Almost everybody in the world gets married—you know what I mean? In our town there aren’t hardly any exceptions. Most everybody in the world climbs into their graves married…. Yes, people are meant to go through life two by two, ‘Tain’t natural to be lonesome.” (Our Town, Act Two)
I called her Aunt Betty and him Uncle Gasper, even though they were not related to me.
These fictive relatives were two never-married people, childhood friends of my mother.
The friendships withstood the test of time, entering a new phase when my mother married and was willing to share her children with her two ever-single friends.
Betty and I shared the same birthday, and often the same birthday parties; this helped create a special bond between us. She once told me I was her nephew, not by blood, but by affection.
I have the warmest memories of “uncle” Gasper. He was a significant part of my youth. He provided me with profound and simple joys. There were fishing trips, firemen’s carnivals, trips to baseball games, walks in the woods. Nothing was too ordinary for Gasper not to notice. I would mimic him and play a game I named “Notice Things.” At times, however, I felt what Gasper wanted me to feel and owe to him a certain capacity to let life in. He left me with a legacy of allowing experiences to touch me, with a certain capacity to keep my heart in wonder at the daily miracles of life, to see the beauty in ordinary things.
About five percent of men and six percent of women over 65 years of age have never been married. The literature on older never married people is scarce, but generally it finds no differences in the mental and physical health of people who live alone and those who live with others. What makes people feel lonely is dissatisfaction with ties that they have. There is research that finds that never-married people indicate fewer symptoms of psychological disturbance and are less likely to be users of psychotropic drugs than married people (cf. Jessie Bernard, “The Paradox of the Happy Marriage,” 1972). However, some literature reveals, for instance, that never-married people tend to have shorter lifespans than married people.
During my time at Sacred Heart University, by contacting a number of agencies for the elderly, some senior citizen centers and organizations for retired people in Fairfield County, Conn.
I found 20 women and 18 men, never-married and over the age of 65, who were willing to be interviewed by me. My interviewees did not seem to feel especially lonely. Two of them pointed out that some surveys indicate that approximately 80 percent of married couples have seriously considered divorce. A few of the men who lived alone told how cooking for themselves, and eating in solitude were very difficult. A couple of the women also stated that eating one’s solitary dinner was difficult.
If my interviews are any indication, as a group never-married people seem to have come to terms with their lives, the choices they made, and learned how to adjust. Many of them spoke of having a propensity for solitude; they were comfortable with it. As one woman put it: “I’ve come to the point, maybe because I’ve had it for so long, where being alone is often a necessity for me.
For instance, I’ll go traveling with my married friends and at the end of a week I’m glad to see them go to their homes, and I’ll come to my own for the peace and solitude I have… I love my friends dearly, but to live with them, no.” A few of the women said that while they missed having children, they never missed not having a husband.
My interviews would indicate that while unmarried men, compared to unmarried women are not very socially involved with either organizations or friends, they are not a group of isolates who lead emotionally impoverished lives. The picture that emerges is that of “natural loners,” for whom such things as “keeping in touch with nephews and nieces are nonetheless very important.
They liked it when relatives came to them for help of some kind. The men would say things like, “They’re my family. If they need help, I’m there, and I’ve been paid back in all kinds of ways.”
A few of the interviewees pointed out that being single eliminated the burden of more relatives and their problems.
Almost to a person, the interviewees identified freedom as the most important asset of their life-style and establishing one’s niche in a married world as the major problem. For instance, one woman said “most of the women I know are grandmothers, and that’s what they talk about.” Under disadvantages, some men mentioned “not having had someone to share victories with. After some achievement I’d have to go home alone.”
No companionship in the evening was a problem. However, a number of women made touching observations like “so many of my friends who are my age don’t have anyone either; So many of their husbands died in their 50s. In fact, all of my girlfriends are widows, every one of them. So, they’re alone, too, That’s sad.”
A stereotype of unmarried people is that they are highly involved in church activities. That was far from true for my interviewees. The majority were negative about organized religion, but tended to believe in God and in Chesterton’s dictum about all on earth should believe they have something to give the world that cannot otherwise be given. This was eloquently expressed by a woman who said: “I firmly believe that the good Lord has a general pattern, and we all fit into it like a huge jigsaw puzzle. The whys and wherefores we’ll all know someday, but we fit into the puzzle. We get nudges, and I think I have answered the nudges that God has sent me. I fit into the pattern.”
The truth of it seems to be that the unmarried state is a many-faceted creature that has its associated losses and gains. Life is a trade-off. As my Aunt Betty once put it: “For me, being unwed is just having one set of troubles instead of another.”