Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

How Many Married People Wish They Were Single?

The perils of asking only one kind of question

When I was in Finland, I met a Dutch journalist who came to the conference on living alone. Maartje Duin works for VPRO Radio, the national Dutch public broadcasting company. When I got back, I found this question (below) from her. She said it was okay to answer it on this blog and mention her by name.

One more question I didn't have time to ask you on the morning you left. I reread your blog about the amount of people who choose to be single. You refer to the 25% of people in the Pew Research Report who say they don't want to be married. That's 16% of the cohabiting couples, 12% of the singles and 46% of the divorced/widowed. But they didn't ask people if they wanted to cohabit. For the 16% of cohabiting who don't want to marry, we can assume they are fine with cohabiting. For the 12% singles and 46% divorced/widowed we don't know if they want to cohabit (but as it becomes more and more popular, we can assume the numbers are not all that low). Unless they killed their husbands or wives, widow(er)s can hardly be called singles by choice, so we take those out of the equation. So based on these results I'm not sure if 25% wants to be single. Can you convince me?

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Oh Bella, one more thing: I should, of course, include people who don't want to marry nor cohabitate, but who prefer a LAT-relationship. 

I will now answer her questions, but as you continue reading, think about the kinds of questions that she did not ask.

#1 For the 12% singles and 46% divorced/widowed we don't know if they want to cohabit

For well over a decade, I have been writing about the growing number of single people, mostly in the US but also around the world. When I mention, for example, that 103 million Americans, 18 and older, are divorced or widowed or have always been single, there has long been a predictable follow-up question: But aren’t a lot of those cohabiting?

Not as many as you might think. When you subtract all of the cohabiting couples, including the same-sex couples, there are still 90 million Americans who are single and not cohabiting.

#2 Unless they killed their husbands or wives, widow(er)s can hardly be called singles by choice

When I first started studying single people and single life many years ago, there was one particular kind of story that really made an impression. It was told by people who had been widowed (usually women). One after another, they told me that they loved their husbands and that they had a good marriage. But, they added, they never wanted to marry again. No, they didn’t kill their husbands, but now that they have experienced marriage, and are re-experiencing single life, they are choosing single life.

#3 I should, of course, include people who don't want to marry nor cohabitate, but who prefer a LAT-relationship.

LAT means living apart together. It refers to couples who are committed to their relationship but do not want to share a home. Sometimes they are called dual dwelling duos. There is not a lot of research about this group, but the one estimate I found sets the number at about 6 or 7% of couples. My personal guess is that this trend is going to grow.

That’s the end of the questions and my answers to them. So how did you do at generating the kinds of questions that were not asked? Here are a few of my own.

How many married people wish they were single? How many realize that getting married was a mistake, that for whatever reason they are not going to divorce, but if they ever did become single again, that’s how they would stay?

How many single people, when asked if they want to marry, say yes, but then prioritize any actions that might increase the chance of that happening somewhere below cleaning out the sock drawer? Single people know that they are supposed to want to get married. That’s the prevailing and unquestioned ideology of our time. Ask them on a survey and they will say, sure, I want to marry. Ask them informally yourself and maybe you will get the same answer. But what does it mean when they do not take any steps to try to make that happen?

How many single people think they want to get married because that’s the only story of an adult life that they have ever heard, the only one they have seen celebrated on the big and small screen and in their everyday lives? How many single people would think differently about single life if all of the stereotyping and stigmatizing and getting ignored and excluded and getting discriminated against and all of the rest of the singlism simply did not exist? What if single life were just as valid a choice as married or coupled life? How many single people would choose to be single then?

Imagine you were in living in the 1950s when the prevailing ideal for women was to stay home with the kids (and just about all of those women were married and had kids). Suppose that the claim, “my wife doesn’t work,” were a boast. Now do a survey. Ask those women—before the time of the Feminine Mystique and second-wave feminism—if they want to work. (It probably was done—if you know of it, please let me know.) How many would have said yes? Probably a very small number. Now transport those same women—with all the same genetic material—a half-century or so into the future. Now ask them if they want to work in paid employment. The difference from the 50s would be enormous.

We never know what people really would choose when only one choice is recognized and celebrated and the others are stereotyped and stigmatized. That’s not a choice, it’s ideology and culture. I don’t know how many people would choose to be single if it were a valid, validated, and even celebrated choice in societies at large. But I bet my autographed Mickey Mantle baseball glove that the number would be higher than most people expect.

In the meantime, I will continue my studies of people who are single at heart (scroll down after you click the link). So far, it has been fun, as well as enlightening, to put that concept out there and see how it resonates.

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.

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