Motivations and reactions to social undervaluation of single people in married society: an Indonesian perspective

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  • 1 The University of Queensland, , Australia and Universitas Pelita Harapan, , Indonesia
  • | 2 The University of Queensland, , Australia
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Being single and of marriageable age in a society where marriage is the norm invites perceptions of social undervaluation and vulnerability to social pressure to conform. The current study examines the reasons for more Indonesian adults remaining single, the perceived societal stigma related to this, and how they react to such undervaluing societal perceptions. Never-married Indonesian adults (N=350; Mage=29.79 ± 4.50) participated in this study, where their responses were analysed by thematic coding. The majority of participants stated that they were involuntarily single. The findings indicated four contexts within which they remained single: situational shortcomings, compliance with socially constructed marriage ideals, various perceptions of marriage, and unreadiness to marry. Participants mainly reacted to pressures with polite disregard, which reflected their cultural practice of avoiding conflict. This study provides an introduction to understanding the complexities and challenges for single people in Indonesia, which is still understudied.

Abstract

Being single and of marriageable age in a society where marriage is the norm invites perceptions of social undervaluation and vulnerability to social pressure to conform. The current study examines the reasons for more Indonesian adults remaining single, the perceived societal stigma related to this, and how they react to such undervaluing societal perceptions. Never-married Indonesian adults (N=350; Mage=29.79 ± 4.50) participated in this study, where their responses were analysed by thematic coding. The majority of participants stated that they were involuntarily single. The findings indicated four contexts within which they remained single: situational shortcomings, compliance with socially constructed marriage ideals, various perceptions of marriage, and unreadiness to marry. Participants mainly reacted to pressures with polite disregard, which reflected their cultural practice of avoiding conflict. This study provides an introduction to understanding the complexities and challenges for single people in Indonesia, which is still understudied.

Introduction

Marriage is a normative practice in Indonesian society, yet people are increasingly remaining single. Why are they remaining single, and how do people in a marriage-oriented society react to singles? These questions are relevant in an Indonesian context, despite the proportion of never-married individuals increasing worldwide.

Contemporary academic literature has highlighted emerging changes in family structure: more people live alone, more non-marital shared arrangements are forming, and extension of the period in which adult children remain in parental homes (Jamieson and Simpson, 2013; Raymo et al, 2015; Jones, 2018). While the Asian literature indicates increasing numbers of singles (Maeda, 2008; Song, 2010; Jones et al, 2012), the singleness experience tends to differ across cultures (see Himawan et al, 2018a). The current article sets out to particularly focus on the singleness experience in Indonesia.

New patterns of relationships and family formation have distinct dimensions of marital status and living arrangements (Raymo et al, 2015). However, in patriarchal societies like Indonesia, remaining never-married at a marriageable age, or living together as non-married couples, is considered undesirable. There are strong cultural and religious prescriptions governing marriage and sexual behaviour (Hull, 2016). Marriage is seen as a contract and religious obligation, and the only avenue for fulfilling sexual desires (Asyari and Abid, 2016; Himawan, 2020c).

Although Indonesian society persistently considers marriage as a cultural and social obligation (Hull, 2016), the proportion of ‘always-singles’ is constantly increasing. The proportion of never-married women is commonly regarded as a parameter in explaining singleness in the population (Raymo et al, 2015; Jones, 2018). Positioning women as the indicator of rising singleness is understandable as women’s values are often bounded in marriage and family according to the traditional gender norms; their being non-married is seen as social failure (Situmorang, 2007). The latest Indonesian census of 2010 revealed a threefold increase of never-married women in their late thirties compared with 1970 (Jones, 2018). Indonesia thus shares a similar pattern of rising singleness with many Asian societies – Japan (Raymo, 2015), South Korea (Song, 2010) and Singapore (Jones et al, 2012) – with a constant increase of never-married women in the last four decades (Himawan et al, 2019).

Although most singleness literature tends to focus on never-married women’s experiences (Situmorang, 2007; Maeda, 2008; Vignato, 2012; Lahad, 2013; Simpson, 2015), singleness in Indonesia is not exclusive to women. The 2010 census noted 25.24 per cent of never-married men aged 30–34, whereas in the previous 2000 census it was 24.22 per cent (Badan Pusat Statistik, 2000; 2010a). More than 2.7 million individuals aged 30–39 were never-married in 2010 (Badan Pusat Statistik, 2010b) – the highest proportion compared to previous censuses. Despite the data suggesting increasing numbers of never-married men, it seems that singleness is also a meaningful experience for Asian men (Shuzhuo et al, 2010; Himawan et al, 2021). However, while the societal pressures associated with being single are experienced by single men and single women, the pressures appear to be more intense for single women (Himawan, 2019, 2020c).

Existing literature about singleness in Indonesia is limited. Family studies in Indonesia mostly focus on marriage rather than singleness. For instance, in January 2021, searching in Google Scholar for manuscripts published since 2016 with key words ‘menikah [marriage]’ AND ‘Indonesia’ attracted about 33,400 results, while searching for ‘lajang [singleness]’ AND ‘Indonesia’ only attracted about 3,450. Most publications about singleness in Indonesia were undergraduate theses with limited scope and peer-review evaluation. Furthermore, the remaining published articles about singleness in Indonesia tend to utilise small sample sizes, thereby presuming singleness as lacking identity, as being a stigmatising and lonely experience (Septiana and Syafiq, 2013; Sari and Listiyandini, 2015; Oktawirawan, 2020), and to focus exclusively on single women (Tan, 2002; Situmorang, 2007; Laboure et al, 2010; Septiana and Syafiq, 2013). In other words, the existing literature about singleness in Indonesia seems to focus on the negative impacts of singleness on women approached through a constructivist paradigm. While those studies have depicted the singleness experience viewed from women’s perspectives, there is a need to view the phenomenon from a bigger picture that includes both single men and single women.

The present study responds to such discrepancies of emerging singleness in Indonesia. Previous literature seems to presume singleness in Indonesia as an involuntary experience (that is, Sari and Listiyandini, 2015), despite the existence of a small proportion of individuals who choose to remain single. While empirically supported by our previous work (Himawan, 2019), this study emphasises the psychological dynamics of never-married individuals by outlining their reasons for remaining single, the perceived social disapproval towards them, and their reactions towards such disapproval. The current study attempts to view the phenomenon in a more objective stance by using a considerable sample size (n>300), which includes both single men and single women. Through this design, we expected to generate findings that are more representative of the population.

The outcome of this study is expected to reflect the experiences of never-married individuals from non-WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic) societies. In particular, its findings may arguably apply to nations with similar cultural values to Indonesia, where societal conformity for marriage is high (Vignato, 2012; Hull, 2016)

Literature review

Singleness, dating, and marriage in Indonesia

Singleness can be defined legally and socially (DePaulo and Morris, 2016). Legally, ‘single’ includes those always-single, divorced and widowed. Socially, singles are defined as not being involved in romantic and sexual partnerships they regard as beyond casual.

In Indonesia, the legal scope of being single, divorced, widowed and married is clearer. The Indonesian constitution applies ‘single’ (lajang) exclusively to those never-married. ‘Divorced’ (cerai hidup) and ‘widowed’ (cerai) are distinguished from ‘single’ in formal documentation, such as the national identity card (Kartu Tanda Penduduk: KTP). Hence, ‘single’ is understood as being never-married.

There is no civil status for those who are in a non-marital partnership (for example, de facto). However, there are accepted social norms for when and how dating relationships for adults are honoured in society. While pacaran1 (‘dating’) tends to be regarded as ‘for amusement’, ‘not (yet) serious’, or ‘just having fun’ for teenagers, pacaran is considered significant after adolescence (Smith-Hefner, 2018). Bennett (2005) introduces the term ‘modern pacaran’, which is similar to the Western concept of premarital familiarisation where a young individual (usually a man) explicitly proposes to his/her potential partner to get to know one another more intimately. Hence, pacaran for Indonesian adults involves a higher commitment that is expected to be followed by marriage. Some literature translates pacaran as ‘fiancé/fiancée’ (see Smith-Hefner, 2018), which illustrates the commitment expected in pacaran for Indonesian adults. Like singleness, pacaran is seen as temporary and transitional to marriage. Therefore, being in an extended period of pacaran may attract negative social perceptions with couples being seen at risk of zina (‘sexual promiscuity’)2 (Bennett, 2005; Hull, 2016).

This suggests that social undervaluation tends to be determined by an individual’s marital, rather than dating, status. Being in a dating relationship may not attract less stigma. Therefore, ‘never-married’ in the present study also refers to those who are dating but have no intention to marry in the next 12 months. We expect more extensive findings by including single-in-a-relationship participants in the analysis.

‘Get married or be sinful!’: how religion and culture shape the meaning of singleness in Indonesia

Studies across cultures (Darrington et al, 2005; Engelberg, 2016) suggest that religious teaching significantly shapes the meaning of singleness. The role of religion in Indonesia is pivotal to strong marriage attitudes because religion is viewed as important to individual identity (Smith-Hefner, 2018). Religious and cultural values are closely linked and, particularly in Indonesia, religious values often determine what is and is not culturally, or even legally, acceptable in the society. Indonesia acknowledges six official religions: Islam, Protestant, Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist and Confucian. Islam is the major religion and Islamic teachings are predominantly reflected in current cultural and social practice. For instance, Marriage Law No. 1 of 1974 in Indonesia (Undang Undang Nomor 1 tahun 1974 tentang Perkawinan) explicitly acknowledges the role of the husband as the family leader and binds the role of the wife to the household: ‘… mengatur urusan rumah tangga sebaik-baiknya [… manage domestic tasks as best as possible]’. Furthermore, the law also acknowledges polygamous marriage, which is exclusive to Islam teaching. Although Indonesia is not an Islamic state, it is obvious that Islamic principles play a major part in determining legal, political and social decision making. Particularly for marriage, religion acts as a social control in maintaining positive attitudes to marriage and governing how dating and sexuality should be practised in relation to marriage (Hull, 2016).

According to Islamic teaching, marriage is an act of observance towards God, reflected in popular public discourse: ‘menikah adalah separuh ibadah [marriage is half of religion]’; it thus maintains positive attitudes to marriage (Asyari and Abid, 2016; Himawan, 2020a). In general, Indonesia’s official religions favour marriage. Many Indonesians believe that marriage is religiously endorsed; prolonged singleness is understood by some – regardless of their religious affiliation – as the spiritual consequences of their past actions (Himawan et al, 2018b). The increasing proportion of never-marrieds in the population may therefore illustrate a phenomenon of people delaying marriage. If so, it is imperative to explore the underlying reasons for marriage postponement, which this study will do.

Cultural values are also vital to the preservation of marriage in Indonesian society. Although Indonesia comprises many indigenous cultures, studies indicate that such cultures generally favour marriage over singleness (Schrauwers, 2000; Putri and Lestari, 2015). Most Indonesians live in a patriarchal society and are influenced by strong religious values; hence, they treat sexuality as a taboo to be strictly regulated by marriage. A recent case showed how an unwed couple were accused of engaging in immoral sex in their own flat and were paraded naked in public by vigilantes (Noronha, 2017). Some seem to consider physical and psychological assault to be justified social punishment for engaging in what they regard as highly immoral non-marital sex. Such embedded values regarding sexuality lead to an expectation of singleness as chastity, further supporting the notion of singleness as lacking identity.

Marriage marks an essential cultural milestone that is meaningful for spouses and their extended families (Himawan et al, 2018c). A wedding broadcasts a family’s success and reputation (Schrauwers, 2000). Marriage in this patriarchal society is seen as beyond an individual’s choice but is a ‘responsibility to a collectivity, a community and kindred’ (Jamieson and Simpson, 2013: 26). Consequently, those who never marry live in their parental home until marriage (Maeda, 2008). This is often reinforced by negative perceptions, such as single adults seen as selfish and parasitic on their parents.

In understanding how never-married individuals react to possible social undervaluation due to their singleness, it is worth considering the cultural profile of society. According to Hofstede’s (2001) study of cultural dimensions, Indonesia scores highly in cultural collectivism, so that marriage pressures are intense if society sets marriage as an ideal social status. This cultural ideal implies that children should comply with the expectations of their parents (Utomo et al, 2016). Furthermore, countries with a high femininity rating, including Indonesia (Hofstede, 2001), require individuals to develop negotiation strategies for handling conflict – being assertive or straightforward is impolite. Therefore, some may marry to satisfy social demands and comply with the norm (Himawan, 2019). In reacting to such social undervaluation, some Indonesian singles differentiate between what they do and how they feel. This explains why many single adults joke about social stigma while actually being irritated by it (Situmorang, 2007).

Ideal marriage: the sociocultural model

Cultural expectations of an ideal marriage can be constraining when one cannot find a marriage partner, thus providing a framework for understanding why many remain single. Most Indonesian adults generally believe that the ideal marriage comprises two key dimensions: marriage timing and partner’s attributes. Regarding the former, marriage is generally regarded as ideal when individuals are in their twenties or early thirties (Situmorang, 2007; Jones, 2018; Himawan, 2019), although earlier marriage is encouraged in some rural areas (Vignato, 2012). Those in their early thirties usually experience increasing psychological pressure to marry (Situmorang, 2007).

Religion and ethnicity are important criteria regarding partner attributes; marriages are generally regarded as ideal when couples share the same religion and ethnicity (Utomo et al, 2016; Smith-Hefner, 2018). In an ethnographical study of Javanese youths, Smith-Hefner (2018) found that similarity of religion and ethnicity are often implicit criteria when individuals choose their mate preference by eliminating those who are religiously and ethnically different. Furthermore, hypergamy tends to be the preferred model for marriage, particularly for those with patriarchal cultural values. Hypergamy ideally occurs when a woman’s social status is lower than the man’s (Himawan et al, 2019). Marriage is thus considered ideal when the economic status, educational level or age of women is lower than their partners’.

The perception of male superiority expressed through patriarchal values in Indonesia contributes to rising singleness. The greater involvement of women in education and industry in recent decades (Himawan et al, 2019) has become a disincentive for hypergamy because women are now participating in higher status groups. This also explains why singleness in Indonesia is more prevalent among individuals with higher education (Utomo et al, 2016).

The present study

While Indonesia’s religions and cultures acknowledge marriage as a preferred status, data shows an increased proportion of individuals delaying marriage or remaining single for the rest of their lives. The present study, as part of a larger project, addresses this issue by asking:

  1. What are the underlying reasons that Indonesians remain single?

  2. How do never-married adults manage the social undervaluation of their single status?

Methods

Participants

Participants were recruited using three purposive sampling criteria: (1) a minimum age of 26; (2) never having married; (3) having a heterosexual orientation. Individuals of non-heterosexual orientation were excluded from this analysis because homosexuality is legally prohibited and socially condemned in Indonesia (Walden and Souisa, 2020). Therefore, the experience of singleness may be substantially different for those with homosexual orientation.

The sample consisted of 350 never-married individuals (73.4 per cent women; Mage=29.79 ± 4.50). Most participants (98.6 per cent) had one or more university degrees: three had doctoral degrees and almost half (47.1 per cent) master’s degrees. Of the remainder, four were high school graduates and one did not disclose his/her educational level. Most participants (45.7 per cent) earned mid to high incomes (above IDR 6 million), 30.9 per cent had low to middle incomes (IDR 3‒6 million), 15.4 per cent had low incomes (< IDR 3 million), and the remaining 8 per cent did not answer. The minimum monthly wage in Indonesia is regulated on regional scope; hence, the amount varies across its 34 districts, ranging from IDR 1–3 million (USD 69.68–209.04) in the period where the study took place in 2018. Generally, those whose incomes were below IDR 3 million were classified as having low income.

About 37.7 per cent (n=132) were in dating relationships but did not plan marriage for at least 12 months. The majority of participants lived with their immediate family (53.1 per cent) while the remainder worked or studied interstate and therefore lived alone (39.1 per cent) or with friends (7.4 per cent). One participant lived with his/her foster children. Ethnically, the majority of participants were Javanese (33.6 per cent), with Chinese being the second-largest ethnic group (26.7 per cent) and Bataknese the third-largest (8.7 per cent). The remaining ethnicities (31 per cent) were from different regions of Indonesia: Sundanese, Balinese, Padangnese, Acehnese, Torajanese, Ambonese and Papuans.

Most participants were women of higher economic and educational status, which may accurately reflect what the worldwide literature indicates (Lahad, 2013; Wang and Abbott, 2013; Jones, 2018) regarding the increased likelihood of singleness for women of such status. Despite the overrepresentation of women in the sample group, there was no significant gender difference in participants’ ages (t(190.45)= –1.361; p=0.175), monthly income (t(348)= –0.068; p=0.946) or educational level (t(348)= –1.729; p=0.085). Chi-square analysis also demonstrated that participants’ dating status (χ2= 0.268; p=0.605) and living arrangements (χ2=8.710; p=0.121) did not differ by gender. This information suggests that male and female participants’ demographic profiles were homogeneous.

Procedure

An advertisement to recruit participants was distributed through online channels including Facebook Messenger, Instagram and Whatsapp. Online surveys were chosen as being most appropriate for this study because, first, studies show that these are an effective method for studying sensitive topics (Shapka et al, 2016) – singleness in Indonesia, entailing negative social connotations, is one. Second, using an online survey produces a large sample set which can generate patterns representing the diversity of attitudes among Indonesians.

An electronic invitation, approved by the institutional review board (ethical clearance no. 2017000826), contained a link to the survey page. Participants were first given information about the study, which included its aim, a confidentiality statement, the implied risks of participating, its voluntary nature and the withdrawal procedure. Participants were asked to indicate their digital agreement by clicking an ‘Agree’ button prior to being granted access. After completing the survey, participants were invited to enter a draw for one of five IDR 200.000 (USD 13) shopping vouchers in appreciation of their involvement.

Instrument

The survey was administered in Indonesia’s national language. Its first part recorded participants’ demographic profiles. Its second part contained both open and closed questions, the first being, ‘What makes you remain single?’ Spaces with unlimited character lengths were provided for responses and participants were encouraged to list all possible reasons explaining their reasons for singleness. Second, they were asked, ‘To what extent do you think you are socially undervalued due to your single status?’ and ‘To what extent do you think you are pressured into getting married by your social surroundings?’ Their responses were recorded on a five-point rating scale (1=almost none; 5=very high). Another question was, ‘What are your reactions towards social undervaluation due to your single status?’ Participants were given unlimited characters to type their answers. They could indicate the voluntary nature of their single status by choosing either 1 = ‘I am choosing to be single’ or 2 = ‘Certain circumstances force me to remain single’.

Analysis

Responses to the open questions were analysed using a thematic coding strategy (Gibbs, 2007). Since the first author is the only Indonesian native contributing to this study, the descriptive coding was done in English. The first author read through all responses and defined the descriptive codes. After all responses were coded, the first author reread the responses and made necessary changes based on recurring patterns in them. For instance, responses like ‘belum bertemu jodoh [haven’t yet met a soulmate]’ and ‘belum menemukan orang yang dirasa cocok untuk jadi pasangan [haven’t found a person to whom I feel matched as my partner]’ were descriptively coded as ‘Not yet found a matching partner’. A bilingual Indonesian scholar was then asked to judge the appropriateness of the codes; any discrepancies were discussed and revised.

The descriptive codes were then clustered to form interpretive codes (Gibbs, 2007). The other authors examined the appropriateness of this coding based on the available descriptive codes and discussed any disagreements. After reaching consensus, all authors identified the overarching themes that best represented the codes. They then rechecked the appropriateness of each code in each theme, with discussions continuing until consensus was reached. Participants were labelled (ID 1 to ID 350) to mask their identities.

The responses to the closed questions were analysed using several statistical techniques through SPSS Version 17. Participants’ responses were analysed based on their gender and age, with the median age of 30 (young: ≤ 30 years, old: > 30 years), which follows the literature about the age at which singleness is considered atypical (Situmorang, 2007). Additionally, two-way ANOVA was performed to further analyse the gender-age interaction regarding participants’ perceived social stigma and marriage pressures.

The first author is an Indonesian native who, despite being married, believes that marriage should not be motivated by social pressures. All authors maintained a neutral position to singleness, did not encourage the normativity of marriage, and valued individual agency in the decision to marry or to remain single.

Results

Motives for being single

When asked if their single status was voluntary, only 21 participants (6 per cent) responded positively. Their reasons for being single did not seem statistically different by gender (χ2=0.046; p=0.831); 6.90 per cent of men and 6.20 per cent of women reported being voluntarily single. Many reasons were given for voluntary singleness. One concerned commitment: ‘I am afraid of commitment; I feel no one understands me’ (ID 340, man, 26). For others, marriage seemed worthless as they could date without entailing long-term marital responsibilities. Interestingly, only three voluntarily single participants had actually exceeded their mid-thirties, suggesting that a voluntary decision for singleness was predominantly made by younger people.

Reasons for remaining single

Four themes were identified from participants’ responses for remaining single: (1) situational shortcomings; (2) compliance with socially constructed ideals of dating or marital relationship; (3) various perceptions attached to marriage; and (4) feeling unready for marriage. While the first theme is the more obvious reason for explaining singleness (in other words, not having yet found a partner), the remaining three further illustrate the personal, cultural and social constraints accounting for participants’ singleness. A total of 665 responses were obtained and are tabulated in Table 1.

Table 1:

Distribution of participants’ responses regarding reasons to remain single

ThemesResponse rates
Man (n=184)Woman (n=481)Young (n=502)Old (n=163)Total (n=665)
n%n%n%n%n%
Situational shortcomings9953.8022446.5722745.229658.9032348.57
1. Unavailable partner reasons5127.7215933.0613927.697747.2421031.58
2. Personal shortcomings4826.096513.518817.531911.6611316.99
Compliance with the socially constructed ideal of dating or marital relationship73.804910.19407.97169.82568.42
1. The favoured ta’aruf way towards marriage21.0940.8351.0010.6160.90
2. The man should initiate the relationship00.00214.37122.3995.52213.16
3. Having the same religion and ethnicity as the potential partners10.5481.6681.5910.6191.35
4. The importance of parental and familial blessings42.17142.91142.7942.45182.71
5. Marriage order needs to align with the birth order0.0020.421.2010.6120.30
Many faces of marriage4323.3711223.2812825.502716.5615523.31
1. Marriage is a burden3619.0210020.7911322.512314.1113620.45
2. Marriage is sacred relationship73.80122.49152.9942.45192.86
Feeling unready for marriage3519.029619.9610721.312414.7213119.70
1. Enjoying singleness2714.676212.897715.34127.368913.38
  • 2.Exposure of relationship failure

  • 3.Inferiority due to physical appearance

  • 4

  • 4

  • 2.17

  • 2.17

  • 28

  • 6

  • 5.82

  • 1.25

  • 22

  • 8

  • 4.38

  • 1.59

  • 10

  • 2

  • 6.13

  • 1.23

  • 32

  • 10

  • 4.81

  • 1.51

Situational shortcomings

Approximately half of the reasons for remaining single concerned this theme, irrespective of participants’ gender and age. Compared with other themes, situational shortcomings were also the predominant reasons for singleness among older participants.‘Belum ketemu jodoh [have not met my soulmate yet]’ was the most common first response for being single. Among older participants, the lack of available options predominated: ‘There is no one who wants [to marry] me’ (ID 67 man, 34); ‘No one wants [me]’ (ID 134 woman, 36). It is interesting that other single female participants perceived some lateness in searching for a marriage partner, despite being under the age of 30. The following responses illustrate the claim of female participants aged 28: ‘All the good men are taken already’, ‘potential men are already sold out’, and ‘[I am] leftover’.

Many (n=57) responses also indicated that financial barriers precluded participants from marrying sooner. This response was more predominant among men (14 per cent, compared with 6.4 per cent for women) and among those in a relationship (68 per cent). Not only is marital life considered as demanding a higher income, but also as entailing an expensive wedding ceremony. The preference for hypergamy is observed in the expectation of the husband’s financial superiority. This is demonstrated by ID 146 (woman, 43), who delayed marriage because ‘[I am] waiting for my partner to be at certain financial level’ or ID 352 (woman, 34): ‘My fiancé does not yet have a stable financial position.’

Finally, the family barrier was a situational shortcoming that prompted some participants to delay marriage. ID 156 (woman, 32) wrote that she had to delay her marriage because she was ‘… the only family income earner’, being financially responsible for her parents and dependent siblings. Similarly, ID 271 (man, 28) wrote ‘[I] financially support my sibling’s tuition fees and study needs.’ Family barriers to marriage also entailed other assistance: ‘[I] have to look after my parents who have limited physical mobility’ (ID 268 woman, 31).

Compliance with socially constructed ideals of dating or marriage

The finding suggested that marriage was definitely a stated objective: 94 per cent of participants wished to marry in the future. However, various social norms and customs of dating and marriage were considered to be hinderances to marriage by many single people. Such responses were dominated by women participants. Furthermore, more participants in the older group cited cultural constraints to explain their singleness (see Table 1). Cultural requirements placed on marriage thus seem to be perceived more strongly by women and by those aged 30 and over.

Influenced by Islamic teaching, few Muslim participants preferred to have their marriage arranged through ta’aruf, a practice whereby dating is avoided as it could lead to adultery, which Islam strongly condemns (Asyari and Abid, 2016). Although ta’aruf is a traditional practice, its popularity was substantially boosted after an Islamic activist, La Ode Munafar, initiated a campaign called Indonesia Tanpa Pacaran [Indonesian Movement Without Courtship] in 2015 that received a positive response in society. The campaign was an expression of moral panic concerning current dating practices among youth who are at risk of promiscuity (Sulaiman, 2020).

The ta’aruf process begins with individuals conveying their intention to marry to their male murabbī or female murabbiya – who act as spiritual mentors/guides – and by submitting a biography that contains personal information, sociodemographic background and photographs (Asyari and Abid, 2016). Their murrabī or murabbiya will then match this information to some potential partners. After these are identified, the male applicant has the privilege of choosing. Marriage only occurs when the chosen woman accepts the man’s biographical details sent to her. Hence, their state of singleness represents a waiting period because ‘… there is no ta’aruf offer yet’ (ID 16, woman, 31), or because ‘… my religion commands me not to date but to directly marry ... and I am waiting for a response to my ta’aruf proposal’ (ID 297, man, 28).

Apart from religious aspects, cultural perceptions that men should initiate relationships also illuminate the findings. Twenty-one female participants explained that their reason for remaining single was that no one approached them or, where they were in a dating relationship, their partners had not asked them to marry – in contrast to none of the male participants. It appears that a woman’s dignity lies in being the party accepting, rather than offering, a marriage proposal; this indicates that women expect male initiative in relationships.

A similar attitude of male superiority is also demonstrated by some responses which favoured hypergamy, where respondents delayed marriage because they had not met a partner fitting the pattern of hypergamy. Particularly among women, educational level was perceived as a barrier to finding a marriage partner, reflected by the following responses: ‘Maybe because of my [educational] degree, only very few men are trying to approach me’ (ID 114, 26, master’s degree); ‘Some men feel inferior when they know my [education and economic] background’ (ID 327, 29, master’s degree, monthly income IDR 12–15 million). These comments indicate a general preference for hypergamy in which the superior social status should be held by the husband.

The findings also support the cultural importance of having a partner of the same religion and ethnicity. This creates a barrier, particularly for members of religious minorities. For example, a Hindu, ID 295 (woman, 29) argued that dating was less possible because she now lived in Java, where the majority are Muslims: ‘I live in a community where my religion is a minority religion. Having a different religion than my partner makes it difficult to gain parental approval.

Parental demands were treated very respectfully, with often little room for filial negotiation. While explaining her singleness, ID 255 (woman, 31) shared ‘I am still waiting for my mom’s agreement as she doesn’t like my current partner.’ This concurred with the response of another participant: ‘My parents will only allow me to marry when I have attained their standard of financial independence’ (ID 314, woman, 30). Another participant (ID: 334, woman, 26, monthly income >IDR 15 million – minimum monthly wage was about IDR 3.5 million at the time of interview) said that her parents demanded a glamorous wedding for her, which caused such a financial burden that it impeded her marrying. These statements reflect how parental attitudes play a major role in determining decisions to marry.

Marriage as a socially approved ideal must also align with the birth order of siblings; it is only permitted when older siblings are married. Such a cultural belief, generally upheld in Indonesia, threatens both older and younger siblings. Older siblings, particularly firstborn, rush into marriage in order not to hinder younger siblings. Younger siblings, on the other hand, delay marriage until older siblings marry.

The many faces of marriage

Marriage was perceived differently among participants, which led them to delay or avoid it. This included perceptions of marriage as both burdensome and sacred, perceived equally by men and women (see Table 1). In terms of age, younger participants seem to perceive marriage as more of a burden than those who are older.

Many participants thought marriage and career to be incompatible, and they prioritised career goals. Furthermore, excessive work demands explained the difficulty of some participants in finding potential partners, as expressed by ID 45 (woman, 39, doctoral degree): ‘[I] don’t have an opportunity to meet single men’ or ID 110 (man, 31): ‘My work takes too much of my time.’ Although most participants who delayed marriage to prioritise their career were usually below or around the age of 30, it seems age was not the only influence. A 42-year-old participant explained his reason for remaining single: ‘I have a target of studying at a higher level that I want to achieve before I think about marriage.

Some other participants viewed marriage as a sacred relationship which required a careful decision. This was based on the belief that marriage should be once in a lifetime and that failure caused by having the wrong partner should be avoided. This caused some to be cautious, selective and picky in finding a marriage partner. This reflection from ID 212 (man, 29) typified this theme: ‘For me, marriage is a sacred relationship, so choosing [a partner] is not just picking someone you barely know.

Upholding the sacred values of marriage led some involuntary singles to resist social pressure to marry. ID 92 (woman, 35) argued that she had not found someone with the same vision and decided ‘… not to get married because of social pressure or age or family pressures’. She believed that carefully choosing a partner was much more important than rushing into marriage.

Feeling unready for marriage

The unpreparedness of participants to enter marriage was commonly caused by their positive experience of being single and their exposure to the negative marriage experiences of others. ID 147 (man, 27) said that he wanted to remain single because ‘I still want to enjoy my young and free life.’ Another participant (ID 9, man, 34) perceived that marriage would limit his freedom and independence because he would always be accommodating his wife’s desires.

Some other participants wrote that their singleness was explained by their avoidance of relationship failure. The failed relationships of others, as well as their own, were a significant portion of the concerns expressed about getting married. For example, ID 174 (man, 30) wrote that he delayed marriage because of ‘… the negative marriage lives experienced by people around me’. Another participant (ID 332, woman, 27) refused to rush into marriage because of ‘… psychological burdens from an inharmonious parental relationship’.

A few participants described their reasons for remaining single because they felt physically unattractive. They argued that they were single because they were ‘fat’ (ID 185, woman, 26) or ‘… less mindful of my physical appearance’ (D 310, man, 30). It is interesting that such perceived inferiority due to physical appearance is experienced equally by men and women, including those in the older age group (see Table 1; responses from the older group represent each gender).

Reactions towards social undervaluation of being single

There are four main reactions to social undervaluation: polite disregard, assertive reactions, social withdrawal and internalised responses.

Most participants, regardless of their age or gender, politely ignored social undervaluation. When their single status was commented on, participants recorded not taking it personally, or ‘…just being apathetic; I don’t want to be bothered by what people say’ (ID 227, woman, 50).

Other participants showed responsive but friendly reactions when explaining their reasons for remaining single – such as describing the challenges of finding a marriage partner – to refer to the importance of good preparation for marriage, or to indicate their current priorities or commitment to personal objectives. Other participants defended their singleness by comparing it with negative marriage alternatives: ‘I share with them all the bad experiences of failed marriages. It is definitely better to be happily single than to have a miserable marriage. Not everyone is destined to be married anyway’ (ID 212, man, 29). Others reacted by telling jokes, redirecting the conversation or asking help in finding a partner. Another strategy was asking those who undervalued them to pray for them: ‘… smile it off and ask them to pray for me to meet my soulmate soon’ (ID 262, woman, 36).

However, assertive reactions were particularly common among younger participants when they received negative comments about being single. ID 31 (woman, 29) admitted that she would ‘… directly say to them, “You don’t do anything, you don’t even help finding a potential partner, but you just make hurtful comments”’.

Many other participants selectively chose their social circles, withdrawing from communities where their status was regarded as a social problem. ID 334 (woman, 26) described her plan to escape to countries where singleness was not a social issue: ‘… [I] seek support from people or groups who appreciate me other than from a relationship context, or [I] consider studying or working abroad in a country that values individualism [privacy] more than collectivism’.

Avoidance seemed a more common strategy for single men than conversations that potentially intimidated them. Some reactions include ‘… not going home to my family during Idul Fitri [the Islam Festive] season’ (ID 67, man, 34); or just ‘… excluding myself from my communities’ (ID 98, man, 26). While slightly different than polite disregard, this reaction also suggests a more nuanced politeness to maintain harmonious relationships with others.

Last, the findings suggest that the long-term reactions to societal pressure to marry include internalising negative attitudes by either self-enhancing or self-blaming. Twenty-four participants sublimated their reactions to social undervaluation by personal achievement: ‘I attempt to maintain a good physical appearance and an active lifestyle’ (ID 223, woman, 27); ‘I show them that, with my single status, I can be happy and be outstanding’ (ID 235, woman, 26); ‘I show my personal value by my high achievements and income’ (ID 330, woman, 28); and ‘I show them that, although I am single, this doesn’t mean that I am not happy’ (ID 10, man, 26).

Others interpreted undervaluing comments as self-reminders. A common reaction to social intimidation was realising that everyone has their own social timeframe. For example, ID 234 (woman, 27) reacted by ‘… reminding myself that everyone has different principles and life goals’. A more negative internalisation was demonstrated by this woman participant (30): ‘Basically [I was] depressed and I blamed myself [for being single].

Table 2:

Distribution of participants’ responses to social undervaluation

ThemesResponse Rates
Man (n=95)Woman (n=311)Young (n=296)Old (n=110)Total (n=406)
nn%n%n%n%
Polite disregard8387.3727187.1425987.59586.3635487.19
Assertive reactions44.2192.89103.3832.73133.20
Social withdrawal33.16123.8693.0465.45153.69
Internalised reactions55.26196.11186.0865.45245.91

Participants’ scores of perceived stigma and marriage pressures

Table 3 summarises the correlations of the variables studied. On average, participants inferred moderate stigma (M=2.314; response range=1–5) and marriage pressures (M=2.757; response range=1–5) from their surroundings.

Table 3:

Correlations among studied variables

(1)(2)(3)(4)
(1) Age (M=29.79, SD=4.502)1
(2) Income (M=3.334, SD=1.92)0.198**1
(3) Perceived stigma (M=2.314, SD=1.184)–0.0080.0731
(4) Perceived marriage pressure (M=2.757, SD=1.309)–0.114*–0.0030.424**1

Note: *: significant at 0.05 level; **: significant at 0.001 level

Two-way ANOVA examined the interaction effect between gender and age regarding participants’ perceived social stigma from being single and marriage pressures (Table 4).

Table 4:

Two-way independent ANOVA of gender and age group in determining levels of perceived social stigma and marriage pressures among single people

GenderAgeGender x age
FpFpFp
Social stigma4.4960.0351.3280.2501.5990.207
Marriage pressures0.2620.6090.3240.5707.4670.007

Note: *: significant at .05 level; **: significant at .001 level

An interaction effect between gender and age was not observed for perceived social stigma (F(1)=1.599, p=0.207). The only significant principal effect was gender (F(1)=4.496, p=0.035), suggesting that single women (M=2.381, SD=1.073) perceived significantly higher stigma than single men (M=1.958, SD=1.103).

While there is no significant main effect of gender and age on marriage pressure, cross-over interaction was observed (see Figure 1). The effect of age on perceived marriage pressure is thus opposite, depending on gender. Among younger participants, single men (M=2.382, SD=1.258) perceived lower levels of marriage pressure then single women (M=2.950, SD=1.238). However, single men aged 30 and above (M=2.960; SD=1.594) perceived higher marriage pressures than single women (M=2.571, SD=1.342).

In the graph, the horizontal axis has two points marked young and old and the vertical axis is scaled from 2.40 to 3.00 in increments of 0.20 units. The graph shows a line for man that rises from (young, 2.38) to (old, 2.98) and line for woman that falls from (young, 2.96) to (old. 2.58). All values are estimated.
Figure 1:

The interaction effect of gender and age group in participants’ levels of marriage pressure

Citation: Families, Relationships and Societies 2022; 10.1332/204674321X16316940998258

Discussion

The present study aims to identify why more Indonesian adults are remaining single, and the principal strategies they utilise to manage the social undervaluation of their single status. The study found that a majority of participants were involuntarily single. The fact that a majority also wished to marry supports claims from previous studies that Indonesian single people generally favour marriage (Situmorang, 2007; Himawan, 2019; 2020b). Therefore, their responses regarding their underlying reasons for being single may better explain why they delay marriage.

Reasons for delaying marriage reflect the situational, social and cultural constraints to marriage. In general, although the figures presented in Table 1 and Table 2 suggest a similar numerical analysis across both sexes, the descriptive data reveals a gendered experience of singleness. Such an inconsistency might be caused by the disproportionate sample size between male and female participants. Furthermore, more of the younger participants admitted their unreadiness for marriage; they also tended to perceive marriage as a burden. Younger participants thus associated marriage with less freedom and limits to career opportunities. This is an anticipated consequence of modernisation that encourages greater investment by women in careers (Himawan et al, 2019). It increases individual agency in marriage – particularly regarding its timing – as a personal choice. Such a phenomenon is more common in Western societies (Lahad, 2013; Simpson, 2015) but is also increasingly prevalent in Asia (Jones, 2018). However, considering the persistent favourability of marriage upheld by Indonesian society, the freedom to remain single in Indonesia comes at the cost of constant threat and social pressures that pose a risk to the psychological wellbeing of singles. Our recent study demonstrates that individuals who remained single tended to have a higher level of loneliness and perceived stress than married couples (Himawan et al, 2021). Some never-married individuals argued that their singleness often hindered them from forming a genuine social relationship with their communities (Tan, 2010), and they often responded by overcompensating for their financial and career tracks (Vignato, 2012).

Financial barriers were cited as an important situational shortcoming that hindered most participants from marrying, particularly among those who were single and in a dating relationship. This supports the results of a Western study finding that marriage is a privilege of those in economically advantaged groups (Bloome and Ang, 2020). This issue becomes more complicated in interaction with sociocultural values regarding marriage. The wedding ceremony is paramount in representing a family’s social class and reputation (Schrauwers, 2000). Hence, not only must a couple anticipate household expenses before marrying but also the expenses associated with wedding rituals that advertise their families’ social reputations.

Many Indonesian adults respond realistically to such increased financial needs by planning dual-income households. This is evident in the reason why many women participants delay marriage: they are establishing their careers. However, strong patriarchal values – reflected in the preference for hypergamy – still reflect an acknowledgement of the superior role of men. For instance, while women are willing to financially contribute to the household, they only wish to be secondary earners (Utomo, 2012). The finding that more men than women cited financial barriers as their reason for delaying marriage illustrates men’s accepted role of greater financially responsibility, which aligns with their assigned gender role. Such accepted male superiority is demonstrated by findings that clearly indicate the perseverance of patriarchal values in society. These sometimes constrain marriage for some individuals, particularly women who achieve a high educational and economic status as they may have narrower opportunities for marrying partners who are superior to them.

Many other cultural expectations of marriage also constrain some from marrying sooner – the preference for partners with similar religion and ethnicity, the importance of familial blessing, the practice of marriage aligning with birth order, and the favourability of the ta’aruf approach to marriage. Those cultural constraints are also perceived more frequently by single women and those in the older age group. While these may support patriarchal values, participants still take such cultural demands into account in their decisions about marriage, as Indonesian society values harmony and high compliance (Hofstede Insights, 2018) and considers marriage to be a sociocultural responsibility (Jamieson and Simpson, 2013).

Where participants perceived moderate levels of stigma and marriage pressure from society, they generally responded with polite disregard to stigmatising persons. This preference of polite disregard is universal, regardless of age and gender, revealing Indonesia’s cultural profile of high power distance and low uncertainty avoidance (Hofstede Insights, 2018) in which participants react differently to how they actually feel when avoiding interpersonal conflict.

Furthermore, this finding suggests that, while single women were more likely to be disadvantaged by social stigma and expectations regarding marriage, marriage pressures on them tend to lessen as they age. This may be because single women in this study are sufficiently emotionally mature to manage social pressures to marry as they get older. This proposal is empirically supported by findings that emotional mastery increases with age (Carstensen et al, 2000). Furthermore, gender socialisation may better equip women to cope with life’s challenges, becoming emotionally mature through social support when solving problems (Eckermann, 2012). However, perhaps marriage pressures on single men tend to increase with age because, in a patriarchal society, men are expected to initiate relationships. Hence, they are regarded as more responsible for their single status than women.

The present study acknowledges its limitations. The use of an online survey methodology has successfully generated wide responses from a large sample size, but at the cost of limiting in-depth questioning. Since we rely on participants’ open responses and non-probability sampling, the response distribution for each theme in Tables 1 and 2 may not be as accurate as data collected through a scaled response obtained through probability sampling. Moreover, given the use of online surveying, the data was limited to those with some internet literacy. In addition, the majority of participants were women and those with high economic and educational levels. While they have accurately captured the increasing trend towards singleness among highly educated Indonesian women (Himawan et al, 2019), the interpretation of these findings is consequently limited to those of a certain demographic profile. A detailed subgroup analysis based on demographic variables (gender, age, ethnicities) was also not possible in this study due to the disproportionate sample size of each group. Future research might study voluntarily single people to better determine how individual agency drives them to be single and navigate societal marriage pressures. Last, the singleness experience described in this study is limited to Indonesian never-married individuals. Their experiences may be unique and thus not applicable to other single groups such as widows, divorcees and single parents.

Conclusion

This study has demonstrated that, while marriage is still generally favoured by most single Indonesians, the decision to marry may involve a complex interaction of personal, religious, social and cultural issues, making marriage more impractical for some people. This study also indicates that single men also experience marriage pressures and undervaluing stigma related to their single status. Hence, scholarly research on singleness must also account for their experience. The reactions to socially undesirable comments about singleness strongly highlight the avoidance of conflict and disagreement in Indonesian culture. This study has highlighted important aspects about the experience of singleness in Indonesia, which has inspired us to further explore the meaning of singleness based on gendered and religious perspectives (Himawan, 2020a; 2020b), and offers significant opportunities for relevant future studies in unravelling the singleness experience in this unique context.

Recommendation

Whereas the current study examines the reasons for remaining single held by never-married Indonesians, future studies may utilise these findings as a generic profile for developing more in-depth analysis. Future studies could also use in-depth interviews within a particular culture to explore the cultural dimensions of ideal marriage and how and why it is preserved. The involvement of single men in the study is crucial since it demonstrates that they are not exempt from the pressure to marry. Practically, reframing the social paradigm of singleness is a priority. A new approach is needed for society to allow more room for alternative family arrangements, which may not result from an individual’s active choice but from a lack of choice due to personal circumstances.

Notes

1

Pacaran can be literally translated into courtship. It includes a formal process where an individual (usually male) proposes another individual to start having an exclusive, non-sexual relationship. The formal process is called menembak [to propose], and the pacaran will officially commence when the other party agrees to the proposal. The date when the other party responds with agreement to the one who proposes is considered as an official pacaran date and is often celebrated annually like a wedding anniversary. Heterosexual pacaran is the only socially acknowledged form of pacaran.

2

Zina is an Arabic word that was adopted to Indonesian language. Zina refers to all forms of unlawful sexual intercourse. Depending on the marital status of the actors, zina is divided into zina muhsan (when committed by a married person) and zina ghair muhsan (when committed by a never-married person) (Huda, 2015). There has been a discrepancy between Indonesian law (Kitab Undang Undang Hukum Pidana) and cultural or religious interpretations of zina, for which under certain circumstances, people may not be legally sanctioned for committing zina, but they will still be subject to strong social sanction.

Funding

The work was supported by the Indonesian Endowment Funds for Education under a scholarship granted to the first author.

Acknowledgement

The authors greatly appreciate the contribution of Mr Nicolaas Hart for his generous time and contribution in criticising and proofreading the manuscript.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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    The interaction effect of gender and age group in participants’ levels of marriage pressure

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  • 1 The University of Queensland, , Australia and Universitas Pelita Harapan, , Indonesia
  • | 2 The University of Queensland, , Australia

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