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Forever Single

Born Too Late? Expect Too Much? Then You May Be...

From the August 20, 1984 issue of New York Magazine.

'Last night, I had a terrible dream. the weight of the world was on my shoulders, and it was pressing me into the ground. I screamed for help, but nobody came. When I woke up, I wanted somebody to hold me. But it was just like the dream. There was no husband. No children. Only me."

Lately, Mary Rodgers* has been having trouble sleeping. She wakes up in the middle of the night, frightened and disoriented. An executive with a garment firm, Rodgers, at 33, is single, and she links her frequent nightmares to a growing sense of isolation. Tall and slim, with streaked blonde hair, she is Hollywood's version of a career woman. But Rodgers has grown weary of her professional image. "I want to get married more than anything else in the world," she explains. "No matter what they say, a career isn't enough. Friends aren't enough. I need stronger connections."

Despite three marriage proposals, Rodgers has not been able to connect with any of the men she has dated in the past fifteen years. There was a high-school sweetheart who didn't want to leave the Midwest ("too traditional"); a college boyfriend who wouldn't quit his job as a construction worker ("too blue-collar"); and a spendthrift entrepreneur in California ("too unstable"). The last proposal was seven years ago. Since then, her involvements have been brief and unsatisfying. "I used to have a lot of confidence," she says. "I was proud of my career success. Now I don't feel attractive anymore. I'm beginning to doubt my femininity."

Rodgers is now contemplating single motherhood. She doesn't like the idea, but is terrified of growing old alone. "Why did my life turn out like this?" she asks. "There's nothing physically wrong with me. I don't have major psychological problems. I thought I did everything right. I found a career, joined a health club, went into therapy. Why am I still single?"

It's a question more and more people are asking these days. If the 1970s exalted the single state, focusing on the concept of self-fulfillment through individual achievement, the '80s have signaled a shift toward greater commitment to personal relationships. Members of the baby-boom generation who claimed they didn't need that piece of paper are reconsidering their rebellious ways. "Every time I go to my office, somebody announces his engagement," says a woman who works for a cable-TV station. "Female executives are walking around with Modern Bride in their briefcases. You can't pick up a magazine without reading about wedding gowns and china patterns. Suddenly, it's marriage, marriage, marriage."

But is it? Buried in the current hype about the "new traditionalism" is an even more startling trend. A growing number of men and women are not getting married. According to the Census Bureau's 1983 statistics, 13 percent of women and 20 percent of men between the ages of 30 and 34 have never been married. That's more than twice as many singles as in 1970. Based on the statistical evidence, bureau officials suggest that an increasing proportion of the population may never marry at all.

In many cases, it is not a conscious choice. There are men and women, like Mary Rodgers, who simply can't find the "right" partner. They go on countless dates and attend dozens of parties. They take out personal ads, and they vacation at Club Med. Yet the person they seek eludes them. A 35-year-old photographer estimates that he has had more than 100 blind dates in the past eighteen months. Of those women, he liked only one, and she was married. Reasons for rejecting the others ranged from the physical ("I hate large calves") to the physiological ("She's allergic to my cat").

Others do find the right person—at the wrong time. "If only he'd finished med school," says one woman about her ex-boyfriend. "But I didn't want to suffer through his grueling schedule. Now he's got a wife and a private practice—and I could kick myself."

The inability to connect with an appropriate partner, according to mental-health experts, is the prime reason single people in their thirties seek professional treatment. "Every day I hear the same old story," says an analyst at Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research whose practice includes many single patients. "People's dates are never good enough. They're always a little too short, too thin, too shy, too aggressive. Yet patients tell me they are 'desperate' to get married. It's ridiculous! If they wanted to be married, they'd be married."

It may not be that simple. These singles have missed what Dr. Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist and co-author of American Couples, calls the "launch window." In college, people connect on the basis of shared backgrounds and interests. Adequate leisure time nourishes friendships, and many of these develop into romance. Today, 30-year-old professionals operate on a tight schedule. They make blind dates for drinks and frequently judge one another on the basis of a 45-minute conversation. Under these circumstances, only the most attractive make it beyond the first round.

Coupled with these unfavorable social conditions is the "marriage squeeze" that affects women in their thirties. There aren't enough men to go around, so unless a woman selects a younger partner, she may not be able to find a mate. Moreover, age diminishes a woman's opportunities; by the time she reaches her forties, she and her peers outnumber available men more than two to one. "It's getting to be a nightmare," says a 38-year-old paralegal. "All of a sudden, marriage has become the greatest challenge of my life."

Up until the 1960s, marriage was viewed much like a business contract: The wife provided sex and took care of the home and children; the husband paid the bills. Unmarried couples did not live together, and while society supported a double standard that allowed men to "experiment," the men usually settled down with "nice girls" who didn't.

Feminism and the sexual revolution changed the existing standards and indirectly altered the definition of an appropriate mate. Suddenly, women didn't need husbands for money, and men didn't need wives for a continuous sex life. They still needed one another for emotional support, but they could live together without the added burden of commitment.

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