In 1957, a team of psychology professors at the University of Michigan released the results of a survey they had conducted—an attempt to reflect Americans’ attitudes about unmarried people. When it came to the group of adults who remained single by choice, 80 percent of the survey’s respondents—reflecting the language used by the survey’s authors—said they believed that the singletons remained so because they must be “immoral,” “sick,” or “neurotic.”
It’s amazing, and reassuring, how much has changed in such a relatively narrow slice of time. Today, certainly, marriage remains a default economic and social arrangement, particularly after having been won as a right for same-sex couples; today, certainly, those who do not marry still face some latent social stigmas (or, at the very least, requests to explain themselves). But the regressive language of failed morality and psychological pathology when it comes to singledom? That has, fortunately, been replaced by more permissive attitudes.
That’s in part because the culture has shifted, in transformative ways, along with the language: More and more people—women, in particular, as the journalist Rebecca Traister argues in her book All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation—are remaining single. Some are staying single for longer than women did before. Some of them are staying single for good. And it’s not just women: Across demographics, the sociologist Eric Klinenberg, the author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone (and, more recently, the co-author of Modern Love), has written, people are living independently. The assumption that to live alone is to live with loneliness may sometimes hold true; more and more, though, Americans who are in economic positions to live on their own are availing themselves of that opportunity.