More women living sans spouse

Younger women delay marriage, while widows and divorc

By Tracy Clark-Flory
Published January 17, 2007 8:22PM (EST)

This past weekend, we noticed that legendary piece on applying whale-training techniques to spouse training had curiously made a reappearance on the New York Times' "Most E-mailed" list. Another staggeringly popular piece, listing the questions couples should ask before marrying, also remains on the list. But far surpassing both as the most e-mailed and most blogged-about story is a piece about women for whom husband-as-pet analogies and premarital queries are irrelevant. For the first time, experts told the Times, more American women are now living without a spouse than with one.

The Times analyzed census data and found that in 2005, 49 percent of American women were living with a spouse, compared with 51 percent without a spouse. (It's worth noting that married couples as a whole now represent a minority of American households.) There are a number of possible contributing factors. For one, cohabitation with a boyfriend or girlfriend was once shunned as "living in sin" but is now a rite of passage for many 20-somethings. "At one end of the age spectrum, women are marrying later or living with unmarried partners more often and for longer periods," reports the Times. "At the other end, women are living longer as widows and, after a divorce, are more likely than men to delay remarriage, sometimes delighting in their newfound freedom."

In response to this report, a certain amount of "What is this world coming to?" kvetching is to be expected. But this report shouldn't be taken as evidence that women are forgoing marriage completely; most American women do eventually marry. What the Times' analysis seems to suggest is that on the whole, women are spending much less of their lives cohabitating with a spouse. Which, from my spinster perspective, implies all sorts of wonderful things about the way women's lives are changing. It seems women, on either side of the age spectrum, are finding it easier -- at times even enjoyable -- to spend time alone. "For better or worse, women are less dependent on men or the institution of marriage," William H. Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer, told the Times. "Younger women understand this better, and are preparing to live longer parts of their lives alone or with nonmarried partners. For many older boomer and senior women, the institution of marriage did not hold the promise they might have hoped for, growing up in an 'Ozzie and Harriet' era."

I had a few fleeting "Chicken Soup for the Single Soul" moments reading through the piece. Take 59-year-old Elissa B. Terris, who recently divorced after being married for 34 years. "A gentleman asked me to marry him and I said no," she said. "I told him, 'I'm just beginning to fly again, I'm just beginning to be me. Don't take that away.'" While it's sad to think that some still view marriage as a prerequisite to a fulfilling life, it's also disheartening that some see legal unions as necessarily sapping one's individuality.

Still, the trend seems to speak for itself. "This is yet another of the inexorable signs that there is no going back to a world where we can assume that marriage is the main institution that organizes people's lives," professor Stephanie Coontz, director of public education for the Council on Contemporary Families, told the Times.

There seems at least one more optimistic gem to be teased out of this report: "The trend could ultimately shape social and workplace policies, including the ways government and employers distribute benefits," the Times reports, suggesting that unmarried couples and single people might see more support in the future. And if public and workplace policies do start to shift, they might even help encourage a more inclusive definition of marriage.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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