Is Marriage Holding Women Back? Why Being Single Better Prepares You For The Future

photographed by Eylul Aslan.
Get all thoughts about needing a ring on it out of your head; singlehood is the future.
According to the 2017 United Nations World Marriage Data, the number of women aged 30-34 who are married in the UK dropped from 89% to 71% between 1971 and 2011*.
And, considering that the amount of single, never married people in the UK increased by 3.9 million between 2002 and 2017, there's a very good chance that the number of married 30-34-year-olds has dropped even further since then.
All of which means a huge change to how society will look and behave over the coming years. Soon, 'trends' like solo travel won't be just a trend any more, they'll be the way forward. As more companies wake up to the growing number of single consumers with money to spend, the world, which currently feels geared towards couples, will begin to look like a very different place indeed.
One person exploring what that world might look like is Professor Elyakim Kislev, who has a PhD in sociology from Columbia University and is a faculty member at the Hebrew University, where he specialises in minorities, social policy, and singles studies.
He's written a book about it; Happy Singlehood: The Rising Acceptance and Celebration of Solo Living, for which he analysed the data of 300,000 people in 31 countries and conducted close to 150 in-depth interviews with single people. It is, as the title suggests, all about learning to not only embrace single living if you should choose but also concluding what society can learn from this growing community.
The following is an extract from Happy Singlehood.
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The legend of Edai Siabo is still being told every year in Papua New Guinea. Edai, a young man from the village of Boera, lived among the Motu people in a dry area where it was extremely hard to grow enough crops to feed everyone. One day, Edai was fishing peacefully when a great eel, the embodiment of the Spirit of the Sea in Papua mythology, appeared and dragged him under the water. The eel instructed Edai in how to build a canoe and how to sail westward to trade with others. Following these instructions, Edai built a canoe and filled it with clay cooking pots that his wife prepared, hoping to trade them for some food. Braving the dangers of the unknown, Edai boarded his canoe and sailed toward the horizon.
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Most of the Motu believed they would never see Edai again. But months later, Edai appeared in the distance with his canoe full of food for the harsh dry season. The Motu people understood they could not rely solely on themselves anymore. Instead, they discovered trade and intertribal transactions. Since then, they have thrown a yearly festival to celebrate this first coastal trading voyage, known as Hiri.
Living in today’s world, trade seems so natural to us—almost trivial. We think nothing of picking up an item in a store and reading the stamp Made in Mexico, or Vietnam, or any other place in the world.
We are surrounded by a web of resources that provides everything we need, desire, or even imagine. We understand that no one place can do it all. Manufacturing all of a country’s goods within a single country is considered a mark of a failed economic system. Of course, it is possible for a country to achieve a degree of self-sufficiency, but it requires the citizens of that country to minimise their needs, perhaps even to survive in privation like the Motu people before they discovered trade and understood the advantages of engaging in a network of commerce.
To some people, the institution of marriage is similar. For them, marriage can no longer be the sole supplier of physical, social, emotional, and mental needs. Instead, these needs require a varied network of exchanges to be satisfied. While this is still not a widely shared belief, more and more people have come to understand that traditional marriage, which means living with the same person and trusting him or her to be the main provider for almost all of one’s needs, throughout a half century or more, is simply impossible.
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Consider the rise in life expectancy. Only a hundred years ago, the average American lived to about fifty years of age. Today, this number is just under eighty. Living so much longer makes individuals think about the variety they want in their lives and whether one partner can provide it. People not only live longer but also have more needs, seek more experiences, and want to capitalise on more opportunities. They expect more from the world and, in turn, expect more from their partners and want them along for the ride throughout a wide variety of experiences. The burden of serving as the sole provider for someone else’s expanding wishes can prove overwhelming, even to a strong, committed individual.
As an alternative to the traditional model, contemporary singles discover that trading a variety of human interactions enriches their lives and raises their well-being. Instead of living in a “greedy” and isolating couplehood, people start adopting social webs as a way of living. Individuals become networked individuals and their needs are fulfilled by several sources, not exclusively from within the nuclear family.
Yes, there were advantages in the closed system of the Motu. Above all, it seemed safer: sailing to other tribes and trading with them was a risky bet, however inevitable. Similarly, for young individuals, marriage seems safe at first. Many of them see the model of the self-sufficient family unit as the best way to live happily ever after because it is assumed to be a predictable and reliable system that addresses all their needs continuously. However, many come to realise that they develop over the years and change their tastes, often in a way unsynchronised with their partners’ changes. They learn that marriage simply does not fit them, because they need a more flexible, open-ended system to reflect their life evolution. Otherwise, they simply “starve”—sexually, emotionally, and intellectually. It is hard to sustain such a self-sufficient system in the long run, and it is, in fact, riskier for them to live this way.
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Many people instead adopt single living and develop a networked life. This increasingly popular choice challenges the marriage institution at an ever-increasing pace. Looking ahead, singles will soon com- prise most of the adult population in many countries, and singlehood will be the mainstream in public discourse. In such a reality, varying or dividing the exchange of emotional, intellectual, and even sexual goods is likely to take a larger and more positive role in the lives of singles. Some researchers name this coming reality an age of “posttraditional intimacy.” This term does not mean that intense emotional exchange or sexual interactions will disappear; rather, there will be multiple streams that form such exchanges. These streams will be unfixed and carry changing, protean forms all the time. The pyramid of society built with the family at its base will morph into more horizontal social networks.
It is useful to lay out some of the components of such a reality. These components represent only the beginning of a whole new social order that is still hardly imaginable. Edai needed more than just a great idea to discover new ways to provide food for his people. In addition to a new canoe and new clay cookware for Edai to trade with, the Papua myth uses the eel, the great Spirit of the Sea, to show how drastic this change was. Edai even needed to be submerged in the ocean, an act often symbolising a dive into the subconsciousness, personally and collectively. Similarly, understanding and internalising new trends in a postmarital world requires a fundamental shift in the perception of intimacy exchange and social organisation. Humbly bowing to the future, I hope to engender discussion on how a society built on a seemingly self-sufficient family unit may transform into a society of net- works and a web of human forces that provide for its nodes all they need and much more.
*Date of the last UK census
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