Lane Hodes doesn't mince words. "The 'looking for a husband' concept baffles me."

Don't get her wrong. The 26-year-old University of Maryland law student likes men, and she'll probably get married one day. But Hodes, like many unmarried women these days, is enjoying not being in a serious relationship.

She didn't wait for a boyfriend to give her jewelry. When her birthday came around, she bought herself a diamond bracelet. And last year, Hodes vacationed in Las Vegas by herself, gambling in the casinos alone.

Hodes and others who are enjoying their singledom are benefiting from a cultural shift in attitude -- one that's sometimes obscured by speed dating, find-a-husband self-help books, relationship coaches and reality television shows like The Bachelorette.

Even the stars are seeing the beauty of going solo. Take the recent Golden Globe awards. Once Nicole Kidman split with hubby Tom Cruise, her career took off. Now, having moved on from rocker Lenny Kravitz, she appeared at the awards ceremony and parties afterward unescorted and radiant. Jennifer Lopez, no longer half of Bennifer, wowed the crowd without her former fiance Ben Affleck -- or any other man. And Diane Keaton, who won a best actress award for comedy or musical movie, is famously unattached.

"This is a time when single women in the United States have a dramatic license to do what they want," says Melissa Milkie, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, whose areas of research include family and gender.

They have a lot of company. According to the census, there are more than 44 million single women over 18, including the never married and those who are widowed or divorced -- a new high. True, President Bush would like to spend $1.5 billion for the promotion of "healthy marriages." But it's good to know there's also healthy singledom out there.

Men delaying marriage, too

To balance the bachelorettes of TV land, series like Friends have shown it can be cool to be single. Or as Sarah Jessica Parker's character, Carrie Bradshaw, says on the ultimate show about single women, Sex and the City: "Some people are settling down, some people are settling, and some people refuse to settle for anything less than butterflies."

The feminist movement and popular culture have helped make it increasingly OK to stay single longer. The degree of OK-ness, depends on what part of the American population you're looking at. The higher the education level, Milkie says, the more acceptable being unmarried becomes. And it's not just women who are delaying getting hitched. Men, too, are having to explain to their parents why they are still single later than any generation that's gone before. But nowadays many women have the same means and the attitude that men do to enjoy going it alone.

The difference, of course, is their ticking biological clocks. But even that isn't the factor it once was. Women who want children have many more options these days. Sandra Small never married but is the mother of a 26-year-old daughter.

"She's engaged and will probably be married before I will," says Small, who is in her early 40s and works for the city. "I enjoy dating, and I would like to find Mr. Right if he's out there, but I don't want to settle. If it's meant to happen, it will happen."

More women are focusing on their careers than ever before, and with that comes financial independence and even money to burn. "You don't have to wait for a man to have a diamond," says Carson Glover of the Diamond Information Center. "The popularity of the right-handed diamond ring lets a woman wear a diamond on her finger without a relationship."

Some home furnishing retailers like Pottery Barn have started offering gift registries that are separate from their wedding registries. Linens 'n Things has a housewarming registry. You could take these as a clever marketing tool by the stores or as a sign that single women are no longer willing to wait for marriage to furnish the homes they have bought for and by themselves.

The friends factor

Ask Lane Hodes what she likes about being single and she says, "I have more time to spend with my friends. I love going out with my friends. If I meet 'him,' I meet him."

A few years ago, baby boomer parents, who paired off early, were surprised at the way their high-schoolers socialized in groups, a trend that Gen-Yers have continued into their twenties. In Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family, and Commitment (Bloomsbury, 2003), journalist Ethan Watters argues that these supportive, tight-knit groups of friends make it easier to delay marriage and live happily outside an exclusive relationship.

Attitudes toward coupling itself have been changing. Matchmaker Julie Ferman, founder of, has found that those signing up on her Web site have different goals from those of a decade ago. The percentage of those wanting to get married or have an exclusive relationship has dropped while the percentage of those interested in casual dating or "friendship only" has risen.

"It's a much healthier state of mind," Ferman says. "They want to have choices, possibilities."

But if the choices aren't great, some singles would rather not participate in the dating game. Rena Kazmierski, a hair stylist who lives in Patterson Park, feels like she has it pretty good. "Recently my father told me I was one of the lucky ones because I'm not married and don't have kids."

The 35-year-old says she used to date a lot, but she found herself getting involved with men who had problems, such as drinking too much. "Recently, I committed to only going out [with] dates who have background checks -- friends of friends."

"There are times when I'd like to share an experience with someone," she says. "But if the alternative is to be with someone who might not be good for me, I'd rather be alone."

Steven Sacks, author of The Mate Map: The Right Tool for Choosing the Right Mate (Banner, 2002), attributes the increased complacency of singles to the fact that what he calls "the benchmark age" when people are expected to be married keeps going up.

Besides decreased pressure from parents and society in general to marry, there are other reasons the benchmark age has risen. Singles look around, see the 50 percent divorce rate, and realize that marriage doesn't automatically bring happiness. They want to be sure they find the right person before they tie the knot.

"In the 1990s, the benchmark goal was to get married by age 30," he says. "Today 30 is still the benchmark, only now we also have two contingency benchmarks. If not 30, then it better be by 35. If not 35, then definitely by 40."

Tina Hunter just laughs at that idea. The 47-year-old flight attendant loves her job and her single life. She has an apartment in Towson and is dating someone who lives in Virginia Beach. She sees him when her work takes her down that way. "Which is a beautiful thing," she says.

"I don't have to answer to anyone. I come home, have some wine, read my mail, go to the gym. It sounds really selfish, but I kind of do what I want to on my own time. Girl, I've dated some really nice men, but no one I want to spend the rest of my life with."

The armor's rusty

There's something very romantic about holding out for the right man, who may or may not come along, and being happy even if he doesn't. A new book, Quirkyalone (HarperCollins, 2004), calls itself "a manifesto for uncompromising romantics." Its author, Sasha Cagen, coined the word quirkyalone to describe people who are equally happy being single or being in a healthy relationship. She's fed up with the whole idea of treating herself like a product and packaging herself to attract a husband.

"The time you spend alone," she says, "can be very valuable to figure out who you are and what you want." Cagen is hoping to inspire singles to resist coupling for the sake of coupling.

"She's waiting for a man to fall out of the sky and hit her on the head," counters Rachel Greenwald, author of one of the many best sellers geared toward those single women who are desperate: Find a Husband After 35: Using What I Learned at Harvard Business School (Ballantine, 2003). "The problem with sending out signals that I'm completely happy with who I am [and the life I have] is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."

But some who are in their 30s have arranged their lives around a man for long enough. Amanda Wallace was married for nine years, and since her divorce she's been in no rush to get hitched again, although she's had one serious relationship since then. Her attitude about marriage is "been there, done that."

"What you learn is that your knight's shining armor is a little rusty," she says. "But yours is too."

She has no compunction about going to a bar by herself if she needs a change of scenery or eating alone in a restaurant. "I wouldn't have done that when I was younger," she says.

Wallace, 34, works long hours as a financial adviser. When she was married, she and her husband moved around a lot because of his job, which affected her career. She has the time now to spend with her sister, practice yoga or "do those special little things for myself."

"I would definitely get married again," she says, "but the stakes are so much higher. It's got to be right."

To marry or not to marry?

The psychological benefits of marriage have been documented, says sociologist Melissa Milkie. "Constant companionship seems to serve people well."

That doesn't mean people have to exchange rings, though. Studies have shown that friendship and other supportive relationships can have an equally positive effect. And a sick or demanding spouse can be detrimental to your mental and physical health. Scientific research on long-term relationships has also come up with these findings:

* Marriage in general is good for men's health.

* A wife's health is dependent on the health of the marriage.

* Conversely, one study showed that cohabiting in a long-term relationship was better for men than marriage; the opposite was true for women. Women do better emotionally if they marry rather than live with a partner.

* Women in healthy marriages gained less weight over time and had lower cholesterol than those in unhealthy marriages.

* Women who stay single all their lives have fairly good mental health, men don't.

* On average, both sexes are less lonely when they spend time with women, while spending time with men doesn't seem to reduce loneliness.

* In stressful times, both men and women tend to turn to women for emotional support.

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