Dorian Solot is executive director of The Alternatives to Marriage Project, a non-profit organization that advocates for fair treatment of unmarried people.
She and her partner, Marshall Miller, have been in a committed relationship for nine years. Their book, Unmarried to Each Other: The Essential Guide to Living Together and Staying Together was published in 2002. Solot spoke with us about the growing appeal of the unmarried movement among Americans.
Q: Is there a trend showing that a growing number of men and women are choosing to stay single?
A: It's true that the percentage of Americans who aren't married has been increasing since about 1960, but the rate of "singlehood" is by no means unprecedented. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a higher percentage of women are unmarried (48 percent) than men (44 percent). Most unmarried people would like to be married, but haven't found the right person yet, or know that the time isn't right. Many others are happily single, or in long-term unmarried relationships. People are delaying marriage more, but the change isn't as dramatic as most people think. The average age at marriage dropped artificially low in the 1950s and 1960s — men were marrying at 23, and women at 20. In 1998, it was only slightly higher, 27 for men and 25 for women.
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Q: Is there a rise in the number of couples parenting without a marriage license?
A: One in three babies is born to unmarried parents today. But these aren't necessarily "single mothers," which is how they're often discussed. Forty percent of these unmarried births are to cohabiting unmarried couples — two-parent households who are "single" only in the legal sense.
Q: Why has unmarried by choice become an increasingly attractive lifestyle option?
A: Partly it's just because we can — women no longer need husbands to support them, and men no longer need wives to cook and clean. Since being married is no longer required for survival, it's become optional. People today have high standards when it comes to marriage! We may be less likely to "settle" for an unsatisfying relationship, and more likely to leave a marriage that isn't working.
Q: Isn't marriage good for our health — at least men's?
A: I'm always wary of statistics that claim that some way of living — being married or single, living in the suburbs or the city, having pets or not — is better on average than some other way of living. There is a lot of research about whether men or women benefit more from marriage or non-marriage, and lots of different findings. The trouble is averages don't tell you anything about individual lives. The research does show that men seem to benefit more from marriage than women do. That's probably because women don't get a wife when they get married!
Q: What is the downside of deciding to stay single?
A: Single people run into two kinds of problems. The first is a social one: Our culture assumes that marriage is the ideal for all people, so if you're not married, there's sometimes a sense of failure or inadequacy. The other problem is a legal one. Marital status discrimination is still incredibly common. Since our legal system says a family is anyone related by blood, marriage, or adoption, often unmarried people and families are left out in the cold. This affects unmarried people in every area where families come into contact with the law: housing, employment, immigration, insurance, taxes, and more. Even the word "single" causes confusion. "Single" makes it sound like people are alone. In truth, unmarried people are families, too. Many have children, partners, or friends who are "families of choice." Even people who live alone are connected to families. It's a real mistake to think of singles as something separate from family life.
Q: If two people are committed body & soul and living together, why not get married?
A: There are lots of reasons people in committed relationships don't get married. Some women don't want to be wives, and would rather be partners. Some have had horrible experiences with divorce and don't want to risk that again. Some people would lose significant financial benefits if they married, like senior citizens who can lose a pension from a deceased spouse. Commitment and marriage often go together, but not always. Of course, there are married couples who aren't very committed, and whose unions don't last long. And there are also unmarried partners whose relationships last many decades, who are as committed as the most loving married pair. We need to learn to understand marriage and commitment as existing separately from each other, sometimes going together, sometimes not.
Q: By not supporting marriage, isn't your organization hurting future generations?
A: Children do best when their basic needs are met: when they have food on the table and heat in the winter, good schools, adults who are closely involved in their lives, and loving, consistent relationships with their caretakers. Research shows that children thrive in all kinds of families that can meet these basic needs. In fact, a family's financial situation is far more important to how the children do than its structure — the child of an affluent single mother will tend to do better than the child of a poor married couple. Groups that spend all their energy focused on marriage inadvertently harm children by ignoring the realities of the many kinds of families where children live. When parents aren't eligible for the same benefits, are excluded from legal protections because they're not married, or have to pay more for health insurance because they can't get it through a spouse that affects their children. If we truly care about children, we need to embrace and celebrate all kinds of families, not just married ones.