Are we meant to be in one relationship with the same partner? Grow old and share life’s ups and downs with them, until we are putting our teeth in a cup to clean at the end of the day? This is what most of us were taught. That being adults means marriage, children and celebrating, if lucky, that precious 50-year mark. Instead could it be, as some studies are suggesting, that we are basically just animals? Humans, but animals nonetheless, and that we need to procreate and continue our species just like any other? In order to do this can we remain faithful for a lifetime?
Or are we driven by the need to relive the exciting and tantalizing rush of a new relationship? That incredible endorphin high only newness can bring in order to spread as much of our seed as wide as possible to insure survival? When the newness wears off, we move on for that same attraction and excitement with another partner.
Are singles to be pitied and looked at as the poor outliers incapable of finding love and happiness or the object of envy by those locked in a painful relationship? I’d hazard to say the truth depends on your perspective. No longer are we constrained by the concept life is meant to move toward marriage and family. In the 50’s that’s all women aspired to- catching a man.
But even in the 1990’s I remember watching a “Sex In The City” episode. In it, the lead character was shunned by her married friends as both a possible lure for their husbands and a woman to be pitied. At one point, while at a friends baby shower, her $600 Manolo Blahniks were stolen. She felt awkward asking for reparations until her friend shamed her for not seeing the bigger picture- a real adult life filled with real issues of marriage, work, and babies. How could she possibly understand that designer shoes are no longer a priority?
After sharing her frustration with single friends she began to wonder – where’s her day? Singles don’t get bridal showers or bridal gifts. They don’t get baby showers or Mother’s Day cards. They don’t get anniversary presents or parties. Added up that’s an impressive sum of shared events necessitating costs. Yet her Manolo Blahniks were a silly extravagance? In the end she received a “Happy Singles Day” present of replacement shoes.
When you think about it, she was right. Our entire society revolves around couples and tends to shun singles. They are that awkward place setting at an otherwise perfectly symmetrical dinner table. To previous generations, this may seem outrageous. In 1960, 72% of adults were married. Among today’s growing single population, 63% have never been married, 23% are divorced, and 13% are widowed. Of that staggering single population, the majority of which are living independently of their own accord, 53% of singles are women. Is this influx of single women desperately dating away, in a race against time against their biological clocks? Absolutely not- and they’re healthier than ever before. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Women’s Health found that single women had lower BMIs, waist sizes, and risk associated with smoking and alcohol than their married counterparts.
In fact, there are more single adults living, working, and breathing in the United States than ever before, carrying out their lives to a new set of societal norms. Once upon a time in America, marriage was the norm for adults. But now, for the first time since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking these numbers in 1976, there are more single Americans than people who are married. That is a huge change. About 50.2 percent – or 124.6 million American adults -are single. In 1950, that number was about 22 percent. Yes, you heard right, singles are in the majority!
Don’t get me wrong, I loved being married – when it worked. I was with my ex for 15 years. The first 5 were before we had a ceremony and made it legal. I remember being interviewed for a newspaper article at the time and asked,
“Did getting married change anything?”
The answer was a complicated yes. I was never one to just up and walk away at the first sign of conflict. I felt as committed before marriage as I did with it. But now I was showing the world, my faith, and the law, my commitment-and that felt different. There was, for lack of a better term, a comfort in joining in a cherished tradition.
But when I officially joined, everything began to subtly change. From comments like,
“When will you be quitting medicine to have a family?”
“Did you finally improve your cooking skills, he’ll expect a wife now.”
“You’re both doctors- pick a specialty that doesn’t intimidate or threaten your husband. You’re still a physician.”
Even our relationship started to slowly morph into more classic patterns. He cleaned less, took over financial control, didn’t take care of our infant baby, and generally felt entitled to “rest” when home from a hard days work, even though I worked the same hours.
The changes were insidious at first but after a decade of marriage they became routine. Apparently strong, intelligent, capable, self sufficient qualities were encouraged when single. Married women need to shed them at the threshold. It took distance to see how much we pigeon hole our “duties” in society and how much they can suffocate any relationship.
While it worked, I love being married. And while these issues weren’t the reason we divorced, they were a contributing factor. When it stopped working there was no worse hell on earth. Too often I hear my patients, of all ages, bemoan the fact they’re alone. Willing to be “in a relationship” at any cost. Instead of understanding that fear, loneliness and insecurity won’t magically make the next one work.
Divorce rates are startling. Approaching 2 out of every 3 marriages. The majority of those individuals will be in a new relationship within three months, and remarried within 1 year. Sometimes it’s hard to get from where we are. . . to where we are going. If you’re jumping from one relationship to another just to maintain the familiar, then you’ll never grow beyond the issues and problems that existed in the last encounter. If you had a friend that kept crashing a car every few months, wouldn’t you begin to worry about his driving?
And becoming the victim is never the answer. In most divorces there is culpability to go around.
Rarely is something entirely one-sided. I had a friend who was adamant his wife’s cheating made him the “good guy.” A perspective he touted to anyone who’d listen. Yes, being unfaithful is never tolerable in a relationship but his choice to continue to travel for weeks at a time to New York for work instead of searching for a job in Tucson contributed. Leaving her alone while making it clear she and the kids weren’t important enough to stay in town, hurt. Especially given the fact he immediately found a local job in order to get joint custody of his children.
It’s a difficult concept to let go of what is old and familiar and be willing to stand and wait while we grow towards something new. This “in-between” time can be frightening, with feelings of emptiness, anger and loss. That’s when the proverbial “a bird in the hand is better than none” can kick in, sending us spiraling into another failed marriage.
But we’re no longer a generation of ” old maids” or “aging playboys.” No gender bias there- right? We all want love, commitment, stability, and companionship. The truth is it just doesn’t have to come from a spouse. Once we see ourselves as strong, capable individuals, happy within our own skin, love in all its forms will follow – through friends, family, work, outside interests. . . and perhaps a spouse. Our lives no longer revolve around the old cliches of being a wife and mother or bread winner. Our lives have expanded to encompass so much more. And so too have our priorities. Getting married isn’t the only thing that matters. Getting married to the right person is.
Who knows- for some that evolution may be why singles are surpassing marrieds. For others that evolution might find them still spooning their mate after 50 years together.