Does every Miss secretly wish she was MrsWhether single, divorced or co-habiting, there are record numbers of unmarried women in the UK. So are they truly happy as 'freemales', or do they really want a ring on their finger
With her fulfilling managerial job and enviable 18th century cottage, 27-year-old Abigail Gavin has already achieved what many women in their late 20s aspire to.
What Abigail doesn’t have is a wedding ring on the third finger of her left hand. She isn’t married and, as she has been single for nearly two years, a wedding isn’t on the cards any time soon.
But she insists that she revels in her single status, and at the end of a busy day at work loves curling up on the sofa with her cat Matilda.
Resisting marriage: Singleton Abigail, left, and mother-of-three Helen
‘Being single means I can spend the money I earn however I like and I can have my home the way I want it,’ she explains. ‘My home is really girly. I’ve got loads of cushions — and tea lights everywhere.
‘I don’t have to pick up a man’s wet towels off the floor, put up with him playing computer games day and night and I don’t have to fight for my share of the duvet. I love having my own space.’
And Abigail’s marital status is far from unusual. In the past 30 years the number of unmarried women in the UK has doubled. New figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest that she is one of the eight-million-and-growing ‘freemales’ in the UK — women who, on the surface, seem to be more than happy to be single or in co-habiting relationships rather than getting married.
But there was a time not long ago when women openly longed to have a ring on their finger and a white wedding was every little girl’s dream. So can attitudes have changed as much as the statistics suggest Are women now happy to live on their own or even bring up a family without getting married
If you press Abigail, who works for a company selling baby and toddler products and lives in King’s Langley, Hertfordshire, she will admit that secretly she would like to settle down, get married and even have children one day.
'It's the little things you miss when you’re single — like having someone around in the evening to talk to about your day'
‘My grandparents married at 18 and were together until my grandad died at 85,’ she says. ‘I’d love to have that “old fashioned” commitment for life. Although marriage may not be right for everyone, I think having a relationship where you are both happy to publicly declare your love and respect for each other and vow to stay together is a wonderful thing.’
Abigail hasn’t been in a serious relationship for almost two years. She says: ‘Two close girlfriends tied the knot last year, and both are expecting now.
‘I was bridesmaid for my father’s second marriage last year, and my best friend is getting married this year — I’m really thrilled and excited for her. But I never feel left out when I’m in the company of my couple friends and I love the freedom of not having a partner.
‘I can’t, however, help wondering — when I find myself sitting on the singles’ table at friends’ weddings yet again — if I’ll ever get to walk up the aisle myself. It’s the little things you miss when you’re single — like having someone around in the evening to talk to about your day.
‘But it can be hard for single women to admit that they’d like to get married, even to friends — let alone partners or potential partners,’ says Abigail. ‘It’s such a deeply personal issue, I guess we’re all afraid of being judged. I tend to be very coy about the whole issue.’
Research suggests that while a growing number of women are singletons, deep down most would like to be married. A survey of more than 150,000 single people last year found more than 95 per cent wanted marriage, not just a partner.
Indeed, some relationship experts suggest the insecurity of the current recession is likely to make marriage — and the financial and emotional security it offers — more popular than ever over the next few years.
Still looking for the right man: Divorcee Catherine
TV relationship expert and author Kate Taylor, who is also the relationships expert for online dating agency match.com, agrees with Abigail and says that marriage has become something of a shameful aspiration for many women.
‘Single women have been made to feel really uncomfortable about admitting they want to get married,’ she says. ‘They’re advised to keep things light and breezy if they want to attract a partner — to come across in quite a masculine way, and give the impression they don’t want to be tied down.
‘We’re told that talking about marriage can be the kiss of death at the beginning of a relationship — it smacks of neediness. So tying the knot tends to be a taboo subject for single women — even if it’s what most really want.’
With women’s pursuit of their careers being cited by the ONS as a reasons for the rise of freemales, psychotherapist Paula Hall says single women also feel they have to keep quiet about any marriage ambitions they may have at work, too.
‘Young women feel that if they openly admit in the workplace that marriage is one of their ambitions they won’t be taken seriously — or will be overlooked for promotion,’ she explains.
‘I have met several women recently who’ve told me they won’t wear their engagement ring to work because it might give out the message that they’re only really interested in marriage and babies.’
While a career is absorbing and fulfilling for many women it also makes it easier to put marriage and children on the back burner — sometimes for far longer than intended.
Catherine D’Arcy, 42, from Middlewich in Cheshire, believes her dedication to her career is one of the key reasons why she is single. She has been on her own since she called time on her ten-year marriage in 2003, when she was 34.
‘My ex-husband is a lovely guy and we’re still friends now,’ says Catherine. ‘But I was a real career woman when I was married. I had a very high-powered, senior position in a big food manufacturing company, which involved lots of overseas travel. I adored my job, but it meant I was never home and my husband found that hard. I think he would have preferred me to be more of a traditional housewife.
'I do want to get married eventually,
even though when I think about a wedding now I can't help but think of
all the other things we could do with the money'
‘We had a lovely house in Wiltshire, and I did all the cooking, gardening when I was around — but the trouble was, I just wasn’t around enough.
‘In the end the best decision was to divorce. Although it was me who ended the marriage, it was a really difficult decision. I felt a failure, and was scared of being alone. I dreaded getting back into the dating game too, so threw myself into a complete lifestyle and career change.’
After her divorce, Catherine moved to Spain and then Mexico before eventually setting up an online jewellery business (corazonlatino.com) back in the UK.
‘For the past seven years I have been travelling all over the world sourcing jewellery,’ she says. ‘Because my business is international I’m also on the phone in the evening to Mexico and early in the morning to Thailand. I never stop.
‘Of course, I’ve met some interesting men since, and friends have encouraged me to try online dating — but the whole idea of actively searching for a partner is just not me.’
To outsiders Catherine has a life many would covet — as well as her lifestyle and glamorous career, she lives in a beautiful converted farmhouse surrounded by rolling countryside. But, even though she doesn’t aspire to have children, she admits the single life can be lonely at times.
‘I don’t mind coming back to an empty house — I’m usually exhausted and just want some peace and quiet — but I’d be lying if I said I don’t get lonely, especially when I travel,’ she says. ‘I have to visit some pretty scary places to meet the artisans who make the jewellery I sell and I’d feel much less vulnerable with a husband by my side.’
She adds: ‘Most of our customers are men and many of them want messages engraved on the jewellery they buy. When a man is asking to have “I love you more than ever” engraved on a bracelet to give to his wife for their 25th wedding anniversary, or a soldier in Afghanistan is ordering a piece inscribed with a poignant message for his wife, how can I not believe in happy ever after
‘I have a wonderful life, but it would be even better if I could share it with the right man. I don’t want to be married just for the sake of it.
‘I know too many women who seem to be married just so they can say they’re Mrs so-and-so — who say they’re happy in their marriages, just because they’re afraid to risk being single again. Mr Right will have to be able to accept me and my eccentric lifestyle. I’m a great believer in fate, though. I’m sure he’s out there.’
Always the bridesmaid… Friends getting married can be a particularly hard time for singletons (posed by models)
And even women in a committed relationship can still hanker after marriage. Helen Nelson, 43, settled down with her partner Paul Gwatkin ten years ago and the couple have three children — George, seven, Edward, four, and Alice, one — but they have never married.
The business development manager from Camberley, Surrey, is one of an increasing number of women bringing up a family with partners without walking down the aisle. Statistics suggest one in six couples in the UK cohabits rather than marries, with that number predicted to rise to one in four over the next 20 years.
Having children out of wedlock no longer carries the stigma it once did, and Helen is very happy in her relationship, but even she admits she still hopes to tie the knot one day.
Helen met Paul at Lancaster University where she was studying for an MBA after working for a pharmaceutical company in Switzerland. It wasn’t long after they moved into a house in Cardiff that Helen discovered she was pregnant.
‘We were over the moon — but I was a bit worried about what my parents, who have been together for over 50 years, would say,’ she recalls. ‘Thankfully they were thrilled — and once George came along we were so wrapped up with him, any thoughts of marriage were put on the back-burner.
'As little girls we all dream of finding someone who will promise to love us forever — not someone to take out a
joint mortgage with us'
‘People might look at us, a committed couple, and wonder why I would like a ring on my finger, but I’ve always had a positive, romantic view of marriage, influenced by the success of my parents. I think of it as the basis for a solid partnership between two people and the foundation on which to bring up a family.’
Helen adds: ‘We got engaged four years ago, and planned a small wedding soon after my 40th birthday, but Paul lost his job and had to go to Saudi Arabia to work for six months, so everything got shelved.
‘But once you have children, your focus is on them and marriage becomes less of a priority somehow,’ she says. ‘But I do want to get married eventually, even though when I think about a wedding now I can’t help but think of all the other things we could do with the money — like build an extension.
‘I don’t feel insecure being unmarried, but I’d like to tie the knot for the children’s sake, especially. It has been tricky explaining our situation to them, as they believed that when you fall in love with someone you get married. Although they understand now that our living together and having a family together shows how much we love each other, a wedding would demonstrate our commitment to each other in a very tangible way.’
Helen adds that on a practical level they often encounter confusion over the family’s different surnames, and because they are unmarried have drawn up detailed wills because if one of them died assets would not automatically pass to the other.
‘A small family ceremony would be perfect — just to tie up all the annoying loose ends and show the children how much Paul and I love each other,’ she says.
So why, in a society where there are no longer stigmas attached to women being single or cohabiting, does marriage still hold such importance for them
Kate Taylor says, ‘I think most women will admit that they’d love to get married one day. As little girls we all dream of finding someone who will promise to love us forever — not someone to take out a joint mortgage with us.
‘There are those who dismiss marriage as just a piece of paper — but a wedding still offers the ultimate, tangible proof of a couple’s commitment to each other.’