Hooking up; friends with benefits; living together before marriage; constant texting on cell phones: many Americans believe the young are ushering in an era of emotional isolation and sexual chaos. But as a biological anthropologist, I am optimistic about the future of relationships. Foremost, singles of all ages are leading the way to a far less prejudiced society: some 75% of singles would make a long-term commitment to someone of a different ethnic background. U.S. singles don’t care what color you are; they care about a partner’s religious beliefs either. Some 70% of singles would commit to someone of a different faith. And marriage? Most singles of reproductive age want to wed: 79% of men and women in their 20s and 62% of those in their 30s want to tie the knot.
And they want to marry for what I regard as the “right” reasons. Only 14% want to marry for financial security—something women were obliged to do for thousands of years. Instead, 86% of singles say they primarily want to wed to “have a committed partner to share my life with.” Even those who don’t want to marry say their main reason is that they “don’t think you need a marriage to prove you love someone.” The significance of marriage may be declining; but love is in.
We are turning inward—forming relationships to fulfill ourselves. For centuries, our forebears chose the “right” spouse, with the “right” kin connections, the “right” ethnic background, and the “right” religious beliefs. Not today, as the annual Match.com Singles in America study clearly shows: some 90% of singles say they want a partner “who respects them,” someone they can “trust and confide in,” and someone who “makes them laugh.”
Singles seek a highly personal relationship, and they spend a lot of time looking for that special one. You may regard hooking up and friends with benefits relationships as utterly irresponsible. I’m not advocating either. But singles learn a great deal about a would-be partner (and themselves) from these pre-commitment escapades–information they might need before wedding in an age where divorce is common, extra-marital sexual opportunities abound, and their dispersed biological families may not be around to help them raise their young.
Traditional forms of partnering are declining as well, replaced by far more flexible customs and beliefs. Some 92% of men are comfortable with a woman asking them out; and 33% of men would make a long-term commitment to a woman who is 10+ years older. Moreover, most singles now approve of same-sex marriage, childfree marriage and having children out of wedlock. However, they don’t approve of commuter marriages, sexually open relationships, or partners living in separate homes or separate bedrooms. Any kind of arrangement that may threaten a deeply personal connection to a committed mate is becoming unacceptable.
American singles are shedding thousands of years of racial, religious, and family-centric prohibitions to build partnerships for a higher reason: love.