All the Single Ladies

Recent years have seen an explosion of male joblessness and a steep decline in men’s life prospects that have disrupted the “romantic market” in ways that narrow a marriage-minded woman’s options: increasingly, her choice is between deadbeats (whose numbers are rising) and playboys (whose power is growing). But this strange state of affairs also presents an opportunity: as the economy evolves, it’s time to embrace new ideas about romance and family—and to acknowledge the end of “traditional” marriage as society’s highest ideal.

In 2001, when I was 28, I broke up with my boyfriend. Allan and I had been together for three years, and there was no good reason to end things. He was (and remains) an exceptional person, intelligent, good-looking, loyal, kind. My friends, many of whom were married or in marriage-track relationships, were bewildered. I was bewildered. To account for my behavior, all I had were two intangible yet undeniable convictions: something was missing; I wasn’t ready to settle down.

The period that followed was awful. I barely ate for sobbing all the time. (A friend who suffered my company a lot that summer sent me a birthday text this past July: “A decade ago you and I were reuniting, and you were crying a lot.”) I missed Allan desperately—his calm, sure voice; the sweetly fastidious way he folded his shirts. On good days, I felt secure that I’d done the right thing. Learning to be alone would make me a better person, and eventually a better partner. On bad days, I feared I would be alone forever. Had I made the biggest mistake of my life?

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Ten years later, I occasionally ask myself the same question. Today I am 39, with too many ex-boyfriends to count and, I am told, two grim-seeming options to face down: either stay single or settle for a “good enough” mate. At this point, certainly, falling in love and getting married may be less a matter of choice than a stroke of wild great luck. A decade ago, luck didn’t even cross my mind. I’d been in love before, and I’d be in love again. This wasn’t hubris so much as naïveté; I’d had serious, long-term boyfriends since my freshman year of high school, and simply couldn’t envision my life any differently.

Well, there was a lot I didn’t know 10 years ago. The decision to end a stable relationship for abstract rather than concrete reasons (“something was missing”), I see now, is in keeping with a post-Boomer ideology that values emotional fulfillment above all else. And the elevation of independence over coupling (“I wasn’t ready to settle down”) is a second-wave feminist idea I’d acquired from my mother, who had embraced it, in part, I suspect, to correct for her own choices.

I was her first and only recruit, marching off to third grade in tiny green or blue T-shirts declaring: A Woman Without a Man Is Like a Fish Without a Bicycle, or: A Woman’s Place Is in the House—and the Senate, and bellowing along to Gloria Steinem & Co.’s feminist-minded children’s album, Free to Be … You and Me (released the same year Title IX was passed, also the year of my birth). Marlo Thomas and Alan Alda’s retelling of “Atalanta,” the ancient Greek myth about a fleet-footed princess who longs to travel the world before finding her prince, became the theme song of my life. Once, in high school, driving home from a family vacation, my mother turned to my boyfriend and me cuddling in the backseat and said, “Isn’t it time you two started seeing other people?” She adored Brian—he was invited on family vacations! But my future was to be one of limitless possibilities, where getting married was something I’d do when I was ready, to a man who was in every way my equal, and she didn’t want me to get tied down just yet.

This unfettered future was the promise of my time and place. I spent many a golden afternoon at my small New England liberal-arts college debating with friends the merits of leg-shaving and whether or not we’d take our husband’s surname. (Even then, our concerns struck me as retro; hadn’t the women’s libbers tackled all this stuff already?) We took for granted that we’d spend our 20s finding ourselves, whatever that meant, and save marriage for after we’d finished graduate school and launched our careers, which of course would happen at the magical age of 30.

That we would marry, and that there would always be men we wanted to marry, we took on faith. How could we not? One of the many ways in which our lives differed from our mothers’ was in the variety of our interactions with the opposite sex. Men were our classmates and colleagues, our bosses and professors, as well as, in time, our students and employees and subordinates—an entire universe of prospective friends, boyfriends, friends with benefits, and even ex-boyfriends-turned-friends. In this brave new world, boundaries were fluid, and roles constantly changing. Allan and I had met when we worked together at a magazine in Boston (full disclosure: this one), where I was an assistant and he an editor; two years later, he quit his job to follow me to New York so that I could go to graduate school and he could focus on his writing. After the worst of our breakup, we eventually found our way to a friendship so deep and sustaining that several years ago, when he got engaged, his fiancée suggested that I help him buy his wedding suit. As he and I toured through Manhattan’s men’s-wear ateliers, we enjoyed explaining to the confused tailors and salesclerks that no, no, we weren’t getting married. Isn’t life funny that way?

I retell that moment as an aside, as if it’s a tangent to the larger story, but in a way, it is the story. In 1969, when my 25-year-old mother, a college-educated high-school teacher, married a handsome lawyer-to-be, most women her age were doing more or less the same thing. By the time she was in her mid-30s, she was raising two small children and struggling to find a satisfying career. She’d never had sex with anyone but my father. Could she have even envisioned herself on a shopping excursion with an ex-lover, never mind one who was getting married while she remained alone? And the ex-lover’s fiancée being so generous and open-minded as to suggest the shopping trip to begin with?

What my mother could envision was a future in which I made my own choices. I don’t think either of us could have predicted what happens when you multiply that sense of agency by an entire generation.

But what transpired next lay well beyond the powers of everybody’s imagination: as women have climbed ever higher, men have been falling behind. We’ve arrived at the top of the staircase, finally ready to start our lives, only to discover a cavernous room at the tail end of a party, most of the men gone already, some having never shown up—and those who remain are leering by the cheese table, or are, you know, the ones you don’t want to go out with.

In the 1990s, Stephanie Coontz, a social historian at Evergreen State College in Washington, noticed an uptick in questions from reporters and audiences asking if the institution of marriage was falling apart. She didn’t think it was, and was struck by how everyone believed in some mythical Golden Age of Marriage and saw mounting divorce rates as evidence of the dissolution of this halcyon past. She decided to write a book discrediting the notion and proving that the ways in which we think about and construct the legal union between a man and a woman have always been in flux.

What Coontz found was even more interesting than she’d originally expected. In her fascinating Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, she surveys 5,000 years of human habits, from our days as hunters and gatherers up until the present, showing our social arrangements to be more complex and varied than could ever seem possible. She’d long known that the Leave It to Beaver–style family model popular in the 1950s and ’60s had been a flash in the pan, and like a lot of historians, she couldn’t understand how people had become so attached to an idea that had developed so late and been so short-lived.

For thousands of years, marriage had been a primarily economic and political contract between two people, negotiated and policed by their families, church, and community. It took more than one person to make a farm or business thrive, and so a potential mate’s skills, resources, thrift, and industriousness were valued as highly as personality and attractiveness. This held true for all classes. In the American colonies, wealthy merchants entrusted business matters to their landlocked wives while off at sea, just as sailors, vulnerable to the unpredictability of seasonal employment, relied on their wives’ steady income as domestics in elite households. Two-income families were the norm.

Not until the 18th century did labor begin to be divided along a sharp line: wage-earning for the men and unpaid maintenance of household and children for the women. Coontz notes that as recently as the late 17th century, women’s contributions to the family economy were openly recognized, and advice books urged husbands and wives to share domestic tasks. But as labor became separated, so did our spheres of experience—the marketplace versus the home—one founded on reason and action, the other on compassion and comfort. Not until the post-war gains of the 1950s, however, were a majority of American families able to actually afford living off a single breadwinner.

All of this was intriguing, for sure—but even more surprising to Coontz was the realization that those alarmed reporters and audiences might be onto something. Coontz still didn’t think that marriage was falling apart, but she came to see that it was undergoing a transformation far more radical than anyone could have predicted, and that our current attitudes and arrangements are without precedent. “Today we are experiencing a historical revolution every bit as wrenching, far-reaching, and irreversible as the Industrial Revolution,” she wrote.

Last summer I called Coontz to talk to her about this revolution. “We are without a doubt in the midst of an extraordinary sea change,” she told me. “The transformation is momentous—immensely liberating and immensely scary. When it comes to what people actually want and expect from marriage and relationships, and how they organize their sexual and romantic lives, all the old ways have broken down.”

For starters, we keep putting marriage off. In 1960, the median age of first marriage in the U.S. was 23 for men and 20 for women; today it is 28 and 26. Today, a smaller proportion of American women in their early 30s are married than at any other point since the 1950s, if not earlier. We’re also marrying less—with a significant degree of change taking place in just the past decade and a half. In 1997, 29 percent of my Gen X cohort was married; among today’s Millennials that figure has dropped to 22 percent. (Compare that with 1960, when more than half of those ages 18 to 29 had already tied the knot.) These numbers reflect major attitudinal shifts. According to the Pew Research Center, a full 44 percent of Millennials and 43 percent of Gen Xers think that marriage is becoming obsolete.

Even more momentously, we no longer need husbands to have children, nor do we have to have children if we don’t want to. For those who want their own biological child, and haven’t found the right man, now is a good time to be alive. Biological parenthood in a nuclear family need not be the be-all and end-all of womanhood—and in fact it increasingly is not. Today 40 percent of children are born to single mothers. This isn’t to say all of these women preferred that route, but the fact that so many upper-middle-class women are choosing to travel it—and that gays and lesbians (married or single) and older women are also having children, via adoption or in vitro fertilization—has helped shrink the stigma against single motherhood. Even as single motherhood is no longer a disgrace, motherhood itself is no longer compulsory. Since 1976, the percentage of women in their early 40s who have not given birth has nearly doubled. A childless single woman of a certain age is no longer automatically perceived as a barren spinster.

Of course, between the diminishing external pressure to have children and the common misperception that our biology is ours to control, some of us don’t deal with the matter in a timely fashion. Like me, for instance. Do I want children? My answer is: I don’t know. But somewhere along the way, I decided to not let my biology dictate my romantic life. If I find someone I really like being with, and if he and I decide we want a child together, and it’s too late for me to conceive naturally, I’ll consider whatever technological aid is currently available, or adopt (and if he’s not open to adoption, he’s not the kind of man I want to be with).

Do I realize that this further narrows my pool of prospects? Yes. Just as I am fully aware that with each passing year, I become less attractive to the men in my peer group, who have plenty of younger, more fertile women to pick from. But what can I possibly do about that? Sure, my stance here could be read as a feint, or even self-deception. By blithely deeming biology a nonissue, I’m conveniently removing myself from arguably the most significant decision a woman has to make. But that’s only if you regard motherhood as the defining feature of womanhood—and I happen not to.

Foremost among the reasons for all these changes in family structure are the gains of the women’s movement. Over the past half century, women have steadily gained on—and are in some ways surpassing—men in education and employment. From 1970 (seven years after the Equal Pay Act was passed) to 2007, women’s earnings grew by 44 percent, compared with 6 percent for men. In 2008, women still earned just 77 cents to the male dollar—but that figure doesn’t account for the difference in hours worked, or the fact that women tend to choose lower-paying fields like nursing or education. A 2010 study of single, childless urban workers between the ages of 22 and 30 found that the women actually earned 8 percent more than the men. Women are also more likely than men to go to college: in 2010, 55 percent of all college graduates ages 25 to 29 were female.

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Kate Bolick is a writer in New York.

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