Living Single: It Is How We Spend the Better Part of Our Adult Lives

What it means to be single

Posted Mar 21, 2008

Welcome to the Living Single blog! This is my first post, so let me tell you a bit about myself and what you can expect to find in this space.

I'm 54-years old and I've been living single my entire life. So I have quite a lot of experience in the practice of singlehood. Over the past decade or so, I've also become a scholar of the single life.

I started taking mental notes on what it means to be single long before I decided to approach the topic scientifically. Probably my most jarring life transition was going from graduate school, where just about all of my friends were single, to my first job as an Assistant Professor, in 1979, in a psychology department in which just about all of my colleagues were institutionalized (i.e., married) or acting as if they were.

Now, nearly three decades later, fewer single people will find themselves "singled out" in their work or social environments. Each new Census Bureau report points to a growing number of single people in the population. There are now about 92 million Americans, 18 or older, who are divorced, widowed, or have always been single. That's about 42% of the adult population. (Some estimates are even higher. A New York Times story set the blogosphere ablaze with its headline claiming that 51% of women are living without a spouse.)

There are now fewer households consisting of mom, dad, and the kids than of people living solo. And here's my favorite statistic: Americans now spend more years of their adult lives unmarried than married.

What it means to be single has changed dramatically over the decades, especially for women. In 1956, when the age at which Americans first married was as young as it has ever been, and when nearly everyone married at some point in their lives, there was a big bright line separating married life from single life. There were fewer job opportunities for women than there are now, and especially fewer with decent pay. The Food and Drug Administration had not yet approved the pill as a safe form of birth control. Women who had sex or children outside of marriage were stigmatized, and the children of single mothers were not fully protected under the law. In the mid-20th century, the reproductive science that we now take for granted could only be imagined.

Today, many women are no longer tethered to men for economic life support. They can, if they have the resources and the inclination, have sex without having children, and children without having sex. Marriage is not essential to any of it. Increasingly, contemporary singles are no longer waiting to find The One before buying homes, traveling the world, or pursuing their passions.

Our perceptions of people who are single, though, have not kept up with their rapidly changing place in society. Stereotypes persist. As I discovered in my own studies, and while researching my book, Singled Out, there are important ways in which singles are stigmatized and marginalized. For example, in many workplaces, they receive less compensation than their married co-workers for doing the same job. (This is especially true for single men.) Singles also have fewer legal benefits and protections than married people do.

As I was learning about the ways in which singles are targets of stereotyping and discrimination, I was also noticing headlines in the media proclaiming that getting married makes people happier and healthier. I thought there was an obvious story to be told: Getting married makes people happier and healthier in part because it means escaping the stigma of singlehood.

I decided to look closely at the studies behind the headlines, wondering whether there might be some interesting qualifications (for example, does getting married improve the health or happiness of some people more than others?). I was stunned at what I found. When I examined the data reported in the original journal articles, I discovered that the media claims about the benefits of getting married were grossly exaggerated or just plain wrong. (So were the reports of the benefits for children of having two married parents rather than a single parent.)

The first few times, I thought the studies I was finding were the exceptions. I figured that as I kept reading, I would find the research showing that getting married transforms miserable and sickly single people into blissful and healthy married couples. That has not happened. The media stories extolling marriage keep on coming, but it is a rare headline that is an accurate summary of what the relevant study really did show. (See, for example, the stories in the news yesterday about the links between marital status and blood pressure. I'll probably write more about that in a subsequent post.)

Once I realized that I was not the only happy single person, and that getting married does not typically result in remarkable or enduring improvements in happiness or health, I had to rethink what it means to live single in contemporary American society. The new, data-based version of the story that was taking shape in my mind was far more interesting than the one I envisioned from the headlines. In the new version, singles are stereotyped, stigmatized, and ignored, BUT they still live happily ever after! How can that be? What is enriching and fulfilling in the lives of people who are single? What do our negative cultural stereotypes miss about the real lives of single people? Those are some of the key questions I addressed in my book, Singled Out, and they will motivate some of what I write here.

A single person's view of the world can raise some interesting challenges to the conventional wisdom. Think back to the early days of the 2008 Presidential campaign, when each side had a long lineup of candidates. On the Republican end were Sam Brownback, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, Duncan Hunter, John McCain, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Tom Tancredo, Fred Thompson, and Tommy Thompson. The Democratic dance card featured Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Mike Gravel, Dennis Kucinich, Barack Obama, and Bill Richardson. A quick glance at all the Republicans standing together onstage, compared to the Democrats, suggested a stark difference that became the common knowledge: The Republicans were all white men of a certain age, and the Democrats were diverse.

When I looked at all the candidates on both sides, though, I thought there was an important way in which they were all the same: They were all married.

Does that matter, and if so, how? What, if anything, does it say about 21st century America?

Stay tuned. And let me know if there are particular questions or issues about Living Single that you would especially like me to address.