The cost of being single
Singles still feel singled out
By Jennifer Brooks
"Here's to the single girls."
"The single girls," chorus the other unmarried 20- and 30-somethings around the table, clinking glasses. While their married friends have gone home to sitters and spouses, their evening is just getting started.
They are among the 86 million unmarried adults in the United States, a fast-growing group of people who often find themselves singled out in a society designed for two. Despite holding more than 40 percent of the nation's jobs, singles often feel they have a lot stacked against them -- higher taxes, higher insurance premiums, working more holidays and getting fewer benefits for their partners.
The single life isn't all bad news, though.
"Marriage is important," said Stephanie Richards, 24. "But it's not something you have to do before you get started on the rest of your life. I want the big wedding, with the gifts and the honeymoon, but not until I'm sure we can last longer than Britney Spears' (55-hour marriage)."
On her lunch break, Richards spreads newspaper classifieds and computer printouts across a table at Starbucks and goes over home listings with her boyfriend, David Kowalski. They've been living together for a year and they're ready to go in together on a mortgage.
Marriage, however, remains in the future -- after he pays his student loans and she's more settled in her job.
In Livonia, Basim Abdelnour spruces up for a night on the town. The ballroom dancing lessons he began taking after his divorce have filled formerly lonely nights with friends, fun and, yes, romance. He's in no rush to remarry.
Singles are bombarded by messages that tell them marriage is the most important relationship they can have in their lives. Some of the characters in "Friends" and "Sex in the City" ended up married so their shows could have happy endings After two decades of singlehood on the funny pages, Cathy is trying on wedding dresses.
"Everything you hear today is about 'family values.' What's so interesting is that all of this is going on at a time when there are more households with one person living alone than there are (households) with a mom, dad and kids," said Bella DePaulo, a social psychologist and visiting professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and author of the upcoming book, "Singled Out."
"What's going on with all these TV shows is the glorification of couplehood," DePaulo said. "And it's reached a fever pitch at exactly the time when marriage is less and less necessary in many people's lives."
One of the reasons for the rising number of singles is that more and more couples choose to live together before marriage -- 50 percent, according to University of Michigan researcher Pamela Smock. Living together no longer carries the social stigma it did decades ago, and for many couples, cohabitation is a way to save money and take their relationship for a "test drive" before committing to marriage.
Cohabitation, she said, is widespread across all socioeconomic classes. "It has become the typical path to marriage," she said.
These days, half of all births occur in homes where the parents are not married
Couples, she said, still have high regard for marriage, and are keenly aware of the perks that come with marriage, from tax breaks to wedding presents.
"In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with cohabitation. But the fact remains that there is more support in our society for marriages," she said. "I have to say, most studies suggest that kids do better when they're raised by married, biological parents ... There is some sort of marriage effect."
Unmarried adults often wind up on the defensive, forced to explain why they haven't married, or trying to convince family and married friends that they shouldn't be an object of pity.
"I don't think any of this is conscious, but it seems that every time you turn around, someone's asking, 'So, why aren't you married?' " DePaulo said. "It's all part of this relentless theme that's trying to convince you that the only way to be really and truly happy is to be married."
"One of the big misconceptions about singles is that our life is so easy and carefree," said Ann Arbor resident Alexandra Braunstein. "I really hate when people say that. There are so many challenges to being single that are largely ignored. For example, as a 35-year-old woman, I am terrified that I will not have the opportunity to have children before it's too late. I am also thinking of buying a house, and would really appreciate having a spouse for support -- emotionally, financially, physically -- during the process. Not to mention how depressing it is to spend the holidays completely alone."
Dating services do brisk business in the nation's booming singles market. But an increasing number of singles associations offer services designed to enrich the single lifestyle -- not necessarily to put an end to it.
Dave Hurlbert runs Metropolitan Single Professionals, an association of 50,000 dues-paying single adults from the greater Detroit area. The group runs almost daily events -- everything from dances to sports leagues to group travel.
"People come to our group for a lot of different reasons. We get people who are relocating from other cities. Other times, you find that when all your friends are married and you're the only single person, you end up on the outside. Your friends are off buying baby furniture instead of going out," he said. "This is a way to make a whole new group of friends."
Alternatives to traditional bar-hopping are more fun and less pressure, said Monica Levin, 41, of Rochester Hills, who attends Michigan Swing Dance Association events at social halls across Metro Detroit.
"It's a different kind of place to meet people," she said. "It's different from going to a bar. You don't have to drink. It feels like family."
Marriage as an institution is in no danger of dying out. Ninety percent of American adults will be married at some point in their lives. But 50 percent of them will end up divorced. In fact, the average American adult who lives to age 70 will spend more of his or her adult life single than married.
In recent years, singles have begun to organize, trying to level a playing field tilted heavily toward couples.
The American Association for Single People lobbies on behalf of unmarried America. Its attorneys have fought landlords in Michigan who didn't want to rent to unmarried couples, and pushed California auto insurance companies to stop charging unmarried drivers higher premiums than married drivers.
Singles are beginning ask why married couples can put each other on their health insurance, or gym club membership, but singles can't do the same for their loved ones -- either domestic partners or aged parents or siblings or adult children. They rail against travel brokers who charge extra for a person who tries to book a vacation alone.
Abdelnour, a 56-year-old, self-employed businessman, admits that benefits are one of the factors that might tempt him back to marriage.
"It wouldn't be the only reason, but I do think about it. If I married a woman and put myself on her health insurance, it would save me $7,000 a year," he said.
Unmarried couples cannot file federal income tax returns jointly, cannot apply for many of the tax breaks that married couples enjoy. If they die before retirement, their Social Security benefits are absorbed by the government -- they cannot bequeath them to a family member or a domestic partner, only a spouse.
"Most single people are not antimarriage, not antichild, not antifamily," said Thomas Coleman, executive director of the American Association for Single People. "But what we're saying is, let's change things a bit to make the workplace more fair, more flexible so we, maybe, don't have to work every Thanksgiving."
"These changes are not going to occur fast enough without single people getting involved, or speaking up," he said. "There's a perception that single people aren't participants in society. So often, they don't speak out about their own grievances. We need to put some focus on our issues."
"In 2003, 49.2 percent of the households in Michigan were headed by unmarried adults" said Thomas Coleman, the association's executive director and a former Wayne State University professor. "We're not talking about small numbers. We're talking about a major shift in living patterns. This is really something everyone should be concerned about for themselves. Because the chances are, you will be unmarried for most of your adult life."
Single but not solitary, unmarried but not uncoupled, millions of Americans hope to change the way society views the not-so-lonely.
"I enjoyed being married. But I really enjoy being single," said Farmington Hills resident Judy Mobley, who has been single 12 years now.
"I didn't have my own bedroom until I was 37 years old. I'd always had to share. I would consider getting married again, but if it never happened to me, I know I will be happy. If you have friends, if you have activities you will enjoy doing, if you have people you love around you, that's all you need."