‘The Golden Bachelor’ Got This 1 Thing Totally Wrong

Thursday night, on live TV, Gerry Turner, the “Golden Bachelor,” will marry Theresa Nist. I’m happy for anyone whose dreams have come true. But I’m sad too. And mad. “The Bachelor” franchise shamelessly promotes the conventional wisdom that true happiness is a prize bestowed only upon those in committed romantic relationships, and that single people, in contrast, are stuck leading lesser, sadder lives.

That’s not just untrue, it is harmful.

I’m a social scientist and I’ve been studying single people for decades. I’ve found that more single people than most of us ever imagined are happy and flourishing, and they are happy and flourishing because they are single — not in spite of it. Throughout their adult lives, they keep getting happier and happier with their single lives. I call them “single at heart.” I’m one of them and I just wrote a book about us.

In Bachelor Nation, people like us are unfathomable. We got erased, and Gerry, Theresa, all the other women who vied for his affections, and everyone who watched the show was deprived of an appreciation for the meaningfulness, fulfillment, psychological richness and joy that the single at heart experience.

“The Golden Bachelor” peddles a romantic fantasy that takes that great, big, open-hearted experience that is love and stuffs it into the box called romance. It diminishes all the other profound experiences of love in our life. The single at heart don’t buy that. We have more expansive notions of love.

Taking in the show, we would have recognized and appreciated a truly inspiring love story, one that should have been the envy of everyone on “The Golden Bachelor” and everyone watching it — the 60-year friendship between two contestants, Ellen and her friend Roberta. When Ellen emerged from the limo that first night, it was Roberta she called out to even before she greeted Gerry.

In one of the early episodes, Ellen said, “I haven’t felt special in a very long time.” Joan, another contestant, remarked, wistfully, “As you get older, you become more invisible,” and said she was grateful to have felt seen by Gerry. Faith was thankful to feel heard. She said that Gerry listened to her and that was something she wanted. Ellen, though, was supremely special to Roberta. If Joan has a close, longtime friend, she likely feels “seen” by that friend, and probably felt even more so as their friendship deepened. The people in Faith’s life we met during the home visit seemed to listen to her with care and love. But all of these women had internalized the romantic fantasy that insists that if you don’t feel special to a romantic partner or seen or listened to by a romantic partner, then you are not special or seen or listened to at all. They’ve been robbed.

Of course, romantic relationships are different from friendships. Apart from friends with benefits, our friends will not quench our desires for sexual intimacy. But by thinking about our friendships in terms of what they do not offer, we miss out on what they do.

A nine-year study of nearly 6,000 adults showed that over time, the single people who were not looking for a romantic partner valued their friendships more, and as those friendships became more fulfilling, their single lives did too. The dynamic was just the opposite for the single people who wished they were coupled. Over time, they valued their friends less, invested in them less, and then felt even more driven to find a romantic partner.

“Alone” was a dirty word on “The Golden Bachelor.” Theresa told Gerry, “I don’t want to be alone.” Then she repeated it. Gerry agreed, adding, “It sucks to be alone.” But neither Theresa nor Gerry was alone. They both have people in their lives whom they love and who love them. The romantic fantasy erased those profoundly significant connections. In romantic fantasyland, no matter how many caring and loving people you have in your life, if you do not have a romantic partner, you are alone. That’s a stingy view of human connection.

The single at heart do not feel alone in the world. And we are not afraid of spending time alone. In fact, we cherish our solitude. That’s one of our superpowers. It protects us from feeling lonely, it got us through the worst of the pandemic, and it prepares us for later life. In old age, we will continue to value, rather than fear, the time we have to ourselves.

The single at heart are savorers, who notice and appreciate sensual experiences. In response to the question of what makes her happy, one of the women who shared her story in my “Single at Heart” book said, “I love the blue of the blue jay at the feeder right now. I love how Yo-Yo Ma recovered when his cello slipped while he was playing it. I love the sound of whip-poor-wills. I love the spiders in my kitchen, the birds at my feeders, my cats sleeping under their blankets.” What a difference from Gerry’s inability to appreciate nature’s spectacular displays without a romantic partner: “OK, it’s a beautiful sunset,” he said during one episode, “and you walk inside and you go, like, who’s here? Well, who do I share it with?” The romantic fantasy has robbed him of some of the true joys of life.

The romantic fantasy is soul-sucking when it persuades people that they really are incomplete without a romantic partner. Leslie told Gerry, “You make me feel whole.” And Gerry, talking about Theresa, said, “She could be the person who completes me and I could be the person who completes her.”

What if the women of “The Golden Bachelor” did not feel incomplete without a man and instead lived their single lives fully and joyfully? Maybe Theresa would not have waited for Gerry to come along before she learned Italian and went to Italy. Maybe she would have gone with friends or relatives, or on her own. One of the single at heart women I interviewed saved up enough money to take a year off and travel the world. It was a deeply meaningful experience.

The single at heart do not split the tasks of everyday life with a spouse, and that can add to their competence. For example, one of the single at heart women I talked to said, “Because I live alone, I have acquired an arsenal of diverse skills. I can handle basic carpentry, electrical and plumbing repair, cooking, sewing, landscaping and financial planning.” Another was renovating her home with an eye toward living safely and comfortably as she grew older — she was just 33.

The romantic fantasy may be at its cruelest when it robs people of hope. Gerry told Theresa that he wanted “hope that I will have someone to enjoy the rest of my life with,” adding, “that hope is huge.” Theresa concurred. “That’s what you need to wake up each morning,” she said.

I think it would be different if they appreciated what single life has to offer. One of the single at heart women who shared her story said, “The longer I’m single, the more I love it. I can’t imagine life any other way.” Another said that her single life “just gets sweeter.” In their personal stories, they were giving expression to what the large-scale surveys had already shown: that single people just keep getting more and more satisfied with their single lives, especially if they are embracing their single lives rather than fleeing them.

I don’t want to diminish the significance of the quest of the women (and man) of “The Golden Bachelor.” I understand that they may feel unhappy if they never again find romantic love, and that’s valid. I just wish they could muster a bit of resistance to the romantic fantasy that deprives them of the joy and fulfillment they could be experiencing in their single lives and belittles the love they already have. That way, they could all have hope.

Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard University) has always been single and always will be. The Atlantic calls her “America’s foremost thinker and writer on the single experience.” She is the author of ”Single at Heart: The Power, Freedom, and Heart-Filling Joy of Single Life.” Her TEDx talk, “What No One Ever Told You About People Who Are Single,” has been viewed more than 1.6 million times. You can learn more about her at her website, www.BellaDePaulo.com.

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