Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

The Leap from A Little Bit Married to the Whole Thing: Do Men and Women Differ?

Are you a little bit married?

I just finished reading Hannah Seligson's new book, A Little Bit Married: How to Know When It's Time to Walk Down the Aisle or Out the Door. "A little bit married" (ALBM) is what Seligson calls people who are in a monogamous long-term relationship but aren't officially married. She offers 10 questions to help you figure out if you fit the description; if you answer yes to more than half of them, you qualify.

The questions start out like this:

  • My boyfriend and I have spent the last three holidays together.
  • We live together.
  • His parents and I talk on the phone.
  • We've been on each other's family vacations.

Then it ends with these two gendered questions:

  • I'll be ready to get married within the next year.
  • I don't think my boyfriend is ready to get married anytime soon.

That's a theme running through ALBM: If you are ALBM and a woman, you probably want to get married and he doesn't. The book is mostly a quick, easy, and fun read. Personally, I love my single life and am not interested in becoming even a little bit married, so I read the book as anthropology, as in, Oh, so that's what's going on inside the minds and lives of people who are socially (but not legally) coupled.

See All Stories In

The Better Sex

Are men and women really that different?

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

A few things, though, marred my reading experience, and one of them was the way the sex difference was discussed. Consider, for example, the title of Chapter 2: "Dating Peter Pan. You're ready to register at Pottery Barn and he's playing Grand Theft Auto." Then there's this quote (not Seligson's words): "In the past you grew up at 21 and you were a sober, productive part of society. Now, you have guys who are 35-year-old 17-year-olds. When it comes to dating, they're out pulling some girl's pigtails. It is not grown-up behavior." The source? A former editor of Maxim magazine.

I have an aversion to the bashing of any single people, and single-men bashing seems to have become quite the contemporary sport. I'm a scientist, though, so if the snide quips about single men are based on data, then I'll have to live with them. I looked very closely at original scientific reports in academic journals when I wrote Singled Out. What I learned was that most of the knocks against single men were myths. I made fun of them in Chapter 8, titled, "Myth #6. Attention single men: You are horny, slovenly, and irresponsible, and you are the scary criminals. Or, you are sexy, fastidious, frivolous, and gay."

Even academics indulge in a bit of trashing of single men, but fortunately, not all of them do. Here's an excerpt of an interview I conducted with Jeffrey Arnett, one of the most enlightened scholars of what he calls "emerging adulthood."

Bella: Jeff, the first time I knew I just had to get your insights represented in this blog was when I saw a review of a new book called Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. I have to confess that before I read even a word of the review or the book, I had a bad feeling about it. That was because of a giant picture that was printed along with the review. It showed a gathering of shapely, attractive, bikini-clad young women, holding drinks and frolicking in a pool with their male counterparts, one of whom was pumping a fist. Talk about stereotypes! Plus, to make it even worse, the caption said that this "never-ending party" was, for some, the "new normal for guys." Now I know better than to believe everything I read, so this could have been a matter of a reporter getting it wrong. Since you've read the book, and your academic expertise on these matters is probably unparalleled, why don't you tell us what you think of it.

Jeff: I read the book, and it was disappointing. Yet another slander against emerging adults, still more negative stereotyping. Sure, there are guys who get drunk a lot, act like jerks toward women, and have a shallow view of life. But the author's mistake is to imply that all young guys today are like this, and that they're worse than ever. Neither of these claims is true. What's really striking is how much less sexist, racist, and homophobic young guys are now than in the past. Most want an equal partner in a romantic and sexual relationship, not just someone who will serve them. Most have friends who are of different ethnic groups, and most have gay or lesbian friends and don't make a big deal out of it. What's more, rates of every type of "guy problem" have declined sharply in the past 30 years among emerging adults-including alcohol use, crime, and unprotected sex. So the assertion that the typical young guy today is a drunken porno-mad potential rapist is nonsense. It's untrue and unfair.

You can read the entire interview here. Seligson interviewed both Arnett and the Guyland author, but she seemed more smitten by the sensibilities of the latter. One of her highlighted text boxes, for example, was titled, "Eight signs that you are dating a child-man."

What I think Arnett is suggesting is that men and women are in some ways becoming more similar in how they approach coupled relationships. That reminded me of a trend I noticed in the historical data on the age at which people first marry (among those who do marry). First, as context: The age at which men first marry has always been greater than the age at which women first marry. We can see this dating all the way back to 1890, the earliest year for which the Census Bureau provides data. (See the table below.)

Perhaps even more interesting is another trend: The age at which men and women first marry has been becoming more similar over the course of more than a century.

The last column of the table below shows the difference in age of first marriage between men and women for each year. Note that in 1890 and 1900, men were, on the average, at least 4 years older than women when they first married. In 1910, 1920, and 1930, that difference dropped to somewhere between 3 and 3.5 years. By 1940, men are less than 3 years older than women when they first marry.

In 1997, for the first time, the difference in age between men and women dropped to less than 2 years. (Not shown. See Table MS-2, here at the Census Bureau, for the more detailed report.) Since then it has vacillated between 1.6 and 2.2 years.

Median Age at First Marriage
Every Decade, 1980-2009

YEAR MEN WOMEN Diff
1890   26.1   22.0     4.1
1900   25.9   21.9     4.0
1910   25.1   21.6     3.5
1920   24.6   21.2     3.4
1930   24.3   21.3     3.0
1940   24.3   21.5     2.8
1950   22.8   20.3     2.5
1960   22.8   20.3     2.5
1970   23.2   20.8     2.4
1980   24.7   22.0     2.7
1990   26.1   23.9     2.2
2000   26.8   25.1     1.7
2009   28.1   25.9     2.2

There are other things I found disappointing in ALBM. I say this not to discourage you from reading it, but because I try never to let myths about singles go unchallenged. Seligson seems to buy into the mythology that marriage transforms miserable, sickly singles into blissful and healthy couples. I've debunked that popular view, using actual data, over and over again (for example, in Singled Out, in Single with Attitude, and in many posts to my Living Single blog).

More fundamentally, I'm not sure whether Seligson realizes that some people are "single at heart." When she runs through the reasons why you should probably break off your long-term monogamous relationship, she doesn't consider this possibility: that the problem isn't the tension in this particular romantic relationship, it is that coupled life (with or without the legalities) just isn't the most fulfilling life for you.

ALBM got me thinking about some other things, too, so maybe I'll return to it at some point. But I have some other books that I may want to review, so I'll probably try to get to those before returning to ALBM. If you are interested, here are some of the books I may discuss in future posts:

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

more...

Subscribe to Living Single

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?