Chalk it up to the difference between romantic comedies and real life: A new survey of American singles finds that men want babies and commitment, while women are more likely to want independence in their relationships.
The survey, commissioned by dating website Match.com and underwritten in part by Binghamton University in New York, queried a nationally representative sample of Americans ages 21 to 65 and up. The results reveal the effects of massive social changes on gender relations, said Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University and a chief scientific adviser at Match.com.
"We've seen since the beginning of the industrial revolution that men and women have growing economic equality," Fisher told LiveScience. "But now we're starting to see much more of how men are interested in attachment and commitment and how interested women are in preserving some of their independence."
The Internet-based survey was completed by 5,200 adults drawn from across the nation (not Match.com's databases). The survey included more than 100 questions about people's relationships and preferences. Singles were picked based upon U.S. Census data, so proportions of rural and urban, young and old, gay and straight were equal to those in the larger population.
The findings busted a number of gender stereotypes, Fisher said. Among single people who don't currently have a child under 18, 24 percent of men say they want kids, compared with 15 percent of women. Men were also more likely to report falling hard and fast: 54 percent said they'd experienced love at first sight. Only 41 percent of women said the same.
Significant chunks of singles hold with relatively modern ideas about gender roles. When asked whether women should be the primary caregiver for children, 49 percent of women said no, as did 38 percent of men.
"Women are much more eager to have their own personal space, they're more eager to have their own bank account, they're more eager to have nights out with girls than men are with boys' nights out, and they're more eager to go on vacation without their partner than men are," Fisher said.
The new singlehood
The survey also found that being single isn't what it used to be. Among single people between the ages of 21 and 34, 62 percent of both men and women want to get married, while 9 percent don't want to marry and 29 percent aren't sure. The findings echo earlier national surveys that reveal ambivalence toward marriage.
That's a huge change from the 1950s and 1960s, said Stephanie Coontz, a social historian at The Evergreen State College in Washington and author of "A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s" (Basic Books, January 2011).
"This was a period in which the average woman married by 20, and if she wasn't married by 24, she was unlikely to be married," Coontz, who was involved in the survey analysis, told LiveScience. "People who remained single after 25 were considered deviant, neurotic or sexually maladjusted."
Today, Coontz said, the stigma of singlehood is lessened and marriage and re-marriage is much easier for older people. As a result, she said, people still want to get married, but don't feel as much urgency about it.
"When Betty Friedan wrote her book in 1963 [The Feminine Mystique, a touchstone of the feminist movement], she predicted that marriages would be better, and male-female relationships, even if they didn’t marry, would be better when women had more access to work life and men were more able to share in family life," Coontz said. "I do think you're seeing that in the poll."
The sexual double standard, in which women who had premarital sex weren't considered relationship material, has also eroded, Coontz said. The survey found that 77 percent of single people approve of premarital sex. About 40 percent approve of both casual hook-ups and friends with benefits, while 29 percent are fine with one-night stands. Just over half (54 percent) of singles had had a one-night stand, and 35 percent said they'd had a one-night stand that led to a relationship.
One-night stands aren't the only relationships that can blossom into something more. Among both men and women, 35 percent said they'd fallen in love with someone they weren't initially attracted to.
What people are looking for in love has also shifted, Fisher said. Prejudice is waning, with only 20 percent of men and 29 percent of women saying that finding someone of their own ethnic background was a must or very important. Similarly, only 17 percent of men and 28 percent of women think finding someone of their own religious background is important. (In comparison, 69 percent of single people said fidelity is a must in a relationship.)
The survey organizers are now working to redo the study to capture longitudinal data about singles' attitudes over time, Fisher said.
"We are redefining love relationships," Fisher said, adding, "It's going to be very interesting to watch the trends change."
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You can followSenior Writer Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas.