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For Some, Valentine's Day a Singular Reminder

Human Sciences professor researches the life experiences of women still single "past a certain age."

Written by Karin Slyker

Sharp says the societal norms are that girls graduate from high school, go to college, spend a few years in a career, then get married by age 32 – or 34. But, what if they don't?

Sharp says the societal norms are that girls graduate from high school, go to college, spend a few years in a career, then get married by age 32 – or 34. But, what if they don’t?

“I’m a loser. I’m not married. Let’s just all look at me.”

That is how one woman described the wedding bouquet toss after participating in 12 ceremonies in one year. It is also the title of a study by Elizabeth Sharp, associate professor of human development and family studies at Texas Tech, who researched the life experiences of women still single “past a certain age.”

As another Valentine’s Day approaches, many veteran singles find themselves evaluating their life’s choices and what led them to spend the holiday unattached. The holiday itself triggers a spotlight on non-coupled individuals and can be a poignant reminder of the couple-oriented world we live in.

Marriage Material?

For her study, Sharp conducted 32 interviews with 10 single women in their late 20s and early 30s who had never married. She chose only women, because research indicates women’s identities tend to be strongly attached to being married and having children. Sharp also considered the familial and social response attached to the status of being single.

“Societal norms are such that girls graduate from high school, go to college, spend a few years in a career, then get married by age 32 – or 34 at the latest,” Sharp said.

What if they don’t? The reality is that more and more people are actually waiting to get married, if at all, Sharp said. “I asked them what their lives were like and what people are saying about them, having never been married at a time in their life course when most of their friends were married, but the likelihood for them to get married was still high.”

Several of the women believed “I should have been married by now,” and as a result they felt they needed to validate that there was at least some part of them worthy of love. They would say things like, “I was engaged once.” A statement that implies at least one person considered them marriage material, at one point in time.

Others often wished for a crystal ball, Sharp said. “They could handle the wait, as long as they knew that one day it [getting married] might happen for them.”

The common denominator in this study is the uncertainty. One subject called this “living in the grey.” For example, many women held off buying a house or saving for retirement because, conventionally, that is something you do with your spouse. As a result, these would-be homeowners lost years of equity and savings.

The women in Sharp's sample still experience a combination of loneliness and uncertainty, hesitation and regret, and to some degree – discrimination.

The women in Sharp’s sample still experience a combination of loneliness and uncertainty, hesitation and regret, and to some degree – discrimination.

Singleism: Tough to Grasp

Children were another common concern. “My eggs are slowly dying,” Sharp documented one participant as saying. Another admitted that she went so far as to calculate her best case scenario. That is, “How long would it likely take to meet someone, fall in love, get married, and have children?”

Not only that, but the women believe by the time it happens there will be a whole new set of concerns, including fertility issues, becoming the oldest mom in kindergarten, and being able to keep up with an active child.

Because of the rapid growth of singles, the whole notion of singleism is a tough one to grasp, Sharp said. There are few role models to speak of. The women in her sample still experience a combination of loneliness and uncertainty, hesitation and regret, and to some degree – discrimination.

“A lot of people say comments to single people that they don’t even realize are a little bit insulting – and kind of rude,” Sharp said. “You’re 32… you’re so cute… you have a great career… why aren’t you married? It can be flattering for singles, but also frustrating.”

Sharp’s participants pointed out that such personal questions are commonly asked of singles, but questions like “why did you get married?” or “why would you decide to have a child?” are almost unheard of. Sharp argues this is a reflection of single people still having a marginalized identity, despite the growing number of singles.

At a time when stores are draped in red hearts and restaurants offer specials on dinners-for-two, Sharp is focusing on her next study: women who never want to experience Valentine’s Day as a married person.

“It’s important to support people in whatever path they choose, and don’t be so quick to squelch the idea of people who are not married – or do not want to,” Sharp said. “There are a lot of ways to be happy.”

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4 Responses to “For Some, Valentine's Day a Singular Reminder”

  1. Noemi Says:

    I’m sorry but who cares if your not married at the age of 34! What ever happened to a strong and independent woman? If you are wanting to have children of your own but are not able to conceive, then adopt! There are so many children out there who need a home. So why not separate ourselves from the idealistic housewife and take action into our own hands?

  2. Mariann Thornton Says:

    I am turning 64 today and have never been married. This class sounds really valuable for a lot of women in the U.S. I went to Tech, had a great time (wonderful education) and made lifelong friends. I hate the fact that women sometimes feel “inadequate” because they “aren’t married”. I have seen friends marry and divorce or marry young and sometimes feel that they have “lost out”. Or.. their spouse suddenly dies and they are like “a ship without a rudder”, unable to make decisions for themselves. “That was something their husband did, etc.” My parents had a wonderful marriage and it lasted till my father passed away. They were married 58 years, but that was the Depression Generation where women didn’t have a lot of choices. If, the right man came along, that would be great, but I enjoy my life and it is a fullfilling one. I wish more women felt this way.

  3. Rozi Says:

    This article is definitely a great conversation starter and a topic that I think needs more focus/research. I believe there are so many facets to this “issue,” and by “issue,” we may want to clearly define what it actually is. Is it that women are still single past a certain age, or is it that our society still sees single women past a certain age as a stigma, or is it that single women past a certain age are becoming depressed victims of this stigma? Even though our world has come a long way–women working in the same fields as men and climbing the career ladder–the society still expects that they should not let go of what was considered their previous “job” (getting married and bearing children) just because the lines of equality between male/female have become more equal. Although I entirely agree with Professor Sharp that “there are a lot of ways to be happy,” the fact of the matter is that society, the culture, the media, and what ever else have you wants to tell us (especially females) while limiting us as to what being happy actually looks like. Great read, thank you for shedding light on this topic.

  4. Cathey Hamman Says:

    I am 43 and single. I have never been married. I make more money than most men I know. I own my own house and can do as I please. I have a freedom that I would never have if I were married or had children. I don’t regret my choices and I am happy. Most of my friends who are married are struggling: they do not feel sexual towards their spouse. They are working through infidelity. They can’t have kids. One spouse is spending money irresponsibly. Dependency on prescription drugs. These are just a few of the problems that I see in MOST of the married couples I know.

    Ms. Sharp… this article is clearly quite biased to make a point. Why do you not interview married couples and see how many are on the brink of divorce?

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College of Human Sciences
The College of Human Sciences

The College of Human Sciences at Texas Tech University provides multidisciplinary education, research and service focused on individuals, families and their environments for the purpose of improving and enhancing the human condition.

The college offers a Bachelor of Science degree with disciplines in:

  • Apparel Design and Manufacturing
  • Community, Family, and Addiction Services
  • Early Childhood
  • Family and Consumer Sciences
  • Human Development and Family Studies
  • Interior Design
  • Nutritional Sciences
  • Personal Financial Planning
  • Restaurant, Hotel, and Institutional Management
  • Retailing

The college also offers graduate programs leading to the Master of Science and Doctor of Philosophy degrees.

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