When Susan graduated from college with a degree in accounting, she took a job at a consulting firm. For the first several years in her job, she spent more time traveling than she did at home. During this time, she had a series of love relationships, but none resulted in commitment even though she had marriage as a goal. By the time she was in her mid-30s, Susan had decided that she no longer wanted to get married. “I’m now a partner in my firm, I enjoy traveling, and I’m pretty flexible in terms of moving if something better comes along,” she stated to her friend Michele. “But I do miss being with someone to share my day or to just hang around with.” During early adulthood, most men and women are single, like Susan, defined as not living with an intimate partner. Estimates are that approximately 80% of men and 70% of women between ages 20 and 24 are unmarried, with increasing numbers deciding to stay that way (U. S. Census Bureau, 2008a).
What’s it like to be single in the United States? It’s tougher than you might think. DePaulo (2006) points out numerous stereotypes and biases against single people. Her research found that young adults characterized married people as caring, kind, and giving about 50% of the time compared with only 2% for single people. And single people also receive less compensation at work than married people do, even when age and experience are equivalent. She also found that rental agents preferred married couples 60% of the time (Morris, Sinclair, & DePaulo, 2007).
Many women and men remain single as young adults to focus on establishing their careers rather than marriage or relationships, which most do later. Others report that they simply have not met “the right person” or prefer singlehood (Lamanna & Riedmann, 2003). However, the pressure to marry is especially strong for women; frequent questions such as “Any good prospects yet?” may leave women feeling conspicuous or left out as many of their friends marry. Research indicates that single women have unresolved or unrecognized ambivalences about being single (Lewis & Moon, 1997). Such feelings result from being aware of the advantages and disadvantages of being single and ambivalence about the reasons they are single.
Men tend to remain single longer in young adulthood because they tend to marry at a later age than women (U. S. Census Bureau, 2008a). Fewer men than women remain unmarried throughout adulthood, largely because men find partners more easily as they select from a larger age range of unmarried women. Because men also tend to “marry down” in social status, women with higher levels of education are overrepresented among unmarried adults compared with men with similar levels of education.
Ethnic differences in singlehood reflect both differences in age at marriage and social factors. For example, nearly twice as many African Americans are single during young adulthood as European Americans, and more are choosing to stay that way (U. S. Census Bureau, 2008a). The most important reasons for this are the shortage of marriageable African American men and poor economic opportunities (Benokraitis, 2008). Professional African
American women show no significant differences from partnered African American women in wellbeing (Williams, 2006). Singlehood is also increasing among Latinos, in part because the average age of Latinos in the United States is lower than other ethnic groups, and in part due to poor economic opportunities for many Latinos (Lamanna & Riedmann, 2003). However, Latino men expect to marry (even if they do not) because it indicates achievement.
An important distinction is between adults who are temporarily single (i. e., those who are single only until they find a suitable marriage partner) and those who choose to remain single. Results from an in-depth interview study with never-married women in their 30s revealed three distinct groups: some suffer with acute distress about being single and long to be married with children; others describe experiencing the emotional continuum of desiring to be married and desiring to remain single; and others say that they are quite happy with a healthy self-image and high quality of life (Cole,
For most singles, the decision to never marry is a gradual one. This transition is represented by a change in self-attributed status that occurs over time and is associated with a cultural timetable for marriage. It marks the experience of “becoming single” that occurs when an individual identifies more with singlehood than with marriage (Davies, 2003). Still, a key question is, what marks the decision to remain single? For some, it is reaching a milestone birthday (e. g., 40) and still being single, although the particular age that reflects this varies a great deal (Davies, 2000). For many middle- aged single women, purchasing a house marks the decision: “I always thought you got married, you bought a house. Well, I bought a house and I’m not married. . . . I’ve laid down roots. . . . You’re sort of saying, ‘Okay, this is it.’ And it makes you feel more settled” (Davies, 2000, p. 12).
For most middle-aged single women, though, the transition to permanent singlehood is a gradual one they drift into by circumstance rather than a lifestyle they choose, such as having to care for parents or other family members instead of attending to
Most women under age 25 are single, with increasing numbers of them deciding to stay that way throughout adulthood.
personal goals related to marriage, family, education, or career (Connidis, 2001). By the time they reach age 40, never-married women have defined family as their family of origin and friendships, and are content with their lives (McDill, Hall, & Turell, 2006).