Brothers of the unpopped question

Twenty-five years ago, most men in the Tampa Bay area married by age 35. But since 1980, the number of never-married men 35 to 55 has jumped sevenfold.

Published April 25, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - On the eve of his 50th birthday, Robert Mendenhall was trying to decide whether to spend the big day with someone new or with his ex-girlfriend. She had held his interest the longest: eight months.

Mendenhall, who works in regional sales for a roofing and window company, hangs out with half a dozen never-married men in their late 40s and early 50s. They are successful at their jobs, keep themselves in good shape and spend a lot of time traversing Tampa's social network. Mendenhall said he surmises they gravitate toward each other because none of them have kids and they like to go out on the town.

Most of them would like to find someone.

"I wanted to get married but the right one never came along," said Mendenhall, who decided to go out with his ex-girlfriend for his birthday. "It could be me, I guess if I analyzed it hard enough. But I think I've left the door open every night."

Twenty-five years ago in Tampa Bay, there were 8,500 never-married men age 35 to 54; now there are more than 57,000. There are 33 percent fewer never-married women in this age range.

"A large number of older people who have never been married are starting to appear on the scene," said Jodi DeLuca, a psychologist and relationship expert from Tampa. "It's not as much as the divorced, but they're in their late 30s and 40s and they've never been married. And if you question them why they think they never married, their answer almost clear across the board is, "I never met the right person."'

The numbers of women waiting to marry until they are older also has increased since 1980, but their numbers are not nearly as high as the bottleneck of men moving into their late 40s and early 50s, never having said their "I dos.' ' While the population of men has not even doubled here, this group has increased sevenfold.

Among 35- to 39-year-olds in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties, there are about 22,000 never-married men and 17,500 never-married women.

The difference between the sexes continues in 40- to 44-year-old never-marrieds: 17,500 men and 14,300 women. Twenty-five years ago the numbers were 1,900 men and 1,500 women.

"I think there's generally more acceptance for being a bachelor but I think it's harder for men to live single because they've not developed some of the same social skills to lead a good single life," said E. Kay Trimberger, author of The New Single Woman.

Karl Balducci, one of more than 10,000 never-married men ages 45 to 49 in Tampa Bay, says he's become good at living alone. He builds a life around the beach, triathlons and fixer-upper apartments. Though he'd like to marry, he said he's very selective, and he's not going to force it.

"I'm hoping I can see someone from across the room wherever I happen to be, and I have the nerve to walk up to her and we see each other and we click," he said. "I would never do computer ads. It seems forced and unnatural."

Balducci, 46, said he's noticed a number of men in their 40s who have never married. Many are struggling with modern American women, so much so that one moved to the Ukraine to date women and another brought a woman back from the Philippines.

Balducci has a theory about it. Women, he says, are more independent - yet more confused.

"They don't know what they want and it makes it tougher on guys," he said. "Women used to be dependent on men and it's not like that anymore. And it creates power struggles when they do get together."

One of the reasons he thinks he's still single is that his income from fixing up homes, selling art and occasionally driving a moving van isn't enough for women.

"I think if I was in a higher tax bracket, I'd be more likely to be married because of that," he said. "It seems to me if women are in the work force, they should be more willing to settle for a guy who doesn't make a million dollars a year."

Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist from the University of Washington and a relationship expert on PerfectMatch.com, says men who have never married in these older age ranges fall into two opposite groups.

"One group is the men nobody wants, the ones where two seconds later you know why they are not married," Schwartz said. "They don't earn money or they are obese. They are not good in the market. They are losers in the truest sense of the word.

"The other group is guys with a huge amount of possibilities. They are handsome, charming, successful. They have a series of girlfriends, a series of romantic liaisons and they ... have too many choices to settle on one person. And they get to a point where suddenly they are 45 and it's not looking so good anymore and then they start to look around for someone to have a quick family."

Devin Ridley-Marks puffed on a cigar at the back of Central Cigars in St. Petersburg, his quest to find 20 years of lost papers of the Tampa Daily Times foremost on his mind.

He produced a tiny digital clock that counted down the time until a festival he was organizing to commemorate the newspaper his great-great-grandfather founded in 1893: 70 days, 10 hours, 24 minutes, 10 seconds.

But another clock ticks in his head. The 36-year-old wants to get married and have kids in the next five years.

Herein lies Ridley-Marks' challenge. Not only must he find someone who shares his passion for finding old newspapers, he's also struggling with the Tampa Bay area's demographics: There are 43,101 more never-married men than women.

That's 100 never-married men for every 84 never-married women.

Ridley-Marks said he's looking for someone who shares his passion for history and a southern sense of family and heritage. Like many people, he wanted to wait until he had his career going before he married.

On average, men now marry at age 27, compared with 25 in 1980; for women, the average age to marry is 26 now, compared with 22 in 1980.

Men have always tended to wait longer because they don't have ticking biological clocks to worry about . Some, like Ridley-Marks, have waited until they got careers off the ground. Now other factors are coming into play.

With fewer never-married women to go around, many younger men are dating women 10 or 15 years older.

"You're seeing a lot of younger men with older women and it's because there are no defined rules of engagement," said DeLuca, the psychologist. "Anything goes socially ... women in their 30s and 40s are open to dating men in their 20s."

Ridley-Marks says he won't settle for anything but someone who makes his heart pound. When she comes along is anyone's guess.

"It's hard to find the right woman," he said. "I think what you have now is a population of Generation X-ers and Generation Y-ers who are not pressed by expectations to settle down at a traditional age - in your 20s. And so you have 30-somethings behaving like 20-somethings."

--Staff writer Matthew Waite and researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.