In our society we have been taught to view marriage as the only natural arrangement and singleness as somehow “deviant.” Adulthood and emotional maturity are synonymous with marriage and parenthood while social psychologists tend to refer to singles as “those who fail to marry,” or as “those who do not make positive choices” (Stein, 1976). Although there is a notable dearth of research on this topic, latest studies show that a growing number of women are remaining single by preference (Peterson, 1981).
As a happily unmarried woman I decided to explore my “deviance” by way of reading and asking questions of myself and others to discover why aloneness is so appealing to those of us who have chosen it and appalling to those who have not, both married and single. The amount of positive material and feedback that emerged was surprising. Naturally, as with any lifestyle, the never-married situation also has its shadow counterpart.
In this article I will explore some of the positives, negatives, problems and solutions experienced by the never-married woman as she lives and ages within the framework of a couple-dominant society.
Myths and Stereotypes
Since marriage is usually viewed as the only acceptable lifestyle, especially by a single woman’s mother, those who do not choose it are immediately stereotyped. These stereotypes run the gamut of extremes. An introductory question to a single woman might be, “Why aren’t you married?” That question, besides being rather ill-mannered, is rhetorical, since the curious party already “knows” the answer. Obviously, if a woman is not married she must be unattractive, unfeminine, odd, prudish, boring and probably leading a dull life. On the other hand, she might be a foot-loose and fancy-free swinger, sexually promiscuous, and attending wild parties every night of the week (Payne, 1983). She also risks being considered a man-hater, and even a lesbian.
The labels do not improve with age. An older single woman is viewed as a complaining “kvetch,” a senile old lady, an ugly witch, an old maid, or as a helpless old “rocking chair grandma” who never complains, makes no demands, and is a “perfect target for muggers” (Lewis, 1985).
Stereotyping of single women is not new. Nineteenth-century folks assumed that every unmarried woman suffered from low self-esteem, lack of identity, eccentricity, and most probably possessed a disagreeable nature, which would account for her inability to snare a man. Author Louisa May Alcott, who never married, was regarded as just such a person, although that was not how she regarded herself. In 1868 she advised young women that “the loss of liberty, happiness, and self-respect is poorly repaid by the barren honor of being called ‘Mrs.’ instead of ‘Miss.’“ She assured her readers that spinsters were “composed of superior women... remaining as faithful and happy in their choice as married women with husbands and homes” (Chambers-Schiller, 1984).
Who Are the Never-Married Women?
Statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau reveal that the number of women between the ages of 24 and 34 who are remaining single has more than doubled since 1970 (Smith, 1988). Apparently, many women who were formerly postponing marriage are now completely avoiding it. In order to finance their bid for independence most single women are working — some strictly out of necessity, many others because it is fulfilling, a way of life they prefer. Since the individual differences in single women are as varied as those in the general population, these women have found a niche at every level of every job or profession imaginable. According to research, however, one trend seems to stick out above all the rest: The women most likely to remain single are those with high mastery needs (Baruch, Barnett & Rivers, 1983).
Women with high mastery needs possess high academic and professional goals, or pursue careers in business, highly skilled technical trades, or the creative arts. With their singleness of purpose during their upward swing, these women prefer to keep to strict schedules and have a tendency to become easily annoyed with interference. With these traits the never-married woman seems to be “more typical than the married woman of what psychologist Abraham Maslow has called the ‘self-actualizing personality’” (Baruch, Barnett & Rivers, 1983). She can set her own goals and pursue them without being controlled by others. The woman who enjoys a high level of mastery and has chosen aloneness to help accomplish it will most likely be highly satisfied with her life. The “children” she will leave to society will be the students or clients she has nurtured, and her works of creativity and innovation.
The obligations to self and society do not have to end with the passing of the “industry” years of middle-age. The search for self continues into older age and brings with it new values, virtues and obligations, experienced with even more intensity of feeling. Maslow called this stage the “post-mortem life.” He said, “Everything gets doubly precious, gets piercingly important. You get stabbed by flowers and by babies and by beautiful things” (Buscaglia, 1982).
Dena Korfker, now in her eighties, has not stopped plying her life-long trade; only her audience has changed. Having been a kindergarten teacher at Oakdale Christian School, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for forty-six years, she is now sharing her Bible stories with the aged residents of Kent Community Hospital, as a volunteer. She also meets with friends once a week to study and read aloud selected philosophical and theological writings. She is the author of ten books — written mostly for children—and has illustrated some of them with her own photographs which she printed in her own darkroom. She claims that keeping one’s mind active is the key to longevity (Golder, 1988).
Although the picture is generally bright for never-married women, there are also those women who have not chosen to be single, and who cannot adjust to aloneness. A woman such as this is likely to have a poor support network and is often found in a low-level job. She feels “stuck,” out-of-step, deprived of intimacy and unable to act spontaneously. One such woman is quoted in Lifeprints (Baruch et al, 1983) as having stated:
I would never go any place by myself. I think it’s terrible, having to go some place where if s all couples and be the single person. I find that a big stigma in my life, being single. You have the feeling of never having been chosen and it makes you feel you’re worthless, (p. 268)
Since this woman was not “chosen” she may feel unacceptable and unworthy. She may even wonder if there is anyone who really likes her. Her negative view of singleness constantly undermines her confidence and makes it impossible for her to like herself — the key ingredient in well-being (Payne, 1983).
One of the ways to raise self-esteem is by risk-taking. There is nothing like a success, however great or small, to raise one’s self-esteem. Gaining confidence indeed seems to be part of the antidote. When asked at a women’s meeting what had caused the greatest growth in self-esteem in her life, however, one woman responded, “For me the real difference came when I had an experience of God’s love. God creates each one of us and says we are good. Who am I to say that I’m not, in the fact of that?” (Payne, 1983).
The woman who never marries ultimately reflects the human condition. Her life, like every other, will have its share of “conflict, ambivalence and resolution, decisions to be made, disappointments faced, triumphs to be savored” (Peterson, 1981). She has simply opted to take “the road less traveled.”
Why Stay Single?
Not too many years ago, for women, living the “good life” brought along with it hopes of marrying a doctor or a lawyer, being provided with a cozy home, and having financial support. Today’s single woman is a doctor or a lawyer, has her own home or apartment and is able to support herself. Even if she joins with a man in holy wedlock she will most likely keep on working. “When today’s man marries he gets a home, a housekeeper, a cook, a cheering squad and another paycheck. When a woman marries, she gets a boarder” (Smith, 1988). While indeed humorous, the above lines reflect the attitude of many single women.
There are, of course, a number of other reasons that more women are staying single. Many feel that marriage actually creates aloneness. They have listened to their married friends and family members complaining about feeling isolated and frustrated because of poor communication. Some singles see couples as constantly having to accommodate and compromise, which is viewed as a threat to identity. Close friendships, which are a vital source of intimacy and self-esteem for the single woman, do not appear to be developed as readily for the married woman. In fact, marriage seems to function to avoid friendships. Thus many never-married women view marriage as an obstacle to personal growth. They are uncomfortable with the idea of one person satisfying the many demands of self-development (Stein, 1976). One woman clearly stated her feelings with the comment “I have never met any man I would want to spend my life with. Obviously it works for some people ... but not for me. The thought of spending every day forever with the same person is horrifying” (Smith, 1988).
Not all never-married women remain single by choice. Sometimes it is due to circumstances. For the high-achievers in particular it may be difficult to find a man who is not threatened by a successful woman (Stein, 1976).
Sally, a 59-year-old family counselor, has never married. She spent many years in college, diligently working toward the earning of two masters degrees — one in music and the other in social work. Her love for people and her eagerness to put her knowledge into practice has taken her far and wide. Besides teaching music for fourteen years in Michigan, she has taught children of Army personnel for the Department of Defense in Japan; has taught Methodist boarding school children in Albuquerque, New Mexico; has been a Vista worker in Erie, Pennsylvania; and has been a social worker in a large Methodist church in Washington, D.C. Sally has come full circle and is currently back in Michigan, this time working with juvenile offenders for a private agency.
Sally certainly falls into the category of high-achiever. She is living a full life and is making a substantial contribution to society. Would she like to be married? She says that she had always hoped that she would find a man with whom she could share her thoughts — one who would like the things that she liked, and was interested in serving people, and would be supporting and giving; someone who would be “just like me.”
For a woman with high ambitions and achievement needs finding a man “just like me” is a tough order to fill. Rather than to make compromises Sally opted to remain single. She asserts that “life is worth living whether you have all of the things you want, or not.” She sees her life as having worth and purpose because she is a “child of God.” She lives a life of thankfulness “for the good things,” and trusts that God’s plan for her life is unfolding as it should.
There are many reasons why some women stay single. Studies indicate that those women who are single by their own choice seem to thrive on freedom, independence, opportunities to develop friendships, and for the search for personal development Their freedom allows them to take advantage of the exceptional possibilities for new experiences offered in a rapidly changing world. Their quest for economic, social, and psychological autonomy clearly displays that the intent to remain single is by preference (Peterson, 1981). But whether by choice or by circumstance, remaining single can be an adventure, “an achievement to take advantage of, not a condition to escape from” (Payne, 1983).
There is little doubt that loneliness can be one of the greatest fears faced by a never-married woman. There is, however, an important distinction to be made between loneliness, aloneness, and solitude. Just as an example, one person can be alone on a mountain top thoroughly enjoying the feeling of solitude, while another might be in the middle of a large gathering and feel isolated to the point of despair. Loneliness has nothing to do with just being alone (Ivy, 1989).
Loneliness is defined as “a state of mental pain or anguish caused by feelings of separation, of being a nonentity, of nothingness” (Payne, 1983). These feelings may be caused by rejection, loss of a loved one, lack of purpose in life, refusal to reach out to others, isolation, fear, or detachment. For a never-married woman, loneliness can have many triggers: events that mark the passage of time creating feelings of longing or nostalgia; a beautiful day and no one with whom to share it; a song with special meaning; a magnificent sunset; any night when the house seems too quiet — the list is long (Edwards & Hoover, 1975).
Probably at greatest risk is the woman in her middle years who has secretly hoped for a mate (Stein, 1976). She is susceptible to feelings of despair when she realizes that a mate may never materialize. Her child-bearing years are past, as well, and along with them her tie to the future. The woman who will survive these feelings will be one with a strong self-concept. For, “it is not the presence of people that prevents loneliness, it is the presence of a sense of self-adequacy” (Smith, 1988).
Remaining single throughout the life-span does not doom one to loneliness, however. In fact, large-scale surveys show an opposite trend. It has been found that adolescents suffer most from loneliness. People seem to become less lonely as they age. In one survey, for example, 79% of the respondents under the age of eighteen said they were sometimes or often lonely, compared to 53% of people in their middle years, and only 37% of those over fifty-five. What likely accounts for this trend is that older adults may have established more realistic expectations and satisfactions in their relationships. In the old-old, loneliness is often due to physical incapacity, lack of mobility, and loss of control over one’s environment (Peplau, Bikson, Rook & Goodchilds, 1982).
Aloneness simply means being by one’s self. If a woman is alone by her own choice she is not usually lonely. “Being alone can be a wonderful soul-nurturing state — if you enjoy your own company” (Smith, 1988). There may be moments, though, when a never-married woman deeply ponders her aloneness. She is, after all, solely responsible for herself and must learn to cope alone — physically, socially, and financially. The prospect of growing old alone may loom up before her as she reaches her middle years. She may ask herself such questions as: “How will I manage if I get sick?” “Who will come to see me?” “Who will be there if I die?” If being alone begins to cause feelings of despair, she will experience loneliness (Payne, 1985).
In a study done on older adults living alone it was found that only 7% reported being lonely most of the time. Older single adults tend to value privacy as much as younger singles do. Rather than being a sign of rejection by others, they consider living alone to be something of an achievement (Peplau et al, 1982). They prefer to remain in their own homes where there is familiarity and a sense of their own history.
Solitude is a study in contrasts. It can be experienced either as complete isolation or as an opportunity for creativity. Creativity demands solitude. Solitude means facing ourselves — the things that we have said that are unkind and untrue, and the guilt, fears and hostilities that we would rather not see in ourselves. However, it is only in touching these depths that we can pardon ourselves, and allow spiritual awakening (Payne, 1983).
If a never-married woman is afraid of solitude, her potential for deepening relationships and for self-expression is severely limited, for it is in solitude that she will be able to think, dream, study, practice, write, and pray. However, solitude becomes dangerous when one develops an addiction to it. It becomes too easy for a woman alone to let her social skills slip and to live in an inward world. This can destroy her personality and sap her of her energy and creativity. The goal of solitude is to love — God, ourselves, and others — by way of prayer, meditation, and contemplation (Payne, 1983).
“How long has it been since someone touched me? Twenty years ... respected, smiled at, but never touched, never held so close that loneliness was blotted out” (Porcino, 1985). This quote rightly suggests that the greatest need a never-married woman may feel in her departure from the traditional family structure is for supportive and tender relationships that satisfy her longing for intimacy, sharing, and continuity (Stein, 1976).
To be successful at remaining single, a woman must have good friends. Friendship is one of the greatest joys of life. Most never-married women are especially adept at this skill, having practiced a lifetime. The close relationships they build are very much like those found in an affectionate family. Sometimes they are even better than a real family since they are built around preference and genuine sharing rather than upon kinship (Edwards & Hoover, 1975).
What does a single woman look for in a friendship? Probably topping the list would be companionship — someone with whom to compare notes, share interests and activities, and to just be herself. On a deeper level, intimate conversations with a “kindred spirit/ often bringing release through laughter or tears, are a peak human experience. Just for a moment each will allow herself to merge with the other, to be totally lost in the other. Permitting herself to be really known to a friend is a means of clarifying and sometimes even correcting her “real” feelings, and of affirming and accepting herself (Edwards & Hoover, 1975).
Another important aspect of friendship to a never-married woman is in the fulfillment of her need for emotional support. Having someone who cares for and understands her can help her to get through all kinds of situations, pleasant and unpleasant. Each of us yearns for someone “in whose eyes and words we see our triumphs recorded and even magnified” (Edwards & Hoover, 1975). Friendship provides an arena for building self-esteem, and for encouraging change and growth, in self and others.
In cultivating friendships it is essential for the single woman to realize that just as no person can be the perfect spouse —fulfilling every need —no one friend should be expected to bear this burden, either. She should have a variety of friends, culling them carefully according to her specific needs, thereby protecting all of her friendships (Edwards & Hoover, 1975),
In one of the earliest longitudinal studies it was found that the availability of a confidant was the “strongest single predictor of well-being” (Peplau et al, 1982). Interestingly, results have shown that having contact with friends and neighbors is better for the well-being of an older adult than contact with relatives. Also, contrary to what most people think, older persons living alone are actually less isolated from friends than those living with another person. For example, an elderly woman was asked after her husband of fifty years passed away if she was lonely. She replied, “Sometimes you can be lonelier living with someone than living alone” (Smith, 1988). The frequency of contact with friends, however, is only somewhat related to an older adult’s well-being. Gerontological researchers have been urged to ask the elderly about the “meaning” of their social relationships rather than “how many” friends they have and “how often” they see them (Peplau et al, 1982).
Studies have shown that the major cause of depression in older women is a lack of intimacy. The never-married older woman, however, is significantly different than a married, or formerly married woman. Since the never-married woman has spent much of her life living alone she is generally more self-reliant and less vulnerable to depression caused by a lack of intimacy. She is usually better educated and has been in a demanding occupation, causing less intimate contact with family and friends. This has made her quite independent, and while intimate relationships are essential to her, constant companionship is not as vital to her as to a married, or once-married woman. If a never-married woman suffers from a depression it will most likely be linked to her deteriorating health. This precipitates a feeling of loss of self-reliance. She may be forced to rely on others, increasing her risk of depression (Essex, 1987).
Psychologist Erik Erikson stressed the importance of the intimacy versus isolation adjustment. There is no denying that each of us, married and single, is alone. We are born alone, will meet our Maker alone, and all of the changing and growing and personal choices that we make in between, will be made alone. “Most of us feel this mounting sense of aloneness all of our lives” (Buscaglia, 1984). If aloneness turns into isolation, resulting in a lack of support and caring, mental illness may be the consequence. The good news is that the ability to love and to experience intimacy through relationships makes aloneness not only bearable but often pleasurable.
Leo Buscaglia (1982) expresses the significance of intimacy through interdependence beautifully and poignantly with these words:
In some way, however small and secret, we are all dependent one upon the other.... A word, an act, an expressed feeling can reverberate in wide circles in the pond — touching unsuspecting travelers.... We cannot escape moving together and affecting whatever we encounter. The collective actualization of the trip is put into jeopardy by even one person’s nonbeing. (p. 106)
In a couple-dominant society, the woman who never marries is perplexing to everybody, perhaps even to herself. Though the amount of research on this topic is limited, it is obvious that there are as many reasons why women stay single as there are single women! Some of the reasons are: not meeting the “right” man; relationships that did not work out; bad role models; interference by parents; lack of suitable prospects; feelings of not being physically attractive; and high career aspirations. Older singles often felt pressure to remain single to assist with family responsibilities after the death of a parent (Peterson, 1981).
Nancy L. Peterson, in her book, Our Lives for Ourselves, found that further questioning of those women who choose not to many, and even many who remain single by circumstance, revealed a deep need for elbow room. Many single women treasure autonomy, independence, and above all, freedom. They need to set their own agendas, follow their own drummers, “or even to be able to follow the muse.” Peterson (1981) asserts that the real reason for never marrying “lies deep within the psychodynamics of one’s own being, perhaps in the deep, hidden recesses of our psyche where our most basic life drives begin. It may be a product of complex early life experiences, emotions, perceptions. A final answer may be difficult to reach and interpret.”
Peterson (1981) also sees the question of, “Why aren’t you married?” as a problem in itself. It goes back to the idea of marriage being viewed as the only acceptable lifestyle. A woman remaining single is not only rejecting convention, but the whole male hierarchy, in which she is supposed to be subordinate to men.
The contemporary women’s movement has begun to change the way a never-married woman views herself. She is no longer self-conscious because she is not something others expect her to be. The movement seems to have raised the consciousness of the public, as well. In a study published by the University of Michigan (Peterson, 1981) it was shown that between the years of 1975 and 1979 the percentage of people with negative attitudes toward singles dropped from 80% to less than 25%. Peterson found elderly never-marrieds to be especially conscious of the change in attitude. They vividly recall the awkwardness of, for example, attending a formal dinner without a partner, of “being systematically excluded from the world of couples and shunted to the sidelines.”
The older women in Peterson’s (1981) sampling of never-married women proved themselves to be “master copers.” They had to be especially resourceful in finding their own way, in planning their own futures. Since single women have almost always spent their lives working at paid jobs, they are generally well prepared in the art of surviving their later years alone. Also, they are spared having to make the painful transition to independence through widowhood or divorce at a time in life when making transitions is difficult
Researching the topic of never-married women, particularly the trail-blazers who are now in their later years, has washed away any vestigial anxiety that I may have been harboring about my own future as an ever-single woman. Rather than feeling like a “deviant,” I feel that I have a place and a purpose within God’s plan. Naturally, there are unresolved dreams and unanswered questions, but there is also fulfillment in the single life and great feelings of accomplishment. As Peterson (1981} says, “We know who we are; we have led our own lives.”
It looks like the stereotypical frump in the “shapeless print dresses and sensible shoes” is history. The new “old maid” is sporting stone-washed jeans, Reeboks (Smith, 1988), and a sense of self-worth.
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