In Praise of Being a Single Woman with No Need for Marriage
We are living in the age of the single woman – I should know, because I'm one of them, and I'm fine with it.
To put my dating life in perspective: Charles Manson got engaged before I managed to find someone willing to semi-commit to me for longer than three months. My relationship status has become a Mad Lib of sorts. Every few months I find myself writing in a new series of verbs and nouns for the phrase, "We're [description of partnership]"—open relationship, casually dating, friends with benefits, not labeling things, just hanging out, good cop, bad cop, blah blah blah.
I've been single most of my adult life, and have not been afraid to air my frustrations about it. But I'm starting to realize that it's not actually being single that irritates me. In fact, I'd be perfectly content keeping my laptop as my sleeping partner for the rest of my life. Instead, it's this irrational fear of what would happen if I were single and alone forever—or, in other words, a spinster.
The term spinster refers to a woman who is past marriageable age. Contemporary culture often depicts these women as sad, eccentric aunts. You know the type: She owns a bunch of cats, smokes too many cigarettes, and collects porcelain figurines she calls her babies.
Unlike her male counterpart, the bachelor, the spinster is not to be envied. She is pathetic, undesirable, her life in shambles because she never married. She is a crazed shut-in like Miss Havisham, who just can't seem to get over that one time her fiancé left her at the altar. It's not that she chose this life. No one wanted her.
These are the things I hear from my mother, a Jewish immigrant raised on Old World values, who is perpetually embarrassed that I can't seem to get into a relationship, let alone stay in one. Every Friday she lights the Sabbath candles then calls to tell me that she prayed for me to marry soon (cue: Fiddler on the Roof music).
Except, that's all changing. In 2014, more than half the US population is single. We're seeing more examples in real life of women who are refusing to let the social pressure of marriage weigh them down, and have gone on to lead fulfilling lives. In fact, single women are even reclaiming the word spinster. Earlier this year, Kate Bolick published Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own, an homage to the single life; Rebecca Traister's forthcoming book, Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, plays to the same theme. One Urban Dictionary entry on spinster redefines the term as "a woman who can stand independently and doesn't need a man for her life." We are living in the age of the single woman.
"I don't see any biological reason why women should marry or have children. It's mostly a cultural construction," says Berit Brogaard, a philosopher, neuroscientist, and author of On Romantic Love: Simple Truths About a Complex Emotion. She is also a happily unwed mother of one. "Biologically, we probably weren't meant to be together for a long time. The reason romantic love often fades after a few years is probably that coupledom was only evolutionarily beneficial until children had been conceived and were old enough to survive without two parents living side by side."
Hence the many relationship iterations that are not long-term monogamy. In this brave new world, single women aren't sexless old maids—they're just not wifed-up either. "I think more and more people realize that a relationship isn't just something you have, it's something you do," said Broggard. "Relationships take work. Lots of work. If you want to focus on a career, it's a lot simpler to remain single."
That part is definitely true. According to a study from 2010, young single women earn up to 8 percent more than young single men—but that financial boost goes away if they get married or have kids.
As I get older, my heroes are changing. I now seek out women in popular culture who have chosen to be alone—and are even more badass because of it. Elaine Stritch did not remarry after John Bay, her first and only husband, died. She didn't want to. Author Vivian Gornick is a self-proclaimed "odd woman" who renounced marriage after experiencing two brief, failed ones. Gloria Steinem didn't marry until she was 66 years old. Oprah, who has never been married and probably never will, is the best example of all. Oprah is not a bitter, chain-smoking cat lady. She's a fucking billionaire.
These are now the women I find myself wanted to be, outspoken and unabashedly alone. My best friend and I frequently discuss the likelihood that we will live together in our later years as platonic life partners, a la The Golden Girls. Over the years, this plan of ours for the future feels less like a joke and more like an eventuality. One that I am becoming more and more OK with.
Young heterosexual women are also facing a time of sexual openness and liberation that makes traditional marriage even less necessary. We don't need him to put a ring on it in order to gratify us sexually (unless it's a cock ring). We're engaging more in casual sex as well as non-monogamous relationships, and because of this are also dealing with a vast number of heterosexual men who are less willing to commit than ever before. We'd rather stay single than settle for men who are perpetually unsure of their readiness to be in like, a relationship relationship.
I want to be a woman who knows her wants and her needs, and prioritizes them over what others dictate to her what her wants and needs are. There is a good chance that a man might never come my way who meets my expectations for long-lasting monogamous love. There is a good chance that my attitude and my outspoken nature makes me unloveable in the eyes of most heterosexual men. That's perfectly OK. I prefer this over being subdued.
Of course, I'm not trying to denounce marriage altogether—for myself or anyone else. But I'm tired of thinking about marriage as my singular goal. Being single all these years has given me so much valuable time to pursue my own projects, and overall just be my own person. I've used my alone time to figure out who I am, without worrying about outside validation from a romantic partner. I've met so many different kinds of men I wouldn't have met if I was coupled up. I've gone on dozens upon dozens of both disastrous and adventurous dates, and have a wide array of stories to entertain all the basic couples with at dinner parties because of it.
I've been moving my life forward—not putting it on hold—waiting for a man to come my way and validate my existence. In fact, I'm looking forward to staying single. You know, so I can finally get to chapter two of that next great American novel I've been sitting on for six years (or, more importantly, so I can keep staying awake until 5 AM watching Korean dramas, judgement free). What could be better than that?
Follow Alison Stevenson on Twitter.