Singles/Never Married Persons

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Singles/Never Married Persons

Just as the age at first marriage has increased over the past few decades, so too has the proportion of adults living together outside of traditional marriage, as well as the number of men and women who are delaying or forgoing marriage. This has resulted in a great number of men and women spending a significant amount of their adult years single. The U.S. Census Bureau (1999) reports that between 1975 and 1999, the percentage of people who had never married rose from 22 percent to 28 percent. For adults between the ages of thirty and thirty-four, the increase during this period has been from 6 percent to 29 percent for men, and from 9 percent to 21 percent for women.

With age, the percentage of the population that has never married decreases. In Canada and the United States, between 5 and 10 percent of older adults have never been married. As in most societies where approximately 90 to 95 percent of adults do marry, marriage remains the normative and expected life choice, and the connection between marriage and adulthood continues to be reaffirmed.

Social and Historical Context of Singlehood

Most cultures, past and present, have viewed adulthood as synonymous with being married and having children, and being single as a transitional stage that preceded these significant and expected adult roles. Different historical and cultural contexts have significantly affected the propensity, desire, and ability to marry, as well as opportunities and circumstances inside and outside of marriage. Yet historically, as now, a significant minority of the population remained single.

How the never married have been viewed has also varied with time and place. For example, in the early New England states, social and economic sanctions were placed upon women and men who did not marry. At the same time, between 1780 and 1920 in parts of the United States and Europe, singlehood was often seen as a respectable alternative to marriage for women, if these women were willing to devote their lives to the service of others (Chambers-Schiller 1984). Between 1880 and 1930, a bachelor subculture emerged in the United States. Although never married men during this period had more freedom than never married women, they were generally viewed as social outcasts or societal threats (Chudacoff 1999).

During the 1970s, several social factors converged to create a new and more positive recognition of singlehood: more women in higher education, expanding career and job opportunities for women, and increased availability and acceptable of birth control. These societal changes provided women with greater freedom and independence and contributed to a shift in attitudes about the desirability and necessity of marriage. Subsequent scholarship is greatly indebted to the pioneering work of people like Margaret Adams (1978), Marie Edwards and Eleanor Hoover (1974), and, perhaps best known, Peter Stein (1975, 1976, 1981), for examining singlehood as a meaningful and multidimensional lifestyle in its own right and the social factors that brought about this new recognition.

Although singlehood is less stigmatized today than in the past, being part of a married heterosexual couple remains the typical and expected lifestyle choice and, therefore, the status of being never married remains somewhat ambiguous or marginalized. Never married individuals are seen as violating societal expectations for "appropriate" gender role behavior. Even the term never married is structured as a negative. For those who remain single, it is difficult to locate positive role models to support and validate their singlehood choice or circumstance. Further, the perception of singlehood tends to differ by age or stage of life. Being single is a normative and expected social role in youth and early adulthood. However, with increased age, the likelihood of marrying diminishes, and the meaning of singlehood often changes as it is seen as a less expected but more permanent state.

The never married in later life are subject to stereotypes that portray older adults in general, as well as those associated with individuals who have failed to marry (Rubinstein 1987). In Anglo-American culture, the terms spinster and old maid for women, and confirmed bachelor for men, may have become outdated, yet their stereotypical meanings persist. Single women particularly may be seen in a negative light, perhaps because expectations remain strong that women will fulfil the nurturing and caring roles most often associated with being married—that of wife, mother, grandmother, and care provider for other family members.

Peter Stein (1981) identifies four categories of never married based upon attitudes toward this single status—voluntary/temporary singles, voluntary/stable singles, involuntary/temporary singles, and involuntary/stable singles. Although individuals can move between and among these categories over their lifetime, whether singlehood is perceived as a choice or circumstance, or is seen as temporary or permanent, can influence one's satisfaction with being single, and one's overall well-being.

The voluntary and stable singles tend to be single by choice and generally satisfied with their decision. This category includes those who have a lifestyle that precludes traditional heterosexual marriage, such as members of religious orders, as well as gay and lesbian single adults. It is difficult to obtain accurate statistics, but the evidence suggests that gays and lesbians comprise between 4 and 6 percent of adults in the United States, Canada, and other Western countries. Research finds that long-term relationships are common among this population, particularly among lesbians. However, regardless of their commitment to a significant partner, these relationships are outside the boundaries of traditional heterosexual marriage, and these individuals are, by societal definition, never married.

The involuntary and stable singles tend to be dissatisfied with their singlehood, but feel it is permanent. This group includes many well-educated, professionally successful women for whom finding a suitable mate is often a problem of demographics—a lack of older, single, well-educated men. This category tends to be the most difficult for successful adjustment to permanent singlehood.

Stein's foundational work highlights the diversity that exists within the never married population, as well as the importance of choice in remaining single for life satisfaction. Research supports this diversity. Many never married individuals make a positive and conscious choice to remain single (O'Brien 1991), while others look upon their singlehood as less desirable, resulting from circumstances beyond their control (Austrom 1984). The former group tends to be more satisfied with being single than the latter.

Stein (1976) identifies push and pull factors—pushes away from marriage and pulls toward singlehood. For individuals who feel that marriage restricts self-realization and limits involvement with other relationships and that singlehood affords greater freedom of choice and autonomy, permanent singlehood is often seen as the marital status of choice. Barbara Simon's (1987) study of older single women finds that most of these women had declined marriage proposals, typically because of their fear of becoming subordinate to a husband. The salience of these pushes and pulls varies by factors such as age, financial well-being, sexual orientation, as well as the strength and availability of supportive ties to family and friends.

Psychosocial Characteristics of the Never Married

The never married are a diverse and complex group. They differ by sexual orientation, age, health status, ethnicity, and living arrangements, and are as varied as married persons by social class background, education, occupation, and income level. The life satisfaction of the never married, in general, is similar to the married and better than for other unmarried groups, particularly the divorced. The health status of single men tends to be poorer than for married men, while never married women tend to enjoy better health than other women. In later life, the never married are more likely to face economic insecurity (particularly older women) and weaker social support networks (particularly older men) than are their married counterparts. Marcia Bedard (1992) and others contend that the happiness of single people is related to meeting their social and economic needs, not to the issue of being single.

The literature finds other gender differences in how singlehood is experienced, and these differences tend to be complicated by age. Although current older single women tend to be significantly disadvantaged in economic terms, younger and middle-aged single women tend to have high general ability scores, are highly educated, and have high-status occupations. The situation for single men tends to be different. Many men who remain unmarried are often "those at the very bottom of the social scale, with no women available who are sufficiently low in status" (Unger and Crawford 1992, p. 386).

Never married women tend to manage their lives better than do single men. Studies suggest that single men are more depressed, report lower levels of well-being and life satisfaction and poorer health, and are more likely to commit suicide than single women. It may be that single women's greater ability to maintain close and supportive ties over their lifetime with family members, particularly siblings, and with friends, contributes to their greater overall well-being.

In general, however, never married people report satisfaction in terms of friendships, general health, standard of living, and finances. They are more likely to live with others, such as siblings or other relatives, than are the widowed or divorced, and less likely to be lonely when compared to the other unmarried groups. Although the social networks of the never married tend to be smaller than for the married, the majority of never married individuals are socially active, with friends, neighbors, and relatives, as well as dating partners. Family ties are often central in the lives of the never married, particularly never married women, whose roles include caring for parents, being a lifelong companion to siblings, and serving as a surrogate mother to siblings' children (Allen and Pickett 1987). Friendship ties also take on great significance in the lives of many never married adults, particularly women, across their life course (Campbell, Connidis, and Davies 1999).

Nevertheless, people who remain single throughout their lives still face difficulties. The availability of a willing sexual partner, particularly in later life, is more likely to be a problem for the unmarried than for married couples. Further, for those who live alone, the financial costs tend to be greater than for those who share a household. Also, because most informal support is provided by a spouse and/or adult children, the never married in later life are more likely than the married to have to rely on formal support. When caregiving needs increase, never married older women in particular have a greater likelihood of requiring placement in a long-term care facility than older married women or those with children.

Culture, Ethnicity, and the Never Married

Research is scarce that recognizes culture or ethnicity in the study of the never married. However, the existing literature suggests that the rates of nonmarriage have been increasing across different racial and ethnic groups—groups that have traditionally seen most men and women marry. The U.S. Bureau of the Census (1999) reports that the major increase in the never married population in the United States has occurred among blacks, rising from 32 percent in 1975 to 44 percent in 1999. The nonmarriage rates for other cultural groups have also been increasing. For example, although historically the marriage rates of Asian women were very high, native-born Chinese-American and Japanese-American women had, by the end of the twentieth century, lower rates of marriage than did native-born European-American women.

Susan Ferguson (2000) asked never married native- and foreign-born Chinese-American and Japanese-American women their reasons for remaining unmarried. The women in her study discussed how their feelings about their parents' traditional marriage and their role as the eldest daughter deterred them from marrying and having children. They also talked about the lack of available partners because of family pressure to marry a good Chinese-American or Japanese-American man. Pressure also existed to pursuit an advanced education. The opportunities presented to them with advanced degrees and career gave them an independence that they did not feel would be possible if married to more traditional Asian men. Ferguson (2000, p. 155) concludes that "these never married women are not only challenging the traditional marriage of their parents and the cultural expectations to marry within the Chinese-American and Japanese-American communities but also are challenging the pro-marriage norms and gender role expectations of the dominant culture."

Other research on the marital behavior of Japanese women also finds a link between greater economic independence for women and an increased likelihood of remaining single. James Raymo (1998) contends that economic independence may reduce the appeal of marriage and may be used to "buy out of marriage." He suggests that a significant increase in the number of Japanese women who remain single could have important demographic, social, and economic consequences. More research is needed to better understand the lives of never married women and men within and across different cultures, and whether social and demographic changes that are occurring in other countries will also challenge traditional cultural expectations of marriage as the normative lifestyle choice.


The increase in those remaining single may, in part, reflect changes in social attitudes and structures related to marriage and singlehood. The lives of the never married are varied and complex. Similarities and differences that exist between the never married and other marital groups are more likely to be influenced by individual characteristics such as gender, age, social class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and level of education, than by marital status group membership. Further research that examines how these and other factors intersect to shape the lives of the never married within and across different cultures and social contexts will help us to learn more not only about those who remain single, but also about the structure and experiences within marriage, families, and social roles and relationships more broadly.

See also:Childlessness; Cohabitation; Dating; Loneliness; Sexuality; Social Networks


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raymo, j. (1998). "later marriages or fewer? changes in the marital behaviour of japanese women." journal of marriage and the family 60:1023–1034.

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simon, b. l. (1987). never married women. philadelphia:temple university press.

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stein, p. j. (1976). single. englewood cliffs, nj: prenticehall.

stein, p. j. (1981). "understanding single adulthood." insingle life: unmarried adults in social context, ed. p. j. stein. new york: st. martin's press.

unger, r., and crawford, m. (1992). women and gender: a feminist psychology. new york: mcgraw-hill.

other resources

u. s. bureau of the census. (1999). current population reports. from statistical abstract of the united states, 1999. available from

lori d. campbell