The Never Married: A New Normal
... and the case for never saying "I do."
Posted May 27, 2023 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
- The marriage rate declined significantly between 1990 and 2021.
- Young adults are taking more time to marry, and cohabitation has become a popular alternative to marriage.
- People may also not want to marry if they have previously felt intensely controlled by others.
Fry and Parker (2021) of the Pew Research Center reported that in 2021, 38 percent of adults were found to be unpartnered, as compared to 29 percent in 1990—statistics driven predominately by a decline in marriage. Indeed, over the past 50 years, the marriage rate has dropped by approximately 60 percent (Pandey, 2023). In 2021, 47.35 million men were never married, as compared to 41.81 million women (Duffin, 2022). And according to data from the Institute for Family Studies, in the last two decades, the number of never-married individuals has risen from 21 percent to 35 percent—a 14 percentage point increase (Wang, 2020).
The Causes of Never Marrying
The reasons for the changes in marital status are many according to Wang (2020):
- Young adults are taking more time to marry; the median age for first-time marriages is 28 for women and 30 for men. In 1970 both men and women married in their early 20s.
- Cohabitation has become a popular alternative; living together is a less complicated relationship model that comes with an easy escape hatch (compared with marriage) if the relationship fails.
- Lower-income individuals are now less likely to marry; starting a family is an expensive proposition and many Americans feel that it would be far too stressful to marry or start a family without financial security.
- Women prefer a man who is financially stable; when unemployment rates rise, the number of eligible men shrinks.
Several emotionally driven factors can also explain why people never marry. But the one all-encompassing reason that I see in my clinical practice is the need for control. Viorst (1998) defined control as: “The capacity to manage, dominate, exercise power over, influence, curb, suppress, or restrain” (P. 9). The never-married individuals that I have treated all seem to share stories about being controlled in a way that has left them adamant about never committing to anyone. And like most concepts, this behavior ranges on a continuum from never having a relationship with someone even if short-lived, to never marrying.
The Origin of Control
Most individuals who crave control report having experienced at least one very controlling or dominating parent; the kind of parent who has a “my way or the highway” approach. The intrusive, overbearing, infantilizing, or micromanaging parent may also be a causal factor. Other never marrieds have reported incompetent parents who have repeatedly produced chaos such as out-of-control spending leading to bankruptcy and loss. Parents with addictive behaviors are often out-of-control, frequently passing the anxiety-producing chaos onto their children.
Others who never married may have been controlled “outside” their family of origin. For example, one woman was raped at a fraternity party and swore that she would never allow herself to get close enough to anybody again. Another man’s girlfriend left him at the altar and he made a promise to himself that he would never be that vulnerable again.
A Case to Never Marry
Many of the never married that I have treated are doing just fine, regardless of where they are on the continuum. If they have friends and family and are not in a chronic state of loneliness, I see no reason to assume pathology. We would all like as much control over our world as possible. Some just happen to be more willing to go after it than others. Many of the never married that I have seen are “free.” Nobody tells them what to do (other than a boss), and they rarely experience the feeling of being “trapped.” They buy what they want whenever they want and take up hobbies when it pleases them. They also tend to hang out with like-minded individuals (never married or single people) who they can enjoy life with.
Do they at times get lonely? Yes. But not enough to take the chance of marrying. If they have sufficient resources, and most of the ones I see are financially independent, they are relatively content. In fact, most never-married individuals come to see me for help dealing with parents or family members who insist that they live a more conventional lifestyle, not because they are unhappy with their choice of marital status; a lot of married people cannot say the same.
Facebook image: Asier Romero/Shutterstock
Duffin, E. (2022). Marital status of the U.S. population 2021, by sex. Statista. Retrieved fromhttps://www.statista.com/statistics/242030/marital-status-of-the-us-pop…
Fry, R., & Parker, K. (2021). Rising share of U.S. adults are living without a spouse or partner. Pew Research Center.
Pandey, E. (2023). America, the single. AXIOS.
Viorst, J. (1998). Imperfect control. Free Press.
Wang, W. (2020). The share of never-married Americans has reached a new high. Institute for Family Studies.