Monday, February 2, 2004
A story published today by the Baltimore Sun reports that Lane Hodes, a 26-year-old University of Maryland law student likes men, and she'll probably get married one day. But like many unmarried women these days, she is enjoying not being in a serious relationship.
She didn't wait for a boyfriend to give her jewelry. When her birthday came around, she bought herself a diamond bracelet. And last year, Hodes vacationed in Las Vegas by herself, gambling in the casinos alone.
Hodes and others who are enjoying their singledom are benefiting from a cultural shift in attitude - one that's sometimes obscured by speed dating, find-a-husband self-help books, relationship coaches and reality television shows like The Bachelorette.
"This is a time when single women in the United States have a dramatic license to do what they want," says Melissa Milkie, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland College Park, whose areas of research include family and gender.
According to the census, there are more than 44 million single women over 18, including those who have never married and those who are widowed or divorced - a new high. True, President Bush would like to spend $1.5 billion for the promotion of "healthy marriages." But it's good to know there's also healthy singledom out there.
The feminist movement and popular culture have helped make it increasingly OK to stay single longer. The degree of OK-ness, of course, depends on what part of the American population you're looking at. The higher the education level, Milkie says, the more acceptable being unmarried becomes. And, of course, it's not just women who are delaying getting hitched. Men, too, are having to explain to their parents why they are still single later than any generation that's gone before. But nowadays many women have the same means and the attitude that men do to enjoy going it alone.
More women are focusing on their careers than ever before, and with that comes financial independence and even money to burn. "You don't have to wait for a man to have a diamond," says Carson Glover of the Diamond Information Center. "The popularity of the right-handed diamond ring lets a woman wear a diamond on her finger without a relationship."
A few years ago, baby boomer parents, who paired off early, were surprised at the way their high-schoolers socialized in groups, a trend that Gen-Yers have continued into their twenties. In Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family, and Commitment, journalist Ethan Watters argues that these supportive, tight-knit groups of friends make it easier to delay marriage and live happily outside an exclusive relationship.
Attitudes toward coupling itself have been changing. Matchmaker Julie Ferman, founder of CupidsCoach.com, has found that those signing up on her Web site have different goals from those of a decade ago. The percentage of those wanting to get married or have an exclusive relationship has dropped while the percentage of those interested in casual dating or "friendship only" has risen.
"It's a much healthier state of mind," Ferman says. "They want to have choices, possibilities."
Steven Sacks, author of The Mate Map: The Right Tool for Choosing the Right Mate (Banner, 2002), attributes the increased complacency of singles to the fact that what he calls "the benchmark age" when people are expected to be married keeps going up.
Besides decreased pressure from parents and society in general to marry, there are other reasons the benchmark age has risen. Singles look around, see the 50 percent divorce rate, and realize that marriage doesn't automatically bring happiness. They want to be sure they find the right person before they tie the knot.
"In the 1990s, the benchmark goal was to get married by age 30," he says. "Today 30 is still the benchmark, only now we also have two contingency benchmarks. If not 30, then it better be by 35. If not 35, then definitely by 40."
The psychological benefits of marriage have been documented, says sociologist Melissa Milkie. "Constant companionship seems to serve people well."
That doesn't mean people have to exchange rings, though. Studies have shown that friendship and other supportive relationships can have an equally positive effect. And a sick or demanding spouse can be detrimental to your mental and physical health.
Scientific research on long-term relationships has also come up with these findings: