Fewer Americans are finding fulfillment in romantic partners

Bella DePaulo

Photo by Cam Ferland on Unsplash

In 2021, the Pew Research Center asked a representative sample of adults in the U.S. this question:

“What about your life do you currently find meaningful, fulfilling or satisfying? What keeps you going and why?”

Participants answered online, in their own words. In 2017, another nationally representative sample had been asked the same question. Between 2017 and 2021, the percentage of Americans finding fulfillment in romantic partners decreased markedly. At the same time, the percentage who found fulfillment in freedom and independence increased.

Also in 2021, a similar question, “What aspects of your life do you currently find meaningful, fulfilling or satisfying?”, was posed by phone to representative samples of the adult populations of 16 other places: Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.

Participants’ answers were coded into 16 categories. Below are the percentages of people who mentioned each category as a source of meaning or fulfillment in 2021, for the US and averaged across all 17 places.

1. Family and children: 49% US, 38% all 17 places

2. Friends and community: 20% US, 18% all 17 places

3. Material well-being: 18% US, 19% all 17 places:

4. Occupation and career: 17% US, 25% all 17 places

5. Spirituality, faith, and religion: 15% US, 2% all 17 places

6. Society and institutions: 14% US, 14% all 17 places:

7. Physical and mental health: 11% US, 17% all 17 places

8. Hobbies and recreation: 10% US, 10% all 17 places

9. Freedom and independence: 9% US, 12% all 17 places:

10. Romantic partner, romantic love: 9% US, 4% all 17 places

11. Service or civic engagement: 7% US, 3% all 17 places

12. Education and learning: 5% US, 5% all 17 places

13. Nature and the outdoors: 4% US, 5% all 17 places

14. Travel and new experiences: 3% US, 3% all 17 places

15. Retirement: 3% US, 2% all 17 places

16. Pets: 3% US, 1% all 17 places

In the US in 2021, only 9% found fulfillment in a spouse, romantic partner, marriage, dating, or romantic love

In 2017, 20% of adults in the U.S. mentioned a spouse, romantic partner, marriage, dating, or romantic love as a source of meaning, fulfillment, or satisfaction. By 2021, only 9% did so. Of the 16 sources of meaning and fulfillment that participants mentioned, none showed a sharper drop over time. (The decrease was the same for the category of material well-being.)

Regardless of whether the U.S. participants were married, living with a romantic partner, divorced, or had always been single, the percentage who found meaning or fulfillment in a romantic partner or romantic love decreased from 2017 to 2021. But the decline was most striking for the married people:

· From 31% in 2017 to 13% in 2021: Married people

· From 21% in 2017 to 16% in 2021: People living with a romantic partner

· From 9% in 2017 to 3% in 2021: People who had always been single

· From 8% in 2017 to 1% in 2021: Divorced people

Overall, in the US, romantic themes did not even rank in the top half of the sources of meaning and fulfillment. Nine of the 16 categories were mentioned more often, and one of them, freedom and independence, was mentioned just as often.

The 9% who found fulfillment in romantic partners in the U.S., though, was the highest percentage of all the places studied, and more than twice the percentage for all 17 places combined, which was just 4%. In France, Greece, and Spain, only 3% mentioned a spouse, romantic partner, marriage, dating, or romantic love as a source of meaning, fulfillment, or satisfaction. In Japan and Singapore, only 2% did. And in South Korea and Taiwan, a mere 1% mentioned any sort of romantic theme.

A previous Pew survey of a representative national sample of American adults revealed something remarkable: half of all solo single people were not interested in a romantic relationship or even a date. The new findings show that for Americans of all relationship statuses, fewer are finding meaning, fulfillment, or satisfaction in romantic partners or romantic love.

More than twice as many Americans found meaning in friends than in romantic partners

Twenty percent of Americans found meaning and fulfillment in friends and community, a category that included mentions of close friends and loved ones, non-family and non-romantic relationships, social lives, and spending time with others in their network. That’s more than twice as many as found meaning in romantic relationships (9%).

Australians were most likely to find meaning and satisfaction in friends and community (28%), followed by adults in the Netherlands and New Zealand (25% each) and Sweden and the UK (24% each).

Most often mentioned as a source of meaning and fulfillment in the US, and on the average across all 17 places, was family and children. That category included any mentions of immediate or extended family, children or grandchildren, or any other family-related topic. In three places, family and children were not the number one source of meaning or fulfillment: Spain, South Korea, and Taiwan.

The Pew Report did not describe any changes over time in finding fulfillment in friends or family. However, a previous study of the rise of individualistic values in many countries around the globe did report relevant data. In 74 percent of the nations, individualistic values had increased over a 51-year period starting in 1960. Those values included valuing friends more than family. The results do not necessarily mean that people around the globe began valuing friends more than family in an absolute sense, only that the valuing of friends was increasing relative to the valuing of family.

The valuing of friends is something single people are good at, particularly if they are Single at Heart. Research shows that single people invest more in their friends than coupled people do, and they enjoy payoffs in self-esteem following that investment. People who choose to be single value their friends even more than single people who do not want to be single.

Over time, more Americans found meaning and fulfillment in freedom and independence

In 2017, 5 percent of Americans said they found meaning and fulfillment in freedom and independence. By 2021, nearly twice as many did, 9 percent. The category of freedom and independence included mentions of personal freedoms, such as being able to live the way you want and having free time, as well as political freedoms such as freedom of speech and religion.

Only one other category showed a bigger increase over time, the very broad category of “society, places, and institutions.” The percentage of people finding meaning in that category increased from 8 percent to 14 percent.

Analyses of data from more than 200,000 people from 31 European nations showed that people who are not married value freedom more than people who are married. People who value freedom more, regardless of their marital status, are happier. But the link between valuing freedom (and other individualistic values) and being happier was stronger for people who were not married than for people who were. The single, divorced, and widowed people got more happiness out of their individualistic values than married people did.

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Expert on the profound rewards of single life. Author of “Singled Out.” Popular TEDx speaker. Harvard PhD.

Summerland, CA

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