On a recent cross-country flight, I settled into my seat with an icy Diet Coke and a stack of academic papers to read. But I never read those papers. The two women seated next to me, strangers when they boarded, instantly became close confidants, sharing (loudly) with each other the harrowing and juicy details of their love lives. One woman was an uber-confident 24-year-old who channeled Taylor Swift’s style and eyewear, and boasted about the dozens of dates she had in recent months, thanks to Tinder and other dating apps. The other woman was a vivacious full-figured 35-year-old who'd had a few heartbreaks in her past, but was optimistic about the potential dates who graced her iPhone screen.
But as their lively conversation progressed, their disappointment and even hopelessness became palpable: “Why didn’t he text back? I thought we had a great first date?” “I thought we were a couple, but then my best friend told me his profile said he was single and searching.” “I can’t believe he was married.”
These laments are nothing new. Generations of women and men have suffered rejection, self-doubt, profound sadness, and a shattered sense of reality when a would-be suitor ended things abruptly or slipped silently away without a proper goodbye.
My heart ached for these women, whose feelings of worth and happiness were so tightly tied to two questions: “Why doesn’t he like me?” and “Will I ever get married?” Both women had successful careers, close friends, and loving families. But their sense of self was tied to having a romantic partner. Why, in 2016, when the U.S. stands a good chance of electing its first female president, and women have achieved unprecedented success in everything from business to entertainment to sports to academia, does women’s happiness still heavily depend on their relationship status?
This phenomenon is not new. Cultural touchstones from Sex in the City to The Heidi Chronicles to the 1940s film Woman of the Year portray the emotional travails of women who “have it all”—except a successful relationship. And it’s not just women. The desire for a kind and loving life partner tops the list of men’s dreams as well (although they may not talk about it as openly as women do).
As our plane descended, the two new friends exchanged phone numbers and promised to keep in touch. I quietly deplaned after four hours of silent eavesdropping, although I wished I could have been a source of hope to these young women. This is what I would have told them:
1. Don’t worry; odds are that you will find a life partner.
Marriage was once near-universal in the United States, with more than 90 percent of people marrying. Those rates have dropped steeply in recent years, but trend data can be deceptive. Although the proportion of persons ages 25 to 34 who are married has plummeted, that doesn’t mean that they are alone for life. Rising numbers of Americans are postponing marriage until their 40s or 50s, while others are living with a romantic partner, although they may not legalize the relationship. When this more expansive definition is used, the odds of partnership are in your favor. Demographers project that roughly three-quarters of Millennials and Generation Xers will ultimately marry by age 40, with higher rates for college grads yet lower rates for African Americans.
2. What we look for in a partner changes as we get older, and that’s a good thing.
There are many reasons to look forward to middle age. One is that our dating preferences and strategies change. Sure, dating becomes harder, especially for women, as the ratio of available men to women diminishes. And the sad truth is that in our looks-obsessed society, slimmer women and taller men have an easier time on the dating market than heavier women and shorter men. The good news is that the traits we look for change as we age, as we focus more on substance and less on fleeting factors like looks or money.
One of my airplane seatmates talked animatedly about a new romantic prospect who was tall with a muscular swimmer’s build, and sparkling blue eyes that shined through his hipster frames. No doubt, two 20-something men sitting a few rows back were having a similar conversation about a potential date’s flawless figure. This emphasis on a muscular physique, runway-ready body, or flawless skin tone becomes far less important with each passing year, and traits like good humor, kindness, and compatibility become more important. This may be particularly reassuring for would-be daters whose best assets may not shine through in profile photo.
3. Love is not a meritocracy.
Well-intended friends often say to single people, “It’s a shame that someone as smart and attractive as you is alone.” This implies that people need a special trait or qualification in order to attract a love interest—and that if we’re alone, we must be doing something wrong. But that message is unhealthy and unproductive. The search for a partner isn’t the same as a search for the "perfect" car or a job, although dating apps may make it feel that way. We’re searching for a whole person, not a bundle of desirable traits.
If you don’t believe me, ask a long-married grandparent or older neighbor what they love most about their spouse. The answer likely isn’t “She earns a good living,” or “He has great pecs." People with long and happy marriages emphasize shared values and interests, humor, and just “getting” each other—quirks and all.
4. Marriage isn’t a cure-all.
There are many reasons to get married. Marriage provides important legal and financial benefits. But while common wisdom holds that marriage makes our lives uniformly better, research shows that’s not always the case. A good relationship makes life better. People with close and loving romantic relationships report better mental and physical health, and have longer lives than those with strained or conflicted partnerships. But a bad marriage is worse for us than no marriage at all. A surprisingly high proportion of married people say that they would not marry their partner, if they had to make the decision over again. Other studies show that a sizable portion of married persons are lonely, meaning that their emotional needs are unfulfilled. Having a friend or family member as a confidante, or one person who you trust and can share your private thoughts with can provide many of the emotional benefits offered by a good marriage.
5. Being single has its rewards.
Being alone has its benefits. Sociologists have documented that a growing number of people are single by choice, and relish the opportunity to live as they please. Being alone gives people the autonomy to choose where to live, what to watch on TV, and what to eat for dinner. Being single often means we have fewer social obligations and can pursue hobbies and adventures that we can’t if we're married. Being single isn’t for everyone, but a growing number of adults stay single for longer than ever before, and use these years to pursue career goals and take risks that they might not have were they married. And people who stay single for life are often just as happy as peers who marry. They learn to arrange their lives so that they are surrounded by the friends, activities, and physical environments that enhance their daily happiness.