New research says there's a reason you're single--and may stay that way.
I was on the phone with my friend Beth, a 31-year-old international sales exec at a major Hollywood film studio.
"I can't believe a four-year relationship could end with us living on two separate coasts," she said, "But he was traveling so much and I finally just told him, 'This is not what I signed up for when I got involved with you.' So, we're officially separated."
She sighed. I sighed.
If I had a euro for every time I wondered that: Why am I still single. It's a question more than half of American women ask themselves, according to a report the New York Times put out in early 2007. This data includes women who live apart from their significant others, but all independent variables aside it's a figure that's rocketed significantly in the last couple decades.
Even as those 57.5 million of us gather round cozy wine bars with our girlfriends, enjoy Bridget Jones nights in sweats on the couch, or pack four different guys into one week (yep, it happens), we're likely to be puzzled over what we may be doing wrong: "That one wearing three carats with the husband more loyal than a black lab—what does she know that I don't?"—or if we actually need partners, as tradition (and Mom) seems to imply.
Jean Twenge is a psychology professor at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable—Than Ever Before (Free Press, 2007) and co-author of the upcoming Narcissism Epidemic with W. Keith Campbell.
Based on recent research she has conducted to learn about current attitudes toward relationships, Twenge confirms, "There is in fact a massive cultural shift at work here." She says the number of women who are romantically uninvolved is a result of one major factor: our culture tells us we don't need relationships.
Call it the "singular-single syndrome": We have it. Twenge recently conducted a study of 200 student participants at San Diego State, and 90% of them answered the questionnaire stating they live by grand individualistic philosophies like, "You shouldn't ever need anyone else to make you feel complete" and "You have to make yourself happy." Read: Can You Buy Happiness?
Based on this study and a handful of others Twenge has conducted in the last few years, she concludes that today's young adults feel they need to be completely self-sufficient in their happiness.
The fact is, young American adults view deep emotional involvement with others as weakness and dependence. It's not just that our culture accepts and accommodates the single lifestyle now—it's that it actually disparages the individual who isn't focused solely on her own personal advancement.
The ubiquitous teachings from our capitalist culture media, Boomer-generation parents who toiled to teach us the importance of pursuing personal goals, and teachers in an increasingly survival-of-the-very-fittest education system—all these emphasize the individual and her goals, not her need for involvement with others.
Twenge also said that a study she's currently conducting with W. Keith Campbell leads to the conclusion that narcissism in America is higher than it's ever been before, and by definition of considering themselves more important than the people they associate with, narcissistic people make terrible relationship partners. Read: Are You Dating A Narcissist?
Twenge blames this spike in narcissism on societal teachings like those aforementioned but also feels that purported social networking devices like MySpace and Facebook are less a method of connecting with others than a means of shameless self-promotion giving the individual limitless opportunity to think about themselves and advertise why other people should want to know them.
Some users even employ social networking sites out of romantic malice, attempting to provoke jealousy or track the whereabouts of an ex. And for some couples, being on each other's friend lists is a topic more taboo than first-date sex. "No way would I add (my new girlfriend) to my page," says Kevin, 30, an engineer near Pittsburgh. "I think she's pissed about it but if it ends, it will be too awkward if we're able to keep tabs on each other." Watch: Facebook Manners And You
Any way you slice it, we're all looking out for Number One. Here's the trouble: the more time we spend thinking about ourselves, formulating clever responses to friends’ online comments about us, posting our most attractive photos, and "pimping our profiles" to leave impressions on our contacts, the less time we spend actually interacting with and caring about others.
Even the word "friend" has transformed from an endeared noun used to describe an intimate, trusted companion to a verb that implies a quick click of the mouse. "Listen, I gotta run, it was nice to meet you. Remember to friend me tomorrow." We lack the basic fundamental of all relationships – spending time together – and personal eye-to-eye contact continues to grow more rare.
Chris Morett is a sociology professor specializing in family and marriage at Fordham University in New York City. Morett echoes this cultural emphasis on the individual.
He says our communities and peer groups have broken down significantly in the last decade, and our consumer culture promises the singular single that you can "Have it your way." Thus young Americans are less willing to compromise their own desires than ever before, and Morett goes so far as saying that the American dating process has become similar to other means of shopping for a product.
Because women don't need marriage for the economic stability and source of identity the institution provided decades ago (because the majority of American women nowadays were not raised simply to be wives but to value personal advancement by self-sufficient means, and women are economically independent deriving their identity from their work and other societal roles, not just from being a wife) marriage is not a necessity but a choice.
So when a woman dates a man and he doesn't possess all the "features" she requires, she briefly deliberates and continues shopping (Is passionate about his work, check. Loves to travel, check. Forgot to ask how my meeting went, uh-oh. Completely unacceptable.) No longer does a woman need a man or a marriage; now she wants a soulmate, a partner to share her interests and values and who provides passion and support and fun. She desires a man who won't require her to sacrifice her identity or every aspect of the single lifestyle she's come to enjoy.
But until we meet him, the solution to the single person's isolation may be simple: shut the lid on our laptops and get over ourselves--you don't have to do it all on your own. We'll only find the comfort to our singles' loneliness by spending time in the physical presence of people we love. If we want love, we have to love. We have to open our hearts to connecting again.
Kristine Gasbarre is a freelance writer living in Italy. Visit her personal blog at howtoloveanirishman.blogspot.com.