No to Marriage: Not a Good Deal, or not Even on the Table?

The reason for living single that CNN just can't imagine

Posted Oct 19, 2014

It is a question that has puzzled people who think in conventional ways for a very long time. Why are some people single? Of course, you know all the conventional answers. There are many of them but they are all variations of the same thing – there's something wrong somewhere with those poor, pitiful single people. Now let's put our matrimaniacal heads together and figure out what it is.

That narrative can no longer dominate. There are well over 100 million Americans, 18 and older, who are single. That's getting close to the 50 percent mark. (That mark has been passed, if you start counting at 16, which is not my preference.) When more than 100 million people check the not-married box, it is no longer credible to insist that they are all flawed people with baggage whom no one could possibly love.

And so, little by little, the tone of these "why are all these people single" stories is starting to change. Reporters and "experts" begin to toy with the idea that there is some element of choice to being single. The experts who get to write these stories for publications other than their own blogs are, so far as I know, never experts on single life. They are people whose area of expertise has been marriage or romantic relationships. So the kinds of choices they can imagine single people making are a bit limited. But choice is now part of the equation, so that's a good thing.

A good example is a recent story by Pepper Schwartz posted on CNN.com, "Why more women choose not to marry." Following the conventional script, she focuses on women. Sadly, that's long been the case, both in popular writings and in academia, for reasons I've discussed previously.

I'll share a few highlights without comment, so you can start generating your own critique of the article, then I'll tell you what I think at the end.

In discussing what she calls "the rise of the voluntarily single woman" (I won't even wait to say that I liked that part, except for excluding men), Schwartz says that "… women now have choices that allow them to customize the arc of their lives and some of them find that it is best for them to put marriage aside."

She thinks that women can choose to be single "without penalty or stigma." Continuing, she says, "Since few people 'have it all,' why not choose being single if that's the best option?"

Most telling, perhaps, is the way she frames her 6 answers to the question of why so many women are single: "What it comes down to is people get married when it's a good deal. The question is why isn't marriage a good deal anymore?"

Here's the short version of her 6 answers:

  1. A useless husband.
  2. Success changes everything. Specifically, "This kind of woman may wake up every day to new and exciting challenges and think, 'best to wait.'"
  3. Unwilling to make traditional compromises.
  4. The marriage penalty tax. (This claim about a "marriage penalty tax" is misleading and incomplete; see, for example, this overview of a law review article written by someone who actually advised about the law for the Department of the Treasury.)
  5. Avoiding cheating men.
  6. Waiting for the "one." About those people who keep waiting, she says, "Singlehood, never intentional, becomes a fact."

So, longtime Living Single readers and other thinkers enlightened enough to break out of the box of conventional thinking: What's missing from that list?

By CNN's accounting, there is no person who straight-up chooses to be single. There is no such thing as "single at heart." Consider again Schwartz's lead-in to her 6 reasons: "What it comes down to is people get married when it's a good deal. The question is why isn't marriage a good deal anymore?" By that way of thinking, everyone wants to get married. What's new is that they don't just do it no-matter-what anymore, they only get married when it's "a good deal."

People who are truly, deeply single at heart do not care what kind of a "deal" marriage offers. They are not interested in marrying. They live their fullest, most authentic, most rewarding lives as single people. They are not looking up articles on the places with the best ratio of marriageable men. They are not waiting for "the one." They may or may not be enjoying the "economic and professional opportunities" Schwartz ascribes to the women she calls "highly successful;" they may envision "success" in other ways. Unlike Schwartz's version of the "successful" single woman who is telling herself that it is "best to wait," single-at-heart people are not "waiting" for anything or anyone; they already have the life they want, and they are living it joyfully and unapologetically.

To many people who choose to live single, they are not doing so because they are putting "marriage aside" or because marriage "does not offer a good deal anymore." Marriage was never on the table.

They are also not choosing to be single "since few people 'have it all'" anyway. Their definition of "having it all" is not the tired old one that CNN is dragging out. They are defining their own version of the good life. They want the best of single life.

I do think Schwartz is getting close to realizing that some people actually want to be single, and not because they considered the marriage "deal" and found it wanting. She tees up her final words by reassuring her readers that "most women still want marriage," but then, finally, concedes that "women want to craft a life instead of having it pressed upon them."

I do, though, wish that CNN and other publications pondering questions like why there are so many single people would invite experts who are, you know, actually experts on single life. There are more and more of them all the time. (Consider, for example, the many experts who contributed to the Singlism book, or the people who contributed to the Get-a-CLUE blogfests.) If they had, they would not state that people can now choose to be single without penalty or stigma. Sure, the stigma is not as bad as it once was, but there are still more than 1,000 federal laws that benefit or protect only those people who are legally married. And that's just the legal stuff; there are social, cultural, and interpersonal penalties, too, as well as biases in the workplace, our universities, our places of worship, in advertising, in politics, in the media, and in everyday life.

When it really is true that people can choose to be single "without penalty or stigma," then there will be just as many "gee, why do so many people choose to be married" articles as there are "why are you single" ones.

[Notes. (1) Thanks to Madeleine Reber, Brian, and my older brother for the heads-up about the CNN article. And, I'll add a few reminders, with apologies to readers who already know these things. (2) You can find collections of links to all my myth-busting articles here; they include, for example, data-based explanations of why it is not true that getting married makes you lastingly happier, healthier, more connected, etc. (3) Check out The Best of Single Life.]