A survey of America's past reveals that for much of the country's history marriage was the cultural ideal and the norm.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Women assume a larger share of the cooking and cleaning tasks even when they work full-time and earn as much as their partners.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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:
TEACHING SUGGESTIONS/DISCUSSION QUESTIONS/CLASS EXERCISES
FILMS AND VIDEOS
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.