Living single

In a new book, sociologist E. Kay Trimberger says the "new single woman" is successful, social, smart -- and loving life on her own.

Published December 14, 2005 11:23AM (EST)

Sociologist E. Kay Trimberger is "the new single woman" referred to in the title of her new book. Successful in her career, surrounded by friends and family, Trimberger is not depressed by the fact that her life doesn't include a partner. A never-married Californian with a 24-year-old son she adopted when he was a newborn, she's the poster girl for her cause -- living single contentedly.

Trimberger and single women like her are part of a growing demographic. According to the 2004 Census, just under 54 million women ages 15 and older -- or 45 percent of all women -- are single, up from 38 percent in 1970. These increasing numbers, Trimberger says, are in part the result of a widepread cultural expectation that one must marry their "soul mate." "The standard of a soul mate increases singleness," she says. "Women can have those higher standards because they increasingly don't need a man to support them economically." Those women who do marry do so later, divorce more frequently and remarry less often.

Trimberger, a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Social Change at the University of California at Berkeley, decided to study this growing group because she was disturbed by the deeply held cultural assumption that they're a desperate, lonely bunch. "It really is pernicious, this notion that single means alone, desperate and unhappy," she says. "It's frustrating to have this stereotype that single is a defect in their character and that they are alone and to be pitied. It's not true and I want to combat it."

Trimberger began her research in 1994 by doing in-depth interviews with a group of 46 single, middle-class women in California. (Trimberger defines 'single' as not cohabitating.) In 2000, she reinterviewed those who were still single and had been for 10 years; 27 women fit that description. Though more than half of the women expressed the desire to find a partner, all agreed that they were not unhappy and that their lives were rich. In her study and the response she's gotten to the book, Trimberger found that women are conscious of the fact that they may spend a large part of their lives single -- whether they divorce, are widowed, or never marry at all. She found "long-term single women hungry for validation and women [across the board] appreciative of the choices they have and my suggestion that there are more ways to find passion in life than just through a soul mate partner," she says. "I feel like I am tapping into a change that is already happening, trying to articulate it and focus on it and move it along a little."

In a phone interview from her Berkeley home, Trimberger talked about soul mates, settling and celibacy.

You say that society assumes any woman who is older than 35, uncoupled and single has something wrong with her. Is it the media that's promoting this idea? And do men ever get grief for being single?

Not just the media. I think it's reinforced by family and friends. If you don't have an answer to the question of "Who are you seeing?" you are seen as abnormal. And we internalize it. One middle-aged man who came to one of my readings in San Francisco said, "My mother doesn't believe I'm happy," [which] implies the pressure is on men too, though I think it's less intense. There are less negative stereotypes about single men. However, men have less of the relational skills that make single life viable. They tend to have fewer friends and relational skills that I posit are necessary to lead a good single life.

Do single people internalize this idea of "something's wrong with me" to the point where it affects them in realms other than the romantic?

I don't think so. In the workplace single women are considered more serious and more committed than married women with children. On the other hand, if you have a child, you're [considered] more normal. But not if you're single with children.

Let's go there. You chose to have a child without a partner. What are your thoughts on that road and on not having kids at all?

It's more acceptable now to choose not to have children. I had always had a vision of having children when I was older, and when I didn't find a partner, I decided to do it on my own. I didn't have role models, but I had the feminist idea that I could do anything. I would do it again, but it's hard. Giving birth was not important to me; I was scared of it actually. Adoption was my first choice as a single person. And I was ready to do it -- my career was on track, I felt stable, I had a house. I wanted a child and I did a lot to get one, but I wasn't going to go on trying forever. I always had my work and friends and social life -- it wasn't my whole life.

The women in your study have fulfilling lives without partners, but would they prefer to be coupled?

No one [actively] chose to be single. A psychologist at a reading said, "Aren't some of these women unconsciously choosing to be single?" I don't think it's a choice if it's unconscious. For some women, it suits them to be single but [they are] unable to choose it because there is so much pressure to be coupled. I hope we get to a place where women can choose to be single, but I didn't find that yet.

You devote a chapter to sexuality and in it talk a lot about celibacy.

I don't think most women choose celibacy, but then I also don't think it's necessarily settling if they find out it's OK and they like it and they find ways to have sensuality in their lives. Celibacy is so stigmatized. I wouldn't say I chose it or envisioned it. Sexual needs change as we age and research says if we don't have sex we may stop having sexual urges. It's so individual. Some don't see it as an option and for others it's fine. It's hard to separate what our culture tells us and what our real desires are -- what's in your head can be really strong. Is it what you really want or what you're told you want? That's part of the struggle of the single woman.

Choice is a large theme in your book. In several instances, you discuss women who, while not actively deciding not to marry, have made definite choices in their lives because of their lack of "desire to live [their] mother's 'narrow, traditional life.'" This really resonated with me. I never thought I'd be single in my 30s, but I also never actively pursued marriage. When I think back to my childhood, the person I looked up to was a single aunt. She wasn't responsible for anybody; she came and went as she pleased. I remembering thinking I wanted her life when I got older. Could this be why I'm single now?

It could be why you didn't settle. You didn't feel you had to marry. So if a partner wasn't exactly right, you didn't feel desperate about it because you knew someone who led an OK life single. Nowadays there are even more of these role models as more women stay single and there's more divorce. More single women are articulating that they are happy; maybe they seem interesting to younger women. For women [who are now] in our 50s and 60s [and never married], we saw ourselves as unconventional. In the future, maybe that won't be the case. Maybe that's true for you. Maybe in the future, young people will be more conscious: There's a chance that I will end up single if I pursue this path in my 20s and it will be OK. Or maybe people [who want kids later] will see what they shouldn't do -- people think their soul mate will just come along. That's what I thought. Maybe in the future, people won't be so sanguine. And maybe if you realize it won't just happen you'd still make the same choices.

According to your book, a 2001 Gallup poll of unmarried women and men between the ages of 20 and 29 found that 94 percent were seeking a soul mate to marry and 87 percent were confident they would find one. Where does this confidence come from?

I have no idea. The whole notion that you don't have to work to find a soul mate, that it's predestined, is an ideology. But in high school and colleges today there is less coupling and dating and more hanging out with friends and casual sex. So there's a disparity between the ideology and what real practices are.

But if someone believes in a soul mate, and they don't appear, then what?

That's the real problem. The soul mate idea emphasizes being coupled as the only way to happiness, security and love. There's no legitimacy for a single life. People who support marriage don't like the idea of a soul mate because it gives unrealistic standards, and I don't like it because it says people should only be coupled. My students have pointed out that believing in a soul mate justifies not settling in your 20s. Instead, young people go ahead with traveling and schooling and having fun, but then when they don't find a soul mate, there's no road map for being single.

In her book "Why There Are No Good Men Left" Barbara Dafoe Whitehead makes that point: She says that we have this idea of a soul mate just showing up, with no work on our part and it's just untrue. She believes we need to network, to have others help us find our mate. What do you think of that?

Her premise is different from mine. She says only certain personality types should be single and everyone else should be coupled. I agree we should recognize that the soul mate idea is unrealistic, but we need a positive vision of single life. I do think some women who like single life use the search for a soul mate as justification for staying single in their 20s, but then they have no guidelines for being single in their 30s and 40s. [Whitehead] doesn't like the idea of soul mates because it prevents you from compromising and marrying. I don't like it because it prevents you from seeing the positive things about single life.

You talk about six supports for crafting a satisfying single life: fulfilling work, connections to the next generation, a home; intimate relationships with a network of friends and extended family, a community and acceptance of your sexuality. When and if a woman achieves these, does she have no need or space for a partner? Is she settling for single life?

No. My point is that [these supports] make your life better whether you get coupled or not. They may prevent you from being negatively, badly coupled, or settling for someone who isn't right for you, which could end in divorce. Ideally, better marriages, maybe fewer marriages, but more stable and better marriages and a more stable single life. Fewer people just getting married because they panic.

I don't think it's about settling or becoming resigned to single life. It's a process of self-discovery. To find that you are happy -- is that settling? Having a partner doesn't always mean becoming a cohabitating couple. There are many different ways to live and I think women are finding lives that might really suit them. It's like finding more options in life and discovering that things that aren't culturally sanctioned are OK, that you have a good life. More than half of the women [in my study] said if a partner came along they'd like that but they are OK if it doesn't. [Of the 27 women I talked to], only one, a lesbian, is living with a partner today. Another women met a man and is dating since the study ended. She said, "If something happens, it's icing on the cake."

What about sample size? Can you confidently say that just over two dozen women -- all middle-class, all from California -- represent the whole country?

I didn't feel completely confident until I saw the response to the book. It's being written about in Middle America and in cities all over. No, it's not an empirical study, but a lot of social science isn't. The strength of my research is that I didn't get superficial answers from a huge group, but in-depth stories over time. Though all the women live in California, they are originally from all over the country. And I chose middle-class women because everything written was about poor women.

I followed these women over time, and at the same time I was also reading and listening to culture. I formed a bridge between their personal stories to my reading and understanding of what was happening in larger society. If I weren't a sociologist who reads widely about cultural change, I couldn't have made that link. But I also needed those real stories of real people. In some ways, 27 is a lot of people.

The women you write about find love, companionship and deep intimacy, sexually and otherwise over and over. Deborah, in her late 50s, has never married, but "she has been in a monogamous coupled relationship with Jim for more than 10 years." Angie "has been in a relationship for twenty years with a married man." Dorothy was married at 22 for five years and again at 35, for 10. During the 13 years since her second divorce, "she had averaged about one affair a year." So what is single?

I define single as not cohabitating. A new census report in August took the data from the 2000 census and analyzed it in a different way [to find out if there was] a partner in the household or not. In 43 percent of American households, there is no partner. In 1970, 87 percent of households had a married partner. In 2000, 57 percent had a partner -- whether gay, straight, married, unmarried. That's a 30 percent drop in 30 years. I don't think we're going to go back -- I think we're going to stabilize at about 50 percent of households with a partner and 50 percent without. That's a lot of people who are not going to be living as a couple.

Would you couple again?

I don't think so; I feel too good. I'm having too much fun, and have [laughs] too many relationships -- with friends and my son and my extended family. I can't imagine living full-time with someone. But who knows, life is open.

By Rachel Safier

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