Ah, married life. It’s the natural state of affairs for humans, right? Pairing off for life is what we’re meant to do, have always done, will always do – or is it? Well, actually, monogamy is a relatively new thing as far as human history goes; as for being destined for it, throughout the last few centuries, most “experts” have pushed it as the best path to take, and more people than not have entered into matrimony – but that might all be changing.
An explosion of studies and surveys on singles and the single life in the last few years have shown that there are currently more single people in the U.S. than there have ever been, and these singles aren’t the sad, isolated individuals that they have often been portrayed as or assumed to be. In fact, if you’re staying single, you’re not only in good company, but you’re also probably happy about it, and enjoying some possibly unexpected benefits of choosing to fly solo.
The Power of One
When it comes to demographics, single people have never been a more powerful group than they are now. Think about this: in 1950, around 22% of the adult population was single, but now? According to recent Census data, nearly 118 million U.S. residents are divorced or widowed or have always been single (up from almost 116 million just the year before); that’s more than 45% of all Americans aged 18 or older, and we’re heading steadily towards at least 50% of the population being unmarried.
Not only that, but a study from the Pew Research Center predicts that by the time today’s young adults reach the age of 50, about one in four of them will have been single all their life. And people aren’t just staying unmarried, they’re also choosing more and more to live alone, with 42% of adults living without a spouse or partner, up from 39% last decade.
“It’s become legitimate and viable to be single for a long period of time,” says Eric Klinenberg, sociology professor at New York University. “That’s never been the case before.”
Marriage No Longer Equals Adulthood
There was a time that marriage was considered a major (if not the main) step into adulthood; in fact, in decades past, many young adults (especially women) left their parents’ home only when they got married, and most young people were not considered fully “grown up” if they had not yet settled down with a spouse. But those perceptions have dramatically shifted: according to a recent Census Bureau report, a full 55% of participants said that getting married was not an important criterion for becoming an adult, while 95% said that getting an education and having full-time employment was at least somewhat important.
Who’s Getting More Action?
Here’s a (not so) fun fact: according to researchers who have analyzed survey data from the last three decades, the average person now has sex around nine fewer times per year than the average person in the early ‘90s. Sure, the fact that there are more single people out there with less daily opportunity for sex might have something to do with that, but it turns out that the decrease in frequency was more pronounced in married (and divorced) people, compared to people who had always been single.
When it comes to who’s having more sex in general, that’s up for debate, with some data actually pointing towards single people winning out. But considering that married couples have greater access to regular sex, it’s not bad that married couples have sex on average 1.2 times per week, unmarried couples who live together have sex 1.6 times per week, people who aren’t in a steady relationship have sex 0.6 times per week, and singles who are dating regularly have sex 1.1 times per week – almost as often as married people.
Married Life, Healthy Wife?
Conventional wisdom has told us for ages that the married state means better health; after all, what can be better for you than having someone at home to support you and look after you? Well, three studies done in 2017 have raised some serious questions about who is actually healthier: single or married people?
One study of almost 80,000 older American women concluded that those who got or stayed married gained more weight and drank more than those who stayed single or got divorced; in fact, the women who got divorced ate healthier, got more exercise, and had smaller waists than the married women!
Another 16-year long Swiss study found that married participants reported worse health than their unmarried counterparts, while a study conducted in the U.S. by sociologist Dmitry Tumin found that, among 12,000 men and women studied in multiple scenarios and with different variables, almost none of the people who got married reported being healthier.
The Feel Good (About Yourself) Factor
Our society often links finding a mate with a boost to our self-esteem, reasoning that “having someone” makes us feel better about ourselves – but turns out this is not necessarily the case for everyone (or even most people). In a recent study in Germany on the link between romantic relationships and self-esteem, researchers Eva C. Luciano and Ulrich Orth concluded that “Beginning a relationship improves self-esteem if and only if the relationship is well-functioning, stable, and holds at least for a certain period (in the present research … one year or longer).”
Not only that, but people whose relationships lasted less than a year ended up with lower self-esteem than when they started, and even those who got married and stayed married showed no signs of having higher self-esteem than did unmarried people.
And other studies show that, in practical terms, we really don’t need marriage to feel good about ourselves or to be fulfilled; it’s been proven that singles lead very well-rounded lives that aren’t focused on one relationship. Says Eric Klinenberg of his research findings, “It turns out, people who live alone are actually more likely to volunteer in civic organizations than people who are married,” he says. “They’re also more likely to spend time with friends and with neighbors. And of course they’re a big reason that there’s so much activity and vitality in the public areas of cities today—they’re not people who are self-involved, sitting on the couch just buying things on eBay. They’re really a crucial part of modern social life.”
Flipping the Script on What Women Want
One stereotype about women that has really persisted over the years is that women are the ones who are yearning to be married, to settle down and raise a family, and who can’t possibly be happy if they don’t find love. Men have traditionally been seen as more likely to value their independence, be adventurous, and have things other than romantic relationships to give their lives meaning. But this new spotlight on the lives of single people might finally be bringing us one step closer to getting rid of those stereotypes, and recognizing that single women often remain that way by choice and have the same – if not stronger – ambitions than men do.
For example, one recent study of over a thousand single younger adults found that both men and women felt that being single benefited their lives, with 79% of men and 83% of women agreeing. And the women’s strong opinions didn’t stop there – the survey found that the women, more often than the men:
- Felt that being able to focus more on their career was a benefit to being single, as was the potential to make more new friends
- Chose to stay single to prioritize themselves and their own needs
- Said they valued independence, adventurousness, and their own space
- Felt more empowered by being single
Looks like it’s time to update our understanding of how young singles – especially young women – want to live their lives.
The Single Life Is Like a Fine Wine
Young people might have other ambitions than those involving finding a partner, but what about older folks who have remained single, or become single later in life? How happy are they as they age? Well, one study of adults ages 40-85, conducted over nearly two decades, found that, as they got older, single people became more satisfied with their lives, and that partnership status became less relevant to loneliness over time.
The findings were clear-cut, but experts can only speculate as to why older singles were so satisfied, suggesting that older singles experienced less stigma, were able to do big things that their married peers weren’t doing, experienced more personal growth and a sense of freedom, or even that the lack of predictability in their lives could mean more exciting possibilities. Whatever the case, it looks there’s one more stereotype we can do away with: that of the lonely, older unmarried person who deserves our pity – they might be having more fun than any of us!
Hey, nobody is knocking married life – after all, there are millions of happily married people out there! But we should certainly give the same respect to the single life, and acknowledge that there are also people out there making the choice to focus their lives in different ways – and they are no less happy, healthy or fulfilled!