If TV and movies have taught us one thing about love, it’s that two people in love end up “happily ever after” once they get married. Great…except that’s as much of a fairy tale as stories involving giants and dragons. Yes, marriage is still considered the norm in many Western cultures, with more than 90 per cent of people ending up married by the age of 50. But just because there’s a wedding, that doesn’t mean that those involved are happy—or even content. In fact, approximately 40 to 50 per cent of marriages end in divorce, and these signs of trouble in paradise often lead to the beginning of the end. In other words, marriage isn’t for everyone. Here are 13 famous figures throughout history who either understood that or opted to stay single for other reasons. Whatever their rationale, we think it’s safe to say that things worked out just fine for them.
Though he may have bridged the Classical and Romantic eras of Western classical music, famous composer Ludwig van Beethoven didn’t have much luck in the romance department in his personal life. Part of this may have been because of his personality: He was known for being shy and lonely, as well as short-tempered, greedy, and paranoid. Though he never married, he was in love with a married woman named Antonie Brentano. In 1812, Beethoven wrote her a love letter, but he never actually sent it to her. He addressed it: “To you, my Immortal Beloved.” The letter said, in part, “My heart is full of so many things to say to you—ah—there are moments when I feel that speech amounts to nothing at all—Cheer up—remain my true, my only love, my all as I am yours.”
Though Oprah Winfrey met her partner, Stedman Graham, in 1986, and they were once engaged, she has gone on record saying that she has no regrets about not getting married or having children. “Both he and I now say, ‘If we had married, we would not be together,’” she told People in 2019. “No question about it—we would not stay married, because of what that would have meant to him, and I would have had my own ideas about it.”
As far as being a mother, Winfrey says that she has been able to have other meaningful maternal relationships. “I also believe that part of the reason why I don’t have regrets [about not having children] is because I got to fulfil it in the way that was best for me: the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa,” she explained in the same interview. “Those girls fill that maternal fold that I perhaps would have had. In fact, they overfill—I’m overflowed with maternal.”
If you’ve heard of Wilbur and Orville Wright and their accomplishments and innovations in the field of air travel, you can thank their sister Katharine Wright for that. She acted as a public relations manager for her notoriously shy brothers, providing accurate scientific information to reporters, and also screened potential business offers. Partially due to their hectic schedules, neither Wilbur nor Orville ever married. In fact, Wilbur once commented to a reporter that he didn’t have time for a wife and an airplane. Though Katharine did eventually get married, it wasn’t until the age of 52, so the trio of siblings spent most of their lives together. Orville was so upset by his sister’s marriage that he refused to attend the wedding and didn’t speak with her for two years.
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Some people know that marriage isn’t for them at a very early age. That was the case for Queen Elizabeth I of England way back in the 16th century. At the age of eight, she announced, “I will never marry,” and didn’t change her mind. Known as the “Virgin Queen,” Elizabeth I had her share of suitors but chose not to marry any of them. There are many theories as to why she decided to preserve her single status, including the fact that she wanted to retain her autonomy as a ruler. She had also witnessed the debacle of her sister Mary I’s marriage to Philip II of Spain, which brought with it an unwanted foreign influence on British politics. Either way, she remained single her entire life and rule.
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The first few years of Isaac Newton’s life were rough and likely shaped his outlook on relationships. He was born in 1642, several months after his father had died. Newton’s mother remarried when he was 3 years old, but his new stepfather didn’t want children, so he was sent to live with his grandparents instead. “The experience of being abandoned by his mother scarred Newton and likely played a role in shaping his solitary, untrusting nature,” History.com reports. A loner for most of his life, Newton focused on his scientific work and never married.
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As the daughter of a Transcendentalist philosopher and one of the first social workers in Boston, Louisa May Alcott grew up with more freedom and education than the average girl in the mid–19th century. Though she wrote more than 200 works, she is best known for her novel Little Women. Alcott had no desire to get married and wanted the same for the fictional version of herself: Jo March in Little Women. Unfortunately, her publisher insisted that she marry the character off at the end of her iconic book, and that’s the ending we know today.
After years of being ignored by history in favour of shining the spotlight on Thomas Edison, inventor Nikola Tesla is finally getting some attention and recognition nearly 80 years after his death. Though best known for designing the alternating-current (AC) electric system and the Tesla coil, he was also known for some of his quirks. For instance, not only did he decide not to marry, but he also opted to remain celibate, claiming that celibacy helped him be more creative. Tesla did, however, claim to have had a relationship with a pigeon, once saying, “I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman, and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was a purpose to my life.”
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As one of the most famous nurses in the world, Florence Nightingale cared for a lot of people—but that didn’t include a husband. Though she had numerous suitors throughout her life and at least two marriage proposals, she decided not to marry, believing that God had chosen her to work and serve others as a single woman. She summed up her reasoning for rejecting a marriage proposal in a diary entry she wrote when she was 17: “I have a moral, an active nature which requires satisfaction and that I would not find in his life. I could be satisfied to spend a life with him in combining our different powers to some great object. I could not satisfy this nature by spending a life with him in making society and arranging domestic things.”
Even during Jon Hamm’s 18-year relationship with fellow actor Jennifer Westfeldt, he didn’t think marriage was in the cards for him. “I don’t have the marriage chip, and neither of us have the greatest examples of marriages in our families,” he told Parade in 2010. “Jen is the love of my life, and we’ve already been together four times longer than my parents were married.” Unfortunately, the couple ultimately broke up in 2015. But just because he’s not looking to tie the knot, that doesn’t mean he isn’t interested in romantic relationships. In fact, in 2017, he told In Style that being single “is really hard” and “sucks.” Still, it has its benefits, even if you don’t necessarily appreciate them at the time.
Most people associate Jane Austen’s books with love and romance, but unlike many of the characters in her novels, she never married. It’s not as though she didn’t have the opportunity to wed: Austen actually had several suitors and a few marriage proposals—one of which even ended in an engagement that she broke off after one day. Though her exact reasons to remain single are unknown, some speculate that she didn’t want to relinquish any of her writing time, money, or success to married life, and opted to make decisions that would allow her to retain her career and autonomy.
Comedian and controversial awards show host Ricky Gervais has been in a relationship with his partner, Jane Fallon, since 1982, but the pair has no plans to marry. In a 2010 interview with the Times, he revealed that he doesn’t see the point in marriage—especially as an atheist. “We are married for all intents and purposes, everything’s shared, and actually our fake marriage has lasted longer than a real one,” he said. “But there’s no point in us having an actual ceremony before the eyes of God because there is no God.”
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Hans Christian Andersen was one of the most famous writers of fairy tales, so you’d think he would have known a thing or two about happy endings. (Though many of his fairy tales—especially The Little Mermaid—are actually pretty dark.) Unfortunately for Andersen, he experienced several cases of unrequited love for both men and women. Objects of his affection included the singer Jenny Lind and Danish dancer Harald Scharff. His writing also holds clues to his personality. For example, he had said that his story The Ugly Duckling was autobiographical and that he frequently felt like an outcast growing up.
While she starred in several classic romantic comedies, including Annie Hall and Something’s Gotta Give, Diane Keaton never opted for marriage in real life. That said, she has had high-profile romances with stars like Al Pacino and Warren Beatty, and she adopted two children. But she doesn’t have any regrets, she told the Associated Foreign Press in a 2019 interview: “I don’t think about it a lot, but I’m aware of the fact that I’m unusual in that regard, and maybe I did miss out on something—but then, nobody can have everything, right? I’m not unhappy.”
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