When people who have been single all their lives get to their later years, some are leading happy lives with no big regrets and others are much less contented with how their lives have unfolded. What predicts who will end up joyful about their lives lived single, even in old age, and who ends up regretful?
The two main approaches to answering such questions are (1) studies based on large numbers of participants, sometimes representative national samples, who answer brief survey questions; and (2) studies based on small numbers of people (not representative samples), who are usually interviewed in person and in depth.
In a study based on the latter approach, Irish men and women who had been single for life were interviewed in 2012, when they were between 65 and 86 years old. The 26 participants included singles who were middle class and working class, urban and rural. None had ever cohabited.
For the cohort in question, to be a young and single in Ireland had been challenging. As authors Virpi Timonen and Martha Doyle noted, “As young adults in the late 1950s, 1960s and in the 1970s, all participants had been socialized in a patriarchal society in which divorce and contraception were prohibited, and non-marital co-habitation and sexual relations were taboo.”
In wide-ranging interviews, the many topics participants discussed included their backgrounds, work life, social life, family life, and their thoughts about living single from early adulthood up to the present. One factor was clearly the most significant in predicting whether they were, as 65+ year-olds, happy with their lifelong singlehood: whether they had chosen to be single.
Single by Constraint: Lifelong singles who did not choose to stay single
Two main structural constraints stood in the way of marriage for singles who did not choose to stay single for life. First, some had cared extensively and intensively for other family members who needed a great deal of help. Sometimes they cared for one needy person after another, and never did have a chance to pursue their own social lives. The second constraint came from demanding employment, usually working-class jobs with long hours.
When those who were single-by-constraint did pursue romantic relationships, they did not find satisfactory partners. The authors noted that Irish husbands and wives were often expected to adhere to strict gender roles, and single women who were resistant to such roles may have had an especially difficult time finding an egalitarian mate.
Reflecting on their current lives as seniors, those who were single by constraint (14 of the 26 participants) were likely to express regrets about their single status. Some were currently seeking romantic relationships. For working-class men, the economic barriers were not as formidable as they had been in their early adult years. As seniors, they had a state pension and subsidized housing.
Working-class women felt differently. Their regrets were more about not having daughters to care for them. They were not looking to marry.
Single by Choice: Lifelong single people who chose to live single
The single men and women who chose to be single said that they wanted to be single as young adults and they still wanted to be single now. The authors described them as “freedom-focused.” They wanted to make their own choices about how to live, what they would and would not spend money on, how often to socialize, and with whom. They valued autonomy and often viewed married life as constraining.
Single people in Ireland who chose to be single often had the same experiences as the constrained singles in providing extensive care to relatives who needed help. But they did not view that caring as constraining. They said they chose to reciprocate the love and attention they had received as children.
The people who were single by choice told the interviewers that they enjoyed their own company, and appreciated the opportunity to pursue interests such as writing.
As one of the single-by-choice women said:
“I’m very glad I never married, yes, because I think I’ve had a chance to do much more….[Her married sister has the companionship of her husband, but…] you can’t have too much bloody companionship, I’d like more peace on my own…my money I can fiddle around and nobody telling me I can’t buy new curtains…so the independence…is priceless, in fact I can’t see any advantage to being married.”
In the conclusion of their paper, the authors underscore a point that they seem to realize is not obvious to many of their fellow academic colleagues, even though it should be:
“It is important to highlight the fact that singlehood was a conscious choice for many older people in their youth, and continues to be their unequivocal preference in later life.”
[For more about lifelong single people, including previous posts at this “Single at Heart” blog, click here.]