I spent most of my 20s as someone's girlfriend, and on the cusp of 30, I found myself wanting to be alone. So I broke up with my boyfriend of four years—not that he was holding me back in any explicit way. But after several years as an editor at a stuffy political magazine, I was sick of Washington, D.C., and realized I was using my relationship as an excuse to stay stagnant. I wanted a big change, and that seemed impossible with another person in tow. So he moved out. For the first time since college, I was on my own. I took down the wall art I'd compromised on; I bought a record player (he had always been perfectly content with laptop iTunes) and an extra-fluffy comforter. My high school bestie, Josh, and I drove down the Pacific Northwest coastline, a vacation we'd fantasized about for years. "I want to be in an exclusive relationship with myself," I told him as we sipped bourbon and watched the surf crash against the coast. We laughed, but I was serious.
That proclamation turned out to be prophetic. I spent the next four years "deep single," a term I coined to describe the fact that I didn't go on more than a handful of dates with anyone and never came close to using the words my boyfriend. Those years were, hands down, the most professionally productive and fulfilling of my life. I made a name for myself with creative online projects. I quit my job in D.C., signed a lease in Texas, then accepted a job in Los Angeles and moved again a month later. With only me to stop me, I was unstoppable. And I reaped emotional rewards, too: Instead of one static social group my boyfriend and I had built together, I spent weekends bouncing between circles of friends. I bet researchers wouldn't be surprised: "Studies show married people are less invested in their community," says Liana Sayer, director of the Maryland Time Use Laboratory. "They tend to have a smaller social circle."
I also got used to spending a lot of quality time alone. Single women have twice as many leisure hours as partnered women, according to Sayer's analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data—that's time to play the cello or take woodworking classes. Consumer research says single people are more likely than marrieds to try new restaurants, take art classes, and volunteer. "Being single allows for further self-exploration," says Jessica Carbino, a sociologist at UCLA, "making you more informed and self-aware." Since you have fewer obligations to a partner and his life and career, you have "far more ability to explore your own interests," Carbino says. Being single doesn't just make you more independent: It makes you more interesting.
That's evident when I'm out with both married and single women. My married friends talk about playdates, in-law drama, and fertility issues, while the singles regale us with tales of toe-curling hookups, travel plans, a so-crazy-it-just-might-work business idea. And that's why it's so excruciating to hear women talk about how desperate they are to be in a relationship—any relationship. A few months ago, I was at a small dinner party with three other single women. Around the third glass of wine, after conversations about an upcoming art exhibit and Kim and Kanye, someone complained about the lack of good men on OkCupid. Suddenly I was in the middle of a gloomy downward spiral about my companions' withering ovaries. I kept quiet, refusing to participate in the depressing-date-story contest.
Way too many women buy into the idea that in order to be fulfilled, they need their lives to look like the last third of a rom-com. But it's not really true. Michigan State University research shows that married women are only happier for a short period of time after the wedding. Once the thrill wears off, they return to the level of happiness they reported before getting married. And while single ladies often feel like the last ones standing, half of U.S. adults—103 million—are unmarried. Being uncoupled is just, well, normal. "Even if you want to get married, the worst thing you can do is to think of your single state as time-marking," says Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families. "You should enjoy this part of your life, not as a preparatory stage, but as something that is just fun in and of itself." In other words, your "real life" doesn't begin when you meet a partner. It's happening right now.
Besides, repeated studies have found that the more educated a woman is, the more likely she is to marry, and the older she marries, the less likely she'll be to divorce—so statistically speaking, if you want to get married, you most likely will. And before you know it, car pools and nut allergies will become your dinner conversation staples. Then you'll look back on your single years as one of the most adventurous times of your life, when you had no excuse to do anything but be yourself to the fullest.