If you are single and have no children, is there any blueprint for how to live your adult life or do you just have to make it up as you go along? At least as far back as the 1950s, scholars have been describing the stages of adult life, on the assumption that everyone marries and has children. (I described one of those models here.) But they don’t.
How does your adult life unfold if you are single and have no kids? What are the stages or tasks of your life? In a previous post, I described sociologist Kay Trimberger’s 6 pillars for a satisfying single life. Here I’ll tell you about the stages of the single adult life, as described by clinical psychologists Natalie Schwartzberg, Kathy Berliner, and Demaris Jacob in their 1995 book, Single in a Married World.
First, I’ll just describe their model, in their own words. Then I’ll share some of my thoughts about it. I’m guessing you will have a few of your own.
Stages of the Single Adult Life Cycle
By Natalie Schwartzberg, Kathy Berliner, and Demaris Jacob
STAGE 1: NOT YET MARRIED
- Shifting the relationship with the family. Restructuring interaction with family from dependent to an independent orientation.
- Taking a more autonomous role with regard to the world outside the family in the areas of work and friendship.
STAGE 2: THE THIRTIES: ENTERING THE ‘TWILIGHT ZONE’ OF SINGLEHOOD
- Facing single status for the first time.
- Expanding life goals to include other possibilities in addition to marriage.
STAGE 3: MIDLIFE: FORTIES TO MID-FIFTIES
- Addressing the fantasy of the Ideal American Family
- Accepting the possibility of never marrying.
- Accepting the possibility of not having own biological children.
- Defining the meaning of work, current and future.
- Defining an authentic life for oneself that can be accomplished within single status.
- Establishing an adult role for oneself within family of origin.
STAGE 4: LATER LIFE: FIFTIES TO WHEN PHYSICAL HEALTH FAILS
- Consolidating decisions about work life.
- Enjoying the fruits of one’s labors and the benefits of singlehood.
- Acknowledging the future diminishment of physical ones. [Bella’s comment: I think they mean physical abilities.]
- Facing increasing disability and death of loved ones.
STAGE 5: ELDERLY (BETWEEN FAILING HEALTH AND DEATH)
- Confronting mortality.
- Accepting one’s life as it has been lived.
Some thoughts about this model
It was more than 20 years ago when the authors proposed their model, a time when even fewer scholars were paying attention to the lives of single people than there are now. (There still aren’t very many, especially compared to the hordes of people studying married couples.) I applaud them for taking singles seriously.
I think the authors are trying to construct a positive framework, but it is a framework that assumes that single people see their single lives as second best. The stages of their model do not make room for people who are “single at heart” and embrace their single lives.
For example, the name of the first stage, “not yet married,” implies that the single people will eventually marry, or at least that they aspire to do so. But not everyone does.
Stage 2 is described as the “twilight zone” of singlehood, which is not how single-at-heart people think about their single lives. Those people will not need to work on “expanding their life goals to include other possibilities in addition to marriage,” because marriage is not on their list, and other possibilities already are.
As for Stage 3, some single people never did buy into the “fantasy of the Ideal American Family.” They don’t have to talk themselves into “accepting the possibility of never marrying,” because that is a positive choice for them. Same, for some, with not having children. (Of course, single people can have biological children.) To say that a task of midlife is “defining an authentic life for oneself that can be accomplished within the single status” seems to assume that single life is constraining. Just the opposite can be true: Sometimes single people can pursue their passions and accomplish things they never would have done if they had married.
Designating one of the tasks of midlife as “establishing adult role for oneself within family of origin” is interesting. I think it recognizes that even if you, as a single person, are happy with your single life, that doesn’t mean that your family will understand that. If you are unlucky, they may still be putting you on the defensive for your life choices.
The authors have a good point when they suggest that in later life, singles enjoy the benefits of being single. People who are single at heart start enjoying their single lives much sooner. But my guess is that the authors are correct in suggesting that even reluctant single people come to enjoy the rewards of singlehood later in life.
In this model, as well as the Havighurst model based on the assumption that everyone marries and have children, the early and middle years of single life seem most challenging. That’s when other people are pairing off and raising children, and can leave singles without kids feeling like the odd persons out. Later on, though, their once-married friends and family members may be married no more. If they had kids, those kids are now grown. What’s more, some of the people who are divorced or widowed may find that single life is a difficult adjustment, whereas lifelong single people have already mastered their single lives.