When the ring doesn't fit..
Explores the lives of women who have chosen to remain single.
Factors that influence unmarried women's decision to stay single;
Differences between unmarried men and women; Absence of a common pattern
among unmarried women; Disadvantages of being single. INSET: Celebrated
By Anastasia Toufexis published December 1, 1996 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
For many women, happiness isn't a prince and a wedding away. So
they'rejust saying no to nuptials.
Every January from the time she turned 20, Katherine Wallace[*] has
tried on bridal gowns. "The first few times, it was because I was a
bridesmaid at my sister's or friends' weddings and all of us got in the
spirit of imagining our own special day," says Wallace, a stockbroker in
San Francisco. "Then, in my late twenties I got engaged and went shopping
for real. I found the perfect dress but we called the wedding off when my
fiance and I discovered we really wanted different things. He'd
envisioned a quiet life out in the country and I'm a city gift born and
bred. After that, trying on bridal gowns became sort of an annual
ritual." But when January rolled around this year, Katherine broke with
tradition. Instead, she booked a flight to Australia and spent a couple
of weeks scuba diving off the Great Barrier Reef. "I turned 45 this year
and I realized that that walk down the aisle probably isn't going to
happen," Wallace says with a rich laugh. "But even more important, I
realize I don't need it to happen. I have a terrific life and I don't
have to be married to enjoy it."
Happily never married? The words just don't seem to belong
together. They're an oxymoron, like military music or honest politician.
Never-married women are supposed to be needy neurotics frantically
hunting down a spouse, lonely depressives who hole up with a clutch of
cats, or, a more recent image, icy workaholics who trade the cozy warmth
of husband and home for glitzy high-power careers. No matter how you look
at them, they're unloved, unwanted, unhealthy.
Take a closer look. After years of being dismissed and ignored, the
never married are coming into the spotlight. And much to everyone's
surprise, psychologists are discovering that "happily never married"
rings true as fine crystal. Unseen and unheralded, lifelong singles have
been staging a quiet revolution, bat-fling social prejudice, family
expectations, and their own apprehensions to set a new standard for what
it means to be a successful, fulfilled, and content woman.
To be sure, the majority of American adults still say "I do,"
though at an increasingly later age, but the ranks of the unmarried have
been growing. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1984 about 3
million women age 35 and older had never married. By 1994 the figure had
climbed to nearly 4.5 million. Some of these women are living with men in
what amount to common-law marriages and some are gay; exact statistics
aren't available. But the vast majority are women who have remained
single and on their own, many by choice.
WHO'S REMAINING RINGLESS?
Women no longer need to wed out of economic necessity With thriving
careers, even steady jobs, they can afford monthly mortgage and car
payments on their own. Nor is marriage a requirement for motherhood. The
days of being stigmatized for bearing a child out of wedlock are waning
and adoption has become a viable option for single women. Moreover, tying
the knot is no guarantee of happiness: 50 percent of marriages
Still, the idea persists that staying single is a personal issue,
or, more usually, a problem. "It's not considered a pragmatic choice but
a personal failing," observes psychologist Janice Witzel, Ph.D, who
teaches at the Family Institute, a counseling center at Northwestern
University in Evanston, Illinois, and who also practices privately at
Psychological Resources. "Women are still largely visible only through
matrimony: one is married or not."
"A woman has a much easier time if she can say she's been married
and divorced, even if the marriage only lasted as long as the ceremony,"
says Philadelphia psychologist Judith Sills, Ph.D., author of Biting the
Apple: Women Getting Wiser About Love. Being divorced seems to confer a
stamp of acceptance and normalcy. "Even if a woman's been divorced for
decades, people say, 'She hasn't remarried yet.' But if she's never
married, then there must be something wrong with her."
Even content lifelong singles admit to niggling doubts. "I was as
brainwashed as anyone," confesses Witzel, who confronted the issue a
decade ago when she was in her mid-forties and a graduate student. "I was
reading the literature on developmental psychology and realized that I
wasn't coming across adult lives developing as mine was, as a
never-married woman. I felt pretty satisfied with my life, but the
descriptions I found talked about deficiency." Her curiosity piqued,
Witzel decided to interview lifelong singles for her doctoral
dissertation, but not without some dread. "I kept thinking: Was I really
unhappy and didn't know it? Or was I denying it?"
For her interviews, Witzel purposely sought out seemingly
well-adjusted women who were highly regarded by their peers. "But I was
secretly thinking there must be something wrong with them," she says.
With the aid of friends and colleagues, Witzel gathered 25 women, ages 36
to 83, who were white, heterosexual, had no children, and lived alone. "I
expected that once I began digging, their happiness would prove pretty
shallow," she recalls. "And I assumed that our conversations would show
they were focused on strategies for achieving emotional intimacy and
would include questions like 'Where do you go to meet men?'"
Witzel quickly discovered she was wrong. "I did one interview No
misery. Then another. Same thing. These women were happy, with satisfying
life work and strong attachments to their families, friends, and
That's not to say that unwed women lead blissful, perfect lives,
that they've found nirvana. Just like other women--married, divorced, or
widowed--they have their share of troubles and worries: how to handle
loneliness and the lack of sex and children seem to be the top three. But
they're not, as common perception has it, necessarily emotional or
"Unmarried women are as normal as any other group of women,"
declares family therapist Carol Anderson, Ph.D., who with colleagues
Susan Stewart, Ph.D., and Sona Dimidjian, M.S.W., canvassed nearly 50
never-marrieds for their book Flying Solo: Single Women in Midlife. "In
fact," she adds, "single men show much more pathology than do single
women. Men generally do better--physically, mentally, career-wise--when
they're married, while for women, the opposite seems to hold true.
Surveys indicate that women tend to live longer, are happier, and
accomplish more professionally when they are single."
Women who stay single are apt to be among the most intelligent and
highly educated, and to have reached the top levels of achievement.
"That's the exact opposite of never-married men, who tend to be drawn
from the bottom of the socioeconomic heap," says Witzel.
WHY WOMEN ARE SINGLE-MINDED
The fact that men have traditionally married down and women up
probably hurts successful career women's chances of finding husbands,
Witzel notes. "There are simply fewer candidates for women at the top."
Age may also be a factor. "Men my age are not interested in women my
age," says Shelley Miller[*], 41, a commercial artist in Chicago.
"They're busy bedding 20-year-olds. And I'm not interested in sleeping
with 20-year-old toy boys." But that alone does not explain why so many
women are staying single. In fact, there doesn't appear to be any single
reason for women not tying the knot. Do they fear commitment? Shun
intimacy? Are they choosing something over love--a career, independence,
It's as much a mystery to the unmarried women. "I really don't know
why I'm single," says Miller. "My parents are still married but all the
other couples in the neighborhood got divorced. They all married at 20
and lived in suburbia with the kids and the dog. Then when the sexual
revolution arrived the husbands said, 'By, honey, I'm joining up.' I
myself have had several long-term live-in relationships. One was with a
guy in college. I could have married him when I was 21. But it would have
been a cushy, boring life and I knew in my heart that that wasn't what I
wanted. The truth is I never really thought about marriage. My Barbie
doll never went tripping down the aisle; it just wasn't one of my
On the other hand, Martha Kossoff, a 44-year-old college
administrator who lives in northern Virginia, grew up expecting that
she'd get married at some point. Yet she says, "I was never particularly
interested in cleaning house or cooking, and childbirth never appealed to
me. Maybe on an unconscious level I don't really want to get
No common pattern emerges among the never married. They are as
likely to have nurturing, supportive parents as abusive, destructive
ones; to come from privileged homes as dirt-poor surroundings; to have
had positive examples, such as a spinster aunt who was a Wall Street
whiz, as negative ones, such as a mother who traded in dreams of becoming
a writer to care for her husband and kids.
Most women find themselves on the path to never married by
accident, not design. "Almost all are surprised by the fact that they're
not married," notes Anderson, a professor of psychiatry at the University
of Pittsburgh Medical School. "It's not something they dreamed of." Since
living solo is not something they aspire to, they don't have or look for
role models. If they did, they'd find that many celebrated women, past
and present, are never-marrieds. Anderson, now 56, thought she herself
would wed. "From age 13, I always had a steady boyfriend. But none of
them seemed quite right. Having men in my life is important to me. Life
becomes a little brighter with them."
Contrary to the myths, lifelong single women are not man haters or
fearful of sex, though for many, liaisons with men may, regretfully, be
few and far between. In the interim, women make do with masturbating or
they simply do without. Still, many never-marrieds enjoy their fair share
of affairs; some even maintain live-in relationships. Indeed, almost all
of the women interviewed by therapists have had at least one--and often
several--opportunities to marry but chose not to, fearing the loss of
their independence and even their identity. "They like it when they're in
love but are unwilling to be in a mediocre relationship or compromise too
much just to be in a relationship," explains Anderson. "One unmarried
woman said she saw too many 'Cheshire cat' women. When they're in
relationships they tend to disappear around the edges until all that's
left is their smile."
"What I value is the freedom to do what you want when you want,"
says Kossoff. "I like to control my own life. I'd only get married if I
was treated as an equal." The prospects may not be high, but she, like
many never-married women, isn't ready to rule out marriage.
"Never-marrieds just think of it like winning the lottery," Anderson
observes. "It's a windfall that can make a good life better but they can
live happily without it."
THE DOWNSIDE OF SAYING No
Single women express more regret about not having children than
about not being married. Almost all go through some kind of struggle,
usually beginning in their thirties as parental pressure to settle down
and produce grandchildren increases. Some bear it stoically, others begin
to distance themselves from their families, seeing them less frequently
But the acute crisis hits around age 40 when they hear their biological
clocks running down. "It's the equivalent of runners hitting the wall,"
explains Anderson. "Women wonder 'What's wrong with me?' Sometimes they
struggle with it for a few years." Some who feel the need for children
decide to have them on their own or adopt. At age 48, Anderson adopted a
seven-year-old girl from Chile. Others nurture nieces and nephews or the
offspring of friends. Still more mentor junior colleagues or become
active in community youth programs.
Grappling with the issue of not having children is just one crucial
task facing women without spouses. Building an emotional support group is
another, says therapist Kathy Berliner, M.S.W., who together with
colleagues Natalie Schwartzberg, M.S.W., and Demaris Jacob, Ph.D.,
studied the lives of 50 never married women as part of the Clinical
Project on Singlehood at the Family Institute of Westchester, in New
York. "Women need to create a substitute family or have a broad range of
people to celebrate and commiserate with so that they don't feel bereft
or like an orphan," stresses Berliner, whose group's findings were
published last year in Single in a Married World: A Life Cycle Framework
for Working with the Unmarried Adult.
"I do worry about being alone in my old age," admits Kossoff, even
though "I've always been busy with lots of friends and activities, like
singing in choral groups, and going to art exhibits and movies. I
volunteer for public television and I'm an active member of my church and
work with a mission group that tries to find housing for the elderly
indigent." Women get high marks for making and sustaining emotional
connections. Unmarried men, in contrast, find the task agonizingly
difficult, as men generally rely on wives to do the social
But unwed women fall down badly when it comes to another crucial
task: planning their finances. Few think to sock away money for
retirement. Even if unmarried women have given up on the idea of hubby
and kids, they still are likely to cling--albeit subconsciously--to the
notion that miraculously they'll be taken care of. "Never-married women
eventually have to come to terms with not having the grander lifestyle
they may once have envisioned--the big house, the sporty little car, the
exotic vacations," says Sills. "Women still don't earn what men do and if
they haven't put money away, they can find themselves watching their
If they've done all the basic groundwork, though, never-married
women find themselves growing happier with the years. They've made their
peace with themselves. By age 50 or so, many experience a blossoming
freedom. Their lives stretch out ahead, rich in possibilities and
opportunities, for another 30 years or so. Happily ever after. Happily
* Names have been changed.
PHOTO (COLOR): Women who stay single are apt to be among the most
intelligent and highly educated, and to have reached the top levels of
achievement--the exact opposite of never-minded men.
PHOTO (COLOR): "I could have married a guy when I was 21," says
41-year-old commercial artist. "But it would have been a cushy, boring
life and I knew in my heart that wasn't what I wanted."
PHOTO (COLOR): "I've seen too many 'Cheshire cat' women," says one
unmarried woman." When they're in relationships they tend to disappear
around the edges until all that's left is their smile."
Anastasia Toufexis, a former editor at Time magazine, is currently
at work on her first book.
CELEBRATED AND SINGLE-MINDED
Nowadays, them are many well-known women who have decided--so
far--that they're not the marrying kind. Here are some of their thoughts
about not being brides.
"People ask me about it all the time. I say, Ralph Nader never
married and he's my age . Do you ask him the same question?"
-- Gloria Steinem, feminist icon
"My mother fell gravely ill when I was 15. My father was a doctor,
and I thought he'd care for her and cure her. Not only did he do nothing,
he never offered a word of sympathy. I resolved never to say yes to any
man who proposed marriage."
-- Jacqueline Bisset, actor
"I believe it's a fine idea. but I don't know if it's going to
happen to me, or if I'll participate enough in some situation that will
make it happen."
-- Diane Keaton, actor
"I didn't do strategic planning. But I must have seen [my choices]
as marriage and family or write these plays. And it was more important to
me to write the plays."
-- Wendy Wasserstein, playwright.
"I talked it over with Stedman [her fiance] and I said, 'This
scares me. Are you going to change your expectations of me? Are, you
going to start wanting me to come home and cook dinner, because I'm
telling you I don't think I can.'"