Adam Ash

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Thursday, June 08, 2006

Single and not worried by it one bit

Single Minded
They're having babies alone, vacationing alone, buying homes alone. And they couldn't be happier, especially in Boston, where record numbers of single people are finding that parties of one are worth toasting.
By Keith O'Brien

THEY HAVE NAMES FOR THEMSELVES NOW: Quirkyalone, Modern Spinsters, Marriagefree, and Spinsterellas. Couplists depress them, and even worse are the Perkytogethers, the sort who feed each other in public or make out in movie theaters or hold hands while riding bicycles. "Yes," wrote one Quirkyalone in an online chat room after recently spotting such a four-wheeled spectacle, "I wanted to see the Tyranny of Coupledom take a tumble."

This message launched dozens of responses. "I had to vent," wrote the woman who started it all. And who can blame her? Singles can feel subjected to an endless stream of Couplists riding bicycles while holding hands and asking as they pedal by: "So, when are you going to get married?"

It is the question that has dogged single people - perhaps more than any other - ever since the invention of the prying mother. But now, tired of being marginalized and scrutinized by a wedded society, unattached Americans are throwing a cultural curveball. They're announcing they're happy just as they are. They're buying houses on their own, having children on their own, and even planning to retire on their own. Single folks today have what one advertising executive calls a feeling of "growing militancy." And they've got numbers. More than ever before, men and women are living single well into their 30s, 40s, and beyond. It's been estimated that, as early as 2008, a majority of US households will be headed by an unmarried person - a shift that has already taken hold in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and 15 other states. People continue to marry later in life, especially in this state, and some are opting out altogether, posing Couplists a question of their own: "Why bother?"

In 1970, only 7.8 percent of Americans aged 30 to 34 had never married, and 65.4 percent of all men were hitched, as were 59.7 percent of all women. By 2003, the number of never-marrieds aged 30 to 34 had exploded to 27.9 percent. The number of all men who were married had dropped to 55.4 percent, and barely half of all women were wed.

Few places are as single-minded as Boston. According to the US Census, a stunning 53.6 percent of all men here have never married, tops in the nation. And the city's women are close behind; more than 45 percent have never walked down the aisle, a figure that trails only Newark and Washington, D.C. In other words, Boston isn't a city that never sleeps; it's a city that sleeps alone or sleeps around, depending on how you look at it.

How we got here is the result of countless cultural shifts: the feminist movement, the jump in the divorce rate, the decline of the loveless marriage, and the rise of a soulmate society born of a quaint, high-minded ideal called love. One recent poll found that almost all young adults believe there is someone special out there for them, and they will not settle just to be married. They will wait. And that decision is changing how we define happiness and the need for partners, and it's transforming the look of our neighborhoods. Less than 50 years removed from Leave It to Beaver , everyone wants to know what will happen if the tyranny of coupledom finally tumbles.

THIS STORY , like all good stories about the single life, begins in a cafe, three days before Valentine's Day on the night of the biggest snowstorm of last winter. Nancy Howell couldn't have counted on the blizzard, which by morning would bury Boston in snow. But everything else she could have predicted. Here she was, once again, alone and soon to be without a date on the Couplists' favorite holiday.

Howell, a textbook proofreader and Brighton resident, had not planned her life this way. "Thirty," she tells me, "kind of meant I should be settling down. Maybe buying a house, buying a condo." But that milestone birthday came and went in June 2005, and Howell was still unattached and renting. She thought about how, when she was a kid, 30 seemed so old. And how, when her mother was 30, she wasn't only married, she was pregnant. Then Howell thought about her parents' divorce just a few years ago, and she remembered something else about herself: "I have never felt like I needed to be with someone."

Howell is not alone in this regard. Hollywood would have us believe that single people are falling over themselves to find a mate, yet the Pew Internet & American Life Project reported in February that 55 percent of single people nationwide have no active interest in seeking a partner. While Pew found that 26 percent of singles are in committed relationships, it also discovered that just 16 percent are actively looking for love - a number that would seem to contradict everything we've ever been told about being single. Happy, uncommitted singles were suddenly everywhere, and not just in the survey. Boston has them. The suburbs have them. Even rural Pittsfield has them. They are men and women, gay and straight.

The Pew researchers set out to ask 3,200 people about the significance of Internet dating - not the idea of not dating at all. But in the course of their research they uncovered what Philip Morgan calls "a very interesting phenomenon." Morgan, a Duke University sociology professor who helped prepare the survey, says today, months later, he's still not sure what the answers mean. And he acknowledges that survey subjects may have misinterpreted the questions or fudged the truth. Nonetheless, after years of believing that single people must want to be married, Americans should now consider the possibility that this simply isn't true, Morgan says. The single life, once a way station, is becoming a movement.

"This is the future," says Bella DePaulo, an unwed author in Santa Barbara, California, whose book, Singled Out , will be published this fall. "People have the option now to stay single and live full lives and be just as, to put it directly, morally significant as married couples." Lobbying groups argue as much. The Alternatives to Marriage Project, founded in Boston and now based in Brooklyn, New York, fought the nomination of Samuel Alito Jr. to the US Supreme Court, saying he has discriminated on the basis of marital status. Unmarried America, formerly known as the American Association for Single People, has opposed tax breaks that favor the married and insurance rates that punish the single. And then there is the group where Nancy Howell finds kinship. She is a Quirkyalone.

The word, taken from Sasha Cagen's 2004 book, Quirkyalone , is defined as "a person who enjoys being single (but is not opposed to being in a relationship) and generally prefers to be alone rather than date for the sake of being in a couple." Cagen, a 32-year-old writer in San Francisco, came up with the definition to describe herself and later wrote an essay about it in Utne Reader . "I thought maybe five people would write me a letter," she says. Instead, Cagen received thousands. "I got letters from prisoners. Mix tapes. Marriage proposals. Everything." An agent called. A book deal followed. A website went up, and thousands of people gathered in virtual reality to vent about Perkytogethers and plan Quirkyalone parties.

"Glad to be here among `kindred spirits,'" Nancy Howell wrote in the Quirkyalone chat room in October 2004, not long after reading Cagen's book. She had found a community, one that even has its own holiday, International Quirkyalone Day, its answer to Valentine's Day.

Howell suggested an IQD party for Boston on the website last January. Her message got 400 hits and several replies, and she began planning. They would meet at the Otherside Cafe on Newbury Street the Saturday before Valentine's Day. They would have drinks and make valentines for friends on construction paper, and it would be perfect. Then the blizzard started rolling in, and only three people showed up: Howell, her roommate, and one of their friends.

"It bombed," says Howell.

FORBES MAGAZINE consistently ranks Boston as one of the best cities in the country for singles. We have night life. We have culture. We have "coolness," according to the Forbes rankings, and smarts, according to the US Census. Boston is ranked in the top 10 most educated cities, and the state is number one when it comes to people with higher degrees. And so, the thinking goes, young educated singles should be able to find plenty of mates or dates, leading to a life of happiness and joy. The end.

But this life can be elusive. Many singles who are satisfied now didn't start out that way. They were miserable, depressed, even desperate - everything society told them they should be. Rankings and "coolness" aside, Boston is as hard a place to be single and looking as any other city. Diane Darling, a 47-year-old Cambridge woman, says that in her 30s, finding a man was like holding mercury in her hand: "The tighter I squeezed, the more it slipped through my fingers."

Darling had always planned on being married and being a mother. Throughout her 20s and 30s, she bought children's clothes as she traveled overseas. One day, she knew, she would be glad she had that toddler's dress from Italy and the striped jacket from Thailand. But as she approached 40, Darling began to panic.

"You're almost out there sperm shopping," she says. "You feel such pressure, and you hate feeling like you're going out there, trying to shop and force something. We all watch the movies, Sleepless in Seattle , whatever it may be. We have this idea that it should all fall into place." But it didn't happen that way for Darling. She turned 40 without a husband. She worked for a dot-com that went bust. She had reasons to feel sorry for herself - and then she found success. Darling started a company called Effective Networking Inc. and wrote one book about business networking, then another. She now speaks regularly to executives and young professionals. The woman who spent years gathering kids' clothes now has made peace with not being a mother. "I feel like I'm happier single in my 40s than I was in my 20s and 30s," she says from her Copley Place office. "I think in my 20s and 30s there was a lot of pressure to pair up, and I just never met that person."

In another era not so long ago, Darling might have settled. Found a man, any man. Historically, there was nothing wrong with a loveless partnership, wrote Stephanie Coontz in her 2005 book, Marriage, a History . Love took a back seat to economics, politics, and, for women, survival. "They needed a man," says Coontz. "They didn't have the luxury of waiting until it was absolutely, perfectly right. They either convinced themselves that the man was absolutely, perfectly right, or they suffered."

Today, by and large, that's not the case. Darling can wait, concentrating on her career, and Ayana Meade can do the same. A 30-year-old Brighton resident, Meade recently organized the Boston chapter of the Lunch Club, a group focused on connecting people - mostly singles - with the idea that "eating alone is boring." Meade now works part time planning events for some 800 people, but she says her goal is to start her own online business. And while she does want to get married, she'd like to get the business going first. "My whole philosophy may be a little bit different than others. I think my getting married will depend on my achieving my goals," she says. But whether she ever achieves those goals or not, one thing is clear for Meade: "I'm certainly not willing to settle. And I think that's what a lot of people do - they settle."

More educated, economically self-sufficient, and socially independent, women can afford to be choosy. They can wait for a soul mate, even turn down prospects - and men can, too. But soul mates are harder to find than just any old mates. Love slips through fingers like mercury and leaves many singles searching late into life.

Steve Doucette, for example, hasn't given up on marrying. "But it would take one hell of a girl," says the 40-year-old IT professional living in Mansfield. After all, Doucette likes his life. This summer, he plans to finish getting his pilot's license, a dream he's not sure he would have realized with a wife and kids. One day, he says, he may even buy a share of a small plane to fly on weekends to Cape Cod and beyond. Maybe with a woman. Maybe not.

HISTORICALLY, ADVERTISERS have ignored people like Darling and Doucette. At best, executives pushing products saw older singles as insignificant and unable to influence others with their purchases. At worst, they were perceived as losers. Even the word "single" suggests that something is missing, says Chip Walker, executive vice president and director of account planning at the Chicago office of BBDO Worldwide. There, working for one of the largest advertising agencies in the world, he has tried over the years to get companies to focus on what he calls "the midlife single." "I have not been successful," admits Walker, who's single himself. The demographic, he explains, was not regarded as "aspirational."

Now, ever so slowly, this is beginning to change. As more and more people choose to be single, more and more companies are trying to capture their disposable income. Tom Collinger, a marketing professor at Northwestern University, home of one of the country's top advertising education programs, goes so far as to call today's singles "an absolute zeitgeist." There's De Beers telling women to buy their own diamond rings - the right-hand diamond - and Conde Nast coming out with Men's Vogue for guys who pick out their own clothes. In Boston, New York, and other major cities, lifestyle consultants help men do everything from buying shoes to home appliances - things their wives used to do - and single people, especially single women, are buying property in droves.

Married couples still account for more than half of recent home buyers nationally. But single women make up the second largest group, at 21 percent nationally and 15 percent across the state, almost triple and double the rate of single men, respectively. Women aren't just buying rings for themselves; they're buying it all.

Take Mary Gniadek. Now 46, Gniadek wanted to marry her boyfriend of eight years in 2002, but the timing wasn't right for him. Soon thereafter, in between jobs, she left Malden, where she had lived for 14 years, and moved to Pittsfield, into her parents' house. Gniadek slept in the den of the house for a while, wondering why she wasn't married. "You know how you set goals for yourself?" she asks. "Well, I didn't meet my goal." Here she was, a former Pittsfield High School cheerleader, alone, in her 40s, and living with her parents again. "You might as well put yourself in a grave," she says. "Bury yourself.... It's the truth." But she rebounded. Gniadek, who works in accounts payable, bought a mobile home in a cute middle-class neighborhood in Pittsfield and soon began to worry more about home projects than men.

"I'm just having too much fun now. And you know what? I don't have the energy" for the mating game, Gniadek said inside her immaculate home last April. "Somewhere down the road, I don't know when, it'd be nice to find that soul mate and get married to them. But I'm not searching for them like I was when I was younger. I know I can take care of things by myself."

While Gniadek plans for retirement, other single homeowners are planning families. Scott Ullrich, 47, a self-employed headhunter who lives in Jamaica Plain, adopted his 12-year-old son, Joey, in January 2005. Ullrich, who is gay, made the decision only after he and his partner split up. He is now planning to adopt a second child.

Jennifer Waddell, a publishing company archivist, already has two. Waddell, 43, gave birth to Ralphie and Violet last August after years of fruitless dating. She made a habit, she says, of dating "not nice men" and eventually became "absolutely desperate to be pregnant." She did get pregnant - with the help of doctors, a fertility clinic, and a sperm bank - but then worried if she would really be able to raise twins on her own. She gave birth, held her babies for the first time, and felt what she called "instant love," a love she had never found in a man. "Now every misstep I took, every yucky guy I dated, got me here to these babies," Waddell says, inside the Boston home she bought before the children were born. "Now I don't have any more regrets. No regrets.... It's like my life started at 40."

IN A ROOM THIS SPRING in Western Massachusetts, a dozen single people sit on couches in a circle to talk about being alone. Niela Miller, a 71-year-old Acton woman, has led this workshop at the Rowe Camp and Conference Center for some 20 years. In the past, it's been part of an Easter weekend for singles where the goal was meeting a mate. But recently Miller changed the title of her three-day workshop. This year, it's "Being Alive! How to Be Single and Happy."

Some in the group are divorced, some widowed, some have never been married, and all of them, to varying extents, are struggling with their singleness. Miller tries to help them find contentment within themselves. "No one's saying it's easy," she tells them. "But it is a choice, and there are skills you can learn if you want to go in that direction." One man, 58 and never married, begins to compare it to The Wizard of Oz . Maybe, he says, happiness has been right there with him all along, like Scarecrow's brain or the Lion's courage. Still, he says, "I don't want to live out my life alone."

Despite all the changes, single folks still have much to overcome in what they see as a Couplists society. Researchers have found that married people are happier than single people, live longer, and make more money. Meanwhile, cultural critics tell singles they are ruining America with their choices and say a successful society needs men and women to partner up and procreate. George Gilder, the author of 1992's Men and Marriage who lives in Western Massachusetts, calls this abandonment of tradition "a great mistake."

Yet every indicator suggests the marriage rate will continue to fall. Committed singles will never cause coupledom to tumble - but they surely will earn more acceptance as their numbers grow.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Nancy Howell, the Quirkyalone member, sits in her Brighton apartment with another single friend, Tracy Strauss. The plan: dye a blue streak into Howell's hair. This isn't some moment of youthful angst or punk expression. It is simply something Howell has included on a list of things she must do before turning 31 this month.

She came up with the idea for the list last year before she turned 30. She wanted to distract herself from the milestone by forcing herself to do things she had never done before - an idea that worked so well, she decided to do it again this year. On the list: "Read The Color Purple .... Go to a Chippendales show." And then, number 22: "Put blue streak in my hair."

The other tasks have gone well. This one does not. By the time Howell is done with the bottle of dye, there is no blue streak. It's more like her whole head is bluish black, and she and Strauss stand in the bathroom discussing the problem. Howell laughs. She is not troubled. The dye job will fade, other tasks are on her list, she will be all right, and soon she will be on vacation.

This weekend, she is in Aruba celebrating her 31st birthday on a beach in the sun. By herself.

By the numbers
86: Percentage of young adults who believe marriage is hard work and a full-time job.
82: Percentage of young adults who say it's unwise for women to rely on marriage for financial security.
SOURCE: National Marriage Project, 2001

(Keith O'Brien is a freelance writer in Jamaica Plain. E-mail him at


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