“Come on, let's get you a drink. How's your love life, anyway? Oh God. Why can't married people understand that this is no longer a polite question to ask? We wouldn't rush up to them and roar, "How's your marriage going? Still have sex?” Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones' Diary
In an era in which the choice to put off marriage or even forgo it altogether is becoming more popular, more adults than ever are single and content to stay that way for a large part of their lives. According to the latest World Marriage Data, for example, the proportion of people who are married has dropped sharply over the past four decades in many Western countries, including the United States and Canada. This is especially true for adults aged 18 to 25 who can be considered "emerging adults."
While marriage for this age group was far more common back in 1970, more young adults are choosing to put off marriage while they pursue other life goals. These can include finishing school, devoting themselves to a career, and "playing the field" with numerous romantic relationships rather than committing themselves to one person exclusively. Still, while the pressure to marry at an early age is not as great as it once was (at least in Western countries), surveys of emerging adults, both male and female, indicate that most of them express the hope of being in a committed relationship eventually.
Ironically enough, single adults often find themselves having to justify their choice to be single, not just to friends or family, but even to total strangers they might happen to meet. There is also a certain stigma attached to singles, especially as they grow older. Surveys suggest that singles are often viewed as being lonelier and less mature than their married counterparts. They can also be considered less warm and caring as well. Despite research showing that well-adjusted singles are often healthier, more socially active, and more involved in the community than married couples, the stereotype of the "desperate, lonely, single" still persists.
While being single confers many advantages, including providing greater control over financial and activities, less financial pressure, and more freedom to pursue recreational or vocational interests, the desire to be in a committed relationship remains strong. Women under the age of 35 typically reported facing active discrimination, especially if they are sexually active, something that single men are often able to avoid (aside from speculation about their sexual orientation). Still, for both men and women, the fear of being single is often very real. When this fear is especially strong, it can lead to people lowering their relationship standards by "settling" for partners who might not be suitable for them. When they do form relationships, they can often be more emotionally dependent and "clingy" and, as a result, may be extremely reluctant to have that relationship end.
And the stigma surrounding single people seems deeply rooted in our society. Along with cultural and family expectations, stereotypes about desperate, lonely singles are frequently found in movies and television shows. According to the cultivation theory first developed by media researcher George Gebner, all forms of mass media, especially television, provide a "“common symbolic environment” that can shape the way people view the world. For heavy TV viewers in particular, the way the world is presented in movies and television can often be interpreted as reflecting real life. Granted, we have a wide variety of different viewing options these days, including network and cable television, media streaming on the Internet, etc. which can affect viewing audiences in different ways depending on the kind of shows they prefer.
To read more, check out my new Psychology Today blog post.