Single By Choice

When it comes to getting hitched, more Americans than ever before are saying "I don't." Singles now make up nearly half the adult population in this country, and new research suggests they're happier, more social, and more active in the community than many of their wedded counterparts. Now if only their friends and family (oh, and while we're at it, coworkers, benefits providers, and the federal government) would get off their back.

Stern lives alone and has never been married, but at 52, she’s created a network of friends, colleagues, and family that she says is as emotionally rewarding as any partnership could be. She has a job in a school and loves working with children. She owns a home in West Roxbury and has a summer place in Maine. She shares patterns and talks politics on Ravelry, the online community for rabid knitting fans. And she’s eagerly anticipating the “Sheep Ahoy” knitting cruise to Nova Scotia that she and her friends have booked for July. (Yarn shops make up the bulk of the onshore excursions.) But she chafes at the notion that her single status, passion for knitting, and, yes, ownership of a wheel make her a modern-day spinster. “I’m a spinner,” she says defiantly.

Given the stigma of the word, you can understand Stern’s reaction. But where do such stigmas come from in the first place? In her book Marriage, a History, historian Stephanie Coontz traces how the institution of marriage has transformed from a ritual primarily concerned with consolidating land and prosperity among families to one centered on couples celebrating their love. In part, the shift was economic—the rise of wage-based labor allowed men and women to gain independence from their parents. And it was coupled with Enlightenment-era sentiments that championed individual rights and the pursuit of happiness. For the first time, men and women began to choose marriage for love rather than wealth or status.

Naturally, what it means to be single shifted over that time period, as well. The word “spinster,” for example, first appeared in the 17th century, when, according to Coontz, as many as 20 percent of women in northwestern Europe were unmarried. In 19th-century New England, it was an honorable term because spinsters earned money for themselves by spinning wool—these women, in fact, were celebrated for their unwillingness to compromise their moral standards for the sake of a relationship. But as marriage became increasingly idealized, “spinster” took on negative connotations, eventually becoming shorthand for any woman who remained unmarried throughout her life.

By the 1950s, traditional marriage was seen as the “only culturally acceptable route to adulthood and independence,” Coontz writes. In fact, in a survey taken in 1957, 80 percent of Americans responded that people who preferred to remain single were “sick,” “neurotic,” or “immoral.”

 

The anti-single sentiment began to soften, however, during the countercultural movements in the decades that followed. By 1978, only one-quarter of Americans still felt it was morally wrong to choose to live without a partner. But just because we believe there’s nothing morally wrong with it doesn’t mean we’d actually wish it on a loved one. So we try to “fix up” our single friends. As we see them growing older, we emphasize the “settle” in the idea of settling down. And we just know that being alone means being lonely.

We mean well, of course, but NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg says we’re actually being unfair and oppressive. Klinenberg’s forthcoming book, Going Solo, examines the “extraordinary rise and surprising appeal of living alone,” and destroys a number of myths along the way.

While researching the book, Klinenberg was shocked to discover the sheer number of people in America currently by themselves. He was also surprised to learn that they’re far more connected than the stereotypes might suggest. A dozen years ago, public policy professor Robert Putnam of Harvard’s Kennedy School fretted in his bestselling book Bowling Alone about the loss of “social capital” in public life. But Klinenberg says that today, single people have social capital in spades. “They’re not bowling alone,” he says. “They’re doing things together. One of the crucial points here is that people who are living alone are generally not alone. They’re quite social and well connected.”

Social is one way to describe Trish Hogan’s life. Busy is another. Her days are spent hiking or biking, swimming and contra dancing, or teaching poetry classes at the Harvard University Extension School. And at 74, she’s never been married—or happier. She has a one- bedroom condo in the Cambridge Cohousing complex, where her neighbors are a mix of families, couples, and singles like her. She’s been in long-term relationships, and once thought about getting married, but decided to go to Nigeria instead. She says it wasn’t necessarily an aversion to marriage that kept her from settling down, “it just never really happened.” Eventually, she says, “you find that life is just so interesting.”

Hogan is far from an outlier. Klinenberg’s research found that people who live alone in cities—he calls them “singletons”—are part of what makes cities so vibrant to begin with. Singletons are more likely than couples to sign up for art and music classes, attend public events, eat out, and go to clubs and bars. And those cat ladies? Not so common. Singletons are actually less likely to own pets—only one in five owns a dog, and one in four has a cat. The majority of pet owners, actually, are families.

Of course, singles could just be shunning cats as a way to avoid living a stereotype. “There’s a lot of anxiety about this issue,” Klinenberg says, blaming recent books, such as Marry Him and The Case for Marriage, that seem only to ramp up the pressure by arguing that settling for someone—anyone—is better than being alone.

But psychiatrists and Harvard Medical School professors Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz believe that so much alone time truly can be detrimental. Olds and Schwartz are a married couple, and they recently authored The Lonely American, a book that can perhaps best be summed up as: “But we just want you to be happy.” Olds says that most of her patients who say they choose to be single have grown up in family situations where “love looked awful.” She says she’d have a hard time accepting it if one of her children told her they were well enough alone.

The problem, she and Schwartz argue, is that we’re rearing a generation of individualists who haven’t been taught to make compromises, and that the way we’ve come to think of marriage—that our partner should be our best friend, copilot, and soul mate—has become too intimidating for some people to take. Having such inconceivably high standards can result in paralysis, they suggest, and that causes people to withdraw and think that no relationship will ever be good enough. They believe that this kind of withdrawal is dangerous, the first step toward social isolation.

But sociologists Naomi Gerstel of UMass Amherst and Natalia Sarkisian of Boston College have found that unmarried adults contribute far more to society than Olds and Schwartz may realize. Using data culled from the General Social Survey and the National Survey of Families and Households, they’ve found that never-married women are more politically active than their married counterparts, and that, in general, the unmarried are more engaged with their neighbors than married couples, and have stronger networks of family and friends.

In fact, Gerstel and Sarkisian argue in their new book, Nuclear Family Values, Extended Family Lives, that it’s actually married people who have become increasingly isolated within the last generation, because they perceive their relationship with their partner to be the only one that matters. Gerstel and Sarkisian write that these “greedy” marriages have resulted in a “short-circuiting of community ties” within contemporary society. “Some people view marriage as the pillar of the community,” says Sarkisian. “But the way that society views marriage is detrimental to both singles and the married,” because we emphasize the value of the marital bond above all others.

This is so much the case, she says, that when she talks with unmarried people about her findings, they’re often surprised to discover that their networks are stronger than their married peers’. Sarkisian says that without having been married, they’ve never experienced what it’s like to pull away. In essence, they don’t know how good they have it.

 

They come in all shapes and sizes. They’re young men, who are the fastest-growing percentage of those living on their own. They’re well-educated women, who are refusing to “marry down” to their less- credentialed prospects. They’re gays and lesbians watching their friends in same-sex couples ensconce themselves behind white picket fences. Some, like Bella DePaulo, have taken up their own distinguishing monikers, calling themselves quirkyalones, singulars, onelies, or spinsterellas. Others, though, don’t like to be remiånded of the fact that they’re single at all. Young, old, and racially diverse, singles are a cross section of society, which can make marketing to them a sticky wicket.

“With singles spending more than ever, why do so many marketers ignore them?” Adweek recently asked, noting that the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that in 2008 single people accounted for 35 percent of all consumer spending, and made $2.2 trillion worth of purchases, a 30 percent increase from five years earlier. But while they can sell Dentyne gum or Axe body spray as a way to help them find a mate, mainstream companies still steer clear of focusing on singles for fear of alienating them. That’s the problem that Stephanie Bostic, 28, faced this year when she began marketing One Bowl, her cookbook of simple recipes for single people. A health policy researcher with a master’s degree in nutrition from Tufts, Bostic wrote and self-published her book after becoming frustrated by cookbooks that assumed single chefs could make little more than ramen. Sipping tea in a small Japanese café in Brookline, she explains how, despite the fact that her book promotes a healthy single lifestyle, she found herself entangled in the fraught emotional subconscious of her customers. One woman contemplated buying the book for her best friend, who had just gone through a breakup, but didn’t want to reopen the wound. “I’ve realized the danger of marketing something to single people is that they’ll get offended,” she says. “People buying the book are reluctant to admit that they’re single, even though I’m single and selling it to them and happy about it.”

Right now, Bostic lives by herself in a studio apartment in Jamaica Plain. She isn’t dating and doesn’t feel like she needs marriage to have a fulfilling life. She’s also already determined that she doesn’t want children. “I like kids, but I don’t feel like I need my own,” she says. “I’m honestly really happy being the village.”

But what frustrates Bostic is the way public policy has been designed to benefit couples. In 1948, the U.S. tax code was rewritten to benefit married couples with one primary earner, putting them into a lower tax bracket. Which meant that a man who supported a nonworking wife paid only half the taxes of a single man making the same amount. It was one of the first policies set up by our government to promote marriage. Today, there are more than 1,100 federal provisions that provide benefits and protections exclusively to couples. Bostic enumerates the challenges she’ll face if she remains unmarried: Setting up a healthcare proxy is more difficult when you don’t have a partner, and she won’t be able to designate a beneficiary for her Social Security or 401(k) plan. “It’s an issue of equity,” she says.

If Bella DePaulo had her way, employers would have to institute a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding domestic status. But access to benefits isn’t the only workplace challenge singles face. DePaulo’s research with Boston College’s Sloan Work and Family Research Network has found that workers who are married are more likely to be described as “mature, stable, honest, happy, kind, and loving.” Singles, on the other hand, are generally regarded as “immature, insecure, self-centered, unhappy, lonely, and ugly.” Another study that looked at employees younger than 30 found one in five felt stigmatized for being single, and 62 percent were able to provide examples of their supervisors treating them differently from their coworkers with families. “When we expect single people to take vacation dates that no one else wants, or the travel that nobody wants,” DePaulo says, “you imply that whatever is going on in their life isn’t as important as what’s going on in the lives of people who are married with kids.”

DePaulo may be leading the crusade to rethink singledom, but she’s not alone. The Alternatives to Marriage Project (AtMP), a national group that started in Boston, also advocates for people who live outside of traditional marriage. “I would like to see government get out of the business of regulating relationships,” says AtMP board member Tom Amoroso, an emergency physician who lives in Medford. “Right now the government decides whether you have a relationship and if it’s good enough to get legal rights. There’s a lot of stuff that’s given to people that are married solely because they’re married. It’s become enshrined in the tax code.” (Amoroso, for his part, is in what’s known as a polyamorous relationship, but according to the IRS, he’s single.)

Boston College’s Sarkisian agrees, and points out that many European countries have “decoupled” their benefits, allowing people to share their benefit and retirement plans with friends, siblings, or parents. And the U.S. remains one of the few nations that still allows the filing of joint tax returns. “Why is it that you have to be in a monogamous sexual relationship to get benefits?” Sarkisian asks. “There are multiple benefits that are connected to marriage that don’t really have to be.”

Of course, to get these rights and benefits, more single Americans need to stand up and ask for them. But a major hindrance, as Bostic discovered, is that single people often don’t want to identify themselves that way. “Neither individuals nor societies see living alone as a goal or an endpoint,” Klinenberg writes in Going Solo, “which is why social movements to promote the interests of singletons are so difficult to organize.”

 

On Easter Sunday several years ago, Terri Trespicio was in Natick celebrating the holiday with her family when she decided she needed to have a discussion. She, her two younger sisters, and her mom and dad were all slouched on the living room couches after dinner when she broached the subject: “I feel that I should just say it,” she told them. “There’s a good chance that I’m going to be a single person for the rest of my life. I hope that you’re okay with that.”

Trespicio, an occasional contributor to this magazine, says the idea that she would marry someone she loved has never crossed her mind. She dates regularly, relies on a huge circle of friends, and has her dream job hosting a daily SiriusXM radio show called Whole Living. She doesn’t believe that marriage is in the cards for her, but feels that she can have a stable, healthy life without a lifelong partner. “At 38, I feel more powerful and sexier and in control than I’ve ever felt,” she says. “My life is going to be what I make of it, regardless of whether I meet someone or not.”

Trespicio’s family has been supportive. “A person creates their happiness,” her mother says. “It’s not something imposed on you from the outside.”

Then again, happiness is often considered a benefit of marriage, and many studies affirm that married people are happier, healthier, and wealthier than the unmarried. But after drilling down into those surveys, some researchers have recently been questioning their findings. For one thing, they found that divorced people—who have removed themselves from their unhappy marriages—weren’t included. “Marriage, or at least good marriages with little conflict, protects individuals from everything from cavities to murder and suicide,” Gerstel and Sarkisian write in Nuclear Family Values. But in truth, “only marriages with low levels of conflict offer health benefits. In contrast, bad marriages are hazardous to mental and physical health, increasing suicide, stress, cancer, and blood pressure.”

“There’s no real evidence showing that being in a bad relationship or marriage is better for you than being alone or living alone,” says Klinenberg. “In my research with hundreds of interviews with people who live alone, a common theme was that there’s nothing more lonely than being in the wrong relationship.”

Lisa Berkman, an epidemiologist and professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, has found that single people who have strong social ties often have fewer health risks than those “greedy” married couples who isolate themselves. She believes that people who choose to be single can still find emotional fulfillment. “What we’ve pretty consistently found is that people can substitute close friendship or other family ties for being married or being a partner,” she says. “Intimacy doesn’t need to be physical or sexual. It’s the emotional intimacy that is really important.” She’s found that when people get the emotional support from friends and family for being who they are—like how Trespicio’s mother stands by her decision to remain alone—it can be just as beneficial. “It probably trumps the physical,” Berkman says.

For her part, Trespicio has found intimacy, friendship, and a connection to children—only they don’t all come from the same source. “I’ve realized that you can have good connections and a good sex life without having to be married or even on the road to marriage,” she says, “and I don’t like someone telling me that I don’t know any better. My life is a best-kept secret, and I wouldn’t trade it. As a single person, the world is my oyster. I’m just sorry that people who are married don’t have that freedom.”


Janelle Nanos
Janelle Nanos Janelle Nanos, Senior Editor at Boston Magazine jnanos@bostonmagazine.com