~ DECEMBER 2021 ~ Around 35.0% of the UK population is single and has never married or entered into a civil partnership. In America, the stats are even higher.
In 2020, about 45.4% of Americans 18 and older, or 114.3 million, were unmarried, according to the US Census Bureau’s current population survey. To put that in perspective, in 1950, that number hovered around 22%.
Another subset of that growing demographic has never been in a relationship at all, either by choice or by circumstance. Maybe they’ve never met anyone worth settling down with or have grown too accustomed to living alone and calling the shots to give it up now.
There are myriad reasons for staying relationship-free. Below, readers who’ve been single their entire lives share how that came to be and what they think about their decisions now.
Responses have been lightly edited for style and clarity.
Are you single by choice?
I am definitely not single by choice. I went to a high school with predominantly girls, and the bar for boys was so low, it was hell. I have always wanted a partner. I especially wanted to date when I was younger so I could get rid of silly dating rookie mistakes and be mature by the time I got serious with someone. Most men’s first impression of me is intimidating, though. It has always been that way, even during my formative years. But I seriously don’t know how to meet decent men. Am I in the right city? Maybe New York isn’t where I am supposed to be. Losing weight got me a lot of attention, and gaining weight made me feel invisible, and then I think, do I seriously want to be with a guy who’ll change the way he feels about me on something that fluctuates so often, like weight?
What have your dating experiences been like?
I have had some really bad experiences with going on dates via the apps. One guy I met on Hinge literally told me I was fat on the date and he was super homophobic. I now do FaceTime dates so I don’t have to waste my time getting ready to go on the train to meet a subpar guy.
Basically, at this point, I am the queen on the situationship; I have a terrible affinity for dating emotionally unavailable men. They treat you as if you are their girlfriend, but if the subject comes up they turn it down.
Can you see yourself being in a relationship in the future?
I really hope so. I do see myself getting married at some point as well. I want someone to make time for me like I would make time for them. Someone who celebrates me to ease my insecurities. I want someone who will geek out with me for every new Marvel movie coming out. Someone I can do nothing with, like just take a midday nap. Someone who is funny and lighthearted to balance my seriousness and anxiety. Someone who is already a person and is consistently working on themselves like I am. Preferably a man in therapy. Someone to travel with and go to events, so I don’t have to go alone. Someone who is liberal, because I volunteer too much for abortion rights that I can’t be with a conservative. I absolutely love to cook with guys that I am dating, so I need someone who sees themselves as an equal partner. I want a best friend, someone I can be a better person with. And lastly, someone with good credit. —Alia, a 26-year-old straight woman from New York
How did it come to be that you have never been in a relationship?
One of the clichés of romantic fiction is that as soon as you stop looking, the right person will come along. In my experience, however, if you stop looking, you just stay alone. By making absolutely no effort to find a mate, I have succeeded in not finding one.
If I’m being honest, I think one reason I’ve stayed single is that it was easier than pursuing a relationship. I am, by nature, a very lazy person, and finding someone and then having a long-term romantic and sexual relationship with that person is hard work ― from what I’ve seen anyway. One of my goals since childhood was to have my life be as simple and uncomplicated as possible, and not pursuing romantic and sexual relationships has been a key part of achieving that.
Also, in the last year or so I became aware of the term “aromantic,” and I immediately realised that it could apply to me.
What have your dating experiences been like? What’s the closest you’ve come to getting in a relationship?
In my youth, there were women around, and I certainly found some of them attractive, but actually pursuing one of them romantically wasn’t something I thought about. I also noticed that my friends (male and female) who were in relationships didn’t seem any happier because of it and, in many cases, were unhappier because of it.
Nothing much changed when I went off to college. I did go on a couple of dates, largely because my male friends pushed me to do so. They were much more typical male college students ― getting drunk, getting high, sleeping around. I didn’t then (and still don’t) smoke, drink or use drugs, so that set me apart and limited my opportunities to meet women in bars where those things were the norm. I was also then (and still am) an atheist who doesn’t attend church, so that eliminated another area where many people meet their mates.
My senior year in college, I had a class with a woman who was a friend of a friend, so I kind of knew her. We ended up working on a big project together, and that developed into something. I will freely admit that she was the aggressor. We dated for about six months. I graduated and went back home, but she still had two years of college, so we tried having a long-distance relationship for a while, but ultimately it ended. I felt like I was playing the role of “boyfriend” rather than being an actual boyfriend, which was unfair to both of us. I wasn’t being my true self, and that bothered me. It wasn’t something I wanted to do again.
Over the years I would occasionally meet a woman I liked and enjoyed talking to and spending time with, but ultimately that was all I wanted to do. Some of those women are still very good friends of mine. We have dinner, we talk, and in some cases we have traveled together, but always as friends.
Did you ever feel any pressure from friends and family to settle down, especially when you were younger?
At one point in my 20s, thinking that having a romantic partner was more or less a required part of life, I signed up for a dating service. (This was pre-internet, when you went to an office and looked through a book of photos and résumé-type descriptions of interests to choose a date.) I went on one date, and it was an uncomfortable dinner that neither of us enjoyed. As in high school, the whole thing seemed forced and insincere to me.
My family has never really said anything about my single status. My parents, my aunts and uncles, even my grandparents were all involved in bad relationships that ended in divorce. I don’t think they saw any need to push me into joining them.
As for my friends, now, as we all enter our 60s, I get the feeling that a lot of my friends wish they had taken the path I did. Many are now divorced and looking for a new relationship or are in marriages that no longer work but which they can’t bring themselves to end. Often, while listening to my friends talk about the trials and tribulations of their own relationships, I feel like I’ve dodged a bullet. ― David, a 61-year-old straight man living in North Carolina
Why do you think you’ve avoided a relationship up until this point?
Well, I grew up in a strict conservative household where sex was just for making babies. My mum would refer to a vagina as “down there” instead of using actual terms. So when I moved out when I was a few months shy of being 21, I “rebelled” and was only looking to lose my virginity. I had never dated in high school. Once I lost my virginity, I enjoyed the attention from men and being wanted, as I wasn’t wanted when I was a teenager. In my early 20s, I wasn’t looking for a relationship but more to see how I could increase my body count. I enjoyed the independence and sleeping around, and doing what I wanted ― safely, of course.
But I am Indian, and marriages are a big deal in Indian culture, so my parents started pressuring and asking about marriage when I turned 26. I would indulge them and text the guy they had in mind, but it was more just so I could fulfil the favour to them.
Honestly, romantic relationships didn’t really cross my mind. I downloaded Bumble because I liked how women made the first move. I do consider myself a fierce feminist. The first man I met in person off Bumble was in December 2018. He was great. It didn’t turn into a relationship, but I thought, “OK, this is what the pool is like. I am liking my chances,” but, turns out, he was one of the few-and-far-between decent humans. After that, I would go active on my profile only so I’d get a confidence booster, like, “I still got it. Men still want me.” I met a few men and dated for a few weeks but nothing exclusive.
Do you see yourself getting married like your parents want?
Well, I did start dating again a few months ago ― dating and having social interactions was too draining during the pandemic, especially since I was in grad school, too. Being single is fine, but now I want a relationship ― a marriage, a mortgage, a husband or partner to make memories with. I want to “check off the items” on the socially acceptable list. I know there is nothing wrong with being single, but I am done with this stage of my life and want to share my life.
What do you wish more people understood about single people?
Being single is not the pity party society thinks it is. Like anything, there are low days and days when you wish someone else could take on the errands and tasks, but overall it’s great. Everyone wants to be taken care of sometimes, and as a single person it may not come often. But I can decide what to eat for dinner (even if it’s a lot of DoorDash), when I want to go on vacation, what movie I want to watch and not get annoyed if someone watched an extra episode of a show on Netflix without me. I don’t have to consider anyone else when I make all my decisions. And you realise how resilient you really are and learn a lot about yourself. You are more proud of yourself when you’re in a new uncomfortable situation and get through it. ― Rubia, a 31-year-old straight woman from California
What have been your interest levels in relationships through the years?
As a child, I definitely noticed that dating and ending up married was posited as how it went for basically everyone. I didn’t relate to this or particularly want it even in the abstract. I’m nonbinary and queer, which I didn’t work out until my mid-teens, and I’m neurodivergent, which I didn’t work out for a few years more.
I did somewhat come into my own throughout my teens and benefited from being less isolated and having room to breathe [as I became an adult]. In addition, I realized I’m not cishet and I’m not neurotypical, and I became more aware that I really had no particular interest in dating. I didn’t feel like I was missing out. Since then, all that’s really changed is I understand myself better and have more confidence in that.
Have you gone on any dates?
I’ve never dated, although from other people’s perspectives, their efforts to spend time with me and interact might have sometimes been equivalent to a date, or at least a precursor to it. A few times I’ve been in public and a spontaneous interaction with a guy, often initiated by them, might constitute “hitting it off,” and then they’d stick around as long as they could then or whenever they saw me again. Hardly a winning approach, but technically it could’ve led to something.
Once, around 18, when I and some friends who’d known each other online for years were meeting up at the same event, one friend ended up asking me out, and I declined and added, as both sort of explanation and apology, that I didn’t really ever like anyone. However, before asking me out they’d also put their arms around my shoulders, and I’d realized they were going to playfully kiss me a moment before they did, where I only had time to tense up against being pulled in, so that wasn’t great!
And there have been several times that a friend has seemed eager to talk to me or hang out with me, only for me to suspect on my own or learn after the fact that there was romantic interest behind this. There was always this disappointment, because I cared more about having friends. So either they would give up or I would withdraw after realizing the situation, and whatever closeness there was with me diminished.
Can you imagine having any romantic connections in the future?
When I think of things like connection, company, support, trust, sharing experiences, sharing thoughts and feelings, commitment, love, I’m thinking of friendship. I don’t think there’s any objective delineation between friendship and romance, and that that’s a subjective, personal matter. I feel that I could experience an affection for and closeness with someone that another person might consider “being in love,” but I wouldn’t necessarily need to re-conceptualize or restructure into dating or marriage. ― Milo, a 27-year-old nonbinary queer person from Virginia
Are you single by choice? Actively looking for a relationship?
Honestly, this might be a product of how I was raised or just what I’ve seen, but I’ve always been very career and achievement driven. As a content creator, I’m pretty much “on” 24/7, and it’s something I really enjoy for the most part. Most of my day is structured around career-based tasks, creative thought and conceptualisation, or spending time with family or close friends.
I’ve never felt the need to proactively search for a relationship. I wouldn’t say I’m single by choice, but I also wouldn’t say I’m trying to change my single status.
Can you see yourself being in a relationship in the future? What would you want out of it or your partner?
I struggle a little with this question. I’m definitely a creative visualiser, so anything (especially career-wise) I want to happen in my life, I have to put it on a vision board or be able to visualise it mentally before it happens. Honestly, it’s never crossed my mind to visualise a relationship. Perhaps that’s why it hasn’t happened. Technically I “can” see myself in a relationship, but I haven’t chosen to think too much about it yet. In regards to what I want out of a partner, I have so much work to do before I reach my own potential and (at least short-term) goals that it’s unfair for me to expect a partner to come into my life and have the list of qualities I would hope for. Before I get into a relationship, I want to work on being a higher, stronger, more solid version of myself.
Do your relatives or friends pressure you into finding someone?
The pressure is always subtle and underhand. I keep getting reminded of how excited my family is for my wedding, and I have to keep reminding everyone to relax because I haven’t even been in my first relationship. And I definitely don’t expect my first relationship to end in marriage. In South Asian culture, an unfortunate norm is that when a woman reaches her mid-20s, if she’s not ready to get married, something’s wrong.
I wish society would understand that, single or in a relationship, we as humans are just trying to do the best job possible to stay happy, positive and fulfil our purpose. At this very moment, my purpose is to empower individuality through my creative talents in fashion and beauty, and I haven’t yet figured how a relationship would factor into that. But who knows, your purpose can change at any point in life for a variety of reasons, so I’m open to possibilities. ―Malvika Sheth, a 22-year-old straight woman from California
At this point in your life, are you looking for a relationship?
First off, I am asexual, and I am attracted to men and women. Do I need a relationship? No. Do I want one? Not necessarily. Would I put up with someone just for appearance or loneliness? HELL NO.
There is fear of the unknown, not knowing or trusting who is out there. Also, I went through sexual trauma when I was younger. I have never had sex; I am not fond of physical touch in that sense. I want to work through that because if I end up in a relationship, I would like the other person to feel comfortable. I am more comfortable pleasing myself, if that makes sense. I am not attracted to anyone enough to want to have just sex. I want a connection; I want that compatibility. I want someone I know who wants me, understands me, values me, and wants to grow and explore with me. I haven’t felt loved, understood or wanted at all.
Do friends and family ever pressure you to look for someone?
My family thinks of me as funny ― either they think I am gay (which…) or they think I am not attractive or not putting myself out there. Regardless, I don’t care enough, but they always inquire about my personal life and think they’re doing me a service by giving me pointers. Ironically, I am the one my family and friends come to for relationship advice!
How close have you gotten to being in a relationship of any kind?
The closest thing to any possibility of a relationship has been the “talking” stage. I have never been past that because the talking stage gives me immediate red flags, and I will stop responding. I flirt, I look, but I can’t seem to get past certain things that have come up that I have seen or heard. Unfortunately, I ran into some weird-ass people who want what I don’t want.
I am fine growing older alone if that happens. I am a loner, so that makes sense, but I can take or leave relationships. I don’t want to be trapped; I don’t want to settle like my mom, grandma, aunts and cousins.
I’m not judging them, but I seem to have a different approach and outlook. ― Autumn, a 27-year-old asexual woman from Seattle
What feelings do you have around relationships?
I truly am indifferent. As I have never been in a relationship, I don’t know what I might be “missing out on.” I always date with a kind of a “let’s see what happens” mentality and take things as they come. Sometimes there’s a second date, sometimes it’s mere sex, sometimes it’s just another failed “talking stage.” I have even traveled to another city to meet up with a guy I’ve only known for a short period of time because, as the saying goes, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” I guess I have never been on the same page as the guys I have gone out with.
Can you see yourself being in a relationship in the future? What would you want out of it or your partner?
Honestly, I don’t know. I feel like I don’t know how to “behave” as a partner, and I am also way too used to my independence and being on my own, so I guess compromising ― that would be the hardest bit. First of all, I would want him to be honest, to be able to communicate and tell me when something’s bothering him, that’s number one.
Someone with a sense of humour ― I know everything I list sounds “standard,” but I joke and use sarcasm a lot, and sometimes it doesn’t travel well. Oh, and of course similar political views, if they believe free education and health care shouldn’t be for all, for instance, please don’t waste my time!
What do you wish your friends (or more people in society in general) would understand about the single life or people who are single for long stretches of time?
I would want people to understand that there isn’t something necessarily “wrong” with us and that we don’t feel lonely — at least I don’t. I am not missing anything by not having a partner. I am my own person.
This year I finally decided to stop blaming myself. I had a friend ask me once, “What did you do or say for him to stop responding?” And I was baffled. Why and how is it my fault?
Instead of thinking I might have said or done something wrong, I stopped “blaming” myself for men’s lack of commitment, emotional responsibility or just, plainly, their lack of interest in me. Even if I only say things I mean, I learned that not everyone does and that people tend to say whatever they think the other person wants to hear and sweet-talk their way into things. It’s been a game-changer. ― Carolina, a 27-year-old straight woman from Colombia.