Are there any good men left?
Lamenting thus aloud, Miss Felicia Chin recently called local young men materialistic and shallow. Surprisingly, the actress' barbs did not elicit much of a furor. In a pro-marriage culture, perhaps her unattached status at 27 is moving her, on this issue at least, nearer a persona non grata zone.
To the degree that marital domesticity is highly valued in a culture, singlehood may be correspondingly disvalued. Because we are brought up in and naturalized to such a world view, we tend to assume it is a fixture of life that must hold true across cultures and all time periods.
But what if the ideal of marital domesticity were merely the product of a certain period of history?
Then singlehood may be an equally viable life path. There would be less social pressure to view marriage as an inevitable step in one's life journey, and less inclination to relegate alternatives to marriage to second best.
Indeed, the number of singles is rising in Singapore. In 2010, 43.1 per cent of men and 30.6 per cent of women aged 30 to 34 were single. In 2000, it was 33.3 percent and 21.9 per cent, respectively.
Add in the fact that the divorce rate is rising, and that women have longer life expectancies, and you end up with a scenario where many women may spend more years as singles (never married or widowed) than as wives.
Taken together, these demographic changes threaten to undermine marriage as a cherished institution of the majority.
Does it matter?
On a societal level, one can sympathize with the Singapore government for its efforts to promote marriage and procreation, because a society's economic vitality does depend in part on the youthfulness of its population.
But at the personal level, numerous studies show that marital status is not a strong indicator of happiness.
That's despite what the 'cult of the couple' would have you believe. In A World Of Their Own Making (1996), historian John Gillis notes: 'Marriage as an institution may seem to be on the rocks, but romantic love has never been more valued. Establishing a romantic relationship with another person is the sign of adulthood. Yet it was not really until the last century that the perfect couple assumed a central place in the... imagination.'
In the more distant past, people married for procreative and economic reasons. It was only in the 20th century that companionship, emotional intimacy and sexual expression apart from childbearing began to acquire pride of place in marriage.
Then it was only in the past two decades or so that intensive interdependence of couples became the new ideal. In this model, the couple's relationship trumps all others. The best couples are supposed to co-depend on each other to fulfil almost every need.
If one buys into this theory, then singles, deprived of this intense relating, must have less fulfilled lives.
Dr Gillis notes, however, that the modern models are not universal across cultures or history.
The only proof of whether marriage is good for people must be an empirical one. In a particularly elegant 15-year-long study with annually repeated collection of data from thousands who got and stayed married for 15 years, happiness before and after marriage was compared. The 2003 study concluded: "On average, they are no happier in the years after marriage than they were in the years before."
There were as many who were more happy as those who were less happy after marriage.
Other studies show that gender matters in marital happiness. That is, we need to ask whether married men are happier than single men, married men than married women, single females than single males, and single females than married females.
Empirically, it is almost incontrovertible that married men do better than single men in terms of health, career and longevity. A large number of studies show this.
Almost as well established is the finding that married women do less well than married men. One reason is that the former tend to take on the problems of the latter, but not as much vice versa. This is especially so in very interdependent couplings. As they are more attuned to the quality of their marriage, married women are either much happier or much unhappier than married men.
Studies also show that single women do better than single men in terms of health, career and longevity. Thus, overall, singlehood may serve women better.
Surprisingly, few studies have looked at whether single females are happier than married females.
In sum, being married may well be related to being happier - but not by as much as popularly imagined. After all, singles are not obviously unhappy. If we do not over-valorise marital couplings and if we don't construe singlehood as anxious waiting for the time that one also may step into the state of matrimony, then singlehood is a viable life choice.
Singles are not forlorn folks. They do have significant others in their lives - aged parents, equally ageing siblings, nephews and nieces, as well as old friends and new ones.
Within their networks of relationships, albeit with one of sexual exclusivity missing, there is equally a sense of belonging. So it is fine to be single - or married.