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 and single-minded.

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 unravel.

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 community."

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 psychological cripples.

"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, themselves?

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 fantasies."

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 married."

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 networking.

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 pennies."

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 never married.

* 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 [62]. 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.'"