If for a long time we have pointed the finger at singles, from the old maid to the hardened bachelor, we finally realize that life alone is sometimes the result of a choice.
Living single –Not or no longer being in a relationship– is a frequent situation today and often even, renewed during life. What perceptions and experiences do we have, depending on social background or gender in particular?
Analysis of the Epic investigation on individual and marital paths and in-depth interviews with single people sheds light, sometimes unexpectedly, on the diversity of contemporary single people and their experiences.
Live together, live happily?
In the Epic survey, conducted by INED and INSEE in metropolitan France in 2013-2014, one in five people aged 26 to 65 declared not to be in a relationship (21%) and one in two had known at least one episode of non-couple life (one year or more) since their first significant romantic relationship. Frequent, this celibacy concerns both men and women (21%).
Nevertheless, life together is very predominant between 26 and 65 years old and it remains the model socially valued. The experiences reported by the single people re-interviewed following the Epic survey attest to this and converge: whatever their social background, their sex or their age, their marital history or their aspirations, all are or have been encouraged by their entourage to make or to remake couple.
Life together remains the norm and the couple holds a central place in the social images of happiness. A man (36 years old, worker, single) explains: “It is anchored in society that, to be happy, you have to live together.”
Words that echo others, like those of this woman (53 years old, manager, separated and mother of a child): “I think people want to see you happy, your family and your friends. And so, very often in people’s heads, being in a relationship … well, being alone is not being happy. ”
However, celibate life is neither experienced nor appreciated in the same way by all.
The sex of celibacy
Men form a couple later than women; more of them are single when they are young. Conversely, women enter conjugality earlier, and also leave it earlier.
After the thirties, which constitutes a high point in married life for both sexes – the non-couple life rate is very low at that time – separations, divorces and widowhoods do not affect women and men alike. way (Figure 1).
From their forties, the rate of non-married life increases for women without ever decreasing. Men’s courses are less sensitive to age. Less affected by the widowhood, they also recover more often and more quickly as a couple after a rupture.
As we can see, over the course of life, male celibacy and female celibacy are not alike. They are not appreciated in the same way either: of course, single women and men say the majority of their celibacy is “a choice” (46% of women and 34% of men) or that “without really being a choice, their situation suits them ”(25% of women and 28% of men), but women are more assertive than men, who are more likely to aspire to a significant romantic relationship (28% against 24% of women) or wanting one or more relationships without committing (7% versus 4%).
These results renew the look at celibate life and the aspirations that go with it, very often observed – in research as in the media – from the sole angle of the female celibacy, thus depriving us of the comparison.
Celibacy suffered is not where it is believed
Single life is more common in modest circles. This is true for men and women, although less marked for the latter. Gradually, the proportions of people outside a couple decrease as one moves up the social scale (Figure 2). Thus, 29% of manual workers and 24% of female workers are single, against 13% of male managers and 18% of women managers.
Once again, however, celibate life does not fit the paths of women and men from modest backgrounds in the same way. Single male workers, employees or farmers are more likely to have never been in a relationship, while single female employees or single workers more often have a marital past, marked by widowhood or divorce. In other words, there is a social difference in men’s access to conjugality, while for women, the difference is expressed more in terms of leaving married life.
According to the social environment, the appreciations made on celibacy also contrast: employees or workers more than executives or belonging to higher intellectual professions affirm that “it is a choice” (43% against 33%). Less satisfied with a single life, the latter more often state that they have – sometimes or often – felt excluded because of not being in a relationship.
The lower frequency of celibacy in the upper classes seems to coincide with a stronger marital norm. Conversely, in the working classes where life outside a couple, single parenthood and permanent celibacy are more common, these situations are perhaps less stigmatized and exclusionary. These differences in experiences and perceptions of celibate life are particularly marked among women.
Prices and bonuses for female celibacy
Women workers and employees much more often present their celibacy as a choice (50%) than women managers and higher intellectual professions (25%). They also more often consider that life outside a couple “does not change anything” in their everyday life (43% against 34%) while female executives respond more that celibacy makes their daily life “more difficult” (42% against 30%).
These differences are further reinforced when parenting is taken into account: single mothers from privileged backgrounds report many more difficulties associated with living outside a couple than working or employed mothers.
It is therefore in modest backgrounds, and even in a situation of single parenthood – a situation that we know impoverishing– that women adapt as best as possible to life outside of a marriage.
Surprisingly at first glance, this result is illustrated by the testimonies of the female employees and workers interviewed. First, when they emphasize the continuity of their role and their work, domestic and educational: with or without a spouse, they have to “do everything”, “manage everything”. Then when they point out the autonomy of decision found or regained in life outside a couple: alone, they are now free to decide, admittedly under constraints but without being accountable, on the expenses or the education of the children. Money management is emblematic of this new autonomy.
While the unequal distribution of parental and household work also marks the married life of female managers, financial independence of spouses is greater in couples with high social status. Managing your budget without having to negotiate is therefore a more significant difference and gain for women workers and employees than for others. And it is to this freedom of decision, won or regained, that they are attached.
Living satisfactorily single does not rule out the idea of (re) living as a couple and declaring that not being in a relationship is “a choice”, as 40% of single people did at the time of the Epic survey (in 2013-2014), does not mean that it is about a choice of life, definitive.
Things are not set in stone and the frequent re-pairing also testifies to this. Two years after a break-up, more than half of those separated have already couple discounts.
On the other hand, what we observe in a new way is that the periods of celibate life – often neglected as “slack periods” where nothing would happen – do indeed affect the way of considering conjugality. The experiences of single life change the way you make or re-couple. From this point of view, preserving one’s personal space appears to be a strong ideal, even an issue, which influences the functioning and the type of union envisaged (cohabitation or non-cohabiting couple rather than (re) marriage, in particular).
This question of autonomy in the couple appears both in the representations of the life of two but also in the practices. The more we have lived single periods, the less we adhere to the idea that “being in a relationship means doing everything together”.
Among people who have not experienced any period of celibacy (at least one year) since their first romantic relationship, 49% consider that “being in a couple means doing everything together” compared to 34% of those who have lived two periods of celibacy or more since their first relationship. Similarly, within couples, the more we have lived single periods before, the less we live in a fusional relationship, where sociability practices (seeing friends, family, spending vacations) are mostly done together. The experience of celibacy translates into greater independence within the couple.
This text is adapted from an article published by the authors in Population et Sociétés n ° 584, “Living single: from preconceived ideas to lived experiences” and an article published by the authors and Françoise Courtel in Population, 2019/1 Vol. 74, “Life outside a couple, an extraordinary life? Experiences of celibacy in contemporary France ”.
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