October 24, 2005


Single and satisfied: more Americans living solo

A story published today in the Detroit News reports that a growing number of Americans are saying "I do" to solo single life.

Consider Siti Ade Basha, for example.   At 40, she's never been married, and she's more pleased with her life than ever.

"I have so much freedom," the Michigan resident says. "I don't have to consider anyone's feelings by asking what I should do, where I should or should not go, or how should I spend my money. All decisions are ultimately mine, and there are a lot of advantages to that."

More adults than ever are thinking the same way. The most common household composition in the United States has shifted from married couples with children in 1990 to people living alone, according to a recent U.S. Census Bureau report.

The unmarried are showing up all over, even walking the halls of power. Harriet Miers, a never-married woman of 60, is President Bush's latest choice for the U.S. Supreme Court. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Supreme Court Justice David Souter are other prominent singles.

The unmarried also are a growing target market, in everything from home loans and singles-sized food products to self-help books (without chapters on snaring a spouse). There's even one notable attempt to transform a classic symbol of coupledom into a liberated adornment, with right-hand diamond ring ads that exhort women to empower themselves by buying their own fabulous bling.

But the culture still hasn't caught up to the demographic reality in terms of self-acceptance and social recognition, according to those who study the single life.

E. Kay Trimberger is trying to change that with her book "The New Single Woman" (Beacon, $25.95), a look at how 27 single women from the ages of 30 to 60 created fulfilling lives on their own.

Her approach is scholarly -- after all, she's a sociology professor and a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Social Change at the University of California, Berkeley. But her interest in the topic was not just academic.

"From the beginning, I knew I was on a personal quest," she says of the book project. It sprang from her own struggle in midlife to accept the fact that her prince wasn't going to show up.

"In my late 40s, I realized I was not going to couple," says Trimberger, who's in her 60s. Despite all her accomplishments -- which included adopting a son, she was left with questions about who she was.

"I'm not a spinster, and I'm not an old maid," she says.

Jane Ganahl, a San Francisco Chronicle columnist, reached the same conclusion. The powerful stories she heard from singles inspired her to write "Single Women of a Certain Age" (Inner Ocean, $21.95), a book of 29 essays touching on topics from online dating, empty nest syndrome, romantic escapades and heavy petting to shifting shapes and serene independence.

"Single women at this age don't necessarily need men like they used to," Ganahl says. "They've achieved a degree of mastery in their lives. They travel alone, have their children, care for their pets and their work and have huge amounts of satisfaction that relationships can't touch."

The book helped Gangahl, 53, to analyze her own singleness.

"In your 20s and 30s, all you want is to be married, to have a relationship," she says. "When you turn 40, other things become more important to you. Candace Bushnell, who wrote 'Sex In the City,' said, 'In your 40s, success is the new sex.' Chasing men and presenting yourself as a hotsy mama isn't nearly as important as it is in your 20s and 30s; you learn your strengths, and that it's OK to be alone."

Despite such thinking, the idealized image of The Couple is certainly prevalent in our culture, from the story of Cinderella to the latest sitcoms. Even "Sex and the City" and "Friends" couldn't resist coupling up many of their characters, although they started out so bravely single. (The 1970s sitcom "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" remains a rare pioneer in remaining faithful to the singleness of its heroine.)

However, societal nudges toward coupledom don't make all women uneasy. Even after being engaged, living with a man and giving birth to a daughter, Sue Frazher of Mount Clemens says she never bought into the pressure to marry.

"I've always been OK with being a single woman," the 36-year-old says. "I've always enjoyed myself; I've always had fun."

Her life is full caring for her 9-year-old daughter, two dogs and the home she purchased 11 years ago.

In fact, life was too busy. She recently quit a bartending job so she could slow down. Now she sets appointments in a doctor's office. Each evening, she takes long walks and plays with her daughter. Once a month, without fail, she meets friends to play cards. She enjoys her life -- without a man.

"I have been envious of couples, people who look really happy together," says Frazher who recently ended a relationship. "It seems like I see a lot more people who don't seem happy together. I would rather be single and happy. I don't want to settle."

Society may pity singles, believing they lead unhappy, unfulfilled lives because research studies have indicated married people are happier than unmarried people. But Richard E. Lucas, assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University, believes those studies may have been skewed because divorced or widowed singles always were compared to married adults.

A study he started this year, "Values, Needs and Life Choices: A Longitudinal Investigation of the Well-Being of Single," may shed new light on the topic in exploring how well never-married singles fare when compared to married adults.

"People assume single people aren't happy," Lucas says. "It's possible that single people are having more fun and getting more enjoyment from their work and friends and aren't any less happy. It's an important question for us to research."

Social psychologist Bella DePaulo also is taking on the conventional wisdom about singles. "Singled Out" challenges the myths about singles. It is slated for publication by St. Martin's Press in 2006. (As part of her research, she welcomes singles' stories through her Web site, www.belladepaulo.com.)

According to her research, the unmarried are often seen as shy, self-centered, maladjusted, undesirable, unhappy, insecure and inflexible. But this flies in the face of the facts.

For instance, singles don't appear to have significantly different rates of well-being from those who are married, according to a review of research written by DePaulo and a colleague, which was published earlier this year in the Psychological Inquiry journal. (And the singles who report the highest rate of well-being are the never-married.)

While researchers investigate the topic of singleness, Oak Park resident Valencia Williams already has her conclusion: She's happier single right now.

Instead of a husband, Williams, 35, has poured her energy into writing books. Her self-published novel "The Hottest Summer Ever Known," (Williams Sisters Publications Group, $16.95) hit Essence magazine's bestseller's list several times this year.

"I have high standards, and I know what I want," she says. "Today, most people are getting married for the wrong reasons. I'm not going to get married just because my friend got married or it's the in thing to do. I'm happy being alone."

Take that, Cinderella.