I’m filling out an official form, and one question asks for my marital status. I’ve been with Tom for almost a decade, but we’re not engaged, or married. So I tick ‘single’. It gets me thinking – why isn’t there isn’t an obvious in-between phase for couples? Why must it go from official coupledom on Facebook to following Beyoncé’s advice and putting a ring on it, and why is there such a rush to get down the aisle?
The truth is, Gen Y is settling down much later than previous generations. The latest report from the Office for National Statistics cites that the average age for a man to marry in the UK is 36.7 years old, and for a woman it is 34.3 years old. We’re not only getting married later – the average number of weddings in the UK in 2012 was around half of that in 1972. To put this into perspective, The Telegraph writes that ‘5% of men and 10% of women aged 25 are married, compared to 60% of men and 80% of women 44 years ago.’
So it seems that the ‘societal norm’ of getting married, owning a house, and having children is not quite as pressing as it once was. You could point to the liberation of women through the ‘pill’, access to higher education, or greater opportunities to pursue a career which allows greater economic independence (i.e. without a spouse). Perhaps we can’t afford to get hitched or secure a mortgage. Sadly I don’t have £90k in my piggy bank for a deposit to buy a London property, and probably never will. Five years after graduating, I’m still sloshing about in my overdraft. Maybe we simply want to use what disposable income (or dare I say it, credit) we have to travel and create an enviable Instagram account. This may sound irresponsible, but when the targets are so unachievable it seems foolhardy to chase them.
Despite our more relaxed approach to tying the knot, we still don’t have the vocab to describe the hiatus between declaring love and getting on our knees to pop the question. The terms girlfriend/boyfriend sound immature and can lose their shine after a decade. Partner is too clinical. Fiancé sounds pretentious and requires a ring, and to call someone husband or wife you’re looking at spending on average £20k, unless you opt for Don’t Tell the Bride. We need someone to invent a new word for this gap which isn’t bae. It doesn’t do justice to what this phase really is: one of exploration, where your bond is secured not by a ring or by law, but by the prospect of future adventures.
The media obsesses over single or unmarried women, and Moira Weigl writes that one reason for this is the ‘foul reign of the biological clock.’ The term ‘biological clock‘ was coined late in the 1970’s by columnist (that’s right, not scientist) Richard Cohen, who observed that successful career women between the ages of 27-35 years couldn’t escape their apparent yearning for babies. He imagined all women in this age bracket as a singular ‘Composite Woman’ who is haunted by the unyielding tick-tock of her uterus. He perceived that this was ‘where liberations ends’ for women, whereas men like Charlie Chaplin and Pablo Picasso could produce heirs at 70.
Cohen’s article didn’t engage with biological fact, but coincidentally the first IVF treatment had just been mastered. The tabloids appropriated Cohen’s phrase with the world’s first test tube baby and a headline was born, and one that not only curtailed female ambition but also created a gender double standard – after all, male fertility also declines in age. No one is denying that there is a natural fertility window for women, but perhaps it is not so narrow as we would be led to believe.
In fact, only last week, a report published by the Office of National Statistics revealed that for the first time since 1947 (in the wake of WWII), birth rates in women in their 40s has overtaken that of women under 20. Women in their 40s have seen the highest percentage increase in fertility rate at 3.4%, a rate three times greater than 1981. The average age for having children is now 30.3 years old, and has been steadily creeping up since 1975.
Reasons for waiting to have children include a rising number of women in higher education, more positive attitudes surrounding women having careers, and the rising cost of childcare. There has been a dramatic decrease in teen pregnancies, but on the flip side, the abortion rate is also decreasing which could point to more effective sex education. Fertility treatments have improved which allows women (of a range of ages) to conceive. Although IVF success rates decrease as age increases, it’s important to recognise the scaremongering about fertility in older women evident in the Daily Mail headline: Number of women freezing their eggs soars by 400% in one year as careers are prioritised over motherhood
We subject each other to this same pointless scrutiny, whether we find ourselves in a relationship or not. The character Bridget Jones captured it perfectly when she describes being subjected to a tidal wave of questions from the so-called ‘smug marrieds’, or when her nosy Uncle Geoffrey shoots from the hip, asking “How’s your love life?…You career girls. Can’t put it off forever.”
Weddings are full of friendly fire on the topic of when women will get their turn. Bizarrely, my boyfriend seems impervious to all this prying, other than the odd wink and nudge. Social graces go out of the window, with pitying looks shot my way. Suddenly my comments of “I’m thrilled for the couple” seem disingenuous. If the pity parade pushes on, I’ll say that although we’ve been together a while, marriage isn’t automatically the next step. Or perhaps we’re not ready. Or we’re atheists. Or we’re still relatively young. Or most importantly, we’re content as we are.
These reasons unfortunately don’t convince everyone else, and sometimes when my self-esteem is low I doubt them too. Whenever friends get engaged, I’m obviously made up for them and it’s special to celebrate with the people you love. However, as shameful as it is to say out loud, a tiny voice whispers Why not me? It’s not always so quiet, or internal. A good friend who toasted our group at a party congratulated everyone on either being married or engaged, and innocently singled me out. Why not me? became Why not you? That’s the injustice of it – in this scenario there’s only one half of the couple that is pitied or seen to be lacking. I had steeled myself, yet still left the room in tears. At best, my reaction seemed self-absorbed and at worst, jealous. I blamed one too many cocktails. The party went on.
Feeling excluded is partly down to your friends entering a club that you have no membership for. They can compare wedding tales and proposal stories, and you’re side-lined. You can flounder in the world of what ifs or wildly swing towards not for me, or even never. Even when you get involved and inquire into the unknown, it’s as if you’re wearing a sad mime mask. No matter what you say it’s like you’re injecting pathos into the conversation.
It’s not surprising that unmarried women can feel like social pariahs. Society insists on making outcasts of women who refuse to fully settle down by their early thirties. The newspapers resolved to show George Clooney departing his bachelor status for the second time in style at 54 years old, whereas Jennifer Aniston, who remarried at 44 years old, was ‘Miss Havisham-ised.’ This is a view shared by Hadley Freeman, who says that ‘debonair George was tamed’ whereas ‘tragic Jen was saved.’
Last week, the actress spoke out to highlight the damaging effect of press double standards, especially regarding how we perceive unmarried women. She’s right. We need to stop this. What message are we sending out when we say that women aren’t strong or emotionally stable unless they’re married? Is an independent woman such a daunting and radical prospect in this progressive age?
Modern life is full of women that are single, divorced, unmarried, permanently engaged, married, or simply undecided. It’s about time that we write more empowering stories to remove the stigmas against Miss and Ms. As Miss Trunchbull roared when a child spelled out ‘difficulty’: “Why are all these women married?” For the only time in Roald Dahl’s Matilda, I share the sentiment of the headmistress, especially compared to Mrs Wormwood’s exclamation that, “A girl should think about making herself attractive so she can get a good husband later on. Looks are more important than books.”
Despite the growing trend that we’re waiting longer to settle down, we’re constantly asking our friends when the proposal is going to happen, hedging bets about who is next, and joking that the guys should ‘man up,’ ‘make an honest woman’ of her, or ‘do the decent thing.’ These notions are outdated of course, along with the belief that there is one breadwinner to stabilise the unit. The Office for National Statistics shows that since the Equal Pay Act passed in the UK in 1971, the percentage of women in the labour market has increased from 53% to 67%, whilst the employment rate for men has decreased from 92% to 76%. Why the change? Well, there was the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975, statutory maternity pay, the growing service industry and declining manufacturing industry, and not forgetting incentives for single parents to re-enter the labour market.
The data from the ONS proves that men with children have a higher employment rate than those without, reinforcing that idea of the male provider and protector. However, the greatest disparity in employment rates of women with children and those without children is 20%, occurring in the 25-34 bracket, so that’s still 60% of mothers heading back to work. Today’s typical household is a vastly different picture to the nuclear household of fifty years ago, so let’s drop the generalised concept of a single breadwinner as our labour force continues to change.
To be clear, I don’t see settling down as ‘unfeminist’ or ‘giving in’ to societal pressures. Equally, I don’t see unmarried women as having less worth. The irony is that if you do follow what is conventionally expected, the parameters just shift. You’ve ticked one box, on to the next. When are you buying a house? When are you having your first child? How long before the second? etc. etc. The truth is, there is no right time to do all of this, if at all. That’s the beauty of individuality. Your goals may not be the same as mine, or perhaps we’re racing along at different speeds, but that’s not a problem.
We accept that everyone is different, and that our aspirations are different, but we insist on using the same script in order to assess how grown-up we all are. These pressures warp our expectations of where we should be and when, and also make us anxious when we choose an alternative.
So let’s start a movement. Instead of obsessing about when you or your friends are moving on to the next big step, whatever it may be, let’s just pause and appreciate everything in this moment. If we’re always looking ahead and focusing on what is yet to come, we’ll miss what we have now.
Lindsey Chynoweth lives for captivating stories, and part of her day job is seeking out the best speakers for audiences across the globe. After reading English Literature at the University of Sheffield, she took on the challenge of recruiting over twenty students to fundraise for the charity Dig Deep Africa, keeping an online scrapbook throughout the year. In this role, she also won a Vodafone World of Difference award for supporting 100+ volunteers nationwide. In her spare time, she is Grants Officer for the charity The Pendsey Trust, who help those with Type 1 diabetes in India and Africa. She shares embarrassing episodes from her life and travels on her blog SmashedCompass.