With singledom on the rise, is marriage overrated?

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In the modern age, being single is no longer a life stage but a state of being. And it’s relished by a thriving solo community around the world, all questioning and unmasking societal norms and traditions. In fact, recent US data showed that singledom has been hitting an all-time high, 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 sees radiant couples searching for wild flower arrangements on Pinterest, or marking #5years 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 a lifetime of happiness.

Our concept of marriage has evolved enough to include same-sex couples in some countries, and for wedding traditions to be fiercely scrutinised through a feminist lens. Yet we are still largely characterised by the institution. Even today, people who don’t have a ring on their wedding finger can feel left out, void of that so-called ‘happily ever after’. But is there really any truth to this ingrained belief?

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Women have choices that allow them to customise their lives

Once upon a time, marriage was no more than a financial transaction: an alliance of one family to another. In Roman times in a heteronormative relationship, a man gave his betrothed a gold, then an iron, ring to bind his legal ownership of her.

Thankfully, our understanding of marriage has progressed quite a bit since then. 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. For some they find that it’s best to put marriage aside.”

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Who we are is far more closely related to what we do

Rewind to when marriage went hand-in-hand with status and reputation. In the Anglo-Saxon era, 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, when gentlemen in possession of a good fortune were expected to protect their assets by ‘marrying well’.

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,” read 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, men and women have careers of their own. Who we are is far more closely related to what we do, rather than whom we marry. And, 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.

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Single people are likely to be more sociable and fulfilled

Marriage has traditionally been a status symbol, providing a route into money and power. It also offered another type of security for older women often labelled as ‘spinster’. “In societies where marriage is typically considered a woman’s primary life goal, the term comes loaded with negative connotations,” said this Forbes article. “Spinsters have long been depicted as undesirable or desperate anomalies — the target of whispers and the objects of pity.”

Thankfully, 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 that. 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 as marriage encourages you to look inwards to your partner, rather than outwards to the world.

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People no longer see marriage and love as integrated values

And, of course, there’s always good old-fashioned love. But even here, we find cracks in the narrative. Fairytales tell us that marrying for love leads to lifelong happiness. Divorce rates tell another story. Although figures for divorce have dipped since the 1980s in both the UK and the US, this is partly due to marriage rates in both countries having 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.

So, what does this tell us? When couples get married for love, it doesn’t always last (which is by no means a sign of a ‘failure’). When once upon a time they stuck it out, nowadays, people feel empowered enough to draw the line when the love changes.

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We recognise the powerful autonomy that comes with being single

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.

At its best, balanced romantic relationships 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 typically make you unhappy overall. On the flip side, anyone who relies on marriage alone for happiness will eventually come unstuck.

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 to be true to yourself is a constant. So the question now is less, “will I ever get married?” but “is it really something I want?”

Join Flash Pack today to celebrate your 30s and 40s with other like-minded travellers.

Got a story or adventure that could inspire a solo traveller like you? Tag @flashpack on social or  email [email protected] to be featured.

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