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5 Surveys Asked Single People If They Want to Be Married. Here’s What They Said. (Part 1)

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.

Saying that you think marriage is not essential for a fulfilling life is not the same as saying you don’t want to marry. I’ve been interested in the question of how many unmarried people really do want to marry, and how many want to stay single, for a long time. According to the conventional wisdom, the answer is obvious – just about everyone wants to marry. But is that really true?

I’m going to address that question in two parts. This is the first. I’m going to describe the results of 5 surveys of adults in the U.S. who were not married. In 4 of them, participants were asked if they wanted to get married. In the other, they were asked if they were currently in a committed romantic relationship, and if not, whether they were looking for a romantic partner.

In Part 2, I will explain what I think all these results mean. I’ll show how you can use the results of these five studies to make the case that just about everyone wants to marry, or to make the exact opposite case, that people just aren’t that interested in marrying anymore. I’ll also explain why it is harder for people to acknowledge that they want to stay single than it is for them to just say that they want to get married.

How many unmarried Americans want to be married? How many want to be single? Here’s what you need to know about 5 surveys

#1 How many people want to be single: 2005 study

In 2005, the Pew Research Center asked 1,058 unmarried Americans (divorced, widowed, separated, or always-single, ages 18 up) whether (a) they were in a committed romantic relationship, and (b) whether they were currently looking for a romantic partner.

HIGHLIGHT: The biggest share of unmarried Americans, 55 percent, said that they were not in a committed romantic relationship and were not looking for a partner.

For women who were not married, the percentage who were not in a romantic relationship and not looking for one was even higher at 65 percent. For men, it was 42 percent.

Those results were averaged over adults of all ages. But even among the youngest adults, ages 18 to 29, almost the same share, 51 percent, said they were not in a romantic relationship and not looking for one.

Among the adults of all ages, 26 percent were in committed romantic relationships and 16 percent were not in committed relationships but were looking for a partner. That’s how many people see singles—as looking for a partner. But that’s the smallest group. And tellingly, even among these single people who say they are looking, they are not looking that hard. Thirty-six percent said they had been on zero dates in the past three months, and 13 percent said they were only on one date. That adds up to nearly half (49 percent) of singles who say they are looking who have been on either no dates or just one date in the past three months.

#2#3#4 How many people want to be single: 20102014, and 2017 studies

In 2010, 2014, and 2017, the Pew Research Center asked unmarried Americans (divorced, widowed, or always-single, ages 18 up) a question with three possible answers. The wording was slightly different in different years. For the most recent year, 2017: “Thinking about the future, would you say you… (a) want to get married someday, (b) don’t want to get married, or (c) are not sure if you want to get married.” For previously married participants, the question asked if they wanted to get remarried.

Participants in the 2010 study included 1,058 unmarried Americans. There were 2,003 participants in 2014, about half of whom were unmarried. In 2017, there were 2,061 unmarried participants.

In contrast to the 2005 study, the questions in these studies focused specifically on marriage. The question of whether the participants wanted to get married was not limited to what they wanted at the moment. They were asked to think about the future and indicate whether they wanted to get married.

Averages across all unmarried Americans (previously married and never married) were reported only for the 2010 study. Fewer than half, 46 percent, said that yes, they did want to marry. Another 25 percent said no, they did not want to marry. The other 29 percent said they were not sure.

In the 2010 study, unmarried Americans who were living with a romantic partner were most likely to say they wanted to marry, 64 percent. For people who had always been single but were not cohabiting, 58 percent said they wanted to marry. The people least interested, by far, in marrying were those who had already tried it, the people who were divorced or widowed; only 22 percent of them wanted to marry again. (As is typical, the previously married men were more likely to want to remarry, 32 percent vs. 16 percent for the women.)

Here are the results, in percentages, for the never-married and previously married (divorced and widowed). For each answer (e.g., “I want to get married someday”), the first number is for 2010, the second for 2014, and the last for 2017. So, for example, the share of never-married people who said they want to marry someday was 58 percent in 2010, 53 percent in 2014, and 58 percent in 2017.

20102014, and 2017

Never married

  • 58, 53, 58 percent, want to marry
  • 12, 13, 14 percent, don’t want to marry
  • 29, 32, 27 percent, are not sure

Previously married

  • 22, 21, 23 percent, want to remarry
  • 46, 45, 45 percent, don’t want to remarry
  • 32, 31, 30 percent, are not sure

HIGHLIGHT: Among people who have never been married, more than half (about 56%) want to try it. Among people who had been married but are now divorced or widowed, only a little more than one-fifth (about 22%) want to try it again.

#5 How many people want to be single: 2017 study of women

In 2017, Family Story (a nonprofit focused on today’s families), together with Lake Research Partners, surveyed a nationally-representative sample 1,058 unmarried and married women. Unlike the previous studies, this one looked separately at women who did and did not have children. The Family Story study also offered participants a greater variety of responses to the question about marriage, “I don’t think I want to be married, but I’m open to my feelings changing” and “I don’t feel the need to be legally married, but I have or would like to have a committed/long-term partner.” By including more options, the number of people saying they don’t know if they want to be married drops sharply.

Looking only at the women who do not have children, 39 percent say they want to be married. For women who are mothers, 51 percent would like to be married.

2017 (women)

Unmarried women with no children

  • 39 percent: would like to be married
  • 18 percent: don’t want to be married
  •   5 percent: are not sure
  • 18 percent: don’t think they want to be married, but open to feelings changing
  • 16 percent: want a committed partner, no need for legal marriage

Unmarried mothers

  • 51 percent: would like to be married
  • 10 percent: don’t want to be married
  •   3 percent: are not sure
  • 18 percent: don’t think they want to be married, but open to feelings changing
  • 17 percent: want a committed partner, no need for legal marriage

HIGHLIGHT: Among single women who do not have children, only 39% say unequivocally that they would like to be married. Among single mothers, just over half (51%) say the same.

Stay tuned for a future post (here it is) in which I explain what I think all this means. The short version: the answer to a question that sounds simple – how many single people want to be single? – is surprisingly complicated.

Photo by e³°°°

5 Surveys Asked Single People If They Want to Be Married. Here’s What They Said. (Part 1)


Bella DePaulo, Ph.D

Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard; Academic Affiliate, Psychological and Brain Sciences, UC Santa Barbara), an expert on single life, is the author of several books, including "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After" and "How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century." Her TEDx talk is "What no one ever told you about people who are single," https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lyZysfafOAs. Dr. DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been described in newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and magazines such as Time, Atlantic, the Week, More, the Nation, Business Week, AARP Magazine, and Newsweek. Dr. DePaulo is in her sixties. She has always been single and always will be. She is "single at heart" -- single is how she lives her best and most meaningful life. Visit her website at www.BellaDePaulo.com.


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APA Reference
DePaulo, B. (2019). 5 Surveys Asked Single People If They Want to Be Married. Here’s What They Said. (Part 1). Psych Central. Retrieved on August 23, 2019, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/single-at-heart/2019/05/5-surveys-asked-single-people-if-they-want-to-be-married-heres-what-they-said-part-1/

 

Last updated: 2 Jun 2019
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