02.26.1412:49 PM ET

How Picky, Career-Focused Singles Saved Marriage

In her new book "It’s Not You," Sara Eckel dissects why marrying later in life provides unexpected advantages.
It's Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You're Single' by Sara Eckel. 208 p. Perigree Trade. $15 ()

If you’re a single person who would rather not be, you’ve probably heard some explanations about why you’re unattached—from “you’re too desperate” to “you’re too picky.” One of the more nuanced rationales is the theory that if you truly wanted a spouse, you’d have one. In other words: “You don’t really want a relationship.”

This comment comes from two places—the nice place and the not-so-nice one.

When you hear it from the nice place, it’s usually a good friend or favorite aunt saying, I see that you’re an appealing person, capable of giving and receiving love. So if you’re alone it must, on some level, be a choice. It often has a go-sister vibe to it—you’re too cool to want a dumb old husband! Sometimes they’ll toss in a mild gripe about their own spouse—dirty socks on the floor, that sort of thing— and express wistfulness about how much fun it must be to have all that freedom, to go on dates, etc.

Your friend may or may not be correct in her analysis, but her intention is to say I think your life is pretty cool, so own it. If you really wanted someone, you’d just marry some guy. She will respect that you have a value system that favors love over lifestyle, and honesty over status.

However, you may have also heard a less generous view about why you, deep down, don’t want to be in a committed partnership: You can’t hack it.

Maybe you hear this directly, a remark by a snotty brother-in-law, who wonders aloud when you’re going to “grow up” and “settle down” (as if you were roaming from flophouse to flop house, earning cigarette money by playing cards). Or maybe you’ve just absorbed the cultural assumption that people stay single because they refuse to accept the rigors of marriage—that the only thing stopping you from joining the adults is your rigid insularity and inability to compromise. Why, you might have to negotiate differing toothpaste-tube-squeezing philosophies! What if he doesn’t understand that there is only One True Way to arrange the remotes on the coffee table?

In the past, older singles were dismissed as batty eccentrics— the persnickety maiden aunt, the feckless bachelor uncle. That’s harder to do now that singles are half of the population. Instead, single people have become part of a more ominous narrative— the “decline of marriage.”

The age of first marriage continues to rise—it’s now nearly twenty-seven for women and twenty-nine for men. That might not sound so geriatric to you, but increased marital age along with a drop in the number of married couples has a lot of folks worried about those nutty commitment-phobes who are unraveling society’s fabric. (The fact that many gay people are now heading to the altar apparently hasn’t assuaged fears in this particular camp.)

In op-eds and big think-tank reports, the Official Worriers point out that non-college-educated women are becoming single mothers at a very high rate—a reasonable concern. Though the proposed solution is not to provide better access to birth control or a college degree (making them far less likely to have kids out of wedlock), but to pressure them to marry young. And that pressure isn’t confined to high school dropouts—the “marry young” message extends to Ivy-League-educated women too.

Of course, they’re doing this for your own good—you’ll be happier! Oh, sure you won’t get to do shots with your girlfriends till three a.m., and you’ll have to give up that addiction to fifteen-hundred-dollar handbags. But trust us, it will be okay because once you marry, you will start to enjoy deeper pleasures. Once you say “I do,” you’ll go from boozy party girl to upstanding citizen—just like that!

The trouble with this fable is that older brides do extremely well—especially if they have a college education. They have a lower risk of divorce, make more money, and are also more likely to have their children after they’ve married the father.

Indeed, far from undermining marriage, I would argue that picky, career-focused singles are one of its greatest allies. Because a funny thing happened while Americans were exercising their right to wait for the right relationship—the divorce rate dropped. The oft-cited 50 percent statistic is true for people who married in the 1970s, but with each succeeding generation the chance of splitting up declines. Economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers examined the odds that married couples of various demographics would make it to their tenth anniversary. They found that college-educated women who married in the 1990s have a lower divorce rate (16 percent) than their cohorts who married in the 1980s (20 percent), who in turn had a lower rate than those marrying in the 1970s (23 percent). (The U.S. divorce rate has risen slightly since hitting a 40-year low in 2009, an uptick experts speculate is tied to the economic recovery, but the general trend since 1980 has been for more marriages to stay intact.)

With the caveat that correlations don’t necessarily prove causality, Stevenson said the reason could be that people now are more likely to date more intensely before marriage. “They are thereby giving their relationships more kicks in the tires before trying out marriage. This may be one reason that the divorce rate has fallen. Some of the weaker relationships don’t pass the test,” she said in an email.

If you are judging by quality rather than quantity, then it’s clear marriage isn’t in decline—it’s stronger than it has been in decades. And I contend that much of the credit should go to those of us who didn’t cave to the social pressure to just get married already.

But don’t expect to be thanked for all of that social-fabric mending. Singles continue to be society’s solipsistic teenagers, while those who marry—especially those who marry young— are soberly upholding the values of a bygone era.

The funny thing is, as the scolds puff up marriage as the morally superior choice, they tend to use flag-waving words like “duty,” “sacrifice,” and “institution.” The result is they make marriage sound less like a joyous union of two people and more like a deployment in Afghanistan.

I didn’t marry my husband out of a sense of duty—I married him because he’s awesome. I married him because he makes me laugh every day, because he has an intrinsic sense of compassion for the world’s least powerful, and because he treats me the way I treat him—with love, kindness, and respect. Also, he’s really cute. I’m not in an institution—I’m hanging out with my best friend.

That’s how most of the late-in-life brides I know describe their marriages. Sure, some say marriage is “work” and many have noted the complexities involved in merging two very well-established lives into one—stepchildren, exes, etc. But the problem they aren’t confronting is ambivalence—that colorless, odorless gas that corrodes so many relationships. This makes things much simpler when the invariable conflicts and compromises arise.

Indeed, economist Dana Rotz found that the older a couple’s age at first marriage, the more time they spend together and the less frequent and more civil their arguments. (However, she notes that this data hasn’t been parsed into specific age categories—we don’t yet know if merely graduating from high school before marrying gets you this benefit.)

Consider my friend Julia—who was informed that she expected too much from relationships after breaking up with her boyfriend at age 38. Within the year, Julia had started seeing Matt, whom she would later marry. Julia had to give up quite a lot to be with Matt. She had to let go of her Brooklyn Heights apartment and move to a house in the Denver suburbs with Matt and his teenage son. She had to move hundreds of miles away from all her friends and family, to a city where she knew no one. In the span of a few months, she went from being a single woman who had her weekends free to write her novel to being a stepmother waking up at six a.m. to drive to hockey matches.

These things matter to Julia, but she doesn’t feel sanctimonious about what’s she’s sacrificed because being with Matt is worth it—because she loves him. That’s what happens when you hold out for the right thing. You don’t feel superior—you just feel damn lucky.

Here’s a thought: Maybe you’ve remained single well into adulthood because...you know what you’re doing. Because there is something right with you. The culture may portray older singles as losers and narcissists, but the truth is the person who ends the mediocre relationship before marriage—or who never starts it in the first place—is a true pillar of the institution.

You didn’t marry that very sweet guy who was constitutionally incapable of paying his electric bill. You also passed on the extremely well-respected attorney who somehow made you feel like shit. Perhaps what others call stubbornness or arrogance is actually good sense and intuition—and the maturity to know there are some things you cannot force.

Reprinted from It’s Not You by Sara Eckel by arrangement with Perigee, a member of Penguin Group USA, a Penguin Random House company, Copyright © 2014 by Sara Eckel.

Sara Eckel is the author of It’s Not You. She has written for The New York Times, the BBC, Salon and many other outlets.You can find her on Twitter and Facebook.