Laughter] Having the most space to yourself.

One of my concerns, initially, was that because I’m so into the way I live—totally alone—would I be able to be fair to people who live in totally different ways? That turned out not to be an issue at all, because I so loved hearing other people’s stories of what made for a good life. The point became that there are so many different ways to choose from, and people should be able to take advantage of all the options we have now, so many of which were not even imaginable decades ago.

Could you describe your living space?

I’m in a two-bedroom house, eleven hundred square feet. It has a living room where I put my desk because that’s where I get a peek of the ocean. I love it for its brightness: there are all these great windows. Summerland is such a tiny town that we don’t get mail delivery, but I can actually walk to the post office. I really like the tiny town and the house that’s so bright and not being in an isolated place: there are houses all around and it’s kind of a cute, funky little community. There are very different styles of houses and décor. It’s the opposite of new developments, where everything looks exactly the same, so that really appealed to me, too.

You write in the book, “Before I got deep into the research for this project, I tried to imagine the kinds of creative lifespaces I would discover, and I never, ever imagined anything like”—and then you go on to list a couple of examples we’ll get to later. But that made me wonder, what had you imagined? What were your ideas of what you would find?

I think I was constrained by typical categories of friendship and family and not thinking about these totally new variations. As in CoAbode, where two single-parent families decide to live together. Or as in the parenting partnerships, where two people, each of whom is single and really wants kids, decide, “I’m not waiting,” or “I don’t care about having a spouse or a romantic partner, I’m just going to find someone who is equally committed to having kids, and we’ll raise kids together.”

These ideas were just so beyond the way that we typically think of family—and I guess, unfortunately, the way that I thought of family. I think of myself as someone who is open to different ways of thinking, but it just never occurred to me that these kinds of combinations would happen. It’s so unbundled. The qualities and characteristics that often seemed tied together so tightly that they’d never come apart, like having a relationship and having kids—who would think that someone would pull that apart and say, “Let’s just have kids together, without the romance or marriage part”?

Reading the book, I too felt like the options were so much more expansive than I could have dreamed up. I’ve interviewed a number of people lately who argue for thinking more expansively about various arenas of life: Kate Bolick on women’s romantic lives; Rachel Hills on sexual mores; and you, on singlehood as well as living spaces. Do you think there’s something in the air now that is fostering these suggestions that a multiplicity of options can coexist without threatening each other?

Yes, I really do think there is something in the air. For me, when I was writing Singled Out, I was first starting to think about the kinds of arguments that single people come up against. What I found was that no matter what you do as a single person, there is some comeback that other people can use to undercut you. If they assume, “Oh, you’re single, you must be promiscuous,” and you try to come back with, “Oh no, I’m not at all,” then they’ll say, “You poor thing, you don’t get any.”

So part of the message I was trying to convey with Singled Out, and a lot of my writing since then, is: Don’t worry about what other people are going to say. If you try to construct your life in a way that bulletproofs you from these kinds of disapprovals, it’ll never work. So just resolve to live your best life, do what really is most fulfilling to you, and especially now, when there are so many opportunities.

You write towards the end of the book that it is biased toward people who are really pleased with their living arrangements. It occurred to me that basically everyone you profile is also extremely clear on what their desires and needs are, and is able to communicate them forthrightly. Which seems to be a prerequisite to making these living situations work—to first conceiving of these living arrangements and then creating the necessary partnerships to foster them.

Yeah, I think that’s really true. And I think it does come with age. I talked to some very young people and I did wonder what their lives would hold going forward. Whereas some of the people who are older, they’ve tried various things and now they are at a point where they know, “This is it, this is who I really am.”

Can you take me through some of the ways in which this is a unique time, demographically speaking?

The demographics now are so different than they were a half century or more ago. More people are staying single longer, or for life. The age at which people first get married—of those who do get married—is higher than it’s ever been before. Cohabitation, which was hardly on the scene, if at all, in the 1950s, has grown. Divorce has grown, and with that, blended families and step-families.

As women continue to outlive men, you have more people who are single at that end of the age spectrum. And as families get smaller, as they have been, people have fewer siblings; many people now have no kids at all, sometimes by choice. That too puts into question who is going to be there for you the way we used to think of family as traditionally being there for us. Even people who do have family sometimes find that they are totally preoccupied with their own lives, or they live nowhere nearby.

And so we have this nation of people who don’t have what we usually consider to be the fallback, the nuclear family that we grew up with. They’re looking around and saying, “Well, now what do I do? How do I live?” And, of course, many just say, “I’m going to live by myself, and I love that.” But then all these other possibilities have emerged, some of which seem kind of old-fashioned, like all the people who live in multigenerational households or extended family households. But in fact, even they have versions that we didn’t have in the past. One of my favorite things I discovered is that because of our increasing lifespan, a 20-year-old in 2000 was more likely to have a living grandparent or grandmother than a 20-year-old in 1900 was to have a living mother. That’s just so amazing. So, in fact, there weren’t as many multigenerational families a century ago as we might think, because people didn’t live long enough to overlap their kids and their grandkids for that long. And now we have people, like the family I interviewed, which is four generations.

The other thing that makes the multigenerational families specifically contemporary is that there is a bit more autonomy even within those households. People have their own rooms and their own friends and their own schedules, even though there’s a lot of togetherness. So this trend toward wanting more of your own space, your own time, that runs through everything.

Something that surprised me to learn about contemporary multigenerational households was that nearly fifty percent of young adults living with their parents pay rent. I don’t think that’s the assumption people make about young adults who live with their parents. And it seems there is still a huge cultural stigma against it—which I’m not immune to at all.

Oh, yeah, it’s such a topic of late night jokes. I felt the same way initially, too. I was born in 1953, and 1980 was the low point, nationally, of young adults living with their parents. Hardly anyone ever did it. And then it grew more and more commonplace.

One of the most heartening of things I learned from writing this book was about what’s really happening with young people living with their parents. And I think at the heart of it is that their relationships with their parents are so different than what was typical of my generation. There is not this generation gap or culture conflict between young and old. They have—not all of them, obviously, but on the whole—really nice relationships with their parents. They share values, they share activities. And so a lot of them really enjoy the time that they spend at home with their parents, and their parents enjoy them too. I just loved that statistic where the parents were asked which relationships they really enjoy, and they more often mention their young adult kids than their spouses. [Laughter] Now, that’s not to say that everybody loves going home to their parents, or that all parents really love having that, but the most typical response is positive.

What was also interesting was finding, as suggested by some studies, that those young adults end up doing really well. If they stay longer, they also stay more connected to their parents after they do leave home, and they in some ways have a better sense of self. You can never do the kind of studies that establish these things definitively; you can’t know for sure it was because they stayed with their parents longer. But they’re suggestive in ways that go against the stigmatizing and stereotyping of people who do that.

It strikes me that so much of your work, including the research about the book as well, has been about countering these stigmas: presenting evidence that single people are not disconnected, selfish people but in fact the opposite; that the children of single people are not worse off; that young adults who live with their parents are not lazy and burdensome; that people are enjoying a huge array of non-nuclear-family living arrangements. Do you come into a project with that goal? Or do you get the evidence and then feel fired up by the injustice of the narrative?

Author Bella DePaulo.

Author Bella DePaulo.

Well, Singled Out started with my own experiences. For a long time, I thought, “Okay, I love living single, but that’s just because I haven’t been bitten by the marriage bug yet. Once I get bitten by it, I’ll be just like everybody else.” Well, that never happened. At some point, I realized, “No, self, this is who you are. You love being single. You’re never going to want to be married.” So that was the revelation, and then I wondered what it was like for other people. The media was full of singles-bashing: “You poor thing, you’re miserable, you’re lonely, you’re isolated, you’re selfish.” I should be embarrassed to admit it, but I assumed that what I was reading in the media headlines was true and that I was the exception.

I remember reading the first couple of papers that were cited in media articles that claimed if you get married you’ll be happier and healthier, and I was stunned at how the research methodology of those papers and the results could never powerfully support those conclusions. I figured that was just the first study. Well, then I had stacks of papers, and then I had boxes of journal articles, and then I had rooms full of journal articles and books. It was amazing to me that there could be this whole ideology that if you get married you will be happier and healthier—and really, I think, that if you get married, you will be a morally superior person. So at the beginning I had hoped to find some little corner, maybe this one kind of person—women of a certain age, or something—are okay single. But I didn’t expect to find this wholesale, “Wow, they just plain got it wrong.” So that’s how that happened.

Going into How We Live Now, I didn’t think of it as a myth-busting kind of book, either. I thought of it as an exploration. My editor was the one who said, “No, this is another myth-busting book, because it totally redefines how to think about family, how to think about home.”

You write, “With little cultural celebration or even recognition, friendships have emerged as the essential twenty-first-century relationship.” Could you talk about that, and about why you think that’s so?

Friendship, I think, so beautifully captures so many aspects and values of contemporary life. One of the big things about how we live now is choice: we don’t all have to sign up for the standard template anymore. And friendship, of course, is all about choice—although not as much choice as some people think, because friends have to choose you back. [Laughter] So it’s choice, with that one really important constraint.

Another aspect of friendship is its fluidity and its flexibility, which is very much a characteristic of contemporary life. Your friendship with someone might change over time as your interests change or as your needs change or as you move. So friendship has that kind of solidity and flexibility that so much of what contemporary life is about.

Also—and I think this one is really important—friendship ideally is egalitarian. Now, your friend might not really be your equal in every concrete way that you can explicitly establish, but within the friendship that’s the ideal. In so many of these different life spaces that I looked at, what really matters is this equality that is sharing: “I’ll do some things and you do some things and we’ll help each other in the way we need it.” Here’s this real place of equality at a time of such amazing inequality in so many other big ways in this society as a whole.

Plus, you can have a whole set of friends that captures different aspects of yourself—your friends who really are into what you care about in your work life or your personal life or your let’s-go-out-and-have-fun life or your deep, thoughtful, what’s-the-meaning-of-life life. [Laughter] And I think that’s a very contemporary thing too. It’s a movement away from looking for one person—the one—to be your everything. And friendship, ideally, is not as greedy or as jealous as some other relationships. We don’t expect our friends to be friends only with us and we don’t expect our friends to spend all of their time with us. And I think that too is consistent with how we live today.

How much of a motivator do you think loneliness is for people who form the more communal living arrangements?

I think loneliness can be part of it, or it can just be people who wouldn’t necessarily say they’re lonely, but who crave that old-fashioned village. Co-housing, and the many other informal variations of it I found, offer a measure of both autonomy and independence. In co-housing, there are separate houses like you would find anywhere else, but what’s different is that they also have a shared common house where they get together sometimes, for meals or meetings or hobbies. They really want a genuine community, so they go ahead and create it.

I love how the whole co-housing movement is very self-conscious about creating opportunities for socializing. It also deliberately builds in, when it’s possible, opportunities for privacy. For example, in the Bellingham, Washington co-housing community that I went to, which is relatively spacious, the fronts of the houses face spaces where people walk by and socialize, but the backs of the houses look out to open spaces where you have your privacy. So even within your own home, you can regulate when you want to be open to other people and wave to them as they go and when you want to be totally in your own private space where no one is going to see you and you can do whatever you want.

You are very sensitive to monetary considerations in this book. Could you take me through which examples you think are more and less attuned to people’s financial situations, and which are most beneficial for people living in poverty?


Well, the manuscript I turned in was tens of thousands of words too long, and one situation that got cut was this community being built in Austin, Texas for the homeless. It includes RVs and tiny houses and mobile homes, and the people who lived there would actually be involved in the kinds of work that would pay. So, for example, they might make fruit jams out of the fruit picked from the trees or help with the construction or help maintain the property. What was really nice about that is that it wasn’t built to be apart from the rest of the community, like, “Let’s get those homeless people and put them out of sight.” Instead, they have this big screen for watching movies outside and inviting other people in and they’re close to public transportation. So that’s one example.

I think multigenerational families tend to have lower incomes on average, although not all one class. But they also spend a smaller proportion of their income on housing, even though they have less income to begin with, on average. “Apodments,” these tiny apartments, are meant to be more affordable too. So I think there are increasingly options for people who have financial challenges. But some of the people I visited were very well off and could have easily lived in nice places of their own, but they just wanted to be together.

Before you started researching singles, you studied deception and lying. Can you share a couple of findings that were particularly interesting?

One of the most fun studies I did was actually fairly simple. It was when I realized that despite the volumes that had been written about deception, we didn’t know the most basic things about it, like how often people lie and who they lie to. So I did this pair of studies, first with college students and then with a broader sample of people from the community, where they kept track every day for a week of all of their social interactions lasting at least ten minutes and all of the lies that they told.

The first thing I found was that lying wasn’t this special, exceptional behavior, but totally ordinary. Almost everyone lied over the course of the week, and most people told one or two lies every day.

What kinds of lies were they telling?

Usually we think about lies as being exploitative and cruel, and some lies really are just that terrible. But the vast majority of the lies that we tell in our everyday lives are not about trying to get materialistic rewards like a better raise or a better grade, but about psychological things like wanting other people to like us, or hiding little things that we feel embarrassed about.

In your work on singles, you use the words “singlism“—the stereotyping of, stigmatizing of, and discrimination against single people—and “matrimania,” or the over-hyping of weddings and marriage. Both of which I love. Did you coin those terms, or were they in the culture already?

Oh, no, they were totally my construction, and some people really hate them.


Yeah. One of the things that makes singlism different from racism or sexism or heterosexism or ageism—the kinds of isms we’re more familiar with—is that people don’t even recognize it. And I thought that naming it was an important first step.

As for matrimania, it’s so out of touch with how we’re really living. When two people come together and get married, usually they have their own sets of stuff, they’re merging households, and yet they’re asking single people, who are on one paycheck, to subsidize their married life. “Give us money so we can go on a nice honeymoon.” It’s like, really?

You write that divorced men are, statistically, more likely to remarry than divorced women—it’s not just anecdotal!—and that women are more likely to initiate divorce. Why is this so?

What’s so interesting about this is that in our writings about women, including academic writings as well as essays and media publications, it’s all about the problem of women being single: what are they gonna do? [Laughter] How do they arrange a life? It’s assumed that men have their jobs and are going to be totally fine. Whereas in fact, the people that can do really well as single people are in some ways more likely to be women. Women are more likely to create and nurture friendships, so when they are single, they aren’t feeling alone. But this is something that I actually think is likely to change, because as both men and women stay single longer, men too will have the opportunity to create networks of people who are important to them.

I think another part of this that is helping men is that the stigma of being gay has been subsiding a bit. Part of the problem for men has been that it was harder for them to do what women always do: go hang out with their girlfriend, go out to lunch, go for a long walk. If two guys did that, it would raise eyebrows, like: what’s that about? So they always needed the excuse of a business lunch or a basketball game. And I think it’s very much to their potential advantage that those ways of thinking are lessening.

In terms of why remarriage is more for men, I think they have traditionally counted on marriage more than women did. They get married and have a lot of their needs taken care of. And so marriage traditionally has been very convenient for men whereas for women it often meant taking on even more responsibilities.

When I was first studying single life and talking to people, what really captured my attention were these women who were widowed and said to me, “I had a wonderful marriage, I loved my husband, but I would never marry again.” They were embracing single life not because they had such a terrible experience married—they had a great experience married—but now they really wanted something else.

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Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York City.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.