Have We Given up on Love?

By all appearances we are a nation that holds fast to the notion that love conquers all. From billboards to movies to cereal commercials, the message is clear: our lives will only truly have meaning when we find that special someone. So why is it that most Americans say they prefer to remain unattached?

Data recently released by the Pew Research Center 1 reveals that the majority of singles in this country are not looking to change their relationship status. A staggering 55% of single adults reported no active interest in finding a romantic partner. Think you can chalk those numbers up to dutiful widowers and bitter divorcees? Not likely: about half of those dedicated singles are age 18-29.

So why are so many Americans in their romantic prime (a full 38%) opting out on love? Some claim a lack of prospects. Most singles in suburban and rural areas admit it is difficult to meet prospective dates, and urbanite singles didn’t fare much better. The majority of couples initially meet through school, work or mutual friends (78% according to those surveyed), which can be problematic for the young adult recently removed to new surroundings and cut off from the built-in social networks of school.

While the difficulty of the dating scene might explain why 43% of adults are single, it doesn’t account for why only a measly 7% are even on the market. The Washington Post recently named a different culprit in the twenty-something’s dispassionate approach to passion: the career-driven frenzy of young professionals. In an increasingly competitive workforce, the cost of success is often youthful energy and time, and that includes time that might be spent finding and maintaining a relationship. Maybe being young and in love is simply a luxury singles can no longer afford.

According to Montana Wojczuk, a 26-year-old assistant in a Manhatttan literary agency, it is – — at least for now. “There’s so much I want to do with my career,” she says. “I’m not that interested in looking.”

But young singles aren’t mourning their solo lifestyles. In fact, they’re sticking to them. At 27 for men and 25 for women, the median marriage ages are higher than they’ve ever been, and more and more people are choosing not to marry at all.

Cynics bemoan the demise of the family unit, but others celebrate the rise of self-definition. “Singlehood is no longer a state to be overcome as soon as possible,” claims social historian Stephanie Coontz. “It has its own rewards. Marriage is not the gateway to adulthood anymore.”2

It’s not that marriage has fallen to the wayside, but when remaining single — or delaying marriage — is presented as a valid lifestyle option, young adults are suddenly faced with a variety of paths and choices, instead of struggling to follow a very narrow road on an outdated map.

People are still getting married. They’re still falling in love and starting families; they just have more choice when it comes to the personal importance they place on these factors and the order in which they tackle them. It’s no longer: go to school, get a job, get married, have kids. There are a lot of other options out there now, and our social climate is a little more open-minded than it was a few years ago. People are more forgiving of the single father, the woman who prioritizes her career over finding a relationship and the young businessman who takes time off to be with his kids.

And what about those in the growing population that never hears wedding bells, who — because of their careers, their thirst for personal freedom, or their determination to never settle — choose to go it alone? These brave singles are finding that the solo life can be every bit as fulfilling as those of their coupled cohorts. And not the least bit solitary. Single people, especially women, tend to have stronger, more diverse social networks than those in long-term committed relationships. While society stigmatizes those who have no family waiting at home, singles are actually more likely to be out with friends or networking with colleagues than home with TV dinners.

It might be a little surprising that over half of American singles are perfectly content being just that. But is it really so unfathomable? We may be a culture obsessed with romance, but we’re also a nation of driven, inspired and creative individuals, each pursuing a number of personal passions. And we’re increasingly emboldened to break from the traditions of the generation before. If and when we do choose to love, we are likely to be secure about what we want, whom we love and who we are.

What’s significant here isn’t that people are single longer or marrying later. Marriage continues to help build rewarding, supportive partnerships for those who choose it — – both early and later in life, even as singles forcibly defy the stigma of the lonesome spinster. Divorcees stand proudly on their own, enriched by the lessons of a previous marriage; they also dive eagerly back into the dating pool. Despite an overwhelming amount statistical data, the intricacies of human relationships can’t be easily quantified.

The numbers do suggest that people are less willing to be defined by ticks on an imagined timeline — – that we are finding fulfillment in ourselves before we look for it in others. Happily hitched, single and satisfied, or unattached and on the prowl, that can only be good news for love.

1 Madden, M. & L. Rainie. Pew Internet and American Life Project, Feb. 2006. 2 Strauss, Jillian. “Lone Stars.” Psychology Today. June 2006: 88-92.

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