So There Are More Single People, but It’s Still a Couples’ World


The ranks of single people have skyrocketed over the last three decades. The marriage rate in the United States was 8.3 per 1,000 adults in 1998, a University of Michigan study found, the lowest since 1958. Since the advent of the birth control pill and the feminist movement, the proportion of women ages 25 to 35 who have never been married tripled since 1970. Some adults never marry, a rate that has jumped from 16% to 23% since 1970. Many of those who do, eventually join more than 1 million adults who divorce each year, according to 1998 figures. Single people, according to the latest Census data, head 46 million households.

Yet despite vast changes in cultural mores, there is still a social stigma attached to being single, agree psychologists and sociologists. “People come to me and say, ‘Why am I not with someone? What is wrong with me?’ ” said Helen Friedman, a clinical psychologist in St. Louis. “There is less of a stigma for people who have been married once and are divorced because there is some of that ‘You are normal if you have been married at least once.’ There really is an expectation in our culture that people will pair off, and it leaves people who don’t feeling sad and blue.”

The stigma is more than just an impression, argues Xavier Amador, a psychology professor at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York who is coauthor of “Being Single in a Couples World” (Free Press, 1998) with psychotherapist Judith Kiersky.

Amador and Hilda Speicher, a psychologist at the University of Delaware, conducted a 1998 study in which 143 participants were asked to read one of four short descriptions of a bank executive named Lee: one as a single woman, a married woman, a single man and a married man. The participants then answered questions about what they imagined each person was like. When portrayed as single, regardless of gender, participants’ evaluations were significantly more negative. In particular, study participants rated Lee as less socially competent, moral and trustworthy.

Such attitudes emerge again and again, said Amador, noting a comment by then-Los Angeles Police Chief Willie Williams during the O.J. Simpson trial. By way of defending his officers, Williams described them as “decent and respectable people, they’re husbands and wives.” Such attitudes add to the sense of alienation that many single people feel living in a couples’ world, said Amador. This may also explain why many studies have found single people to be more susceptible to depression, anxiety and various health problems.


“It is no wonder . . ,” said Amador. “Their self-esteem is under constant attack. They are not only dealing with friendly fire from well-meaning friends and relatives who inadvertently make pernicious comments like, ‘You’re just not trying hard enough,’ but often they are their own worst enemy.”

Blame ancient cultural attitudes that have equated marriage with maturity, responsibility and goodness, and have led to public policies that promote it, said Amador and Friedman. But such entrenched values cannot reverse the cultural revolution of the ‘60s, which de-stigmatized sex out of wedlock, the women’s movement and climbing divorce rates, all of which have contributed to fewer people choosing to marry, according to a recent University of Michigan study. Adult children of divorce are less likely to marry, and divorced adults are more likely to live together than to remarry, the study found. Couples cohabit and bear children both before and in lieu of marriage. Some people function as a couple but live separately because of travel or demanding careers. Others opt for life as an unmarried person indefinitely.

“There are fewer reasons to go down the aisle,” said Amador. “Many of the things that we were taught were available only in marriage such as intimacy, sex, parenthood and romance are now available without it. Some of the best reasons to marry are the only ones left: because you have a relationship with someone who is a partner in every respect and you want to share your life with them.”

Unlike many books written for single people, Amador’s book is not a treatise on how to find and marry a mate, although if that is what happens, he wishes you well. Rather, Amador and Kiersky espouse finding happiness in unmarried life. To do this, the authors ask the reader to examine personal attitudes about marriage (such as postponing buying a house until one lands a spouse).

They also impart lessons in how to outsmart one’s inner voice (“How can I be a loser if millions of other people are single too?”) and those well-intentioned but poisonous remarks from friends and family. So if on St. Valentine’s Day, a friend or relative probes with the standard: “So, are you seeing anyone special today?” The authors suggest this quip: “I see you. Do you see me?”