Unwanted Singleness: Finding Contentment While Living With Unmet Desires

Unwanted singleness, though challenging, doesn’t define your worth or happiness. Societal expectations and cultural scripts can exacerbate the struggle, but finding contentment in being single is possible.

therapist sean abraham By Sean Abraham, LCSW

Updated on May 24, 2024

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In the depths of the COVID pandemic, Pew Research Center set out to profile single adults in the United States. By “single,” the researchers meant individuals who are not married, living with a partner, or in a committed romantic relationship.

Single people made up 31% of the population surveyed — and, depending on the cultural scripts you grew up with, the findings might surprise you. Singles were split evenly on whether or not they wanted to be single. Half said yes, citing enjoying being single and having more important priorities.

But the other half said no. These people wanted to date, to be in a committed relationship, or both. Therapists call this experience unwanted singleness — not because singleness is a bad thing, but because the individual wants to be partnered and isn’t.

If this describes your experience, you are not alone. In this article, we’ll explore what unwanted singleness is, why being single is hard, and how to be single and happy.

What Is Unwanted Singleness?

Unwanted singleness is the state of being unpartnered against your wishes. Someone experiencing it desires romantic relationships and/or companionship but is unable to find such a connection. For people who want partnership, the gap between these desires and the reality they experience can be deeply painful.

“I see a lot of depression. I see a lot of anxiety. And I see a lot of low self-esteem because they don’t feel worthy of themselves,” says Kristian Wilson, a licensed mental health counselor with Grow Therapy.

Of course, many people prefer being single to being partnered; remember, this was half of all the single respondents in the Pew survey.

Why Is Being Single and Happy Hard?

Being single, whether you want it or not, can be challenging because of our societal, cultural, and familial expectations. Wilson calls this the “traditional template,” a framework that was often ingrained during childhood and which many of us continue to carry with us.

“Society says we have to be married. It’s ‘first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby and the baby carriage,’” says Wilson.

American society at least is still structured around this idea that everyone falls in love, gets married, and has children. For starters, married people typically pay less in taxes when they file jointly under the U.S. tax code. And the option to earn two incomes makes life easier, especially in high-cost-of-living areas such as New York City, where living alone costs on average of $2,061 a month, the Seattle/Bellevue metro area ($1,523/month), and the Washington, D.C. metro area ($1,513/month).

Many of our social communities subtly prioritize the traditional family unit as well. For instance, we shower newlyweds with gifts and send meals to new parents. But monumental achievements for singles — signing a book deal, getting a promotion, making the last debt payment — tend to receive much less communal attention. Also, parents’ social lives start revolving around activities that tend to leave out single people: children’s birthday parties, sports, and school events.

Then, there is simply the feeling that your experience of being single is dismissed or, worse, erased from the cultural narrative. Here’s an example: When the COVID pandemic began, media outlets joked that the country would have a baby boom because of stay-at-home orders. The traditional template strikes again, completely erasing the experience of single people. (In fact, though, birth rates declined during this period in many high-income countries, according to Scientific American’s pandemic reporting in 2021).

Not long ago, people learned about engagements and marriage through the newspaper; if you didn’t want to see the announcements, you could skip the page. Today, social media makes these life updates harder to avoid, and the supply of happy couple photos online is limitless. Wilson believes this is one reason that single people struggle to feel content with their relationship status.

“Everybody is always on social media comparing and contrasting,” she says. “What people see online is not really what’s going on in people’s homes.” Instead of poring over others’ photos, try muting or unfollowing accounts that share content you’d rather not see. Or, take a social media sabbatical during typical wedding seasons.

As well as social media, dating apps can also be incredibly harmful. If you find yourself spending an hour or more every day on dating apps, or that your emotions are highly tied to whether or not you are being noticed or given attention on dating apps, it may be time to consider taking a break.

Undoubtedly, there are benefits of being single, such as spending time with family, friends, career, and self-care. But for someone who desires partnership, these positives may not resolve the longing for a romantic partner.

Hear this: Your singleness is not a conspiracy against you and your happiness. There may not be a cosmic point or reason you are single today. But being single can be transformative and valuable, whether the experience lasts another year or a lifetime.

How Can I Be Content Being Single?

The usual advice on how to be happy alone is, frankly, inane and dismissive. You should “embrace your singleness” by pouring your energy into work, for example. Why don’t you find a new podcast or try new hobbies that could help you meet more people to date? Have you tried spending less time thinking about your relationship status?

These tips ignore the complexity of unwanted singleness, of living in the gap between the life you expected and the life you have. Going through unwanted singleness isn’t easy, to say the least, but it’s an experience that can teach you about yourself — potentially even more than a romantic partner could.

Here are a few starting points for reflection and conversation:

Examine Your Templates

Being in a romantic relationship isn’t inherently better than being single, despite what our culture and society say. “That might be the template that you grew up thinking of, but that might not be the template of your life,” says Wilson.

Consider the templates that you learned growing up. How did your family talk about marriage and partnership? Were there any adults in your life who weren’t married? What was your parents’ partnership like? How about your grandparents?

Learn more about your attachment style, which a clinical psychologist or mental health therapist can help you identify. The way you learned to attach to others influences how you engage with important relationships in adulthood.

These questions have no right answers, but the data can be valuable as you navigate all of your relationships, not just romantic partners. Wilson put it simply: “If you know who you are as a person, being single or being married is not going to matter.”

Consider the Premise

If you identify as experiencing unwanted singleness, know that you are not destined for unhappiness. Single people, even those who actively want a romantic partner, have rich and fulfilling lives. The key is understanding your relationship to your desires. Ask yourself: Why do I want to be partnered or married? Do I believe a partner is essential to my happiness? If so, why? Get specific, and consider sharing your answers with a trusted friend or your therapist.

Have a Self-Care Checkup

One of the often-cited benefits of being single is having more time for self-care — but the vision is often much too small. The advantage is not that you can take more bubble baths as a single person. The true advantage is that you can devote time and energy toward every aspect of your well-being, often called the dimensions of wellness. The Wellness Center of the University of Illinois Chicago’s self-care guide elaborates on these categories:

Forget About Your Relationship Status Sometimes

Unwanted singleness can easily become your whole identity, similar to how children can become parents’ identity. Ignoring your desire for partnership isn’t healthy, but neither is over-focusing on it. “Don’t get lost in the sauce because you want to be in a relationship,” says Wilson. “Because most people, when they do get in a relationship, they forget about themselves.”

One way to get out of this current is practicing gratitude and mindfulness. Though trite-sounding, these practices are two of the only positive psychology techniques that consistently increase happiness.

Here’s an example: When you’re enjoying time, trips, or experiences with friends, “are you being mindful in that moment, or are you just trying to get a cute picture for online [dating]?” Wilson asks. Instead, practice magnifying the good things in your daily life. Dating can wait for at least a day or two, if not more.

Implement Other Positive Mental Health Strategies Into Your Life

Here are a few tips inspired by the University of New Hampshire’s positive psychology strategies:

How Do I Stay Single When I Am Lonely?

A common response to the loneliness of being single is getting into toxic relationships. From an emotional perspective, this makes sense: A chaotic relationship will fill the time, space, and void. But this impulse can be deeply destructive in the long run, according to Wilson.

“It just doesn’t add up. You end up being with somebody who is not equally yoked with you,” she says. “You have certain values, they have certain values, and then it ends up being a whole mess. And then that brings on even more anxiety and more depression, even more self-worthlessness.”

If you are experiencing unwanted singleness, don’t fall for this trap. Being healthy and happy starts with you feeling like a whole person, complete in yourself.

Navigating unwanted singleness in a culture that prioritizes couples and families can feel daunting. While not everyone feels unhappy about their single status, many people do struggle with unmet desires.

Though the experience is complex, remember that being single doesn’t equate to unhappiness, and you can practice strategies for finding more peace and contentment in your day to day. Embracing the valuable parts of being single can help you build a satisfying life, whether you have a partner or not.

Frequently Asked Questions

About the author
therapist sean abraham Sean Abraham, LCSW

Sean Abraham is a licensed clinical social worker who works with those who have struggled with substance use, depression, anxiety, loss, communication problems, student life, as well as other mental health concerns.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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