The Neglected Problem of Unattachment

People are without partners in growing numbers. The obvious fix? Government matchmaking.


America is plagued by a serious problem that has gone largely unnoticed. But the problem is quite pervasive—so pervasive in fact that it does not respect the lines of poverty or ethnic origin that have demarcated other social problems. Not long ago Herbert Stein touched on the problem in the Wall Street Journal when he called on Congress to pass a Full Marriage Act outlining the responsibility of the government to promote the right of all Americans to meaningful marriages and to adopt policies to reduce to an acceptable low level the number of involuntarily unmarried individuals. No doubt his motives in calling for such an act were noble, but his proposal was marred: the goal of full marriage is hopelessly out of date, and the wider problem—too high a rate of unattachment—is left untouched. In this age of live-in relationships, lower taxes for working couples "living in sin," and voluntary childlessness, who can doubt that marriage cannot be presumed to be the goal of those not enjoying the bliss of holy matrimony? What may be presumed is that those who are unattached are probably seeking, or at least desiring, some sort of attachment, even if only a fleeting one. And while attachments may in general involve less serious commitments than marriages, being unattached is clearly a more pressing matter than merely being unmarried and is surely one of the great social problems of our time. (We might include in the overall problem the problem of underattachment, which is the state of being in a relationship below one's potential.) Indicative of the scope and importance of the problem are the time, energy, and resources devoted to the search for and maintenance of attachments. Think of the billions spent on toiletries, jewelry, and the latest fashions in apparel, and you get some idea of the value people place on being gainfully attached. And of course, those expenditures are only the tip of an iceberg. Are not the revenues of the entertainment, restaurant, transportation, and communications industries substantially dependent on the activitites of those searching for (or dreaming of) suitable mates? Some perspective is provided by noting the comparatively small revenues of employment agencies offering to help place the un- or underemployed. But still, the problem of unattachment remains ignored in serious magazines and journals and on the editorial pages of America's newspapers. Not even politicians have chosen to champion the cause of the unattached. Perhaps it is the shame associated with being unattached and the resulting unwillingness of its victims to admit to being so that has caused the problem to be overlooked for so long. Similar shame delayed the recognition of poverty, alcoholism, child abuse, and illiteracy as serious national problems. Herbert Stein has performed a valuable service in exposing part of the unattachment problem—involuntary unmarriage. But what is needed is an analysis of the wider problem and concrete policies for its alleviation. Three categories of unattachment can be identified. They are frictional, structural, and cyclical unattachment. (Economists may recognize the parallels with the classifications of unemployment.)

The term frictional unattachment captures the ever-presence of those who are "between mates." Those who have severed, or were severed from, relationships that were too confining, hassled, or unfulfilling and are engaged in "search" activities (often disguised) aimed at finding a new mate may generally be classified as frictionally unattached. This follows if we can presume that there are potential mates for these persons and that the only thing preventing the appropriate matches is the lack of information. Potential mates during this search activity are simply unaware of each other.

There are a number of policies that could be adopted to alleviate the problem of frictional unattachment. What is needed are programs designed to reduce the high information costs associated with mate search.

Each state could establish a Bureau of Attachment Security (BAS) responsible for introducing potential mates, much as a state Bureau of Employment Security is charged with attempting the match of unemployeds to job openings. Unattached persons would register with the local office of the BAS, which would introduce those with compatible personality and interest profiles. The information collected at the local level could also be fed into statewide or even nationwide computerized data banks, which might find potential matches among those otherwise thought unattachable. Another possibility would be to invite those with matchmaking talents to offer their services in an organized way under the auspices of VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America).

Some concerned with this problem might prefer a greater reliance on market mechanisms. Tax breaks or even nonprofit foundation status could be given to "dating bars" and computer or other types of dating services. Tax reductions or subsidies to papers and magazines offering reduced-rate "personal" ads is another option.

Structural unattachment exists when there aren't enough potential matches to match everyone who is unattached. There may be excess supplies of or demands for individuals of certain types. For example, there may be an excess demand for M.D.s or other professionals and an excess supply of those in low-status vocations. And of course, individuals with certain physical characteristics are in excess demand or supply. Among personalities, there is excess demand for the charming and personable and excess supply of the obnoxious and cantankerous. There may also be an excess supply of shy introverts, though since shyness inhibits search activities, some unattachment from this source must be labeled "frictional."

There can also be regional imbalances. For example, there would likely be an excess supply of young unattached men in areas where there are military training camps. Single-sex schools can similarly create imbalances.

Due to the nature of our dynamic and constantly changing culture, there is always some flux in the demands and supplies of certain types. For example, the recent rise in the social acceptability of Travolta-Tomlin-style matches has probably changed the composition of demands for mates. We should now expect to see more unattached, physically declining but knowledgeable older men and fewer unattached older women and younger men.

Little can be done to rectify supply-demand imbalances if changes are rapid. But many imbalances linger on for long periods and may be amenable to corrective government action. Various programs could be implemented to "retrain" those having characteristics that are in excess supply.

To minimize the unattachment caused by our culture's obsession with physical beauty, free weight-reduction and -augmentation clinics could be established. Also, we should make it a matter of right to have access to the best cosmetic medical practices. After all, should only the affluent be entitled to lifts for faces, bosoms, and buttocks or to hair transplants, straightened teeth, and contact lenses?

Personality retraining is just as important as the physical; many simply lack the manner and conversational skills to land mates. Perhaps training in the social graces should be incorporated into the required school curriculums (and, for slow learners, remedial "charm" instruction). It seems cruel and illogical for the nation's schools to provide instruction in the mechanics of sex with no instruction in the preliminaries.

Cyclical unattachment refers to periodic rises in unattachment resulting from general increases in people's "reservation," or holdout requirements for prospective mates. If people acquire inflated expectations about the qualities on which they can insist, then there will be a cyclical increase in unattachment. For example, if there were suddenly a society-wide insistence by males that their mates resemble Farrah Fawcett-Majors, or by females that their mates resemble Robert Redford, then cyclical unattachment would increase. Most existing matches would break up and few new ones would be formed.

Though some have doubted the existence of cyclical unattachment, social scientists have established some links between cultural happenings and people's reservation requirements or changes in their minimally acceptable standards. Studies have shown that watching programs such as Charlie's Angels raises males' standards of what are acceptably attractive and therefore datable females. (See "The Farrah Factor," Human Behavior, Feb. 1979.) If so, we may actually be in a relational recession now. Unfortunately, there are no data available to confirm such a speculation.

What can be done to alleviate the possibility of periodic inflation of people's expectations? Perhaps the government should take a greater role in influencing our cultural environment. Certainly we can all agree that the powerful media of television and cinema give us distorted views of the world. Movies and shows that glorify beautiful and successful people do raise our standards of how others can be expected to look and behave. Showings that focus on unrealistic possibilities ought to be discouraged and those that focus on harsh realities encouraged. Many have advocated that the media be restrained from immoral displays of sexuality and violence, but when we consider the media's potential effect on unattachment, it is clear that that is not enough. The government should assume responsibility for seeing that we are presented with realistic role models and that ordinary people are portrayed as desirable friends and lovers. If the media were allowed a free hand, they might succeed in permanently inflating our expectations. The resulting rise in unattachment would no longer be temporary but would be structural and lasting. Surely such a prospect must be viewed with alarm.

I have tried to expose here something of this too long neglected social problem and to suggest a few cures. Of course, the analysis is still far from complete, and much more needs to be done. President Carter could demonstrate his leadership as well as his recognition of, and sensitivity to, the problem of unattachment by appointing a commission to study the matter further and to recommend a positive course of action.

Charles Maling is a doctoral candidate in economics at Tufts University. His "Austrian Business Cycle Theory and Its Implications" appeared in Reason Papers No. 2.