Is there something you want – or don’t want – from life that goes against everything you’ve ever heard about what you should want? For example, are you a woman who wants to stay single? Who doesn’t want to have kids? Whose religious beliefs (or lack thereof) are unfathomable to the people you grew up with?
“I’ve lived in both worlds,” said a married mother, referring to the fact that she had been single before she got married. She and I and Professor Paul Dolan were guests on a Canadian radio show. We were discussing Dolan’s claims that single women with no kids are the happiest. (I considered whether that is true in a previous post here.) We also talked about singlism and matrimania.
Bashing single men has become quite the sport, but I’m not playing. In the many years that I have been studying single people, I have found much that is impressive about men who do not marry. One of their most admirable characteristics, I think, is their generosity.
For a few days, the media took a break from its relentless promotion of marriage and claimed something entirely different: the happiest people are not married with children, they are the single women who have no children.
I like to think of the 21st century as a time when more and more people are creating their own life paths rather than following the standard scripts for what to do and how to live. In a new book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, Columbia University Professor Saidiya Hartman makes the case that in the opening years of the 20th century, young black women who had left the south for cities in the north were doing much the same. Of course, they were doing so under tremendously more trying circumstances.
“There are some things in life you can never be prepared for. One of them is your daughter getting married.” That’s my paraphrase of a TV ad in which a man sits in his car and contemplates his daughter’s wedding. You know what that man really would not be prepared for? A daughter who had no interest in ever getting married.
In a 2018 survey of adults in the U.S., only 31% said they thought it was essential to marry in order to live a fulfilling life. The survey was conducted by a university and a newspaper with quite conservative leanings; they probably hoped for results that were very different.
Single people get judged much more harshly than married people do. My colleagues and I discovered this when we created pairs of brief biographical sketches that were identical in every way, except that in one of the sketches, the person was described as single and in the other, as married. The single person and the married person in each pair had the same name, the same age, the same hometown, the same hobbies – the same everything, except for marital status.
When you think about single people, what comes to mind? My colleagues and I asked nearly 1,000 college students that question (or a comparable question about married people). In response, they could have said anything at all; they could have described any traits, characteristics, or anything else that they associate with single people. What do you think they said?
The last time I participated in a panel discussion, a man in the audience was annoyed at me for saying positive things about single people. At one point, he stood up and said, “What about sex?” I tried not to be snide when in response, I said something like, “well, as it turns out, you don’t have to be married to have sex.”