Of course we can. Or let me rephrase: There are women who need relationships to be happy and women that don't, and the most I can determine about the members of each group is that they spend a hell of a lot of time judging the other. Women who need relationships in order to be happy seem to have a thought process that tells them, on a good day, that life is less meaningful when not shared with another -- that successes are more enjoyable and tragedies more bearable if they have someone to love who also loves them. On a bad day, it seems to tell them that life is meaningless without that.
I know these women -- I've been one of these women. You know them, too: They're the ones whose first question to a single friend is always, "Are you dating anyone?" A lot of their sentences include the word "we." If she's single and the guy she's focused on isn't doing what she wants him to do, everything this woman has done in the history of her communication with him -- and her life -- is up for debate as a possible deal-breaker. Break-ups and blow-offs are seen as catastrophic events.
As a general theory, sure, partnerships make both good and bad things better. But what about those women that are in relationships with men or women who don't celebrate their successes or comfort them during their tragedies? What about the women who put everything into trying to make their partners love and cherish and sometimes even just see or not torment them and get nowhere? And how about the less extreme cases -- those women who are in once-lovely relationships that have started to deviate from their formerly glorious states?
We're all, of course, radically influenced by what we see -- by what our parents did and expect us to do, by what our Facebook friends are documenting through their photos, by what the entertainment we consume shows us people "out there" believe. And, of course, society -- for all that it delivers studies about declining female happiness and stories about increasing numbers of single people -- tells us that women need to be a part of a couple to be happy. Politicians preach family values (often, as it turns out, ironically). It's the plot of every romantic comedy and reality show. Even tabloids are in on the action: A single male celebrity (think George Clooney) is considered a charming rogue while a single female 0ne (think Jennifer Aniston) is characterized as pitiful.
It didn't always used to be like this, of course. According to "Sex at Dawn," the 2010 tome that claims that pre-civilized humans were primarily non-monogamous, it was only when agriculture came along that men put their collective feet down about raising children that weren't their own, in turn shaming women who had sex with more than one man and launching our cultural shift toward monogamy. But I don't think we really need a book to tell us that not everyone succeeds at monogamy.
But the more I learn about happiness, the more I believe that is has nothing to do with being a part of or having anything. Certainly companionship is an important aspect of building a blissful life. But the "I'm happy because I have this" justification (what's known as Object Referral Happiness) is, for me, increasingly ineffective the more I realize that nothing is going to make me happy unless I can find contentment regardless of what's going on in my life (otherwise known as Self Referral Happiness). Believe me, I've definitely felt happy because I've been in a fabulous relationship or engaged in a fabulous career pursuit, but if I'm going to be honest, at the root of that happiness was the slightest tinge of hysteria -- a quiet panic that would threaten me with the thought that any minute, it could all be taken away, and what was I going to do then?
From what I can tell, happiness comes from listening to what my meditation teacher calls that "fine level of feeling" we all have. And my fine level of feeling tells me I'm perfectly happy without a long-term relationship (for now, anyway). Of course, I couldn't always locate my fine level of feeling and it still takes occasional vacations -- typically when I'm on Facebook and my fear kicks in, causing me to narcissistically and illogically conclude that news about someone else's relationship somehow means I'll never have that myself.
For my money, the people who go around talking about how unhappy single people are aren't the single people but the married ones. In "Stumbling on Happiness," Daniel Gilbert writes about how terrible we all are at judging our own happiness as well as anyone else's -- referencing research which shows, for example, that losing a limb only decreases people's happiness temporarily while those of us with all our limbs assume it makes them miserable for the rest of their lives. I think coupled-off people often look at single people as disabled -- missing not just a limb but in fact an entire other body. And if that's the case, it's no wonder they're concerned.
But it's just not true. All single means is not attached to one person. It doesn't mean we can't (and don't) have delightful, gratifying ephemeral unions that more than fill the space before we commit to something longer term. And I'd have to imagine that any single woman who disagrees is going to need a lot more than a relationship to make her happy.