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The United States of Single America: Changing the Narrative Of What It Means to Be Unmarried

Anyone that says they are single by choice is mistaken.

Today, the single population outnumbers the married population, and has for nearly a decade. A statistic that professor, and ‘Is Marriage for White People,’ author Rick Banks emphasized in his 2013 Ted talk at TedxStandford. Being single is not a choice but the new normal, as marriage declines, and the adult population increases. For the first time in history, it is now marriage that is by choice, and statistically, it’s a choice many adults are delaying, or not choosing at all.

In the 1950s and early 1960s almost all adults in the United States were married. Marriage for centuries was viewed as a rite of adult passage. Just like earning a diploma, or getting your first real job, marriage in America was an individual’s next step towards independence and the mark of adulthood. As one of the world’s oldest practices, this should come as no surprise. What is surprising however, is how such a widely adopted tradition has quickly unraveled with steep declines that shows no signs of an upturn any time soon.

Marriage is old.

The first recorded evidence of marriage was discovered to be about 2350 B.C., in Mesopotamia. Over the next several hundred years, marriage evolved into a widespread institution embraced by the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans. But marriage wasn’t a religious tradition, or an expression of love. It was a business transaction meant to assign ownership of women, children, and property. Marriage was a good business practice, and for centuries deemed too important to leave to love. The fantasized stories of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, made famous by William Shakespeare then retold by Hollywood, and embodied by Elizabeth Taylor, were not romantic memoirs but failed mergers between two powerful empires.

As old as the institution is, with age comes decline. It was inevitable that the idea of marriage overtime would wane, as societies shifted and evolved. As an industry kept alive through creative marketing and religion, which has propagated it for centuries, the image of a husband and wife no longer align with modern generations.

This disconnect has resulted in the delay and the decline of marriage, which has increased exponentially since the 1980’s. Surprisingly, what hasn’t emerged is a new identity for single adults. And Sex and the City doesn’t count.

For the first time in history being single is no longer a holding period before marriage.

For decades, the attitude towards single adults has been that single people are just married-people-in-waiting. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. With a skeptical view of marriage, a limited pool of eligible partners, the rise of women in the workforce, and the increased standards of living, being single has become the default status for adults in America. One that if you are currently single, you know all too well to be true.

For the first time in decades, marriage is not a promise. It’s an elected endeavor that without concerted effort will escape most adults, and has already proven to do so as the single population rises. The statistical truth is that you will not marry, unless you really, really, try, and once you do get married staying married becomes another battle to beat the odds.

The narrative for what it means to be single is now completely independent of marriage.

Single people are no longer the caterpillar, and marriage the butterfly.

We are more like rocks, with the potential to be diamonds if enough pressure and force are applied. Being married has become the choice and being single the standard. The desire for partnership has not changed but the ideal of it lasting forever has. What dating in the modern age teaches us, is that finding a partner, falling in love, and creating a life with another person is not always the path to marriage. When the idea of being a part of a couple is inextricably linked to marriage, the argument becomes, ‘Why would you become a couple, if you don’t intend to marry’ ?

As a result the gap between the unmarried, and the uncoupled is widening. With many single adults just dating, and never quite transitioning to commitment because marriage seems undesirable or unrealistic.

The type of marriage that most people envision having has never existed. As researcher Stephanie Coontz puts it, “Leave it to Beaver was not a documentary.” The new narrative for singles is now independent of marriage because the standard of what it means to be married is unarguably too high. 

To find another person with matching ideals on what it means to be married is difficult. The challenge becomes finding individuals simply willing to partner, and couple. 

The adage, ‘single by choice’ no longer applies. 

The choices we are making impact our chances of being married, but they are not in direct opposition of the desire to be married. Woman are delaying motherhood for their career ambitions, and a large percentage of men are still suffering from “Peter Pan” syndrome.

Limited marriage markets are an issue across the globe, with the pools of eligible men and women becoming smaller than ever, and the access to meeting eligible partners, even in the age of online dating, limited still. More adults are happily living single because it has become a norm that’s just been ignored. To say that single adults delay marriage, implies that the option to marry is available to all and its not.

The opportunities for single adults to marry are becoming fewer and fewer over time. By and large there just aren’t enough eligible bachelors in the US, and bachelorettes worldwide, for every adult who wants to be married to do so. With the result being adults that want to marry doing so multiple times in a lifetime.

Whether you consider this a good thing or a bad thing, being single is the way of life. Unfortunately largely ignored by researchers who refuse to accept the data.

“There are studies here and there — people here and there who do something” on single people, says Bella DePaulo, a Harvard-trained researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “But in terms of an actual recognized, established science of single life, we have nothing.”

This misunderstanding that Bella DePaulo is speaking of, references the simple fact that more adults are single, and living happier lives. Studies are finding that single women, with no children, are happier than married counterparts. Single adults are also the leading cause of gentrification in major cities.

Marriage, was once seen as the catalyst to starting a life, has become the reward for a life well-lived, making it more elite, and inaccessible than ever before. It is not for everyone, and it is not guaranteed.

To be single means, just to be – anything else is a choice and not an evolutionary step. If you aren’t choosing marriage willfully, statistically it will never come. So any person who has not decided to be married, likely will never be.

1 thought on “The United States of Single America: Changing the Narrative Of What It Means to Be Unmarried

  1. One of the saddest article I’ve ever read about marriage and choosing to be single. I’ve been married for 34 years and not once regretted it. Of course, there are times of stress in the relationship, but there are stresses and disappointments in every endeavor. The young generations today, can’t handle bad times in a relationship, simply because they want their cake and eat it too. You can’t be narcissistic and selfish when it comes to love. They don’t know how to sacrifice parts of themselves for the good of a loving, caring union between two individuals. They want to be wanted, but not needed or to have needs. Not having or giving to needs isn’t human!

    Furthermore, Marriage is much more than an institution; it is two people coming together as one, as nature intended, to survive together and procreate. An honored union to provide a legacy after death. Marriage is a state of commitment that two people pledge to one another. It is also these reasons that have kept the institute of marriage alive. These essential things are anything but honored today!

    As for women too obsessed with their careers? Congratulations on your job, but remember when you die, no spouse or children(?), your tombstone inscription will say “A friend to all who knew Her” instead of “Loving Wife and Mother . . . “, notice there is no mention of your job or career!

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