More Women Single Than Ever: The Mental Health Link

More women than ever single - mental health link

In the 1950s, an era often naively upheld as an ideal chapter in modern American history, approximately 65% of girls and women aged 15 and over were married. Today, many women are choosing a different path; one that delays marriage or even avoids it altogether.

To be fair, remaining single isn’t always a choice. Plenty of women intended to get married, have children, and lead lives that echo those of their mothers and grandmothers. For a myriad of reasons, today, only 47% of girls and women aged 15 and over are married, which is the lowest since the turn of the century. In 2021, about 22% of 40-year-old women had never been married. On top of that, the age at which a woman enters into her first marriage has climbed from 20 years old in 1950 to 28 years old today.

Throughout most of American history, marriage was an economic arrangement. Before a woman had the right to own property, keep any earnings she made from a job or enter into a legal contract, her financial security hinged on her getting and staying married.

Fortunately, today’s reality is much different, with most women marrying for love and companionship rather than financial necessity. In 2023, women comprised nearly half of the U.S. civilian labor force. Although they still earn about 16% less than their male counterparts, they enjoy far more financial independence, reducing the economic need for marriage.

As women have gained financial independence, allowing them to skip or delay marriage, has their mental health taken a hit? Are they more likely than married women to report depression and loneliness?

Debunking the Stigma

Women delaying or avoiding marriage is a hot topic and a popular scapegoat for a variety of society’s woes. Despite the fact that a higher percentage of 40-year-old men than women have never been married (28% of men versus 22% of women), and the average age men enter into their first marriage is two years older than the average age for women, there are more social pressures for women to marry.

The Traditional Societal Expectations for Women

From a historical perspective, the roles men and women performed in traditional marriages had a significant impact on their lives as single people. For example, society decided it was men’s role to earn money. Whether or not he was married, he had access to professional training, financial credit and the ability to travel independently. The role of women, on the other hand, was to provide support at home and have children. Men could fulfill societal expectations whether they were married or not, whereas women had to marry to fit social expectations.

The Cultural Tropes and Stigmas Associated with Single Women

As a result of these societal expectations, there are a variety of misconceptions and stigmas associated with unmarried women. For example, she may be seen as selfish because, as the narrative goes, she has put her own interests and preferences ahead of contributing to society by supporting a spouse’s career ambitions or having children. Alternatively, society may assume that an unmarried woman is domineering or difficult to get along with, or that she lives in a chronic state of loneliness and depression.

Fortunately, the truth is likely much less dire. In 2019, Paul Dolan, a professor of behavioral science at the London School of Economics, ruffled some feathers when he famously stated that women who are single and without children are the happiest subgroup of the population. Obviously, there are some issues with broad, sweeping statements such as this one; a woman’s feelings about her marital status and how much control she believes she has over her decision to marry or remain single have a significant impact on how happy she feels. Nevertheless, it highlights the fact that women can and do find joy and fulfillment outside of traditional roles.

The Reality of Solitude

Living as a single person doesn’t doom a person to loneliness any more than getting married serves as a surefire way to prevent it. Even so, when someone lives in solitude, they may be at a higher risk of facing social isolation.

What Does It Mean to be Isolated?

“Isolation” refers to being physically or emotionally disconnected from others. This can come from being physically alone and having little or no contact with other people. For example, someone who lives alone and works from home may experience social isolation. It can also stem from being emotionally disconnected from others. Even if an individual is surrounded by people, they may still experience isolation if they perceive themselves as an outsider or if they haven’t learned the skills necessary for building and maintaining relationships.

Different people have different needs for social connections. Someone who gains energy from social interactions may feel isolation and loneliness far more quickly than someone who has to spend energy on socializing. Some people may find living alone to be an unfortunate byproduct of being unmarried while others thrive in solitude.

The Impact of Loneliness on Mental Health

Solitude doesn’t automatically lead to loneliness, but for some, it can be a factor. While solitude is a state of being, loneliness is a state of mind. It can have a significant impact on an individual’s mental health and put them at a greater risk for chemical dependence, depression, anxiety, increased stress levels and dementia.

According to one meta-analysis conducted by U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, reports of loneliness have climbed alongside the increase of single-person households and the decision many couples make to have smaller families. Being aware of this trend can help women recognize the importance of cultivating social connections and guarding against loneliness.

Embracing Independence Empowerment in Singleness

For many women, single living is empowering and enables them to embrace independence and pursue opportunities that may otherwise be out of reach.

How Singleness Can Support Self-Reliance and Independence

Single women have the unique opportunity to make important decisions based solely on their own interests and goals and take on new challenges without having to worry about how it could impact someone else. This could involve making a cross-country move, pursuing a passion project, taking on a new hobby or exploring new career possibilities. Making these decisions can help her build confidence and resilience as she recognizes her ability to take on challenges.

Financial Freedom

Single women don’t have to consult with a partner when making important financial decisions, giving them full control over their money. Additionally, they have the freedom to focus on their careers without the responsibilities of a partner or a family.

Social Freedom

Singlehood provides women with the opportunity to pursue relationships without having to work around the schedule and socialization preferences of a partner. The ability to schedule late-morning brunches, out-of-town trips with friends and family and evening gatherings can help manage loneliness some women experience when living alone.

Women are delaying or opting out of marriage at a higher rate than we’ve seen in any other decade of modern history. While a woman’s feelings about singleness, including whether she wants to be married now or in the future and whether she feels in control of that decision, impact her happiness and mental health, there are plenty of unique benefits and opportunities available to her related to social, financial and career goals.