Couple holding hands
Couple holding hands

A just-released report from the Pew Research Center sends a dagger straight through the heart of a popular mythology—the one that insists that what single people want, more than anything else, is to become coupled.

So untrue. The findings, based on a national, random sampling of nearly 5,000 adults in the U.S., showed that 50 percent of single people are not interested in a committed romantic relationship and they are not even interested in a date.

Another 10 percent want nothing more than casual dates. About a quarter of single people, 26 percent, would be interested in casual dates or a committed romantic relationship. Just 14 percent are looking only for a serious romantic relationship.

This Stereotype-Shattering Finding Has Been True for at Least 15 Years

It would be tempting to assume that this is a testament to the growing numbers of single people. Just about every time the Census Bureau releases its latest figures, we learn that there are even more single people than there were the year before.

A previous Pew report made the remarkable prediction that by the time today’s young adults reach the age of 50, about one in four of them will have been single their entire lives. That’s a cohort of 50-year-olds in which 25 percent have never been married.

The phenomenon is not specific to the U.S. or to Western nations. In many countries all around the world, rates of marriage are also headed downhill.

I’ve been keeping track of surveys of people’s interest in marriage and romantic relationships for years.

Because the questions are asked in different ways with different kinds of options for answering, the results can seem confusing. There is, though, one study very similar to the new 2020 survey—a survey, also conducted by the Pew Research Center, from 2005. (It is study #1 in this review.)

The participants in the 2005 Pew survey were adults in the U.S. who were legally single—either divorced, separated, or widowed, or they had always been single. They were asked whether they were in a committed romantic relationship, and whether they were currently looking for a partner. They were not asked whether they were interested in casual dating.

Those results from 15 years ago were strikingly similar to the ones just reported. More than half of all unmarried Americans, 55 percent, were not in a committed romantic relationship and were not looking for one. Just 16 percent of unmarried Americans who were not already in a serious relationship said that they wanted to be.

Solo single people uninterested in a romantic relationship:

  • 50 percent — 2020 survey
  • 55 percent — 2005 survey

Solo single people looking for a serious romantic relationship:

  • 14 percent — 2020 survey
  • 16 percent — 2005 survey

The 2020 study was a bit different because it started with people who were socially single rather than just legally single.

“Single” was defined as not married (that’s the legal definition) and also not living with a partner or in a committed romantic relationship (those people are socially single).

Of all those single people—people not currently married or in a serious romantic relationship—exactly half, 50 percent, said that they were not looking for a romantic relationship or even a date. Only 14 percent said they wanted a committed romantic relationship and not just something casual.article continues after advertisement

Especially Uninterested in Romantic Partnering: People Who Have Tried Marriage Before and Older Women

The findings I have summarized so far were averaged across all single people. But unmarried people are quite a diverse group. Are there differences among single people in who is most uninterested in romantic partnering?

When I reviewed five previous studies, I found one strong and consistent finding: People who have tried marriage before (they are divorced or widowed) are especially unlikely to want to try it again. The new 2020 study, which asked a broader question about interest in romantic partnering (not just marriage), found the same thing.

Remember that across all single people, whether previously married or always single, 50 percent said they were uninterested in a romantic relationship or even a date.

For divorced people, that number was 56 percent and for the widowed, it was a striking 74 percent. Only the people who had never tried marriage were more likely to be interested in romantic partnering than uninterested (38 percent were uninterested).

The high level of disinterest among the widowed suggests that age could also be a factor, and it is. Three-quarters of people 65 and older are completely uninterested in a romantic relationship or dating.

For the 50- to 64-year-olds, the percentage is the same as for the sample as a whole—half are uninterested. Among the younger groups, fewer people express no interest at all in romantic relationships or dating, but the percentages are still substantial—39 percent for the 30- to 49-year-olds and 37 percent for the 18- to 29-year-olds.article continues after advertisement

Uninterested in romantic relationships or dating

  • 37 percent — ages 18-29
  • 39 percent — ages 30-49
  • 50 percent — ages 50-64
  • 75 percent — ages 65+

More women than men have no interest in romantic relationships or dating. The difference becomes even greater at older ages.

At ages 40 and above, more than 7 in 10 women (71 percent) are completely uninterested in dating or romantic relationships, compared to 42 percent of men. Among the younger adults, the difference is just 39 percent for the women, compared to 33 percent for the men.

These findings tell the same story as previous studies of gender differences in experiences of single life.

Why Aren’t Singles Interested in Romantic Partnering?

In one of my previous posts here at Living Single, I critiqued a study that tried to figure out why men stay single based on just one flaming Reddit thread.

Even in that thread, in which the men were egging each other on to say outrageous things, striking numbers of men said that they were single because they liked being single, they had other priorities, or they just weren’t interested in romantic relationships.

Not that you could easily tell that from the published version of the article. The author tried to bury all those kinds of answers and instead emphasized comments suggesting that the men were single because they were ugly, had low self-esteem, or just weren’t making much of an effort.

The Pew researchers were a bit more even-handed. First, their recruitment efforts targeted a national sample. And second, they did not rely on a Reddit thread to generate the possible answers.

By far, the two most popular answers the national sample of U.S. adults gave for why they were uninterested in romantic partnering were that they have more important priorities (47 percent), and they just like being single (44 percent).article continues after advertisement

Have more important priorities

  • 61 percent — ages 18-49
  • 38 percent — ages 50+

Like being single

  • 41 percent — ages 18-49
  • 46 percent — ages 50+

The younger adults (under the age of 50) were especially likely to say that they have more important priorities; 61 percent of them said that, compared to 38 percent of the older adults.

The older adults (50 and over) were especially likely to say that they just liked being single; 46 percent of them said that, even more than the 38 percent who said they have more important priorities. A very substantial number of the younger adults, 41 percent, also said that they just liked being single.

All the other reasons for being uninterested in romantic partnering were far less important.

  • 20 percent — too busy
  • 18 percent — haven’t had luck in the past
  • 17 percent — feel like no one would be interested
  • 17 percent — not ready after losing a spouse or ending a relationship
  • 17 percent — feel like I am too old
  • 11 percent — have health problems that make it difficult

The men and women were very similar in 7 of the 8 reasons for their lack of interest in romantic partnering. The one difference was in their fear that no one would be interested in them; more men than women worried about that, 26 percent vs. 12 percent.

Shrugging Off the Pressure to Partner

Mental blanketing is my term for the relentless and pervasive glorifying of marriage and shaming of single people.

I described it in detail in Singled Out. The results of the Pew survey show that many single people are no longer feeling that pressure from society, especially as they get older.

Even those who are feeling it are not letting it get to them. They are no more likely to be looking for a romantic relationship than people who are not feeling the pressure.