Single By Choice
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.