A survey of America's past reveals that for much of the country's history marriage was the cultural ideal and the norm.

    1. Singlehood in Early America.

      Being single in early America was not easy; unmarried people often faced personal restrictions. They were often "disposed of" to the home of a responsible family. They were commonly seen as defective or incomplete and were often the subject of ridicule. Even today "old maid" and "spinster" convey negative connotations. High value was placed on marriage.

    2. Singlehood in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.

      The percentage of single women began to increase in the last decades of the eighteenth century and continued to do so during the next 100 years. Some jobs were seen as incompatible with marriage (teaching). Industrialization increased the financial independence of many women. The view that marriages should be happy rather than merely a duty evolved gradually during the early nineteenth century. Marriage could now be viewed as an option, and more women chose not to marry.

    3. Singlehood Today: Current Demographic Trends.

      Today, significant numbers of people are choosing not to marry for all or for large portions of their lives. In 1997, 23.5 percent of all people 18 and over had never married. Demographic trends play an important role in the lower marriage rate of African Americans, especially women. There is evidence which indicates that Asian Americans remain single longer than other groups. A plausible explanation for this difference is that Asian American families are more likely to give priority to getting an education than to an earlier marriage.


    Sociologist Peter Stein has shown that the decision of whether to marry or stay single is conditioned by psychological, social, cultural, and economic factors.

    1. Individual Decision Making.

      On the one hand, people are pushed toward marriage by pressures from parents, cultural expectations, etc., while social status, and children, etc., pull people toward marriage.

    2. The Influence of Social and Economic Forces.

      Many Americans no longer view marriage as an economic or social necessity. The stigmas attached to singlehood have lessened in recent years and the perceived benefits associated with marriage have diminished. The availability of contraceptives and the liberalization of sexual norms have also influenced people's decisions. Expanding economic opportunities have provided more women with the means to be financially independent outside of marriage. Declining economic fortunes may contribute to an increase in the single population, especially for men.

    3. Types of Singles.

      Stein developed a typology of singlehood consisting of four categories based on the likelihood that a person will remain single: voluntary temporary singles, voluntary stable singles, involuntary temporary singles, and involuntary stable singles. Shostak also found four patterns corresponding to Stein's typology which he called: ambivalents, resolveds, wishfuls, and regretfuls. Robert Staples developed a fivefold typology describing the variations among African American single men: free-floating, single in an open-couple relationship, single in a closed-couple relationship, committed single, accommodationist.

    4. Advantages and Disadvantages of Singlehood.

      Personal freedom, financial independence, privacy, and greater opportunities to pursue careers are major advantages. Loneliness and lack of companionship, being excluded from couple events, not having children, and social disapproval are some major disadvantages.


    Single people must build a satisfying life in a society highly geared toward marriage. There are six different lifestyles: supportive, passive, activist, individualistic, social, and professional. Singles are not a homogeneous group. Singles differ not only in lifestyle orientation but also in the type of living arrangements they select.

    1. Income.

      In 1996, female householders living alone had a median income of $16,398; the comparable figure for males was $27,266. In contrast, married couples with both spouses present have a median income of $49,858. There is still a bias against single men in the workplace, where both wages and probability of promotions are higher for married men.

    2. Support Networks.

      Singles who live alone confront a greater challenge in meeting their need for intimacy. They respond by establishing strong friendships. Another key intimacy need is the bond that exists between parent and child. Many singles are choosing to experience parenthood.

    3. Life Satisfaction.

      In the past, studies have consistently shown that married people are happier and more satisfied with their lives than singles. In the future this trend could change.

    4. The Never-Married in Later Life.

      In 1998, approximately 1.4 million people 65 years of age and over had never married. Jaber Gubrium reported that they tend to be lifelong isolates, are not lonely, evaluate everyday life in much the same way as married people do, and avoid the desolation of bereavement that follows the death of a spouse.

      1. The "Lifelong Isolate" Reconsidered: Robert Rubinstein felt that this term was ambiguous. Many of the men in his study lived with family members, many were lonely, and many experienced bereavement when family members or friends died. Pat Keith found that 50 percent of all older singles interact with family, friends, and neighbors, but many of the others could be considered "isolates." Katherine Allen found that most of the never married women in her study lived with family members or friends.

      2. Implications for Social Policy: Changes in social customs and social policy could alleviate some of the problems encountered by the never married as they grow older.


    People who are not married choose a variety of living arrangements. One arrangement that has become increasingly popular among both the never-married and the formerly-married is cohabitation.

    1. Historical Perspectives.

      In America's past, the people most likely to live together outside of a legal marriage were the poor or those involved in unpopular relationships. "Common-law marriage" was not solemnized by a ceremony, but was recognized as valid by most states until the 1920s (today, 13 states still recognize common-law marriages).

    2. The Meaning of Cohabitation Today.

      Cohabitation is similar to marriage, but it lacks formal legal, cultural, and religious support. Cohabitation is similar to marriage in that couples create emotional and physical relationships with each other, and in some cases they also bear or rear children.

      1. Current Demographic Trends: In 1960, there were 439,000 unmarried- couple households. By 1997, there were almost 4.1 million. During the 1960s, one in four remarriages was preceded by cohabitation; by the end of the 1980s, seven out of ten were.

      2. Characteristics of Cohabitants: The majority of cohabitants (58 percent) are between the ages of 25 and 44; 21 percent are under 25; and another 21 percent are 45 or older. Most heterosexual cohabiting relationships are childless. Cohabitants tend to be less educated, less likely to identify with an organized religion, and more likely to be politically liberal, unemployed, live in large urban areas, have divorced or remarried parents, and become sexually active at younger ages than their noncohabiting peers.

    3. Reasons for Cohabitation.

      1. Push and Pull Factors: Push factors include loneliness, high expenses of living alone, fear of marital commitment, sexual frustration, and education/career demands that preclude early marriage. Pull factors include: a strong physical attraction, desire for intimacy, and testing compatibility for marriage.

      2. Types of Cohabiting Couples: For some the relationship is simply a utilitarian arrangement motivated by the desire to share expenses and household tasks or to avoid loss of financial benefits such as alimony, welfare, or pension checks. For others, there is intimate involvement with emotional commitment. Only 58 percent of cohabiting women marry their partners.

    4. Advantages and Disadvantages of Cohabitation.

      Among the most common advantages are a better understanding of self, greater knowledge of what is involved in living with another person, increased and interpersonal skills. Among the disadvantages are a lack of social support and conflict with partner over domestic tasks, potential instability of the relationship, legal ambiguity, and loss of other relationships.

    5. Cohabitation and the Division of Labor.

      Women assume a larger share of the cooking and cleaning tasks even when they work full-time and earn as much as their partners.

    6. Cohabitation and Marital Stability.

      Research has yielded contradictory findings. Some researchers have found that cohabitants who married eventually are more likely to remain together. Other researchers have taken a neutral position, concluding that cohabitation has no clear effect.

    7. Cohabitation: International Perspectives.

      The United States is not alone in experiencing increasing rates of cohabitation. In fact, most other industrialized countries have higher rates than the United States.

    8. Cohabitation and the Law.

      The average length of cohabitation is only 1.5 years. About 75 percent of children born to cohabiting parents will see their cohabiting parents break up before they reach 16, whereas only about 33 percent of the children born to married parents will experience such a breakup. Cohabitants end their relationships for many reasons.

      1. Palimony: Similar to alimony.

      2. Domestic Partnerships: Unmarried couples who live together and share housing and financial responsibilities.


    Homosexual behavior has existed throughout history and in every known culture, In America it has always been considered a form of deviant behavior. During this century, negative attitudes began to change.

    1. Methodological Issues.

      Problems of small, unrepresentative samples limit the study of homosexual behavior. In addition, the long tradition of homophobia has kept many people from revealing their sexual orientation.

    2. Demystifying Lesbian and Gay Relationships.

      The major stereotypes involving cohabiting same-sex couples assume that these couples imitate heterosexual patterns, with one partner acting as "wife" and the other playing the "husband." Few such partnerships exist.

    3. Living Together: Domestic Tasks, Finances, and Decision Making.

      Research shows that there is considerable discussion and conscious joint decision making among same-sex couples, but decision making, like housework, is often related to income (the partner with the highest income tends to have the most power).

    4. The Social and Legal Context of Lesbian and Gay Relationships. Research comparing lesbians and gays with heterosexuals finds no significant differences regarding couple adjustment, feelings of attachment, caring, or intimacy. The 1980s and early 1990s have witnessed some improvement in the legal status of lesbians and gays (e.g., a surviving life partner may now take over the interest in a rent-controlled apartment in New York City). Lesbians and gays still experience discrimination in the workplace. The United States government still uses sexual orientation to deny security clearance to them. They are also often the victims of name calling, ridicule, and violence (gay bashing). Limited research has been done on the process of "coming out," but available data suggests that mothers are generally told first. Many people in the United States still consider homosexuality to be abnormal or sinful.

    5. Life Satisfaction Among Elderly Lesbians and Gays.

      Older homosexuals are generally well adjusted, experience high levels of life satisfaction, and are not isolated.


    A commune refers to a group of people (single or married, with or without children) who live together, sharing many aspects of their lives.

    1. Advantages and Disadvantages of the Communal Lifestyle.

      Among the advantages reported are close intimate relationships with a variety of people and personal growth, while disadvantages include limitations on privacy and restrictions on personal freedom. Most communes endure for only short periods of time.

    2. Communes, Shared Housing, and the Future.

      If the economy worsens, the number of communes might increase. If they are to be a viable option (maybe for groups of older people) critical issues of social policy must be reexamined (e.g., zoning laws).

    3. Group Marriages

      A variation of communal living where at least four people, two female and two males, live together as communal wives and husbands. No one knows for sure how many group marriages currently exist.



After reading Chapter Seven, students should be able to:

  1. give a brief overview of the state of singlehood in America from the early settlers to the present time.

  2. discuss the stereotypes of singles, both in the past and in the present.

  3. identify some of the reasons that people have for remaining single.

  4. define push and pull factors as related to marriage.

  5. identify the various types of singles as defined in Stein's, Shostak's, and Staples' typologies.

  6. discuss the financial aspects of being single for both males and females.

  7. examine the lifestyle of the never-married elderly.

  8. discuss the historical perspectives and the meaning of cohabitation today including demographic trends, characteristics of cohabitors, reasons for cohabitation, push and pull factors, types of couples, advantages and disadvantages, and the legal aspects of cohabitation.

  9. define domestic partnership.

  10. understand and discuss lesbian and gay relationships.



push/pull factors
common-law marriage
domestic partnership
group marriage



  1. Pose the question: "How many of you are planning on remaining single, and if so, for how long?" Hopefully, there will be students in your class who imply that singlehood is, in their judgment, a preferred state of adult living on a permanent basis, and you can then encourage them to vocalize their reasons for these feelings. What are their push/pull factors? What benefits, if any, do they see in the single lifestyle for women? For men? This can result in a spirited discussion, particularly if those who view marriage as the most appropriate adult lifestyle are motivated to respond.

  2. Ask your students to think about the pros and cons of marriage versus remaining single as contrasting lifestyles. As the class responds, construct a list of these positives and negatives on the board or on screen. Marriage will very likely "win out," and this will help to illustrate both the popularity of marriage, and, depending upon the nature of the class's responses, will show how single people (at least those who are "permanently" single) are still negatively stereotyped in American society today.

  3. The text points out that although single men and women are surely capable of leading happy, satisfying lives, the likelihood of their being lonely throughout the life-cycle is greater than it is for their married counterparts. See if there is at least one member of your class who is planning to remain permanently single. If that person is willing to identify him/herself and is motivated to participate, ask how he/she intends to deal with the loneliness issue. Regardless of whether one or more students chooses to share their experiences, ask the class to comment on the issue of loneliness among single people. Is it possible to be single over a long period of time and not be lonely?

  4. Heterosexual cohabitation is not an earthshaking issue for most students these days, but the lion's share of them have not thought about why people cohabit. Ask your students to consider the different motivations for cohabitation, ranging from convenience to a permanent alternative for marriage. It will be an even better experience for the class if there are members who have actually cohabited, and who are willing to share some of their feelings with their peers. How do the members of your class feel about the myth that most cohabitants are college students?

  5. The text evaluates the advantages and disadvantages of cohabitation. Have your class confront these pros and cons. Encourage the members of your class who have cohabitated (and are willing to divulge this fact and speak openly) to talk about these advantages and disadvantages. It is noted in the text that cohabitation usually postpones marriage (or remarriage), but it rarely replaces marriage permanently. Have your class consider this fact; could this trend change in the future? Why or why not?

  6. Schwartz and Scott discuss the controversial issue of "palimony." Have your class consider the historic case of Marvin v. Marvin. This is an excellent opportunity for your students to understand how society was, initially, unprepared to deal with cohabitants' legal rights. Furthermore, an in-class discussion of the issues surrounding "palimony" will help to illustrate that marriage is a legal contract, with dimensions that many men and women never think about prior to "taking the vows."

  7. The text devotes considerable attention to changing patterns of intimate relationships. Students are likely to view forms of marriage other than monogamy as bizarre and deviant. In order for them to better understand the explanations for these different marital forms, ask your students to think about the functions of such arrangements. For example, try posing the question, "Why would anyone want to live alone for his or her entire life?" or "Why would anyone actually choose to remain childless?" An especially spirited discussion may ensue should you decide to ask students to speculate about the possible economic and sociological advantages and disadvantages of having more than one spouse.

  8. Regarding forms of the family that diverge from the traditional (singlehood, cohabitation, homosexual households, and communes), poll your students on their plans: Do they intend to marry? When? Do they expect to cohabit? For how long? If anyone in the class knows a homosexual couple, what kinds of problems do they deal with? Do any of the class members know someone who has lived in or is currently living in a commune? This poll could be conducted anonymously in writing in order to encourage candor; then, you can present the results of the poll, thus affording the class an opportunity to react.

  9. In American society, it seems abnormal to not like children. W.C. Fields was fond of observing that he didn't like dogs or kids, but he was a comedian. Pose the question to your class: "Do any of you NOT like children?" Chances are, there will be some uncomfortable laughter, and few, if any of your students will make a comment. Use this as an opportunity to demonstrate how child-centered and parent-oriented our society really is. Furthermore, in view of this unidimensional focus, ask your students to consider how difficult life is for men and women who are not enthusiastic about child-rearing. How are these observations related to the difficulties that confront people who have chosen the single lifestyle?

  10. The issue of homosexual relationships is usually a source of emotional discussion among college and university students. Achieving objectivity in any classroom setting will be difficult, if not impossible. Encourage your students to be as objective as possible in trying to understand how the need for intimacy, commitment, and family security is similar for homosexuals and heterosexuals alike. Homosexuals are legally and socially deprived of the same rights that heterosexuals take for granted: to marry, to raise children, to cohabit if they choose, etc. How do your students feel about this?

  11. Homophobia is commonplace in American society, but some students are misled into thinking that this type of unfounded fear does not exist on college and university campuses. This can be a very controversial and unstable discussion, but an extremely stimulating and educational experience can grow out of a class discussion oriented around the topic. Pose the question: "How many of you believe that you are homophobic?" Ask the class to consider what the costs of homophobia are in today's society. What are the dysfunctional consequences?

  12. Communes serve as an excellent basis for analyzing the family as a socially created institution, because the communal lifestyle violates most students' widely accepted beliefs and values. Encourage your students to consider communes as an alternative to the traditional American family. An excellent vehicle for this discussion involves the value of "sharing." Ask the members of your class to vocalize how they would feel if all of their property were communally owned; or if their individual wishes were to be secondary to the interests of the group, etc.



Going It Alone (Portrait of a Family series), 1988, 30 min. (RMI Media Productions, Inc.). During the past three decades, being single has become a recognized way of life. This presentation examines some of the reasons why singlehood is more common and portrays the variety of singles lifestyles that exist in our society.


Roommates on a Rainy Day, 1973, 27 min. (Paulist Productions, Media Guild). A young couple who are cohabiting suddenly find their relationship in a crisis when one of them voices the desire for total commitment, marriage, and a family. Looks at questions and preconceived ideas that people confront in the face of disenchantment with traditional concepts of marriage.


Alice and Lena: Spinsters, 1990, 38 min. (Filmakers Library). An upbeat portrayal of two sisters who never married and who have lived with each other all their lives. These single women express no regrets about never marrying and are pleased to have been independent, self-supporting, although they also maintain strong ties with other members of the family.


Gay Couples: The Nature of Relationships, 1996, 50 min. (Films for the Humanities and Sciences). This program features sociologist Pepper Schwartz, as she documents the lives of two couples, one gay and one lesbian.


Florence and Robin: Lesbian Parenthood, 1994, 52 min. (Films for the Humanities and Sciences). This frank presentation follows the extraordinary journey of a lesbian couple who want to be parents. As the text makes clear, American society is geared toward heterosexual couples (for example, in defining "unmarried households," the Census Bureau catalogs opposite-sex couples); this film highlights how our society discriminates against homosexuals who want to marry and parent.


Single Parenting: A New Page in America's Family Album, 1986, 25 min. (University of Minnesota Film and Video). This program examines many different types of single parents, but part of the presentation focuses on women who choose to have children without marriage and divorced couples who assume joint responsibility for rearing their children, but have no plans to remarry.


Being a Single Parent, 1993, 19 min. (Films for the Humanities and Sciences). This program focuses on different kinds of single parents including an unmarried woman who chose to be a single parent and a single man who reared his two sons.


The Family: Lifestyles of the Future, 1975, 20 min. (Hobel-Leiterman; Document Associates). Analyzes the trend away from the nuclear family toward several nontraditional alternatives. Anthropologist Margaret Mead suggests several alternatives for future family structure, and includes interviews with practitioners of several types of nontraditional arrangements.


Dealing With Homosexuality, 1979, 29 min. (KSU-TVS; KSU-AVS [One-on-one Series]). Brian McNaught, counselor and gay rights activist, is interviewed; he discusses the problems of living as a homosexual in a society that is geared toward heterosexual marriage.


Utopias, 1983, 26 min. (Visnews Productions; Journal Films). Investigates political and philosophical ideas behind the utopian communities, and presents some utopias which worked, at least for awhile; traces utopian communities back to 16th century France, through the Spanish Civil War, through the hippie movement of the 60s.