Kelly Henderson had been in similar situations before, but nothing as unorthodox as this. Henderson, an Indiana nurse, was visiting a patient when the woman suddenly aimed an iPad at her.
“Here’s Miss Kelly, isn’t she pretty?” the patient asked her son, who was staring out at his mom from the iPad screen. “She’s single!”
Henderson fidgeted next to the bed, not sure what to do. “I appreciated her kindness, but it was a little uncomfortable,” Henderson told MiLLENNiAL about the incident. “I was trying to dodge out of there as fast as possible.”
Henderson, an unmarried 26-year-old, hasn’t had a boyfriend since college.
“It’s kind of funny,” she said. “The fact that I’m in my late 20’s and don’t even have a boyfriend is like the equivalent of 1800s spinsterhood.”
But Henderson isn’t alone in her singleness. In 2014, 59 percent of millennials were single, according to Gallup. This number is much higher than comparable figures for Generation X and the Baby Boomers, which can make it difficult for 20- to 36-year-olds to explain why they’re single to older generations.
Many millennials brace for the “So why are you still single?” question that relatives ask at every family gathering. Whether you have a set of automatic answers or you’ve just gotten used to ignoring them, here are three surefire responses—including backup—you can give:
1. “I savor my singleness.”
It’s important to explain how much you value being single and how it helps your personal growth.
Single people experience more personal growth according to Bella DePaulo, a social scientist and author of Singled Out. “Instead of looking at the prospect of having time for themselves as something to worry about, they’re more likely to value that time,” she said.
Single people find that life is a continuous process of learning, change and growth, and they are more likely to develop autonomy and self-determination. “I feel like you really need to explore yourself in your 20’s,” said Henderson. “I want to travel, I want to have my freedom and independence.”
From 13 to her last year of college, Henderson was always in a relationship. She finally decided that dating people she didn’t see a solid future with wasn’t helping her personal growth—or anything else.
“I gave so much of myself to my relationships. I lost sight of the person I wanted to be,” Henderson said. “It’s so easy when you’re dating someone to slip into someone else’s life and put yours on the backburner.”
2. “I want to put myself first.”
This might sound like you’re being selfish, but it can help other people understand your singleness by talking about how important pursuing passions and meaningful work is, and how this pursuit is easier without worrying about someone else.
“Being in a relationship, married or otherwise, does require some compromise,” said Esther Boykin, relationship expert and licensed therapist.
When you’re single, it’s easier to pursue what you want, whether that’s hobbies, travel or anything else that would require coordination with another person. Putting yourself first may also involve choosing your education, career and economic situation over a relationship.
“Being single and being ambitious professionally is actually kind of beneficial,” said Boykin. “You have a lot of freedom to make choices about how you spend your time and energy without worrying about the impact on a partner.”
T.A. Masters, creator of millennial lifestyle blog Accidentally Adulting, said that because the people who raised millennials instilled in them such an important focus on education and career, it affects how long they wait to get married.
“If you’re putting those things first it’s going to take awhile before you start to focus on your family life,” she said. “I personally went to college, went to law school—there was no way I was going to get married or have a baby while I was in law school, that’s just crazy.”
3. “I choose the ones over the one.”
This final point is especially vital when someone comments on how lonely you must be. But being single doesn’t equate to lonliness.
“There’s this whole mythology around, ‘Oh, you find the one and that person becomes your everything,’” said DePaulo. “But single people are actually more connected to, and stay more connected to, friends, siblings, parents and neighbors, than married people do.”
Reality is the opposite of stereotypes and single people are actually less likely to be isolated, said DePaulo.
“Single people do a lot of volunteering. They’re also the people to be there more for their parents. They are also more likely to be there for people who are not necessarily relatives but who need help over a sustained period or more.”
Being in a relationship also affects how often you meet new people, because when you’re single, meeting people is usually the goal.
Masters said that since getting into a relationship, she sticks to the people that she knows. “It’s just kind of like a revolving door of people,” said Masters. “You make new friends because you’re putting yourself out there more.”
Being single is not the end of the world, despite how often your parents, grandparents or other family members might make it seem like it is.
As for Henderson, she is fully embracing her singleness.
“At this point in my life, I’m really happy,” she said. “I can focus on my work, I can focus on possibly going back to school for my masters degree, and I can focus on myself.”