Single in Suburbia
The challenges of making a romantic connection in the family-oriented western suburbs
Dressed nicely and sipping a beer at the roaring Brauer House in Lombard on a Saturday night, Ally Pierson mingles with others from the Fox Valley Singles Group. Valentine’s Day is not far off, and Cupid’s arrow once struck her but didn’t stick.
Pierson married at 24, but her marriage ended a few years ago after 17 years. “I never expected to be single. I’m Italian — I thought I’d be married for life,” she reflects.
She dates — but not men from Fox Valley Singles. “These are my friends,” says Pierson, a social worker who lives in Romeoville. “I’m in a good spot. If it (marriage) happens, it happens.”
In her 50s, Bertha L. of Darien is brand new to Fox Valley Singles. Her 9-year marriage, her second, ended just a week ago. She almost didn’t come, but her sister convinced her. “She kept texting me, ‘You have to go. Don’t sit at home and cry all night.’”
She is not ready to date. But being alone for the rest of her life is not part of the plan. “I like to think there is someone special out there for me,” says Bertha, who has three children.
Being alone is also something that Rick, a plumber from Aurora, obviously does not enjoy. His wife, Carol, died last month. “I’m just looking to get out of the house and meet some new people,” he says softly.
Rick says he’s not ready to date. But he’s drawn to Fox Valley Singles, part of meetup.com. He actually met his late wife at a meetup.com event.
Fox Valley Singles epitomizes the new landscape of dating, courtship and just plain socializing in the digital age. It’s easy to find fellow singles in 2018 thanks to digital innovations such as meetup.com, an assortment of hundreds of social groups, many dedicated to a narrow interest such as photography, architecture or dancing. We may be a society that trumpets individualism, but we seek to be with others — especially on a cold, drab weekend night and often ultimately exchanging vows before a minister.
Looking for love is not as challenging as it once was, even in the family-oriented suburbs. But the age-old dramas of heartache and fulfillment, romance and revulsion, and Prince Charmings and not-who-he-said-he-was still play out.
In the past, perhaps you needed a pickup line if you were single. Now you just need to pick up Wi-Fi.
Meetup.com alone has scores of social groups. Some are specifically dedicated to singles. Others offer the disclaimer that they are a support group or strictly a social group, not a place to prowl.
Isolated among families in Naperville? Try Naperville Singles 30s-50s or Suburban Singles Solution. Further north, the Barrington Singles Group enjoys wine tastings, paint ball and ziplining. The list goes on: La Grange Christian Social Network; West Suburban Divorce Support Group; Glen Ellyn Movies, Dinner and More; and even Chicago-area Herpes Singles Club.
Joel McNabb started Fox Valley Singles in 2011 after he lost his job in California and moved back to the Chicago suburbs, near his mother. “I didn’t know anyone,” says McNabb, 46, a safety manager for a major retailer. “Once you move away from your college friends, it’s hard to meet people.”
He meets everyone who joins, so he understands that all kinds of personalities sign up. “We get a mix of people — introverts and extroverts. We’ll introduce new people, if they wish,” he says.
His group has generated 12 marriages so far. Many members, like him, are divorced, and some are leery of dating again. But finding a partner remains the No. 1 goal. “They won’t necessarily tell you about it, but that’s the primary motivation of most members,” he says.
McNabb can point to one person who can wholeheartedly vouch for the efficacy of his meet-up group — himself. He met Gilly through his group, and the two bought a home together.
More Singles, Fewer Marrieds
Jim Z. of Glen Ellyn wants to make one thing perfectly clear about I’m Not Dead Yet, 50+, his social group. Most of its 300 to 400 members are single. They bowl, listen to music at nightclubs, take swing dance lessons, and do whatever else people do in the suburbs. People occasionally pair up and marry. But it’s not a singles group. “We don’t want that kind of environment. That just changes the whole atmosphere,” explains Jim, 70, a widower. “It’s a social group for people looking for something to do, somewhere to go.”
Many members are not single by choice — they are widowed or went through a bitter divorce. But some have embraced singlehood. Jim Z. himself is content with not being married. But you never know. “I don’t rule it out,” he says.
If 60 is the new 50, as people take better care of their health, being single is the new normal, as society becomes more accepting of diverse lifestyles. Unfathomable today, a few generations ago not being married was a sign of deviance. In 1957, 80 percent of Americans who were surveyed branded unmarried adults as “neurotic,” “immoral” or “just plain sick.”
The worse fate imaginable for a woman was to be without a mate. In It’s A Wonderful Life poor Mary, doomed because George was never born, was shown to be a lonely, mousy “spinster at the library.” A more modern cinematic take on the desperation of the unmarried was in 1993 in Sleepless in Seattle. “It’s easier to be killed by a terrorist than it is to find a husband over the age of 40,” a co-worker tells Annie (Meg Ryan).
The world was binary then — the married and unmarried. An unbreachable divide separated the two worlds. One was fulfilling and normal and the other was bitter and dark.
Finding a partner, especially in the family-centric suburbs was a Herculean task, even more recently. “It’s a real challenge. Where are all the men?” a Naperville divorcee in her 40s lamented to West Suburban Living in 2002. “When I go out, I meet the same people over and over,” complained a 38-year-old woman from Geneva.
The numbers bore out the plight of the singles in suburbia then. In 2000, 68 percent of adults in Naperville were married, 65 percent in Barrington, 62 percent in Elmhurst, 70 percent in Hinsdale and 61 percent in Wheaton. Clearly, June and Ward Cleaver still ruled the roost, not Ally McBeal.
Change came. In 2014, it was national news when for the first time there were more single adults in the United States than married adults. (The U.S. Census Bureau, apparently still in the thrall of the agrarian past, has consistently defined “adult” as 16 and over.)
Being single is commonplace today. In DuPage County, 56 percent of adults are married, 30 percent never married and 13 percent are divorced or widowed, according to the Bureau’s 2017 American Community Survey. Kane’s and Will’s figures are similar: 55, 31 and 14 for Kane and 56, 31 and 14 for Will. Despite its enclaves of young adults, Cook County’s marriage rates are not that much different from the suburbs: 44 percent married, 41 percent never married and 15 percent divorced or widowed.
“There is less of a stigma to being single now, if there is any stigma at all,” says Rev. Ken Potts of SamaraCare in Downers Grove/Naperville, who has counseled married people and others for 42 years. “Everyone knows someone not married. So that now seems to be normal. Whatever we’re familiar with tends to be seen as normal.”
The trend is likely to hold. The arrow — Cupid’s arrow, in this case — is definitely pointing down for the next generation. Roughly defined as those between the ages of 18 and 36, millennials are as adverse to marriage as they are to buying homes and settling down in one job. Only 30 percent have ever been married, down from 60 percent of the same age group in 1980.
One theory holds that the fascination or fixation with the digital world is an impediment to building relationships. So will pre-teens and teenagers eventually even more sharply advance the trend of non-marriage? Potts casts doubt on that. “The kids who are sitting at home alone in their rooms with their face in a screen probably would have been the ones home alone in their room 50 years ago.”
It’s OK today to be single. But getting married remains a holy grail, even for seniors.
One of the oldest and most popular singles group in the western suburbs is the St. Charles Singles Club. When it began in 1967, four couples quickly got hitched. That success is part of the group’s lore — and serves as a quick recruiting tool for curious singles. Currently, more than 300 people from 60 villages and towns, most in their 60s and 70s and quite a few widowed, regularly attend events.
Dues are only $20 annually, and an event is held nearly every day. There are breakfast get-togethers, dinners, card nights at Pottawatomie Park, and outings to music and theater events. But the club’s ace-in-the-hole is its dances. Getting people acquainted is not left to chance because, as anyone who has ever been to a dance in junior high — or any dance anywhere — knows, “the hardest thing to is to ask someone to dance,” says club President Elaine Pihera. “It’s even harder when you are older.” According to Pihera, 76, a widow for a decade, the club holds two mixer dances in which each participant will meet six people. It’s a hoofer’s version of speed dating. For the 130 people who showed up at a recent dance at Villa Olivia in Bartlett, there were as many as 780 encounters between men and women.
All that mixing does lead to the altar. The group celebrated a half dozen marriages last year, in addition to a fair number of folks who decided to live together. Those who get married can remain as members. They sport a different colored name tag henceforth to announce their marital status.
Pray, Eat, Meet
Back in the day, meeting girls and guys was easy. “It was not hard at all. I went to the sock hops at Downers Grove North. Or the roller rink in Elmhurst,” says Pihera, who grew up in Westmont.
Communities had groups that facilitated making connections: “bridge groups, church groups, gardening clubs,” says Jim Z. “Some of that is over.”
But some remain. On the second Friday of the month, more than 100 singles 35 and older gather at Wheaton Bible Church in West Chicago. There is a Christian-based talk but also food and socializing as well as periodic social outings. The Single Purpose ministry at the church provides a low-key opportunity for mixing with the opposite sex. “Singles groups thrive because people are drawn to others. They feel that there may be someone out there who likes them and maybe who even will love them,” says Bill Brown, pastor of the ministry.
Many of the singles at the church are divorced, and the ministry serves as a lifeline for them. “Divorce decimated their social lives,” says Brown. “They went out as a couple and now it’s just them.”
Brown can draw on his own longtime single status in relating to participants. “Bill, you’ll be a bachelor until the rapture,” he says other used to kid him. “I was beginning to doubt myself. Am I bad looking or something?” he recalls.
He finally got married 13 years ago when he was 41. He met Jennifer thanks to his best friend, who worked with his wife’s best friend. They chatted for hours at Caribou Coffee on their first date, shared
a pizza at Gino’s East on their second date and then saw The Incredibles — “Our movie,” says Brown proudly. The moral of his story? “You probably don’t want to listen to them but trust what your family and friends have to say (about dating someone they know),” he says.
The Wheaton Bible Church also sponsors The Table, a singles group for younger adults.
Internet Dating — or Internot
The prevailing wisdom is that online dating is a game changer. “The biggest revolution in dating is online dating. Lots of people use it,” says Potts.
Surveys do show a rising use of online romance, once fodder for late-night comics. Only one in 12 U.S. adult singles had tried online matchmaking, according to a poll taken in 1999. Yet in 2016, 22 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds, 21 percent of 35- to 44-year-olds, 13 percent of 45- to 54-year-olds and 12 percent of 55- to 64-year-olds had used online dating. The share of 18- to 24-year-olds who used online dating nearly tripled from 10 percent to 27 percent from 2013 to 2015.
Use does not equate to success or even satisfaction, however. Just five percent of Americans who are married or in a committed relationship say they met their significant other online.
Some online dating services clearly are better than others. In 2016, Consumer Reports surveyed users and found that free dating sites scored better than paid ones, presumably at least partly because of value (free!). Potts likes what he knows of eharmony, which matches people based on personality traits. Eharmony is “probably the gold standard. It gets the psychometrics right,” he says.
Tales from the front lines of online romance often paint a different picture. “I don’t want to talk about it,” says Pierson of Fox River Singles when asked about her online dating. “I know of only one person who got married through online dating,” says McNabb of Fox River Singles. “It’s the pitfalls of online dating — you get the online personality and then the real person.” Says Brown, “There’s the factor of constant evaluation. There’s the shaming aspect. You’re getting only so many looks or views.”
It’s easy to get scammed. Pihera tried online dating several years ago. “I was getting desperate. The men interested in me were 15 to 20 years older,” she says. The first man she met online supposedly “booked a flight and hotel. He didn’t show up. He ended up asking me for money.”
But for every tale of woe there may be its opposite. It actually worked that way for Pihera. The second man she met online was Rene through match.com. She then met him in person at Panera. Today, they are longtime partners.
The night is still young at Brauer House. Taking the stage soon will be an 80s hair band. “Not my cup of tea,” says Bertha L., who also admits she “feels awkward” about being here. But her ex is already dating, and she knows she won’t find someone unless she is out looking.
Pierson, for her part, likes 80s hair bands and realizes life does not imitate art, or at least, the movies. “It’s not like people meet in the grocery aisle,” she muses. Of course, perhaps people once fixed themselves up before heading to Jewel and scanned more than produce. Pierson speculates on the reliance on digital technology: “Maybe that’s why people don’t meet at the grocery store any longer,” she says, with a sly smile.Edit Module