“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 popular culture, single people are often depicted as desperately seeking coupledom, if they are not already coupled and contemplating marriage. Sadly, many scholarly writings seem to be built on the same assumption that just about all unmarried people want to be married.
How accurate is that belief?
One way to look at this is simply to count the number of people who are not married. In 2016, 110.6 million Americans were unmarried (divorced or widowed or never married). That’s 45.2 percent of all adults 18 and older. It was a record high.
But that doesn’t tell us how many of the 110.6 million unmarried Americans want to be single, and how many wish they were married.
That should be an easy question to answer. I’m going to argue that it isn’t. I’ll suggest, using findings from five studies I described previously, that the data can be used to support the case that just about everyone wants to get married—or the opposite case, that people just aren’t all that interested in marrying anymore.
Then I’ll argue that, in our current matrimaniacal culture, it is almost impossible to get an accurate answer to the question of how many people want to be single. But cultural revolutions do happen. One, in particular, may provide a template for how attitudes toward single people and single life might change.
How many unmarried Americans want to be married? It depends on who you ask and how you ask.
I’ve studied results from five national surveys. (Details are in my previous post on this topic.) Typically, participants are asked some version of “Do you want to marry?” The highest percentage of people saying yes to that question that I’ve found, for any of the subgroups of unmarried Americans for any of the four surveys, was 64 percent; that was for people who were cohabiting with a romantic partner.
Americans are much less likely to say they want to marry if they tried it before. Just over one-fifth of previously married adults say they want to marry, compared to over half of never-married adults. Men are more likely than women to say they want to remarry. Among unmarried women (never married and previously married), mothers are more interested in marrying than women who have no children.
If the only answers participants are allowed to give are yes (“I want to marry”), no (“I don’t want to marry”), or “I’m not sure,” close to one-third will say they aren’t sure. Give people more alternatives (“I don’t think I want to be married, but I’m open to my feelings changing” or “I don’t feel the need to be legally married, but I have or would like to have a committed/long-term partner”), and far fewer will choose the noncommittal “not sure.”
What do these numbers really mean? Do most people still want to get married or not?
An article in the Deseret News described the remarkable increase in the number of unmarried Americans over the past half-century, then added: “What hasn’t changed dramatically, though, is that most adults who have never been married still aspire to it.”
Is that true?
Making the case that just about everyone still wants to get married
Suppose you want to make the strongest case possible that lots of people still want to get married. You could focus on never-married adults: between 53 and 58 percent of them say they want to marry. Or zero in on those who are cohabiting—then you can get up to 64 percent.
That big category of people who say they are not sure whether they want to marry offers lots of room to make whatever case you want to make. If you want to say that just about everyone wants to marry, then continue to focus only on those people who have never been married, and include those who say they are not sure they want to marry in with those who say they do want to marry. Now you have between 85 and 87 percent of people saying they want to marry or they are not sure.
It is possible to make the case for marital aspirations even more powerfully. Continue to stick with just those people who have never been married. Set a very narrow criterion for who counts as not interested in marriage—only those people who choose the answer, “I don’t want to marry.” Don’t include anyone who says they are not sure. Now the number of people who do not want to marry (among those who have never been married) is only between 12 and 14 percent.
Want to get that number even lower? Look at the study of unmarried women who are or are not mothers (study #5). Focus on the unmarried mothers. Look only at those who choose the answer, “I don’t want to be married.” Do not include anyone who says they are unsure, or who hedges by saying they don’t want to be married now, but may want to in the future. Also, exclude anyone who wants a committed partner but doesn’t care about marriage. The share of unmarried mothers who say, “I don’t want to be married,” is just 10 percent.
Making the case that people just aren’t all that interested in marrying anymore
Suppose you want to make the opposite case, that people just aren’t all that interested in marrying anymore. I’ve got the group for you! Focus on the people who already tried marriage—people who are divorced and widowed. Look only at those who say, “I want to remarry.” Don’t include anyone who hedges by saying they are not sure. Now you’ve got a totally underwhelming share: somewhere between 21 percent and 23 percent of people who were previously married say they want to remarry. (See studies 2, 3, and 4.)
Maybe we shouldn’t be so focused on marriage. Some people want a committed romantic relationship, but they don’t care about making it official by marrying. What if we look at all unmarried Americans, and ask them these questions: Are you in a committed romantic relationship? If not, are you currently looking for a romantic partner?
A study that took that approach (#1) found that 26 percent of unmarried Americans said they were already in a committed romantic relationship. Another 16 percent said they weren’t but wanted to be. Those are the two groups that dominate popular culture and many scholarly writings about single people, yet they were the two smallest groups.
The biggest group by far, 55 percent, said they were not in a committed romantic relationship and they weren’t looking for one. That’s for all adults, 18 and older. But even if you look only at the youngest adults, ages 18 to 29, that number drops only a few percentage points: 51 percent of them are not in a committed romantic relationship and not looking for one.
Let’s go back to those 16 percent who get all the attention in movies, TV shows, and magazines—the single people who are not in a romantic relationship but say they want to be. In the study of real single people, they said they were looking for a partner, but they weren’t acting all that desperate. Thirty-six percent said they had not been on any dates at all in the past three months. Another 13 percent had only been on one date. So of the paltry 16 percent of unmarried Americans who say they are not partnered but they are looking for a partner, about half of them had either no dates or just one date in the past three months.
The key question no one asks: “Do you want to be single?”
I started researching this article because I wanted to know the answer to the question, “How many Americans want to be single?” I’ve wanted to know that for a long time, so I’ve been collecting relevant studies for years. But I still haven’t found any national surveys that asked people directly, “Do you want to be single?” Instead, all the questions are about marriage or romantic relationships.
Why is that? I suspect that, for far too many people, it is unfathomable that anyone would actually want to be single. Or maybe they could imagine wanting to be single as a defensive choice—for example, protecting yourself after an awful relationship experience. But embracing single life in a fully positive, joyful, non-defensive, unapologetic way? We don’t have much of a script for that.
Our dominant worldview just does not allow for this possibility. Parents don’t look at their children and wonder which of them will want to live single and which will want to marry. Grown-ups don’t look around them and appreciate that some of their single friends are single because they want to be, and some of their married friends wish they were single. Movies and TV shows and magazines and novels and children’s books rarely treat us to stories of single people who choose to be single and live full, complex, rewarding, and meaningful lives. Instead, all we get all the time is matrimania, the over-the-top hyping of marriage and weddings and couples.
It’s worse than that. There are substantial penalties for living single, in the form of the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination that I call singlism. It costs more to be single, financially, emotionally, and interpersonally. That’s not because single life is a worse life. It is because the laws and practices of the land favor people who are married, often with substantial economic benefits. Cultural values and norms favor spouses and committed romantic partners and marginalize all the others who may be important to single people, such as close friends, relatives, and mentors.
What if things were different? What if single people were just as respected and celebrated and supported (both financially and emotionally) as married people? What if choosing to live single was just as plausible a life path as choosing to be coupled or married?
Until single and married people are on more comparable footing, and until living single enters our cultural consciousness as a choice that is self-evidently plausible and positive, we can never really know how many people want to be single.
I think what is happening now is that many people never even consider the possibility that single life is the best life for them, because, in our cultural conversations, hardly anyone ever considers that. It is not an option.
That’s why it is important to pay attention to what people actually do, and how they feel about what they do, rather than just asking them if they want to be single or want to get married. (That’s what I do in trying to figure out who is “single at heart”—who lives their best, most meaningful life as a single person.) Think again about that study of single people who said that they were looking for a romantic partner—but half of them had been on no dates or just one date in the past three months! They know they are supposed to be looking, and they say that they are, but really, they’re not.
I think it is possible that we are on the cusp of a big social change. Only when we get to the other side of it will we know, with more certainty, how many Americans want to be single.
If I’m right about this, it would not be the first time a major shift in American values and norms fundamentally altered the way we think about a class of people.
Women and Careers: A Template for a Revolution in Consciousness about Single People?
What do you think is the answer to this question: Are the women of Vassar College interested in careers or independent achievements or pursuits, or are they, overwhelmingly, only interested in marriage and children?
The question seems preposterous. Maybe even insulting.
But there was a time when the answer would have been just the opposite of what it is now, and it would have seemed obvious.
Here’s what Selby Fleming McPhee wrote in the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of the Vassar Quarterly:
“Shortly before the members of the class of 1965 arrived for our freshman year, the Mellon Foundation published the final report of a 10-year study of Vassar students that…found that Vassar students were overwhelmingly interested in one thing—getting married and having families, and had, according to the research, little interest in independent achievement outside the definition of wife and mother. Psychologist Nevitt Sanford reports in his 1962 book The American College that ‘Vassar girls, by and large, do not expect to achieve fame, make an enduring contribution…or otherwise create ripples in the placid order of things.’”
Then the 1960s happened, with the movements for women’s rights, civil rights, and all the other cultural revolutions. The rest was history.
It can happen again.