New data from the General Social Survey shows that singledom has hit an all-time high in the States, with 35% of the nation now flying solo. This figure rises to over 50% for people under 35.
Despite this, we still tend to put marriage on a pedestal. Getting wed equals radiant couples searching for wild flower arrangements on Pinterest, or marking the #5years mark with tasteful black and white snaps on Insta.
More than a milestone, it’s an entrenched cultural value – one that lands squarely in the same breath as lifetime happiness.
Our concept of marriage has evolved far enough to include same-sex couples in some countries, and for us to scrutinise wedding traditions through a fiercely feminist lens. But we’re still not enlightened enough to look beyond the institution itself.
Even today, people who don’t put a ring on it can feel left out; like they’ve eluded that lottery ticket marked “happily ever after”. But is there really any truth to this ingrained belief?
Marriage as a financial tool
Once upon a time, marriage was no more than a financial transaction: an alliance of one family to another.
In Roman times, a man gave his betrothed a gold and then an iron ring to bind his legal ownership of her (delightful, we know).
Thankfully, our understanding of marriage has progressed quite a bit since then.
Read more: What today’s single women really want
With women pouring into the global workforce, getting hitched is no longer the financial imperative it once was.
This relatively newfound freedom means many women are now delaying marriage or not marrying at all.
As sociology professor Pepper Schwartz puts it: “Women now have choices that allow them to customise the arc of their lives and some of them find that it is best for them to put marriage aside.”
Marriage as a status symbol
Rewind to an Anglo-Saxon era, and arranged marriages frequently came about as part of a trade agreement over land or a family name.
This thinking persisted in a Jane Austen age. Gentlemen in possession of a good fortune were expected to protect their assets by “marrying well”. Marriage went hand-in-hand with status and reputation.
Even in the 1950s, a woman’s marriage was integrally caught up in her identity.
“To be a successful wife is a career in itself,” reads one typical piece of advice from that time. “Requiring among other things, the qualities of a diplomat, a businesswoman, a good cook, a trained nurse, a schoolteacher, a politician and a glamour girl.”
Today, both men and women have careers of their own, and who we are is far more closely related to what we do, rather than whom we marry.
But while marriage is no longer as important in terms of power or wealth, its meaning has shifted to represent another, modern-age commodity: happiness.
Still now, Hollywood producers are slavishly devoted to the “family values = happiness” construct (and 99% of the time we’re talking heterosexual marriage) – mainly because sticking to this generic script makes money.
Marriage for social stability
Marriage traditionally provided a route into money and power, but it also offered another type of security.
For women of a certain age, marriage once meant escape from the pejorative label “spinster”.
“In societies where marriage is typically considered a woman’s primary life goal, the term comes loaded with negative connotations,” says this Forbes article. “Spinsters have long been depicted as undesirable or desperate anomalies — the target of whispers and the objects of pity.”
In the 21st Century, our cultural attitudes have shifted. If you look for it, it’s still possible to detect a grain of negativity towards single people, particularly single women. But it’s no longer so pervasive that marriage is seen as a route out of the stereotype.
In its place, however, we cling to the myth that singledom is lonely, and marriage will somehow guard against this loneliness.
In fact, studies show that as we get older, whether or not we have a romantic partner becomes less relevant to how lonely we feel.
What’s more, single people are likely to be more sociable and fulfilled than their married counterparts: because marriage encourages you to look inwards to your partner, rather than outwards to the world.
Marriage for love
Of course, there’s always good old-fashioned love. But even here, we find cracks in the narrative. Fairy tales tell us that marrying for love leads to lifelong happiness. Divorce rates tell another story.
While figures for divorce have dipped since the 1980s, in both the UK and the US, this is partly because marriage rates in both countries have also taken a nosedive. In other words, people no longer see marriage and love as integrated values.
Around 15 percent of adult women in America are divorced or separated today, compared with less than one percent in 1920. And couples in the UK typically hit a divorce peak in their 40s.
What does this tell us? When couples get married for love, it doesn’t always last. And when once upon a time they stuck it out, nowadays, people feel empowered enough to draw the line when the love runs out.
Single by choice = the ultimate freedom?
Marriage is a wonderful thing, if that’s what you want in life. But it no longer has to be the default option.
Historically, marriage was a necessary act, one that brought with it money, power and social status. Thankfully, much of these cultural prompts have faded away, leaving us with choice alone.
No matter what Hollywood tells us, love through marriage is not the key to happiness.
At its best, a balanced romantic relationship will be a part of a happy life, but marriage doesn’t make the difference.
An unhappy marriage (like an unhappy job or an unhappy social life) will make you unhappy generally. But on the flip side, anyone who relies on marriage alone for happiness will eventually come unstuck.
What’s left, then, is personal freedom.
All relationships involve a degree of compromise, and that’s not always a bad thing. But in an age where people can do what they want, when they want, entirely on their own terms, more of us recognise the powerful autonomy that comes with being single.
Partners come and go, but the freedom you have from being true to you is a constant. So the question now is less, “will I ever get married?” but “what person is really worth that price?”
Images: Movie Stills Database
Celebrate your singledom with solo adventure
Explore the world with like-minded travellers in their 30s and 40s
Toast a new dawn in Colombia
Boat between the beaches of the Rosario Islands, trek the rainforest in Tayrona National Park and learn how to salsa over rum in Cartagena.
Track down treasures in Vietnam and Cambodia
Boat through Halong Bay with sunrise yoga, cook a Vietnamese feast and see the temples of Angkor Wat come aglow in the evening sun.
Smash your comfort zone in South Africa
Abseil down Table Mountain, learn how to paddle-board on the Cape Peninsula and stay in a luxury safari lodge with bush walks and open-top game drives.