What Does It Really Mean to Be 'Single'?

There needs to be more nuanced language to describe the expanding demographic of unmarried Americans.

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

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 That has, fortunately, been replaced by more permissive attitudes.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 Nationare 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.

That will bring about, Traister and Klinenberg argue, ephocal shifts—in politics and in culture. Despite all the progress in our thinking when it comes to singledom, the world of 2016 is, much like the world of 1957, still designed around, and for the benefit of, married people. That will likely change—it will need to change—as “married people” cease to be the default demographic in American life. Policy will have to, as it so often has had to, play a game of catch-up, re-accommodating itself to a time in which more and more people live, and navigate life, independently.

Part of that shifting will come down to language. Much of American culture’s logic of singledom and marriage comes down to a basic binary: Have you said “I do” or some version of it in a legally recognized ceremony? Then you are married. Have you never done that, or have you dissolved an earlier marriage contract? Then you are single.

This easy dichotomy is reflected in everything from tax policy to rom-coms, which tend to treat marriage—or the promise of long-term commitment—as the signature social shift in someone’s (and particularly in a woman’s) life. Even reality shows like Say Yes to the Dress, Traister noted, operate from the assumption that a woman’s wedding day is the most important day in her life—more important than graduations, and more even, in some ways, than the day she becomes a mother. It is the day, after all, that her status—and, with it, the thinking goes, her identity—switches over. She now checks the other box. With any luck, permanently.

In practice, of course, singledom does not adhere to such check-box binaries. As experienced and lived today, it encompasses a range of situations and statuses and identities. There’s the singledom that results from a simple preference to live alone, and to meet one’s social needs through friends and family rather than romantic partnerships. There’s the singledom that happens when one is in a relationship, but unmarried. There’s the singledom that is complicated by co-habitation. There’s the singledom that comes from waiting to find the right person, or perhaps persons, and feeling no economic or social need to rush the search. There’s the singledom of divorce’s aftermath, and death’s.

And there are, of course, many, many others. As Traister summed it up, from the feminist perspective: “It’s not so much that there’s married versus single. It’s that there’s married versus a greater variety of options than women have ever had.”

What that amounts to, Traister and Klinenberg argue, is the need to reassess American social life—and political life, and cultural life, and economic life—in terms of a less binary logic. Language may be the start of it, or the end; either way, the real demand is for more flexibility and expansiveness when it comes to the assumptions we make about the way our romantic lives inflect our lives overall. We need political approaches, when it comes to tax incentives and government aid programs and the like, that account for the wide array of ways there are to be single. Marriage, certainly, as experienced by those who are in it, may be just as widely varied and nuanced as singleness. Policy-wise, though, at this point, it’s singleness that needs its advocates.