Recently I was pointed toward an article in the New York Times that revealed and discussed a new bit of information about the state of marriage in this country:
For what experts say is probably the first time, more American women are living without a husband than with one, according to a New York Times analysis of census results.
In 2005, 51 percent of women said they were living without a spouse, up from 35 percent in 1950 and 49 percent in 2000.
Coupled with the fact that in 2005 married couples became a minority of all American households for the first time, the trend could ultimately shape social and workplace policies, including the ways government and employers distribute benefits.
Several factors are driving the statistical shift. At one end of the age spectrum, women are marrying later or living with unmarried partners more often and for longer periods. 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 addition, marriage rates among black women remain low. Only about 30 percent of black women are living with a spouse, according to the Census Bureau, compared with about 49 percent of Hispanic women, 55 percent of non-Hispanic white women and more than 60 percent of Asian women.
I think this is a very interesting development. To further explore the causes of this fact about modern marriage, the Times interviewed several women (many divorced) to ask their thoughts on the matter. A woman named Carol Crenshaw had this to say:
Carol Crenshaw, 57, of Roswell, Ga., was divorced in 2005 after 33 years and says she is in no hurry to marry again.
“I’m in a place in my life where I’m comfortable,” said Ms. Crenshaw, who has two grown sons. “I can do what I want, when I want, with whom I want. I was a wife and a mother. I don’t feel like I need to do that again.”
What struck me about this is that she IS a mother, whether she likes it or not. The idea that she can just wash her hands of the whole dirty business, that she feels so little regard for her children and feels no responsibility to them at all is appalling to me. Is THIS what divorce is? Self-centered self-congratulatory women luxuriating in their perceived lack of responsibility? Is this what marriage has become viewed as? A yoke to be thrown off or a burden to be self-righteously borne? No wonder fewer and fewer people seem interested.
Another interesting tale was from a woman named Besse Gardner, age 24, who is currently living with her boyfriend. She says:
“My roommate is someone I’d be thrilled to marry one day, but it doesn’t make sense right now.”
I really do wonder, why not? What, other than location, makes marriage “make sense” at some points and not at others. Ordinarily I would say she’s really not 100% sure of her boyfriend (whatever that means these days) and refusing to say so, but in this context, one does have to wonder.
Another woman (Elissa B. Terris, 59, of Marietta, Ga) divorced her husband of 34 years while complaining that he refused to let her go back to school.
One way of responding to this, of course, is to cheer her on. Any idiot husband with that severe a case of cranial-rectal-inversion deserves to be left, right? And, more to the point, shouldn’t she have been able to tell that he was such a cave-dwelling troll at heart before she married him?
This is an interesting way of looking at it, I feel. There is something going wrong in that relationship, but what are the options, and what could have prevented it? Underlying some of this, particularly the latter question, is the idea that people are who they are and that’s the end of it. This seems to me to be an odd idea given my concept of marriage, which is that it is (or is at least supposed to be) a process of becoming better and better suited for one another: dealing with change, adapting to it, and becoming closer to each other. The adaptation cannot be unlimited, of course, as we are merely human. The choice of spouse must, it seems to me, be based upon core principles and motivators that point toward the potential spouse being willing and determined to grow together. The real difficulty, of course, is making that determination while your hormones and passions are raging, everyone else is getting married around you, pop psychology tells you that everyone should be free to be an individual, etc.
What this reminds me of is a conversation that I had with a wife of one of the researchers at the conference in Italy that I went to. I told her that I was thinking of possibly proposing to my girlfriend, and she told me to “get to it!” because, she said, the older we get, the more ossified our habits and patterns of thinking become. Her description brought to mind an image of people as bits of clay slowly drying, and the younger and wetter the bits are when you mash them together, the better they fit.
Bringing that idea to the idea of the unchangeability of people in marriage, it occurs to me that perhaps a more significant underlying cause here, that is changing (or has changed) how we think of both marriage and of people themselves, is that people are getting married at older and older ages. What was once a more easy thing, that people are more influenced and become more similar with/to their spouses when they marry at younger ages, has become more difficult, as people delay marriage farther and farther (what with college, grad school, med school, law school, etc.). And perhaps what underlies THAT, even, is this fundamental mental depiction of college as a young-ling activity. That when you are a college student, you are fundamentally immature and that thus it is something one should not and cannot do while married.
Or perhaps it springs from something entirely different. It seems to me that this is the natural consequence of marrying for love rather than for something more tangible like money or diplomacy or whatnot. We have this idea that we should choose a mate based on a feeling like love, which is often confused with passion, and at the same time that we should “choose wisely”, because some folks are just bad seeds and we want our marriage to last. This in turn causes people to wait longer and longer to get married because they become pickier and pickier, as they are worried about whether their feelings will last, and the slightest thing that might cause the passion to die becomes a sign that it would never “work out”. Thus, people get married older (if at all), and as a consequence are more set in their ways and less able or willing to compromise. Not that, of course, getting married later cannot ever work, but it is harder, and requires an immediate commitment to building the “team” that is the fundamental structure of marriage.
In my opinion, the fundamental problem behind the conflict where one person (for example) wishes to be further educated and the other doesn’t want it is that fear of change, the refusal to compromise, and a shocking dose of misunderstanding. The man who forbids further education is simply afraid of something he relied on in static terms changing (and, as a consequence, is ruining it) which prevents him from thinking about or understanding the reasons behind the request. The woman who demands further education is incapable of even beginning to grasp where this stranger she married might be coming from, and instead treats him merely as an object of patriarchal subjugation rather than as a spouse and partner who is misguided or afraid. As a result, neither one can communicate or compromise. It shocks me that the “logical” conclusion is that divorce is considered the “natural” solution to this problem. What lack of understanding! What lack of commitment! What a shallow and self-serving view of marriage! On both their parts!
I met with a couple that faced exactly this same problem recently as part of my pre-canna obligations. The woman (who has since been a city councilwoman, been on several school boards, and a handful of other elected positions) wanted to go back to school to get her master’s degree, and her husband wanted none of it. The reason was hat he was afraid of the change in their house: he was afraid of not seeing his wife, of being alone, of assuming her responsibilities in her absence… He was just afraid of the unknown. The way his wife addressed it, in many long conversations, was to reassure him that she was not planning on radically upsetting their world, and that she would get her degree in a way that disrupted their daily routine as little as possible. But what mattered was that she did not simply become absolutist about it, call him a pig, and divorce him. She valued what they had together just as much as he did, and had to
address him as the man she’d promised to honor and cherish the rest of her life.
This is not to say that such an issue of education is a make-or-break issue, but merely that it is representative of the kind of issue confusion that presents itself all the time. All of these things require the introspection of asking “what is the REAL problem” (i.e. fear of change) rather than addressing merely the obvious symptom (i.e. he doesn’t want me educated).
Education is an interesting case for more reasons than just as an example of a topic of marital strife. A follow-up article in the New York Times which reveals:
Statistics show that college educated women are more likely to marry than non-college educated women — although they marry, on average, two years later. … In the past, less educated women often “married up.” … Now, marriage has become more one of equals; when more highly educated men marry, it tends to be more highly educated women.
Women with more education also are becoming less likely to divorce, or inclined to divorce, than those with less education. They are even less likely to be widowed all in all, less likely to end up alone.
“Educated women used to have a difficult time,” said David Popenoe, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University. “Now they’re the most desired.”
The article does not discuss, though, whether most of these educated women in successful marriages are earning a wage or whether they are full-time stay-at-home moms. They do, however, have this to say:
“Marriage is more difficult today than it was in the past,” Mr. Popenoe said. “The people who excel in one area probably excel in that area, too. And people who are high school dropouts probably have a higher propensity to drop out of marriage.”
The last 30 years have seen a huge shift in educated women’s attitudes about divorce. Mr. Martin [a sociologist at the University of Maryland], who has written about women and divorce, said that three decades ago, about 30 percent of women who had graduated from college said it should be harder to get a divorce. Now, about 65 percent say so, he said.
But for less educated women and for men, the numbers have not changed; only 40 percent — a minority — say it should be harder to get a divorce.
“The way we used to look at marriage was that if women were highly educated, they had higher earning power, they were more culturally liberal and people might have predicted less marriage among them,” Mr. Martin said. “What’s becoming more powerful is the idea that economic resources are conducive to stable marriages. Women who have more money or the potential for more money are married to men who have more stable income.”