Thursday, September 2, 2004
Unattached, thank you, and
A story published today in
the Los Angeles Times reports that more people are remaining single
longer, and in fact are enjoying being unattached.
Consider, for example, Jean
Zartner. One day she took what seemed like a wrong turn.
The Denver resident was driving in an unfamiliar neighborhood with a
friend and became lost. Then, the two women saw a freeway sign for
Cheyenne, Wyo. about a two-hour drive.
"I half-joked we should go there right now," said Zartner, who writes
corporate Web content. Then, they did with no luggage, stops or plans.
"We went to a Wal-Mart, bought toothbrushes and underwear, and then we
danced all night at a cowboy bar."
The scenario sounds more like the spontaneous behavior of twentysomething
college girls than the fiftysomething professionals it actually was. But
then again when you're not married or otherwise attached, such
spur-of-the-moment excursions become possible, said Zartner, 54, who has
never been married and edits an online magazine, the Upside of Being
Only a couple of decades ago, Zartner would have been considered a sad
case, a solitary person, missing out on the joys of marriage and family.
But today, she's part of a growing number of men and women reveling in
their single status and rejecting the often-frenzied and
sometimes-desperate search to "complete" themselves with a partner. In so
doing, they are just beginning to assert their influence culturally,
politically and economically.
"A lot of companies don't understand this market yet," said Faith Popcorn,
a New York-based trend forecaster and marketer. "They still think everyone
wants to get married."
Thanks to high divorce rates, increased longevity and the rising age for
first marriage, more Americans than ever are expected to have the
opportunity to explore much of their adult life as a single person. In
this expanding singles universe around 86 million, according to the last
U.S. census women now actually spend more of their adult lives single
than married. Men, by only a couple of years, are close to crossing the
same threshold, demographers say.
Quite distinct from being lonely, singles comfortable with their status
report having dynamic social lives with time for frequent engagements with
family and friends. Far from being overwhelmed by loneliness and longing,
they find that their lifestyle choice affords an obvious independence and
spontaneity unknown to most couples.
The marketplace is just waking up to the vast and largely untapped pool of
singles who, after all, account for a quarter of all travel and a third of
home purchases. This year, De Beers, the world's top diamond producer,
launched an ad campaign to sell diamond rings for the right hand.
"Your left hand says we; your right hand says me. Women of the world,
raise your right hands," said the print ads.
"This is an example of what I call indulging in the perks of marriage
without the marriage," Popcorn said. "Women don't need someone else to
'provide for them.' We're going to see more of this kind of ad."
Singles are also being encouraged by a batch of recent cookbooks to
celebrate meals, instead of dreading them. Old stereotypes of a single
glumly eating a frozen dinner in front of the television are giving way to
sophisticated but manageable recipes for one. In books like Joyce
Goldstein's "Solo Suppers" (2003, Chronicle Books) and even John Ash's
"Cooking One-on-One Lessons From a Master Teacher" (2004, Clarkson Potter
Publishers), one of the underlying messages is for singles to take the
time to care and nurture themselves with healthful foods.
Such marketing reflects an initial, but still limited, recognition of the
growing sea of singles.
"It often takes a while for society to catch up to an idea," said Barbara
Feldon best known for playing Agent 99 on the 1960s television series
"Get Smart" who wrote a book last year titled: "Living Alone and Loving
It: A Guide to Relishing the Solo Life" (Fireside, 2003). "It's a
different kind of happiness; it's different than mated happiness, but it
is still happiness."
Much of the joy derives from nurturing and maintaining a strong network of
friends, many singles report. Dinner parties and impromptu outings to the
movies or for coffee enrich their lives and help fulfill a desire for
"In my group of friends, I'm often the event planner," Feldon said. "In
some ways, I'm the bridge, and my friends walk across. It's something I
never really developed when I was with someone, and I love it."
Single status also affords time for creative endeavors that could be
difficult to pursue in most serious relationships. Researchers have found
happier singles usually have a strong passion for something, whether it's
writing, collecting or a physical activity.
"I'm an artist, and I'm free to do that whenever I want," said Miriam
Greenwald, 55, a proofreader who lives near Philadelphia and has never
been married. "I'm not trying to compensate for something. This is what I
love to do."
Still, a stigma persists for many singles. Psychologist and author Bella
DePaulo points out that the societal myth is: If you're alone, you must be
unlovable. In popular mythology, promoted in everything from movies to
greeting cards, a partner is supposed to fulfill either all or most of
one's needs for emotional intimacy, financial security and romantic sex
"We've come to the point in America where we think the only real root to
happiness and a meaningful life is coupling," said DePaulo, who has
written extensively about society and singles. "Single people are defined
by what they don't have."
Relationship horizons weren't always so narrow, according to social
historians. For instance, centuries ago, the American family was primarily
an economic unit that provided an important context for education,
religion and care of the needy, DePaulo said. And around the turn of the
20th century, it was far more common for adults to maintain rich
relationships with same-sex adults, both family members and friends, she
"It was not really until the last century that the perfect couple assumed
a central place in the Western imagination," wrote historian John Gillis
in "A World of Their Own Making." "Romantic love has never been more
valued than right now."
The myth of the όber-couple often translates into political and economic
mistreatment of the single person, many singles advocates contend.
Singles routinely face tax and insurance penalties, housing discrimination
and inequities in Social Security benefits solely because of their status,
said Tom Coleman, executive director of Unmarried America, a nonprofit
advocacy group for singles rights.
"None of the political candidates will even say the 'S word,' " said
Coleman, whose organization is based in Glendale. "They'll say 'marriage,
family, seniors,' and Democrats will say 'minorities,' but nobody
acknowledges [singles]. Not even [Ralph] Nader, and he is one of them."
Societal judgments don't make opting for a single life any easier. Decades
ago, women were considered sad old maids, men were dirty old bachelors.
There are still remnants of these biases, sociologists say.
"Society doesn't want people to be mateless," said Ester Buchholz,
director of the psychology of parenthood program at New York University.
"They want it to perpetuate itself. All the push all the time is toward
relationships, and if you resist that you're just considered antisocial or
Research on singles is still thin. And what research exists has yet to
identify the types of personalities best suited for happiness and living
alone. Whatever the driving forces, singles are simply trying to strike
the same balance as everyone else, say psychologists namely, between the
two powerful and universal human needs for attachment and solitude.