Forever Single

New York Magazine

“Last night, I had a terrible dream. The weight of the world was on my shoulders, and it was pressing me into the ground. I screamed for help, but nobody came. When I woke up, I wanted somebody to hold me. But it was just like the dream. There was no husband. No children. Only me.”

Lately, Mary Rodgers* has been having trouble sleeping. She wakes up in the middle of the night, frightened and disoriented. An executive with a garment firm, Rodgers, at 33, is single, and she links her frequent nightmares to a growing sense of isolation. Tall and slim, with streaked blonde hair, she is Hollywood’s version of a career woman. But Rodgers has grown weary of her professional image. “I want to get married more than anything else in the world,” she explains. “No matter what they say, a career isn’t enough. Friends aren’t enough. I need stronger connections.”

Despite three marriage proposals, Rodgers has not been able to connect with any of the men she has dated in the past fifteen years. There was a high-school sweetheart who didn’t want to leave the Midwest (“too traditional”); a college boyfriend who wouldn’t quit his job as a construction worker (“too blue-collar”); and a spendthrift entrepreneur in California (“too unstable”). The last proposal was seven years ago. Since then, her involvements have been brief and unsatisfying. “I used to have a lot of confidence,” she says. “I was proud of my career success. Now I don’t feel attractive anymore. I’m beginning to doubt my femininity.”

Rodgers is now contemplating single motherhood. She doesn’t like the idea, but is terrified of growing old alone. “Why did my life turn out like this?” she asks. “There’s nothing physically wrong with me. I don’t have major psychological problems. I thought I did everything right. I found a career, joined a health club, went into therapy. Why am I still single?”

It’s a question more and more people are asking these days. If the 1970s exalted the single state, focusing on the concept of self-fulfillment through individual achievement, the ’80s have signaled a shift toward greater commitment to personal relationships. Members of the baby-boom generation who claimed they didn’t need that piece of paper are reconsidering their rebellious ways. “Every time I go to my office, somebody announces his engagement,” says a woman who works for a cable-TV station. “Female executives are walking around with Modern Bride in their briefcases. You can’t pick up a magazine without reading about wedding gowns and china patterns. Suddenly, it’s marriage, marriage, marriage.”

But is it? Buried in the current hype about the “new traditionalism” is an even more startling trend. A growing number of men and women are not getting married. According to the Census Bureau’s 1983 statistics, 13 percent of women and 20 percent of men between the ages of 30 and 34 have never been married. That’s more than twice as many singles as in 1970. Based on the statistical evidence, bureau officials suggest that an increasing proportion of the population may never marry at all.

In many cases, it is not a conscious choice. There are men and women, like Mary Rodgers, who simply can’t find the “right” partner. They go on countless dates and attend dozens of parties. They take out personal ads, and they vacation at Club Med. Yet the person they seek eludes them. A 35-year-old photographer estimates that he has had more than 100 blind dates in the past eighteen months. Of those women, he liked only one, and she was married. Reasons for rejecting the others ranged from the physical (“I hate large calves”) to the physiological (“She’s allergic to my cat”).

Others do find the right person – at the wrong time. “If only he’d finished med school,” says one woman about her ex-boyfriend. “But I didn’t want to suffer through his grueling schedule. Now he’s got a wife and a private practice – and I could kick myself.”

The inability to connect with an appropriate partner, according to mental-health experts, is the prime reason single people in their thirties seek professional treatment. “Every day I hear the same old story,” says an analyst at Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research whose practice includes many single patients.

“People’s dates are never good enough. They’re always a little too short, too thin, too shy, too aggressive. Yet patients tell me they are ‘desperate’ to get married. It’s ridiculous! If they wanted to be married, they’d be married.”

It may not be that simple. These singles have missed what Dr. Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist and co-author of American Couples, calls the “launch window.” In college, people connect on the basis of shared backgrounds and interests. Adequate leisure time nourishes friendships, and many of these develop into romance. Today, 30-year-old professionals operate on a tight schedule. They make blind dates for drinks and frequently judge one another on the basis of a 45-minute conversation. Under these circumstances, only the most attractive make it beyond the first round.

Coupled with these unfavorable social conditions is the “marriage squeeze” that affects women in their thirties. There aren’t enough men to go around, so unless a woman selects a younger partner, she may not be able to find a mate. Moreover, age diminishes a woman’s opportunities; by the time she reaches her forties, she and her peers outnumber available men more than two to one. “It’s getting to be a nightmare,” says a 38-year-old paralegal. “All of a sudden, marriage has become the greatest challenge of my life.”

Up until the 1960s, marriage was viewed much like a business contract: The wife provided sex and took care of the home and children; the husband paid the bills. Unmarried couples did not live together, and while society supported a double standard that allowed men to “experiment,” the men usually settled down with “nice girls” who didn’t.

Feminism and the sexual revolution changed the existing standards and indirectly altered the definition of an appropriate mate. Suddenly, women didn’t need husbands for money, and men didn’t need wives for a continuous sex life. They still needed one another for emotional support, but they could live together without the added burden of commitment.

‘What we need is a new meaning for the word ‘spouse,’ “says Dr. Olga Silverstein, a psychotherapist and training supervisor at the Ackerman Institute for Family Therapy in Manhattan. “The old standards are obsolete. In the 1950s, a boy married the girl next door, and if she didn’t fit his fantasy, he used his imagination. People didn’t have the luxury of wasting years searching for the ideal mate. They faced enormous pressure to settle down.”

A study conducted in 1957 revealed that 53 percent of the American public believed that single people were “sick,” “immoral,” or “neurotic.” The fifties emerged as the most family-oriented decade of the century, with 96 percent of the child-bearing population married. By the sixties, however, these values were overturned, creating tremendous conflict for the baby-boomers, who were then reaching maturity. Caught between two different philosophies, they approached their social life with a great deal of uncertainty.

Andrew Roth, 34, considers himself a “victim” of the counterculture. The owner of a manufacturing company, he has made enough money to afford a house in the country and six cars, including a Ferrari, two Mercedeses, and a stretch limousine. Roth blames the sixties for setting him on a social wild-goose chase. “I’ve come full circle,” he says. “When I was fourteen, I loved going to the country club with my parents. I used to look at all the cute girls and say to myself. ‘Maybe your future bride is right here on the tennis court.’

“By the late sixties, everything I was expected to do went out the window. I dropped out of college. I refused to go into my father’s business. I just ran around the country having fun. Somehow I knew I wasn’t going to settle down with a lovely hippie woman and live in a commune. In my heart, I still wanted the girls from the country club. Now they’re all married to investment bankers from Goldman Sachs.”

Like Andrew Roth, 34-year-old Winston Carter spent much of his twenties rejecting his roots. An independent TV producer, he was raised in a Main Line Philadelphia family, and despite his plaid shirt and blue jeans, he looks aristocratic, like a young George Bush. “I did not have a typical childhood,” he says. “My parents and grandparents had divorced and remarried. Any time I had a crush on a girl, she’d turn out to be a relative.” Carter left Philadelphia to go to college, where he majored in philosophy and religion and experimented with drugs and transcendental meditation. “After college, I was really confused,” he explains. “I couldn’t relate to the women in my own society because I hated cocktail parties. But I couldn’t relate to the women I met through T. M. because they were too weird. I even thought of becoming celibate.”

In 1979, Carter fell “head over heels” in love with a woman he met in a hot tub while on vacation in Florida. “She was perfect,” he says. “We jogged together. We did yoga together.” Within a few months, Carter moved to New York to be close to his new girlfriend, a free-lance writer. “I loved her a lot,” he says. “One day we went to see a Phillies doubleheader and The Empire Strikes Back, and it was such a perfect day that I asked her to marry me. She said yes.”

The invitations were in the mail when things began to unravel. “Both sets of parents were on their second marriages,” says Carter, “so we had eight people to please. It became a huge battle of egos. I kept saying, ‘Let’s just get through the wedding and have a happy life together.’ But she couldn’t.” They broke up just weeks before the ceremony.

Carter is now involved with a woman in her mid-twenties. He says it’s a “troublesome” relationship. “She’s wonderful and kind,” he says, “but I get annoyed because she doesn’t have a sixties mentality. All she cares about is her career and me. Sometimes I ask, ‘Don’t you worry about famine, disease, and the end of the world?’ And she says, ‘Why should I?’ How could I marry someone who is so uncommitted?”

Commitment is a difficult concept for many baby-boomers to understand. In the 1950s, it signified family responsibility, but later its meaning broadened to include larger social issues, such as civil rights and the anti-war movement. With the advent of the human-potential movement, which promoted self-improvement through psychological growth, people began to think of commitment in terms of “me.”

Dr. Arthur Parsons, chairman of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Smith College, has done an extensive study on the 1960s and believes that much of its predominant ideology hampered the development of long-term relationships. “Marriage requires self-sacrifice,” he explains. “But that concept was alien to the baby-boom generation, which was more interested in discovering the true essence of life within. Also, there was the general feeling that marriage, like most institutions, was designed to destroy individual freedom and self-expression.”

Yet the quest for self-fulfillment, Parsons believes, was ultimately unfulfilling. “Marriage provides intimacy that people crave,” he says. “But it also carries responsibilities, which interfere with self-fulfillment. At the beginning of a relationship, the intensity of self-revelation is at its highest peak. When the infatuation level begins to wear off, there is a major letdown. But instead of taking the relationship to the next step, they proceed to the next relationship.”

While many singles have followed this pattern, they still cling to the belief that marriage is the ideal. The vast majority of people interviewed for this article said they desired and expected a marriage that would last forever. Yet they were highly critical of their parents’ relationships, even though most of them were still together after 30 or 40 years. “My parents are non-intimate companions,” a 37-year-old fashion stylist explains. “I want more than that, only I don’t know what that is, and I don’t know who can give it to me.”

Writer Tom Elliot, 35, lives by himself in a sprawling seven-room apartment on the Upper West Side. He readily admits he has never had to sacrifice anything and leads a life of few restrictions and no rules. “I’ve always enjoyed complete freedom of choice,” he says. “I’ve been a jeweler, a sculptor, a screenwriter, a radio-talk-show host, and a game designer. I was never cubbyholed into a boring nine-to-five job, so why should I settle for the equivalent in a wife?”

When Elliot was eighteen, he fell in love with a girl who lived upstairs in his parents’ building. “In another generation, we would have gotten married,” he says. “But when I asked myself if she was everything I wanted, the answer was no. She was bright and beautiful, but much too high-strung.” After five years, they split up. Next, Elliot became involved with an English nursing student. “I was looking to get married,” he says, “and she was sweet and traditional. But in the end, she wasn’t my intellectual equal. I’d want to talk history and politics, and she’d want to make Yorkshire pudding.” The couple lived together for three years. But then they, too, broke up, and she returned to England.
“It’s the story of my life. The women I get involved with are intellectually stimulating but unstable, or stable but boring. But I’m not willing to compromise my dreams.”

Other singles aren’t willing to compromise their bank accounts. Raised in an atmosphere of post-World War II prosperity with the many options it provided, baby boomers are now faced with the prospector restriction. People talk about “downward mobility” (New York, August 16, 1982), and many singles are afraid they can’t afford to support a family.
“The baby-boomers were brought up to think they could have a huge piece of the pie,” says Nile Rowan, marketing consultant for the Values and Lifestyles Program at SRI International, a California research institute. “But in the late seventies, they realized that something was wrong. They said, ‘Wait a minute! We were promised these great jobs, and we’re not climbing the corporate ladder fast enough. And inflation is really cutting into our salaries.’ As a result, many people think, ‘Being single means more for me.’ ”

Some experts link this narcissistic attitude to the emergence of a new breed of unmarried adult: the perennial adolescent. This syndrome tends to afflict educated urban singles who refuse to face the psychological and financial demands of growing up. The “Peter Pan syndrome” – so called by psychologist Dan Kiley, who wrote a popular book on the subject, affects mostly men, but women suffer from many of the same problems. “Maybe I’m a victim of arrested development,” says a 32-year-old female TV executive, “but I don’t feel old enough to be married. Right now I just want to concentrate on my career and enjoy my life.”

“Traditionally, two earmarks of adolescence are the beliefs that time is limitless and choices are unnecessary,” says Dr. Ava Siegler, a psychotherapist who specializes in adolescent psychology. “Many singles in their thirties have adopted that same attitude. In the past, there were certain developmental tasks, like marriage and child-rearing, that signaled one’s adulthood. But in today’s urban culture, it’s acceptable to postpone those tasks for as long as possible.”

In addition, because of the skyrocketing cost of housing, particularly in Manhattan, more and more young people are moving back in with their parents, further prolonging adolescence. Since 1970, the number of adult children living at home has increased 85 percent.

Today’s singles find themselves in a difficult cultural bind. While they’re less mature than their parents in many ways, they’re also far more sophisticated. “The seventies bombarded us with information,” says Schwartz. “We learned about our psyches, our sexuality, and our bodies. Consequently, our level of expectation has changed, and we’re looking for more in a partner than ever before.”

A 35-year-old editor at a women’s magazine says that she wants an “evolved” man – someone who is strong and assertive, yet vulnerable and supportive. She recently began dating a man she likes very much, but she worries that he is not “emotionally articulate.” “I’ve been in individual therapy for eight years and in group therapy for six years,” she says. “I’ve learned a lot about opening up. He’s totally closed, and it scares me. We’ve only gone out three times, but I don’t think it’s going to work out.”

“Women have always had an easier time expressing themselves emotionally,” says Dr. Herbert Zerof, author of Finding Intimacy and director of the Dilworth Family Therapy and Psychiatric Group in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Basically, most males are duds on the issue, and while there’s nothing wrong with the concept of an evolved man, there may not be a lot of men who fit the bill. What’s important is an evolved relationship. But people focus on someone’s weaknesses instead of his strengths. Everybody has to settle to some degree.”

Donna Kaplan, who works as an administrative assistant, has lived alone for eighteen years. But, at 38, she would gladly trade her freedom. On the wall in her Upper East Side studio is a photograph of her mother in a wedding gown. “She was a beautiful bride,” Kaplan says, with a hint of sadness. Although Kaplan is very attractive, with long brown hair and high cheekbones, she has never had a long-term relationship. “When I was in my twenties, I picked unobtainable men,” she says. “I guess I was asking for trouble. Now I just want a guy who is moderately successful. He should be okay-looking, but he doesn’t have to be Robert Redford – just a nice, down-to-earth, average human being.”
Lately, Kaplan has been attending “singles parties,” for which she pays a fee in advance.

She says she doesn’t know what else to do. “When I was younger, I used to take a share in a house on Fire Island,” she explains. “Usually it was a zoo, and I never met anybody I liked. But what’s really depressing is now when I go to these singles parties I see the same old faces from Fire Island. Ten years later, everything is still the same – except the guys are balder and more obnoxious.”

Kaplan says the worst thing about being single is the “unbearable loneliness.” She would like to have a child, but realizes that the possibility is becoming remote. “At times, I feel very old, and it makes me sad to realize that in a year or two, the choice will be out of my hands.” Kaplan feels increasingly powerless about her situation. She beats her body into shape nightly at the New York Health & Racquet Club, although she knows a toned figure may not be enough. “I’ve gone out with 55-year-old guys who tell me I’m too old,” she says. “Every day I see these young beautiful girls, and I realize a ‘mature’ 38-year-old doesn’t stand a chance.”

Kaplan’s plight is not uncommon. Society’s double standard on aging, plus the demographics of the baby boom, has placed women at a real disadvantage: Men a few years older than the baby-boom women are in short supply. The ratio becomes even more unfavorable as a woman gets older. There are 30 percent more available women than men in their thirties, according to the Princeton University Office of Population Research.

Single men enjoy a privileged position. They can choose a woman their own age, or they can select someone much younger. While divorce recirculates available men, statistics show that men in their forties frequently remarry women who are ten years their junior. Such conditions have led to what Siegler calls the spoiled-boy phenomenon. “When there is a surplus of women,” she says, “men tend to avoid commitment, because they feel the world is their oyster. No demands are too high.”

Says Andrew Roth, “Maybe I’m looking for the ideal woman. If she comes along, wonderful. If she doesn’t, I can wait at least another decade.” Such nonchalance comes from the fact that men have not only statistics on their side but also time. They can continue to have children into their seventies, and can be intolerant of the time pressure facing women their own age. “Somebody over 30 is a definite negative,” says a 36-year-old financial analyst. He says he would also prefer a virgin. “Why not?” he asks.
Another man cites 31 as the cutoff point. “I’d like to live alone with my wife for at least four years,” he says. “I don’t want to get married and have a kid nine months later. If you date women over 32, you’re a victim of their biology. Who needs that kind of pressure?”

Experts at the New York Fertility Research Foundation maintain that women of 35 have only a 10 percent infertility rate. Still, many single women are aware that men may not be so well informed. “Recently, I was telling a date that I wanted to have a baby someday,” says filmmaker Amanda Black. “He said, ‘My God, you’re 33! Isn’t it a bit too late?’ By the end of dinner, I felt ready for menopause.”

The biological-clock excuse is often used by men who are afraid of an egalitarian relationship, says Schwartz. “Women in their thirties want to assume equal responsibility in a marriage. It’s challenging to the man, but also frightening. Some men say, ‘Okay, I can be modern. I’ll go out with a professional woman – but she’ll be a young professional. That way she can have her career, but I can still assume the traditional role.’ ” And many women under 30 have a different attitude about what being equal means. Dr. Phillip Shaver, who teaches social psychology at the University of Denver, says that female students are “not as militant about feminism. They don’t want to put their careers ahead of a relationship. They see the sacrifices the older women have made, and they want to strike a better balance.”

Such comments provoke bitterness on the part of females over 30, who say they feel like guinea pigs. “When I was growing up, my mother told me it was important to be a good wife and mother,” says one 37-year-old woman. “I was sent off to college to find a man. And then Gloria Steinem said, ‘No, you want more than marriage, more than motherhood.’ So I rejected my parents’ values and went through my Helen Reddy ‘I Am Woman’ phase. I threw myself into my career. I looked totally androgynous. Is it any wonder my relationships got all screwed up?”

Another woman, a 36-year-old film-company executive, describes the ambivalence she feels about having a career instead of a family. “Marriage was the only thing I ever really wanted,” she says. “But in graduate school, I was surrounded by women with strong professional goals. There was a lot of peer pressure to have a career. I figured, ‘Well, if they can get great jobs, so can I.’

“At first, I was hired as a secretary. I figured I’d work a few years, reach a certain level of success, and then get married. But then I kept on getting promoted. I worked long hours. I worked nights. It just kind of happened. Still, I think of getting married every day of my life. I can’t even talk about it – it makes me too sad.”

Siegler blames the women’s movement to some extent for failing to help women order their priorities. “It was a revolution, and, like any radical movement, it didn’t outline the consequences. We were never told, ‘While you’re climbing up the corporate ladder, don’t forget to pick up a husband and child.’ Sexual differences were de-emphasized, and women began to think that being equal meant being the same.”

Consequently, women are confused about what to expect from a marriage. Having struggled so long for independence, they’re afraid to enter into any relationship that might impair their hard-won autonomy. “Women are terrified that once they get married the man will become more demanding and revert to patriarchal stereotypes,” says Dr. Ruth Moulton, a psychoanalyst who treats many female executives. “One way to deal with this fear is to postpone commitment.”

Joanne Dunne, an editor at the New York Times, felt frozen in her last relationship somewhere between dating and living together. “I lived with a man for four years,” she says. “When we broke up, he found someone immediately and got married. I moved into my own apartment and struggled to become more independent. It was lonely, but I did it.” Until they split up, Dunne lived at her boyfriend’s apartment but kept all her clothes in her own closet – twenty blocks away. While that provided the illusion of independence, she admits, “I felt so disoriented. Most of the time, one shoe was at his apartment and the other one was under my bed. It was ridiculous. But I was afraid to give up my own place. Sometimes I’d feel myself weaken, and I’d say, ‘Be strong. Be mature.’ And then I’d realize I was carrying my underwear around in a paper bag, and I’d think, ‘That’s mature?'”

While Dunne is still struggling with the issue, some women have given up. Kate Brandon, 37, who works for a publisher, is resigned to being single. Warm and articulate, with a delicate, sweet-looking face, she doesn’t like being alone, but prefers it to the transient nature of dating. “When you get older, it’s harder to bounce back from rejection.”

Brandon spent most of her twenties engaged in what she calls adventures. “I traveled all over the world and met interesting people,” she says. “But I was always looking for that one special man who’d be there when I needed him.” Her first two serious relationships were with men she couldn’t have settled down with. One was a philanderer; the other was dependent on drugs.

Brandon maintains that her third boyfriend was the “perfect man,” at least initially. “He turned into a Peter Pan,” she says. “He even started referring to himself as ‘the kid.'” They shared an apartment in New York for a year, and eventually planned to move to the West Coast, where he owned a business. “Just as we were about to leave,” Brandon says, “he told me he had another girlfriend back home. So we broke up, and he went to the Coast by himself.”

Ten months later, he flew back to New York and proposed marriage. “I said, ‘Are you crazy?’ I mean, how could I trust the man ever again? But he begged and apologized. We sat on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for five hours, crying.”

Six weeks later, Brandon had a change of heart. She had just returned from Europe, where she’d had an affair with a married man, and she longed for some stability in her life. Her West Coast boyfriend still pleaded with her to marry him, so she flew out and announced that she would. By then, he had changed his mind. “I came back to New York and fell apart completely,” she says.

Now Brandon directs her emotional energies toward her job, her friends, and her health club. She still sees the married man. When she’s not staying late at work or working out on the Nautilus machines at the “toughest gym in the city,” she attends Off Broadway theater with her female friends. According to Brandon, they, too, have given up looking for a spouse. “We’re old enough to know what level of intimacy we need in a relationship,” she says. “And frankly, most of the men out there can’t give it to us. I’m very sad that I won’t have a child. But women like me have to realize we’re alone. Today, the real challenge is to find fulfillment as a single person.”

Even though the shortage of men is a serious factor, many experts believe there are alternatives. “Some women limit their choices by adhering to an outmoded value system,” says Pepper Schwartz. “Traditionally, women married ‘up’ on the economic ladder, while men married ‘down.’ But as a woman becomes more successful, the pool of men diminishes. And many women refuse to marry anybody who makes less money than they do. So they’re trapped between two roles. They want a career and a family, but they want them on traditional terms. Well, that may not be possible.”

Nobody ever told the men and women of the baby-boom generation that you can’t always get what you want. “But what will happen,” says Schwartz, “is that age will catch up with them. They’ll get lonelier. They’ll slowly realize that someone may not be the ‘ideal’ mate, but he or she will be a good mate. They’ll learn to compromise.” If they don’t, says Arlene Saluter of the Census Bureau, “some of them may remain single forever.”

*Names of single people have been changed to protect privacy.

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