these women are making a commitment to being single
We explore why more and more millennial women are opting out of dating, how they make it a part of their life and what effect is has on them.
Maybe it’s partly the “Men Are Trash” memes permeating our social media landscape. Maybe it’s the way #MeToo has us discovering that some of our male friends were other women’s abusers. Maybe it’s awareness of the crushing “Invisible Load” present even in marriages between two feminists. Maybe, as researcher Victoria Haneman suggests, it’s student loans. Whatever our personal reasons, more and more millennial women who are attracted to men aren’t dating them. We’re fucking less, more of us have never been sexually active, and we’re having fewer babies than previous generations.
My own last serious relationship ended in 2013, when I declined my ex’s marriage proposal and he responded to my rejection with a Spotify playlist entirely consisting of Nine Inch Nails tracks. Since then, I’ve dipped a toe in the dating waters about once a year, and always yanked it right back out. I’m far from alone in this.
At 22, Kayleigh, a recent college graduate, isn’t ready to think about settling down with a partner. She says, “It’s isolating and a little rough to be in your 20s and pursuing a career, and some people react to that by doubling down on efforts to find a partner. But for me, I’m doubling down on trying to be self-sufficient, so I can establish myself and reach a time when I feel like I can date. I’m playing the long game”
"For some women, not dating men means dating women exclusively."
Kayleigh’s decision to seek independence before romance reflects a trend that began with Gen-X. In a 2008 report, University of Michigan (Dearborn) sociologist Pamela Aronson interviewed 42 Gen-X women about their attitudes towards adulthood, marriage, motherhood and relationships. Aronson wrote that, “Self-development and self-reliance were present... regardless of marital or relationship status... Those who delay marriage do so in favour of self-development, or to avoid such problems as divorce or gender inequality in parenting.”
Not only is gender inequality an issue for many women who are delaying or declining normative heterosexual love, so are gendered violence and abuse. Bailey, 34, stopped dating in part because she learned that an ex-boyfriend considered impregnating her without her consent. He intended to use pregnancy to influence Bailey to “get serious” about their relationship. “Apparently,” says Bailey, “He knew some other guys who did it, and he claimed the women eventually thanked them.”
For Jenny, 33, too, emotional abuse played a part in her move away from dating men. Following a heartbreak, she dated a man who aggressively pursued her. “I knew I shouldn't, but he wooed me and I gave in. He ended up being horrible,” Jenny says. “After I broke up with him, he told me he had cancer to pull me back into his life. My aunt had recently died of cancer.” When Jenny responded to her ex’s sympathy ploy, she discovered that he was in excellent health. Today, she isn’t sure when or if she’ll date again. “I'm just starting to feel like I'm getting myself in a healthier place and I don't want to ruin that.”
For some women, not dating men means dating women exclusively. Monica, 30, who identifies as bisexual, says, “I have had my share of awkward or not entirely fulfilling romantic interactions with women, but I have never felt the kind of emotional and psychological drain (from women) that I have from the men I have dated or been romantic with. I am also a survivor of sexual assault and rape, both by men that I should have been able to trust. I am still attracted to (men), but I do not feel safe with them.”
Sigal, 26, is currently grappling with the question of whether or not to entirely stop dating men. She says, “I don’t think I have a natural preference between men and women. I can be very attracted to both. However, as I’ve grown to love and respect myself more, it’s so hard to justify going a date where I must feel fear and anxiety, where I must walk on eggshells should I decide not to pursue further engagement, and where I must be an unpaid teacher and therapist, when instead I could go on a date where I feel comfortable, understood, and appreciated as a full human person… Dating can be difficult and stressful no matter what gender you’re dating, so why add yet another layer of anxiety by dating men?”
"Although each of the women I spoke to considers herself to be “not dating”, and views this choice as a key part of her identity, the way this manifests in daily life varied widely."
Most of the women I spoke to identify as heterosexual, although friends and family don’t always understand how that's compatible with their dating choices. Jada, 38, found it difficult to convince her father of her straight-girl bona fides after she stopped dating: “My father, heavily religious, thinks I’m a lesbian,” she said. “My dad told me he saw that I ‘changed my status’ on FB and he wanted me to know that ‘only God would judge me and he still accepted me.’ I still don’t know what he saw on Facebook!”
Family conflict was common even for women who haven’t dated in years. Connie, who left the dating world in 2013 after experiencing two abusive relationships in a row, says her family still hasn’t come to terms with her decision not to keep dating. “I ended up focusing on my friends,” says Connie. “I have a very difficult relationship with my very traditional and conservative Chinese family, who just want me to get married already.”
Jenny, on the other hand, found that her family relationships actually improved after she stepped away from dating. She says, “I have had a better relationship with my parents. Dating an awful person can really bring a person down and it caused me a lot of emotions and hurt. Luckily, I had some great people there for me, and so certain relationships have gotten deeper.”
Although each of the women I spoke to considers herself to be “not dating”, and views this choice as a key part of her identity, the way this manifests in daily life varied widely. Amber, 23, is still having sex with men, but found that walking away from the romantic aspect of dating helped her to discover her a-romantic identity. “I am still sexually attracted to men, but as far as a romantic relationship with one, I feel like it's useless. I don't have those cravings or feelings.” Of not dating, she says, “I stopped trying to fit into dating norms. I stopped allowing people to pressure me into believing that dating men -- and dating monogamously at that -- would somehow allow me to ‘figure myself out’. I feel freer and truer to myself than I’ve ever been.”
For many, not dating is about admitting to oneself and to friends and family that you don’t want the normative relationships women are expected to want, and that you don’t know if or when you will. Bailey says, “My friends in grade school were planning their weddings even then. I feel like I'm a missing software package or something. They were playing wedding, and I was playing news broadcast or pretending to be a lawyer in court.” Bailey’s family members have, for the most part, accepted that Bailey isn’t a future bride. She says, “My dad (complains) about not having grandkids sometimes, but my mom is basically on the ‘whatever makes me happy’ thing, which is nice.”
For career-oriented women, patriarchal norms create a courtship paradox even for those who do still desire normative relationships. According to a new report by University of Wisconsin (Madison) sociologists Katherine Fallon and Casey Stockstill, educated, high-achieving women, despite their privileged class position, grapple with “expectations of gendered passivity” in romantic relationships. Fallon and Stockstill write, “Elite women are thus put into a double bind. Sufficient self-development must occur prior to serious partnering; however, self-development alone is insufficient for being seen as a fully developed person.”
"None of the women I spoke with had found the perfect, tidy way to convey her romantic status to those around her."
This double-bind manifested in Bailey’s past relationships. “That’s been a feature of every relationship I’ve had with men,” she says. “(An ex) ended up taking a day that was huge for my career, making it all about him... I had to apologise for my win and swear I didn’t do it because I felt like he couldn’t provide.”
Connie, too, discovered that her individual success was treated as a liability when dating men. “In the interim (while not dating), I've essentially been able to tap into my own independence and self-confidence, putting myself and my interests first. Ultimately, I think men are turned off by that,” Connie says. “It erodes their idea of masculinity and the ‘caretaker’ role that they feel they need to provide women.” Connie has gone on a handful of first dates since her last relationship, but describes her few forays back into dating as, “Rare, and without optimism.”
For some women, not dating isn’t a matter of trauma relating to men, but simply of a healthier choice for oneself. For Bailey, as a writer, not dating is partly a practical choice: “I think, if you’re in a creative field, relationships are way harder, because the relationship’s demands on your time can come right during a creative breakthrough you’ve been waiting weeks for. Then what do you do?”
Marriage functions as a ritual for formalising a romantic commitment, after which one’s social circle is expected to accept the couple’s relationship and “forever hold (their) peace.” For the less traditional couple-or-more, there’s handfasting, civil unions, and non-binding commitment ceremonies. But what are you to do when the announcement you want to make to friends and family is that you’re a single woman, seeking nothing and nobody? What’s the appropriate Facebook relationship status for “in a committed relationship with personal growth?”
None of the women I spoke with had found the perfect, tidy way to convey her romantic status to those around her. Although there are periodic news stories about single women marrying themselves, those women are often subjected to mockery or snarky allegations of “self-infidelity,” should they ever have sex again. For most of the opt-out women I interviewed, discussing their non-dating lives with their social circles was a gradual process, and one which had to be repeated with every new, well-meaning offer to “set you up with a great guy”.
Jada may have come closest to formally announcing her new status, posting the following publicly on Facebook on her birthday: “So often we are measured by and measure our worthiness and achievements in terms of our ability (or seeming lack thereof) to secure romantic love. We set Eros as the highest and most desirable love attainable. But the truth for my life is that it is Philia which has been the love that has sustained and nourished me all along. Here's the secret to my success: I am well loved. That's it. I may be single but I'm not alone. I'm not slowly dying of loneliness. My cup runneth over with friendships.” Jada says of her tight-knit social circle of mostly-single women today: “Instead of endless emotional labor, we emotionally invest in one another. I’ve already found my soulmates.”
Deepening of friendships after opting out of normative dating seemed like the one thing every woman I spoke to shared. When I spoke to Jenny, she was preparing for a movie date with a large group of friends. Bailey says, “I feel like the relationships I have now, where I’m invested in others, are way more equitable and honest than what I see in a lot of hetero relationships… the core thing is we are always trying to lift each other up.”
It may be time, as the podcast Call Your Girlfriend has suggested, for a way to designate someone as “my person,” without implying a sexual or romantic relationship. As millennial women navigate careers, family burdens, health crises, and creative passions, we’re partnering off even while romantically single, finding in our platonic social circles our career partners, activity partners, creative partners, and our cheerleaders.
As for my own five years and counting of mostly-not-dating, in the past year, I took my first vacation with a close friend, wrote a screenplay with my writing partner, and attended my first Lukumi ceremony with a friend and colleague. I’m not sure what the future holds for me romantically, and I’m not ruling out ever attaching myself to someone again, but, for now, my friends are my touchstones.