More Canadians than ever before are choosing to live alone—and liking it
Irma McCue still remembers how alone she felt back in 1971 when she separated from her first and only husband. But that was so long ago. Nowadays, the bubbly, mid-50s blond is a symbol of all that’s good about the single life: a former small-business owner, she headed to design school in her 40s and now works as an interior decorator for a Calgary home furnishings store. Her two daughters and one son are grown now, and she has the time and money to travel and to enjoy the company of a wide circle of male and female friends who share her passion for fine dining, live theater and jazz clubs. She is currently seeing a man who is 15 years her junior, and while she says she is enjoying the company, she describes the relationship as casual, not serious. She loves her life alone. “You are free to make your own mistakes when you’re single,” she declares. “I probably wouldn’t have done any of the things I’ve done if I had been married. But since I was alone, I could gamble. It’s total freedom.” Being single did not always look that good. Only a generation ago, unmarried women in their 30s were pitied as spinsters living sad, unfulfilled lives and never-married bachelors treated as losers who were unable, or unwilling, to find a mate and settle down. Those perceptions began to change in the 1970s, when single women looking for pop-culture role models could turn to female characters on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary and Rhoda, modern gals at the time with careers, friends and a spirit exemplified by the “You’re gonna make it after all” line in the show’s theme song.
Today’s professional women no longer need a man to provide housing, financial stability or social stature
But Mary and Rhoda now seem so dated compared with the aggressive, independent, stiletto-heeled heroines from Sex and the City. Nowadays, cool, attractive, 30ish singles dominate the TV airwaves on hit shows like Friends, Will and Grace and Ally McBeal. They crowd the big screen in movies such as The Next Best Thing, featuring a pair of real-life singles in Madonna and Rupert Everett. They even sit atop best-seller lists with books like The Diary of Bridget Jones. Statistics indicate that more people are spending more of their lives single than ever before, and everywhere Canadians turn, they get the same message: the solo life is something to revel in, not a source of embarrassment.
Make no mistake: as the continuing boom in dating services, personal ads and meet-a-mate Internet sites indicates, the majority of singles are still seeking relationships. Today, though, a growing number of people are single by choice, not because they failed to find or keep a mate. Women, in particular, are embracing the single life. They still feel pressure to marry by the time they enter their 30s, but that has more to do with their biological clocks. Otherwise, experts say, today's professional women no longer need a husband to provide housing, financial stability or social stature. The gap between salaries for females and males is steadily narrowing. Those improved economic circumstances give them the clout to exert their independence, regardless of what the old world thinks.
Diane deBruin of Toronto might once have felt panicky about being 29 and single with no man in sight. Instead, she has been dating casually since the breakup ol her last serious relationship in 1996. She wants to settle down someday, but there’s no hurry, she says. DeBruin, who has an undergraduate degree in science and an MBA from York University in Toronto, now works as manager of research and development for a major pharmaceutical company, and loves her single life. She can afford a home in a pricey, central Toronto neighborhood, and to go on golf and ski vacations. And she doesn’t feel the absence of Mr. Right: she has a career and the company of friends and family. “When I meet the right person, I will spend the rest of my life with him,” she says. “But I’m financially stable. I don’t need a man for his money. I want someone who will challenge and motivate me.”
Randy Tan’s priorities are what keeps him single. The 51year-old Tan operates a thriving movie studio on the Squamish Indian Reserve in North Vancouver. Divorced for 15 years, he now mostly dates women 20 years younger, and says he never lets things get “too serious,” even though he admits he would like to have children someday. For the moment, the member of the Peguis First Nation in Central Manitoba says life is too busy to accommodate an intense relationship. His studio is hopping, he enjoys his regular bicycling trips to places like Las Vegas, Mexico and Brazil, and he spends off-time kayaking and cooking meals for friends. As well, he is pursuing interests he had as a young man but had to forgo while married—studying philosophy, becoming computer literate and brushing up on his gardening. “I’ve had opportunities to get married, but never with the right person,” he says, adding, “I’m a pretty happy guy.”
He is hardly alone in his lifestyle. Statistics Canada figures show that there were 7.1 -million single adults in 1999, an 18.8-per-cent increase over 1990. During the same period, the overall population grew by 10.1 per cent. And experts say the growth in the number of people living alone is likely to continue: the marriage rate was the lowest in history in 1998 (the last year for which figures were available), with only five Canadians per 1,000 choosing to walk down the aisle. In 1972, that figure was 9.2 per 1,000. At the same time, those who do marry are doing so when they are older, an increasing number of women are raising children alone and the numbers of people living common-law, which now stands at 12 per cent of Canadian couples, continues to climb. “In 10 or 20 years, marriage in the traditional sense is no longer going to be the norm,” says Paul Rutherford, a cultural historian at the University of Toronto.
While some attitudes are changing, experts say that the basic domestic values of Canadian adults have remained constant. Jack Wayne, who teaches the sociology of the family at the University of Toronto, says Canadians today are after the same companionship and support their parents were searching for when they decided to marry and have families. “It is only natural to search for someone to share your life with,” Wayne stresses.
The difference is that love and marriage no longer go together like a horse and carriage. The Free Love 1960s and the advent of the birth-control pill altered the conventional thinking about premarital sex. The increased secularization of society means people feel they no longer need to marry in a church or other place of worship to solemnize a long-term relationship. Canada’s Divorce Act, introduced in 1968, meant that marriage was no longer “till death us do part.” Eric Sager, a historian and director of the Canadian Families Project at the University of Victoria, thinks the fact that Canadians are living longer than ever before may have something to do with the swelling ranks of singles. “It is often said that divorce today performs the function that death did in the past,” he points out. “The promise to live together for better or worse, so long as you both shall live, means something very different if you anticipate a married life of 60 years, as opposed to a married life of 25 years.”
The surprise for many who go through the trauma is that there is life after divorce. Margaret Reynolds is a 48-year-old mother of two and executive-director of a book publishers’ association in Vancouver. She lived with a Simon Fraser University professor for 20 years before ending the relationship about six years ago. “When you become single after being in a relationship, you have to reinvent yourself,” she says. “This takes time, but it’s an opportunity to I think about who you are.”
Reynolds, whose two daughters are 20 and 14, says she now I has more time to pursue outside 12 interests. She is completing her masters degree in liberal studies at Simon Fraser in addition to working full time, and recently, she finished the 10-km Vancouver Sun Run—in under one hour, she says proudly. Dating was a bit scary at first, but Reynolds says she has been pleasantly surprised after returning to the scene following 20 years away. “The men are thoughtful and reasonable, and they don’t expect you to hop in bed with them the first night,” she says. “Things might have gone over differently if we were in our 20s. But we are all adults now.”
Younger people are particularly skittish about matrimony: the last census reports that in 1996, 67 per cent of men aged 25 to 29 had never been married, compared with 35 per cent in 1951. For younger women, the shift has been even more dramatic: 51 per cent in 1996 versus 21 per cent 45 years earlier.
Christine Ryan, 22, is among those who are not going to be registering for china anytime soon. The first-year human relations student at Montreal’s Concordia University says she would love to “have kids, live in a two-income household and raise my children with the love and affection of a mother and a father.” But she really doubts that scenario is possible because she has seen too much infidelity, unhappiness and divorce among friends and family and through her previous job as a counselor for low-income adults. Instead, she wants to start a career, have children and then raise them by herself. “I think marriage is a fantasy,” says Ryan, who has had only one serious relationship but dates regularly. “I think being able to live with someone for 50 years and not want to be with someone else along the way is a big myth.”
There are no guarantees that life alone will be as fulfilling for everyone as it is for some. In fact, some research suggests exactly the opposite. A June, 1999, poll by Toronto-based Environics Research Group showed that 61 per cent of single Canadians consider themselves “happy more than they are unhappy,” sharply lower than the 73 per cent for married people. And a study released in February by Health Canada revealed that single men are 2.3 times as likely to suffer from dementia as married men—and 1.4 times more likely to end up institutionalized.
Mostly, though, singles complain about the day-to-day struggles— the frustrations of trying to buy Younger people are more skittish about matrimony food for one, having nobody to act as nursemaid when the flu hits, the lack of companionship. “Sometimes things get overwhelming when you are doing everything yourself,” admits Angela Seaman, a 31-year-old single mother who teaches high school in Merritt, B.C. “You just say, ‘Gee, I wish there was someone else here so I could go for a walk by myself, have an evening out or just have another adult around.’ ” Then there is dating, a particularly daunting experience for, say, a newly divorced man who has not been in a club since John Travolta was svelte enough to fit into a white leisure suit. Mel Chisholm, 45, a single freelance photographer, camera store employee and part-time bartender in Halifax, jokes that finding dates gets harder “as you get older and more particular, but less desirable.”
Others are simply disenchanted by past relationships, and no longer wish to pursue anything more than casual affairs. Johnson Chou, a 37-year-old architectural designer and gallery owner in Toronto, says that after three long romances, he now tells every new woman he dates that he is a confirmed bachelor “so that they know immediately just where I stand.” Jeff Yardley, 36, a Toronto hairdresser who is gay, remains equally wary after recently ending a two-year relationship. “If I were to get into another relationship, I would have boundaries,” he says. “No one is going to change me or control me.”
Still, being unattached gives Steven Comeau, 29, president of Collideascope Digital, a Halifax-based new media company, the freedom to work 60-hour weeks and spend a week a month on business in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. When he feels like it, he can just hop on his motorcycle for a ride into the countryside, and when he goes out, he enjoys the prospect of getting to know different women. “Dating does not have to be a callow affair,” he says. Or a dull one either: in Comeau’s view, there are few things as exciting as walking into a club, casting his gaze around the room and realizing that he might go home with someone new tonight. “I have to admit,” he says, “that really turns my crank.”
Bill Johnston, 68, a retired trust-company administrator from Windsor, Ont., would prefer a fulfilling long-term relationship over dating. He has been estranged from his wife for 30 years and legally separated for 20. In that time, he has had one full-blast romance—for nine years with a woman he met in a nightclub. That ended in 1984, and since then he has dated a little but never managed to recapture the intimacy he felt with his wife or girlfriend. “I am not looking now,” says Johnston, who helps his three daughters raise his four grandchildren. “But I do dream.”
Many modern singles, however, would rather accept occasional loneliness to preserve their freedom. “I love being on my own,” says Vancouver’s Reynolds, who has dated about 10 men since her marriage broke up. “I would like at some point to have a deep relationship, but I am not in a hurry to get there. It will be a much bigger decision to enter
into a relationship at this time because I know what I am giving up.”
And that, more than statistics, demonstrates how times really have
changed: being single, after all, used to be viewed by many as an empty
life. Nowadays, Reynolds and a growing number of Canadians think it can
mean a fuller one. www.macleans.ca for links
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