Vow or never

Annie Fox cringes when she thinks about the soap opera that plays out in the cafeteria at her office. The unmarried women leaf through bridal magazines. They talk wedding dresses. They want "the ring." It's absurd, Ms. Fox says, to be so wrapped up in the idea of weddings.

Fox can't relate. She has yet to feel the pull, unlike her friends, who, she says, are always on the prowl for men. "I'll go out with girlfriends, and there's, like, this sense of urgency," she says. "They would never admit they're desperate, but, deep down, they want to be married and in a family."

The pressure to marry feels like a piano on the back of some singles - especially women. Parents drop not-so-subtle hints about grandkids. Invitations to friends' weddings pile up. Bridesmaid dresses stare back at single women when they open their closet doors.

But some women and men revel in the freedom of singledom. They plunge into their careers, and enjoy the freedom of not being tied down.

More people are waiting to marry. In 1970, the median age at first marriage was 20.8 years for women and 23.2 years for men. By 2000, these ages had risen to 25.1 and 26.8 years, according to census data.

Some people, of course, never marry, and their numbers are growing. According to the 2000 Census, 31 percent of men and 25 percent of women aged 15 and over had never married, contrasted with 28 and 22 percent in 1970.

But even while the "acceptable" age of marriage has been pushed higher, subtle social pressures still burrow into the thoughts of single people. Call it the "itch to hitch" or, as one expert put it, the "urge to merge." It's a universal feeling among singles, but the two sexes react to it differently.

Happy, canoodling couples

Karen Gail Lewis, a marriage and family therapist near Washington, D.C., who wrote "With or Without a Man: Single Women Taking Control of Their Lives," (Bull Publishing, $18.95) says women get mixed societal messages about marriage.

"Women are torn between the stigmatization of being single and the glamorization of being single," Dr. Lewis says.

The glamorization is more overt, with movies, songs, and sitcoms that show single life as liberating and sexy. Whereas the stigma takes a more subtle form, such as "Kiss and Ride" signs at train and bus stations, and billboards showing happy, canoodling couples.

"For women, the covert message is: It's your job to find a man. That's part of the the cultural message that has been passed down through the generations," Lewis says. "If she is in her early 30s and hasn't found a man, [the question becomes] what is she doing wrong."

Anna Conte, who lives in Dedham, Mass., could have been that person. Ms. Conte, who is in her early 30s, used to be hounded by her family. At weddings, (at least two or three a year in her Italian family), relatives would ask if she was next. Her sister told her that she was being too choosy.

So when both her older brother and younger sister married, panic set in. "They're all starting to have kids, and you start to think ... I'm the only person who's not married. I'm the only person not having kids. So I've got to get meeting people.

"With my family, it's definitely a big issue that if you're in your 30s and not married, there must be something wrong," she says. "With a woman, when you get past a certain age, [people] think 'Nobody's going to want you now. That mind-set is still kind of there...."

Her attitude toward marriage has changed since she turned 30. She used to wonder if she was doing enough to meet people. But as the years passed, she felt, "You know what, I'm not going to go out there and say, 'I have to meet somebody. I have to get into a relationship.' If it happens it happens."

For now, free and single fits her lifestyle. She's jetted off to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; traveled to California with friends; and most recently visited Elvis's Graceland in Memphis, Tenn.

Annie Fox, 25, from Boston, also loves her freedom. "I've always been super independent," she says, noting that in high school she quit her waitress job and drove across the US. "I don't like the fact when girls date someone they become dependent on him. You lose your own identity.

"I don't want to be single when I'm 30," Fox continues, saying she doesn't want to turn into a "pathetic Bridget Jones type. I would probably feel slightly like a loser."

Family history has influenced Fox's thoughts toward marriage. She would like to be married sooner or later, but after seeing her mom, a divorcee, go through the dating scene, "I feel like, in a way, I've already dated a million people through her. I'm personally in no rush."

But waiting too long may be shooting yourself in the foot. The prospects for marriage after 30 decrease, says Norval Glenn, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin.

"There's the data that show ... the marriage market for women gets more constricted. As they get older, the sex ratio changes," Dr. Glenn says. "... There is the feeling that you better strike while the iron is hot, you better take advantage of your opportunities to marry in your 20s, at least, or else you may not have opportunities later."

According to experts, men don't help the problem. They tend to scan the menu, so to speak, but don't always order. "One thing that's discouraging marriage among college women is the sex ratio," Glenn says. "There's just not enough men to go around on college campuses anymore. And furthermore, the abundance of women, relative to men, I think, decreases the willingness of men to enter into monogamous relationships."

The findings in Glenn's study - a national phone survey of 1,000 single, heterosexual women plus in-depth interviews gleaned from 60 women at 10 colleges - ran counter to what many expected.

"There seems to be a lot of pressure not to marry too young. A lot of mothers are saying, for example, 'Don't do what I did, I married too young,' " says Glenn. But, he admits, the pendulum does swing back after a woman passes 30. "I think especially the mothers start wanting grandchildren ... and [the attitude toward postponing marriage] does change."

Not waiting for Mr. Right

Rachel Banta decided to take matters into her own hands. "I'm not waiting for a husband," says the 24-year-old from Portland, Ore., who has already bought a house and a boat. "By the time I meet someone, God only knows how much a house will cost."

Someone else who doesn't buy into the traditional notion of marriage is Heather Barna. The soft-spoken 30-year-old works for a bike touring company in Boston and says she's perfectly content being single.

She's thrilled with her dog, Bella, the love of her life. The 10-year-old German Shepherd is like a daughter to her. The swimming coach and fledgling triathlete says her life is full and she hears no biological clock ticking.

Ms. Barna says people in their 30s don't cast the net wide enough because they are hunting for the exact right one. "As you get older, it feels like [people have the] attitude that 'I don't want to waste my time if it's not a potential relationship,' " she says.

That's the situation Michelle McAuley is in right now. The grade school teacher in Providence, R.I., is ready to get married - now, to her current boyfriend, although he is not completely on board with the idea yet.

Ms. McAuley, 26, says that part of her doesn't want to waste time on somebody who isn't interested in marriage. "If that's what you're looking for, then you shouldn't waste your time with someone who is not looking for the same thing." But, she says, with that mind-set you may rule out potential marriage partners too early in the process.

She would go back and forth between thinking she had forever to get married, and wanting to marry at 30. But that changed finally when she realized she wanted to be a younger bride.

"I'm the girl who plans her dress when she's 6 years old," McAuley says. She even keeps a file of clippings on bridal centerpieces, dresses, colors, and other wedding ideas she likes.

Lewis, the therapist, says society doesn't blame men.

"For men, when they get over 30 and they're not married, it's not 'What are you doing wrong?' It's 'Oh, he's focusing on his work first or he hasn't found the right one yet.' "

Finding the "right one" is where many singles hit a snag. After seeing friends and parents go through divorce, they're not about to jump into anything prematurely. A recent Rutgers University study found 94 percent of people between 20 and 29 agreed that "When you marry, you want your spouse to be your soul mate, first and foremost."

"It really provides a very unrealistic view of what marriage really is. The standard becomes so high, it's easy to bail out if you didn't find a soul mate," David Popenoe, a Rutgers sociologist and one of the authors of the study, told the Associated Press.

Lloyd Nugent, a Bostonian in his mid-20s, used to hunt for the perfect woman. But now, he's waiting for her to come to him.

"If you try [too hard] to find someone to marry, you're going to end up settling," he says.

Unlike Mr. Nugent, Dan, (who didn't want to give his last name) a divorced father of three in his mid-30s who lives in Dallas, is definitely looking.

"I don't feel self-conscious [being single], the discomfort comes from not being complete," he says. "I'm extremely lonely. It's a balance of wanting to find that person and not wanting to force something that's not really there."

And it's not even attending the ritzy corporate functions at his financial services company alone that bother him. It's the dating "scene." "It's so shallow," he says. "That's when I really, really wish I had someone with me."

He says it's like a circus side show, watching the shmoozing and the feather-ruffling among singles.

"It [used to be about] dating and having a good time. Now, it's, 'What can you do for me? What can you offer me?' "

Ten years as a husband taught him that a marriage needs to be maintained - and that means resolving conflict, something that didn't come easily. "I was miserable in my marriage. It wasn't the right fit. I would rather be lonely the rest of my life than be miserable again. You can be lonely but happy," he says.

Watching marriages fail

Dan says the sanctity and gravity of marriage has been diminished. "We think of divorce as [merely] a breaking up," he says. "Society thinks of failure in marriage as acceptable."

Larry Claflin, who works for a publishing company north of Boston, can attest to that. The 33-year-old is in no rush to marry.

"I would say you can never be too choosy. I come from a generation where ... two-thirds or more of marriages have ended in divorce. Most of my friend's parents are not together anymore or on their second marriages.

"If I was to get married, I'd [be darned sure] that it's going to be to the person I'll be with the rest of my life. I'm not going to get married just because I feel like I have to."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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