As an undergraduate, Maria Gallegos kept a small book in which she predicted the ages when her friends would marry. For herself, she penciled in 25.
Ms. Gallegos is now 36, well on her way to becoming a professor of neuroscience, and still single. Content with her lifestyle, and conscious that - far from being alone - she is one of a surging number of women to postpone marriage, she is surprised to discover that the pressure on her to wed is, if anything, far more intense now than it was in college.
Gallegos is caught up in a burgeoning demographic. The proportions of men and women ages 30 to 34 who have never married have both tripled since 1970, according to the 2000 Census.
On one hand, these swelling numbers have made it more acceptable than ever before to be single; postponing marriage now seems normal.
Yet from shows such as MTV's "Newlyweds" to the swarm of self-help literature with such promising titles as "Find a Husband After 35 Using What I Learned at Harvard Business School" to the vast sea of Internet dating sites, couples still dominate the cultural landscape.
"One of the most surprising things is that at a time when the social pressures to marry are more relaxed than ever before, there is so much concern about pairing off," says Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co- director of the National Marriage Project and author of "Why There Are No Good Men Left: The Romantic Plight of the New Single Woman."
Experts such as Ms. Whitehead say that Gallegos and her peers are the first large group of women to postpone marriage. Because their mothers and grandmothers married younger, these women have no example for how delaying marriage might work out - nor does society have a model for how to perceive such women.
So as this vanguard generation creates a blueprint for contemporary coupling, they face the anxiety of being the first to dramatically alter tradition. Anxiety, Whitehead says, can be sharpest right now, during the winter holidays when family and friends gather in pairs.
The next generation will have the experience of today's 30-somethings as a touchstone. But for now, says Bella DePaulo, a visiting professor of psychology at University of California at Santa Barbara, single people must endure a "fetishization of coupling."
"It's almost as if coupling were seen as magical: Once you find this person, your life becomes transformed."
Despite rising numbers of singles, Ms. DePaulo says her studies underscore the stigma long associated with singledom. Single people are seen as sadder, lonelier, and less mature than their coupled counterparts. And as sad, lonely, and immature as young singles may seem, she says, the 40-year-old single appears even more pitiful.
"I think it's fine to be single until you're 35, but then you're supposed to be coupled," says Kay Trimberger, a professor of women's and gender studies at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif., who studies the lives of single women. "For anybody over 35, the message is still pretty heavy that there's something wrong with you."
Elayne Rapping, professor of women's and media studies at the University at Buffalo in New York, disagrees with the idea that America is becoming a society that accepts singles. She senses a return to matrimony - "big marriage, big wedding, the big gown, and the diamond ring."
"There are more single people than ever before, but culturally those people are not happy," she says. "The idea that it's a great way to live is not what I see being true."
She identifies the lifestyles portrayed on shows such as "Friends" and "Sex in the City" as lagging about seven years behind real trends. "You find that television tends to pick up and run with things when they've already reached their peak and are dwindling."
Instead, Ms. Rapping points to a return to family-focused series set in small towns, such as "Seventh Heaven," "Joan of Arcadia," and "Smallville."
Men feel the pressure, too, experts say, although maybe not as intensely as women.
"The key difference is that as a culture we've always had a story for the value of what men can do during a marriage delay," says Ethan Watters, author of "Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family, and Commitment."
"There's been a story for the meaning of what a man can do outside marriage and that is usually to establish himself as a full-fledged person, a successful man."
Steve Kilpatrick, managing director of the Georgia Wealth Management Group at Wachovia Securities in Atlanta, has actively chosen to focus on his career.
His friends call him "the Ladies Man," a reference to a "Saturday Night Live" character. While they don't actually think he's a "love machine" - as is his namesake on the show - Mr. Kilpatrick, at 34, is a lone single among his friends.
He enjoys the independence, but is ready to settle down. "Honestly, I'd say that most people my age want to be, if not married, in a committed relationship. They want to be heading in that direction."
There is some evidence that even as Americans increasingly embrace and revere coupledom, some are choosing to enjoy the benefits alone, which may explain why some women are signing up for their own gift registries, without waiting for a wedding first.
"I think people are fulfilling the total fantasy of family with everything but the spouse," says Seth Familian, strategist at Faith Popcorn's BrainReserve, a consultancy in New York that tracks consumer trends.
Perhaps that is the spirit in which DeBeers has unleashed an ad campaign - "Your left hand rocks the cradle. Your right hand rules the world" - to encourage women to buy themselves diamonds to be worn on the right hand.
But some observers consider such actions to be empty gestures, an effort to act out the rituals of coupledom without having actually paired up.
But Professor DePaulo hopes that books such as "The Paper Bag Princess" will lead the youngest generation away from the fetishization of coupling.
In Robert Munsch's children's story, Princess Elizabeth rescues Prince Ronald, her betrothed, from a dragon. In the process, however, the dragon's fiery breath burns her expensive garb. When she appears to Ronald wearing only a paper bag, he belittles her bedraggled appearance.
The story ends with the princess saying to Ronald: "Your clothes are really pretty and your hair is neat. You're like a real prince, but you are a bum."
They don't wed after all.