Sarah Jacobson, 33, tried for years to find a partner so she wouldn’t “die alone, my body devoured by my pet cat.”
At 28, Hillary Kline was feeling like an “old maid.”
But at some point, both decided that they preferred being single.
Have a problem with that? These ladies don’t. They are part of an emerging demographic of women who are happily pursuing the solo life into their late 20s and mid-30s — and loving it.
It’s a far cry from prior decades, when marriage bought women a pass from one family home to another. Vows were a ticket to economic stability not easily attained by an untethered woman, and above all, it was what society demanded.
Even as feminism took root, women were largely expected to jump into a lifelong contract with someone of the opposite sex while still in the throes of youth. If they didn’t, they were ridiculed, called spinsters, or made to feel like their time was running out. (Remember the offensive trope in the 1980s that women over 40 are more likely to be killed by terrorists than get hitched?)
Young women today are reclaiming singlehood as a point of pride, not shame. They are marrying later, or not at all. And they are doing it in shocking numbers, changing the course of modern dating and relationships.
“The speed at which the change is happening is remarkable,” said Susan Brower, Minnesota’s state demographer.
The road to remaining single differs for everyone. Some women, faced with all the opportunities once withheld from their mothers and grandmothers, fall in love with their careers first. In an era where women can own property, launch businesses, even have children without relying on a man, some see dating and marriage as unnecessary. Some are casualties of modern digital romance, which offers more brief encounters than lifelong bonds. Some see the high divorce rate as a warning sign. Some just aren’t interested. That’s not to say they won’t be one day, but they are perfectly happy taking the tortoise’s pace in the race to the altar.
“I pretty much accept that I’m going to be a late bloomer in life,” said Kline, a public relations specialist from Minnetonka. “I want to travel, I want to one day live overseas and I can’t really do that if I’m married and tied down and having kids and all that jazz.”
Kline tried dating for a while, but found that her ambition limited her pool of candidates. Men have called her “intimidating,” “focused,” “put together.” She’ll take those as compliments. “I’m just surrounding myself with things I enjoy,” she said. “It’s not a death sentence.”
A seismic shift
The recent demographic shift has been monumental.
Ten years ago, one in three women ages 25 to 34 had never been married. Today, it’s more like half. And while it was expected in 1960 that women got married around age 20, today most women wait another 7 years before saying “I do.”
That gives them nearly a decade more independence than their mothers had. (The median age of first marriage for men has also risen recently, but men have always been more likely than women to remain unmarried.)
It’s the world that unmarried suffragist Susan B. Anthony foretold in 1877 when she spoke of an impending “epoch of single women” forged by true gender equality.
Higher educational attainment, economic concerns and increased acceptability of cohabitation and childbearing outside of marriage have all been contributing factors for women’s rising marriage delay, said Brower, the state demographer. “Those trends are pretty powerful and they’re at work.”
Plus, Americans’ attitude toward marriage is ambivalent. According to a Pew study, 46 percent of Americans say it’s better for society if marriage and children are a priority; 50 percent say society is just as well off without such a priority. “There is a mixed assessment of marriage as an ideal,” Brower said.
But society hasn’t totally caught up with all the women who choose to be single — at least not yet.
“A lot of forces conspire, often unconsciously, to tell people who are unmarried that aspiring to marriage is the solution to making them unlonely,” said Rebecca Traister, a journalist whose provocative new book, “All the Single Ladies,” looks at the rise of unmarried women in the United States.
Still, Traister — whose book has more than 200 hold requests in the Hennepin library system — said there is pushback against negative stereotypes that have long plagued unmarried women.
Indeed, the idea of “spinsterhood” is being reclaimed in popular culture as the ranks of single women have risen to rival those who have tied the knot. In her 2015 book “Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own,” Kate Bolick refers to her attraction to solitude as her “spinster wish.” Empowering listicles, like “31 Famous Unmarried People Who Prove That Being Single Is Badass,” regularly make the rounds on social media.
“As [being single] becomes more of a mass behavior, all the messages in the world can’t undo something that is becoming the norm — to exist independently socially, economically and sexually, to not be tethered to a spouse,” Traister said. “It’s altering our perception of what adulthood means.”
Alone, not lonely
Sarah Jacobson is among the growing number women who would rather take her chances on happiness without the old ball and chain weighing her down.
She spent her 20s and early 30s trying — “desperately,” she says — to find a soul-mate, but inevitably, every relationship wound up disappointing her. There were too many expectations, too many commitments.
“It’s when the relationships start becoming more serious and encroach on my personal life that I start getting really irritated and really frustrated,” she said. “It took me a while to realize I don’t want to share my life with another person. I want to be a part of other people’s lives, but I don’t want to be the main focus.” Friends and family, she says, are enough.
“I had to come to the conclusion that it’s OK to be that selfish.”
Figuring that out wasn’t easy. Jacobson, a transit control dispatcher from north Minneapolis, grew up believing in the “fairy tale” wedding and a marriage like her parents’, who are going on 40 years together. “That typical dream women are supposed to have faded away very, very slowly,” she said, “and at some points, it was difficult to get rid of.”
Going solo is something many people still don’t understand. Once, when an unmarried colleague in his 50s referred to himself a bachelor, Jacobson replied that she is a bachelor, too. “No,” he told her, “you can’t be a bachelor.”
Still, she considers herself lucky to have come of age when attitudes about marriage are changing. Were she born decades ago, “I would either have to be a nun, a spinster, or perhaps an abolitionist,” she said. “I don’t know if I would ever have come to this conclusion living outside of this age.”
CieJay Hanson, a 31-year-old single mother from Plymouth, says it took her last relationship with a verbally abusive boyfriend to make her see the light and stop pining for a partner. “At my age, I’m just not going to settle in the hopes of working towards changing someone,” she said. “And I’m not going to change me now.”
Previously, she described herself as a serial monogamist. She wanted to marry her high school boyfriend, then her college boyfriend, and get a house in the suburbs. Instead, she lives in the suburbs with her parents.
Hanson still dates, but she’s done making plans for the future.
“If I get married, awesome,” she said. “If I don’t — awesome.”