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Singles/Never Married Persons

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.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of FamiliesSingles/Never Married Persons - Social And Historical Context Of Singlehood, Psychosocial Characteristics Of The Never Married, Culture, Ethnicity, And The Never Married