As Valentine's Day approaches and married people take a moment to express their boundless and eternal love for their spouse by buying chocolates made in faraway China a romantically long time ago, they tend to take pity on single folk. They imagine a vast tribe of female lonely hearts roaming an emotional Sahara, confounded by mirages that look like marriage-minded men. But according to what may be the biggest study of single people ever, that image is, like the enthusiasm for the chocolate, quite false.
Single men are, on the whole, as likely to want to get married as single women, the survey found. They are more likely than women to be open to dating people of a different race or religion, more prone to falling in love at first sight, more eager to combine bank accounts sooner and more likely to want children. (That distant choking sound you hear is thousands of women finding this news hard to swallow.)
The study of 5,200 people ages 21 to over 65 who weren't married, engaged or in a serious relationship was funded by Match.com, which has a vested interest in understanding the partnerless. But it was carried out by an independent company in conjunction with Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher, social historian Stephanie Coontz and the evolutionary-studies program at Binghamton University. (Evolutionists are all over mate selection, which is the academic term for dating, because those who successfully pair up and procreate send their DNA into the next generation. Think of it as survival of the flirtiest.)
Their findings put the lie to the impression that all guys are Seth Rogenesque commitmentphobes who regard the dating scene as a kind of all-you-can-meet buffet for their enjoyment. "This study confirms what my research on the brain shows," says Fisher. "The mechanisms for attachment for men and women are exactly the same. Just as many men want to get married as women do."
But the figures need to be parsed carefully. While overall, as many men as women wanted to marry, age played a big role in their preferences. Younger (ages 21 to 24) and older men (50 and up) were more favorably disposed to legal lifetime unions than their female peers. In the between years the decades when women must pay heed to a uterine deadline the ratios shift the other way.
Men's greater inclination toward parenthood, however, seems to hold across every age group. While more than half the single men ages 21 to 35 wanted kids, only 46% of the women did. After that, the difference widens further, and not just out of biological reality. Only 16% of childless women in the still fertile years from 35 to 44 wanted kids; 27% of the men did. Plus, more women than men were prepared to say definitively that they were skipping parenthood.
"Women are much more interested in their independence than men are," says Fisher. They value certain parts of their single lives more than men do: according to the survey, women are likelier to want to have their own bank accounts, their own interests, their own personal space and solo vacations, even if they're in a committed relationship. They also care more about nights out with buddies.
From the get-go, women are fussier about whom they'll consider for a partner. More men (80%) than women (71%) don't care about the race of a love interest, and many more men (83%) than women (62%) are flexible on their date's religious beliefs. It's not simply, the figures suggest, that guys are more pro-marriage than has been believed; it's that women are less so than the stereotypes would have it.
Despite the size of the sample and the big names attached to the study, not everybody deems plausible the idea that men are slavering to become husbands. Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, points to figures from the 2002 National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health that show the opposite. When asked if they would like to be married, more single women ages 21 to 24 said yes than men. "Maybe this is a brave new world, but I'd be surprised if things had changed that fast," says Regnerus, a co-author of Premarital Sex in America, which explores how young people's attitudes toward sex affect their inclination to marry. But he concurs that women's enthusiasm for marriage has faded in the light of their growing economic independence. "For them more than men, marriage has to be good or it's not worth trading their newfound independence for."
Then again, acquiring a spouse is not the must-do item it once was on either sex's checklist. The Match.com study echoes other recent research that finds an increasing number of single people of both genders opting to skip marriage or at least being uncertain of its merits. Some of them could be putting up a brave front or have yet to be thwacked sufficiently by Cupid's arrow, because most Americans do eventually get married. However, there are now more than 100 million single people in the U.S.; households headed by married couples are in the minority.
It just may be that single people like being single. "We're still carting around the concept that they're workaholics or desperate or can't get on with anyone," says Fisher. "The reality is that many of them may be choosing this lifestyle."
Even if it means skipping the chocolates.