Sociology: Today’s Single Women

The article:

Happy, successful woman would like not to meet…

(reference: “Happy, Successful woman would like not to meet…” by Sally Williams, in ‘The Sunday Telegraph Magazine’, 19 September 2010)


flying high

<< More and more women are now single, according to statistics – and many of them are perfectly happy to stay that way. So why exactly have they given up on men and marriage, asks Sally Williams.

Georgie Roles is only 32 and she has decided to ‘be single for ever’.  It’s not that she hasn’t had boyfriends.  Georgie is an airline pilot and grew up thinking that men would admire her for doing what she was good at: ‘The more successful you are, the more attractive you are’.  Her experience proved otherwise.  ‘I got the impression with a couple of them that the idea of going out with me was great, because they could say to their mates, “I’m going out with a skydiving pilot.”  But the reality was that they couldn’t cope with it.’

There were comments, she explains, put-downs.  One, in the spirit of competition, trained to become a helicopter pilot, because ‘helicopters are harder to fly than aeroplanes’.  Her first boyfriend gave her an ultimatum: flying or him.  ‘I said to him, “I think your bags are on top of the wardrobe.”  The choice was obvious, but the consequences made me sad – that I lose someone to carry on being myself.’

single-flying high-leap of faith

Roles has been single for the past year – plenty of time to assess its virtues.  ‘I love the fact that I’m not restricted anymore.  I can spend my time, my money, my effort doing what I want, where I want, with whom I want – and I don’t mean one-night stands, rather if someone says to me, “Can you do a sky-dive in Arizona in April?”  I can say, “Yes, I can.”’

What about children – would she like to become a mother one day?  ‘I wouldn’t be bothered if I didn’t,’ she replies. ‘I’ve got five godchildren I love dearly, but to have my own?  I’ve got too much going on in my life that having children would actually spoil.  It would mean I couldn’t do skydiving for at least a year, flying would go for a year.  No.  It holds no interest for me, whatsoever.’

Other women I speak to echo Roles. ‘It’s nice to have some time to be selfish and focus on you and work out what you want,’ says Sarah, 39, a teacher whose last relationship was five years ago. ‘It’s made me braver to try new things: the first time I visited a financial adviser, the first time I had to go to a solicitor… that made me feel I had achieved something on my own.’single-spinster



“She liked imaginary men best of all”




Debbie, 41, a marketing consultant, walked out on her 18-year marriage because she wanted to be alone.  ‘Everybody always thinks you leave somebody because of somebody else, but I just needed to have time to myself.’  She lists her new pleasures: watching ‘trashy TV’ such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, reaching for a Budweiser at the end of the day (she and her husband used to drink wine), not having to cook if she doesn’t feel like it and, most of all, enjoying a sense of possibility.

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of single women, according to the Office for National Statistics.  The number of 18- to 49-year olds living alone has more than doubled over the past three decades.

Dubbed ‘freemales’ and ‘quirkyalones’, these women tend to be successful metropolitans – the antithesis of Anita Brookner spinsters in their sad cardigans.  ‘We are deeply single, and happy with it,’ writes Sasha Cagen, the American author of “Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics” and founder of  ‘We inhabit singledom as our natural resting state.’

Of course, it’s important not to get too carried away on a wave of girl power, because for every Sasha Cogen on a heady journey of self-discovery, there is another who longs to be in a steady relationship.  The internet groans under the weight of dating sites, so those who, like Roles, speak of being ‘single for ever’ must still be in the minority. 

spinster 19th century



The stereotypical 19th century spinsterhood is a thing of the past – “it’s now acceptable to be single.”



Nevertheless, Jan Macvarish, a sociologist from the University of Kent who has spent several years researching the lives of single women aged 30 to 50, believes that the paradigm has shifted.  ‘The portrayal of the dilemma of contemporary singleness has changed in the past six years,’ she says.  ‘The single woman no longer fits the Bridget Jones model of confusion and unfulfilled longings, but is now clearly rejecting marriage and motherhood in favour of the single life.’

‘Women in modern Britain no longer need the institution of marriage or a partnership to feed themselves, get a house or have sex.  They earn their own money; buy their own homes.  Commitment to a mortgage has become more of an adult marker than commitment to a husband or child.  Plus,’ Macvarish continues, ‘education and university postpone adulthood.  There is now a whole new world to explore and consume before settling down.’



Commitment to a mortgage has become more an adult marker rather than commitment to a husband or child


The reasons why women want children have also shifted.  ‘Women do still feel the pressure to have children,’ Macvarish says.  ‘But they feel it in a different way.  Now babies only make sense in terms of ourselves.  You have a baby because you think you will be a good parent or it will make you happy, not because it’s the done thing.  There is not a social sense that having babies is inherently a good thing – that has really gone away.

Indeed, it’s not surprising that women might look at marriage and think, what’s the point?  Married women, writes Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of best-selling memoirs “Eat, Pray, Love” and “Committed”, are not as successful in their careers as single women.  They are also more likely to suffer from depression and are arguably less healthy than singles.  Married men, on the other hand, ‘live longer than single men… accumulate more wealth than single men and report themselves to be much happier’.  Men, she observes, are generally the winners in the exchange of marriage vows.  So are women actually better off alone?

Trish Burmeister, 50, an accounts manager and mother of four children, aged 19 to 27, didn’t set out to be single, but now feels more fulfilled than she ever felt as a wife.  ‘When I got married it was for ever.’  But her husband left her in 1998, after 13 years of marriage.  ‘We were working together [the couple ran a cleaning business from their home in South Africa], we had four children of school age, and we had very little time to work on our relationship,’ she explains.  She moved from South Africa to Britain to be near her parents.  This was a big psychological shift.  ‘I married at 21 so went from being looked after by my father to be looked after by my husband.  I stayed at home with the children after they were born.  I didn’t go out to work.  I’d had somebody looking after me my whole life.’

Burmeister found plenty of incentives to change.  She got a full-time job and now works in the accounts department of a property management company in Bournemouth.  She supported her daughters through school and university.  Her confidence was further boosted by a colleague introducing her to Life Clubs, ‘weekly self-help, personal improvement workshops’, last year.  ‘It’s made me look at life in a different way,’ says Burmeister.  ‘It made me focus on myself, whereas for the past 25 years I’d just been a mum.’

self help


Self-help has the ability to bring about transformation



Burmeister now has a hectic social life (‘it’s very acceptable to be single’) and feels secure in the knowledge that she could not have been more wrong about who she was.  ‘I feel empowered,’ she says.  ‘It’s a good feeling, though surprising.’  Understandably, Burmeister is reluctant to enter into another binding agreement: ‘It’s nice to have the freedom to do as I please.’

social life


More energy and time to socialise is an effect of singledom


But it’s not just women like Burmeister, juggling work and family, or Georgie Roles, deciding whether her high-flying career leaves time for romance and children, who are calculating the virtues of being single.

Leah Simpson, 22, decided two years ago that if she was to make it as a journalist, something had to give.  She finished with her then boyfriend and hasn’t been in a relationship since

While it’s not unusual for women in their early twenties to be single, what is surprising is Simpson’s conviction that a boyfriend would inhibit her career and personal development.

‘When you’re young, people are always telling you not to forget about school, not to let boys take over your life – actually my parents never told me that – but it just stuck in my head,’ says Simpson.  ‘I was trying not to slip into that trap of putting boys first and letting the rest of your life slump a bit.  There isn’t anyone who has impressed me enough to make me want to give up more of my time.’

personal development


“The idea that relationships are hostile to self-development is very common,” says Macvarish, a sociologist from the University of Kent


According to Macvarish, the idea that relationships are hostile to self-development is very common.  ‘There is a sense that you have to love yourself before anyone can love you – that sounds like a trite self-helpism, but it’s a really common idea – that you can’t function in a relationship without being a fully functioning emotional individual yourself, and that is something you work on by yourself – that is a huge shift,’ she explains.  ‘It’s not just that singleness provides an opportunity for self-exploration, but that self-exploration should take priority within or over relationships.’

Even confirmed singletons sometimes have their doubts, though.  ‘I’ll tell you what I miss about a relationship,’ says Burmeister.  ‘It’s having that person there.  Knowing you’re not alone.  Although I have people around me I can depend on, and my children are great and I know I will never be alone, it’s a different kind of relationship.’  Other women speak of the anxiety of being ill and nobody knowing.  (Macvarish says the scene in “Bridge Jones’s Diary” where Bridget fears perishing ‘all alone, half-eaten by an Alsatian’ is familiar to all single women.)  But they also talk of ‘awesome’ friends and champion them over the perceived unreliability of partners.  Macvarish says fulfilment through female relationships is a key part of modern singleness.  ‘We romanticise friendship now’ – viz “Sex and the City”.

sex and the city 2


The media has encouraged us to romanticise female friendships, like in “Sex and the City”



But don’t you ever get lonely, I ask all the women.  ‘Yes,’ Debbie replies.  ‘It’s not a specific time, not during the weekend, or evening, just sometimes you feel it.’  She pauses. ‘But then you can be just as lonely when you’re in a relationship.’


Nerd smile  My thoughts and words

Sociology: Today’s Single Women

  1. From the above article:
    ‘There is a sense that you have to love yourself before anyone can love you – that sounds like a trite self-helpism, but it’s a really common idea – that you can’t function in a relationship without being a fully functioning emotional individual yourself, and that is something you work on by yourself – that is a huge shift,’ Macvarish explains.

    According to me, a big tick of agreement.  What is the point of being in a relationship when you’re only ‘half a person’, do you really expect the relationship to make you whole?  Sometimes a relationship can be a learning curve, but if that is so, then according to me it’s not good enough for the longer-term, it is only a temporary relationship.  That is, it is not a substantial marriage.

  2. What about feeling as if you don’t have the time, energy and resources to invest in the commitment and building of a relationship? 

    That does happen, do you then expect the other person to fill in your voids?  Do you lean and press on the other person to fulfil what you cannot? 

    It’s like that dire consequence of a half-baked team, the team of half-baked people who must work in a group because not one of them is good enough on their own. 

    According to me, a real team is one made up of fully functioning people who contribute fully to the larger group goal or objective.  A team is formed because the objectives or goals to be achieved is greater than each individual’s abilities – no matter how superhuman each person may, or may not, purport to be. 

    A dire team is one where each person believes teamwork means to lighten the load – that really is in the past, where the people were not highly skilled enough.  It was a temporary patch as opposed to a solution. 

    Today’s real teams consist of highly-skilled people to achieve the near-impossible.  That, to me, is what a marriage between two people should be, as well as a loving relationship.  It is to achieve families and to enable work, successes and achievements outside the home in a sustainable way.  It is not idyllic – far from it.  If your external working life is substantial enough your home life should really be pulling at the seams.  It really does take teamwork, the partnership of husband-wife and family.

  3. What about the science of numbers behind meeting a match?

    “The Science behind Singledom”


    <<Peter Backus, a university tutor uses a formula to explain singledom, finding that our chances of finding the perfect partner are just 1 in 285,000.

    The formula, which called The Drake Equation, was used by Mr. Backus in his thesis titled “Why I Don’t Have a Girlfriend”. The formula was first used to estimate the existence of extra-terrestrial life.

    The tutor found out that out of the 30 million women in the UK, only 26 would be suitable for him.

    “There are 26 women in London with whom I might have a wonderful relationship,” he said.

    “So, on a given night out in London there is a 0.0000034% chance of meeting one of these special people. That?s a 1 in 285,000 chance, so it’s not great.”

    The Drake equation reads: N = R* x Fp x Ne x Fi x Fc x L. It helped Professor Drake to predict that there could be 10,000 civilizations in our galaxy.

    Mr. Backus replaced the original equation with his own criteria for a dream date and the number of girls aged 24-34 in London.

    “The research may sound depressing to people looking for love, but the good news for singles is, it’s probably not your fault!,” he said.>>

  4. From the article:
    “Education and university postpone adulthood. There is now a whole new world to explore and consume before settling down.”

    I wouldn’t say that prolonged education to further and raise your skill-sets necessarily diminish life experience and renders a person immature and childish, but what it does do is channel energy elsewhere to have another type of life experience.  However, it does depend on what type of education the person chose.  There are a variety of educational degrees and institutions, as varied as the people who apply.

    I would say that I was more able to explore the world and life through my university experiences and education than if I had gone straight to work from high school.  Through my success in finding a suitable degree I was advantaged to have exposure to opportunities in which I put myself forward for selection and judgement to gain even further experiences and opportunities.  In other words, I whacked myself out and worked my arse off to break open future prospects.  There isn’t any opening for personal romantic relationships given such a depletion of personal resources.  Unfortunate, but true.  It’s known as a trade-off, or a personal sacrifice.


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