Most of my friends in their 30's--women and men--fear that if they don't marry, they'll end up lonely. Or, worse: that they'll have failed in a highly public and widely accepted American personality test.
This fear about the pain of living single is not quite hysteria, because it's rooted in data. Married people generally live longer and happier than others do. For instance, in 2007, the Office for National Statistics reported that single men between 30 and 60 die at a rate 2½ times the rate of married men. Single people are also more likely to suffer with alcoholism, depression, and various physical health problems than married people are.
One possible reason for why married people are happier than unmarried ones is that our culture hasn't developed many institutions--other than marriage--for ongoing emotional attention. That is, we've spent energy and money on business, politics, and a good but impersonalized medical system. But there aren't many public institutions for fostering personalized, thoughtful interaction. If you don't have a good spouse (or luck out with other caring family members, or a good shrink), you're largely living in a world in which interactions are legitimized by profit.
Marriage might be the one governmentally supported institution for sustaining deep emotional support. You get tax breaks for sustained heterosexual monogamy. (Schools are also a governmentally supported institution for ongoing care, but that system is almost as broken as marriage, which fails at a rate of roughly 50%.)
In this light, I'm anxious to read Laurie Abraham's new book, The Husbands and Wives Club which looks at American marriage with a careful eye. Her book follows five couples through group marriage counseling. While her book is not a critique on the role of marriage in our culture, Abraham thought a lot about American culture as she wrote.
In a recent interview at Salon.com, interviewer Thomas Rogers asked her why Americans are so invested in this idea that heterosexual contractual monogamy is the natural and necessary form for sustaining love, or commitment. She agreed with his suggestion that our country has a strained investment in marriage, and went on:
"...There are aspects of our culture that make it seem like marriage is the only way to find emotional sustenance in life. Our culture affirms marriage and monogamy. We haven't found better ways to have a sustained emotional connection. You can find it through friends and family, but maybe because our culture pushes it so hard, people often end up feeling there's a hole in their life if they don't have some close partner as they get older. Of course, if you have kids, that feeling is magnified even further."
She speaks clearly there, I think. Perhaps, as our culture increasingly invests in business--as the number of institutions devoted to our hearts shrinks--those residual institutions like marriage, which work to save us from loneliness, bear more and more weight. They might increasingly crack with that weight.