Did you know that a majority of American women now live without husbands? I
didn't either, but last week the New York Times announced it on Page 1: "51% of
Women Are Now Living Without Spouse."
Taken at face value, that's a pretty disquieting statistic. If society is to
flourish and perpetuate itself, it must uphold marriage as a social ideal it
must raise boys and girls in a culture that encourages them to eventually marry
a partner of the opposite sex, make stable and loving homes together, and have
children who will one day form successful marriages of their own. The news that
most American women now live without husbands suggests that society's "ideal" is
dwindling to a minority taste.
"At one end of the age spectrum, women are marrying later or living with
unmarried partners more often and for longer periods," reporter Sam Roberts
notes. "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."
That delight is voiced by nearly every woman quoted in the story. "The benefits
were completely unforeseen for me," says a 59-year-old divorcee, "the free time,
the amount of time I get to spend with friends, the time I have alone, which I
value tremendously, the flexibility in terms of work, travel, and cultural
events." Such are the joys of non marriage, another woman exults, that "every
day is like a present."
Roberts quotes William Frey of the Brookings Institution, who describes this
apparently happy husbandless majority as "a clear tipping point, reflecting the
culmination of post-1960 trends associated with greater independence and more
flexible lifestyles for women."
Well, maybe. Or maybe not. For when you try to pin down the numbers, Roberts's
startling finding turns out to depend on some awfully strained definitions.
"Women," for example, isn't the word most of us would use to describe high
school sophomores. Yet the Times includes girls as young as 15 in its analysis.
Not surprisingly, girls who in many cases aren't old enough to have a driver's
license are unlikely to have husbands. According to the Census Bureau's 2005
American Community survey, 97 percent of females between 15 and 19 have never
been married. Incorporating nearly 10 million teenagers in the ranks of
marriage-aged American "women" may be a good way to pad the number of those
without husbands, but it doesn't make that number any more enlightening.
Actually, Census data show that even with the 15- to 19-year-olds, a majority
of American females 51 percent are "now married." So how does the Times
reach a contrary conclusion? By excluding from the category of women with
husbands the "relatively small number of cases" in fact, it's more than 2
million in which "husbands are working out of town, are in the military, or
are institutionalized." That startling Page 1 headline is true, in other words,
only if the wives of US troops at war are deemed not to have husbands.
Marriage in America is undoubtedly less robust than it was 50 years ago. But it
is not yet a candidate for the endangered-species list, let alone the ash heap.
The Census Bureau reported last spring that by the time they are 30 to 34, a
large majority of American men and women 72 percent have been married.
Among Americans 65 and older, fully 96 percent have been married. Yes, the
divorce rate is high 17.7 per 1,000 marriages and many couples live
together without getting married. But marriage remains a key institution in
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Marriage advocates often grumble that everything is getting worse, writes
scholar David Blankenhorn in his forthcoming book, The Future of Marriage, but
it's time to acknowledge that some things are getting better: Divorce rates are
declining modestly. Teen pregnancy rates are dramatically lower. Rates of
reported marital happiness, after a long slide, appear to be rising. And a
substantial majority of American children, 67 percent, are being raised by
By even wider margins, young Americans look forward to being married. The
University of Michigan's annual "Monitoring the Future" survey finds that 70
percent of 12th-grade boys and 82 percent of 12th-grade girls describe having a
good marriage and family life as "extremely important" to them. Even higher
percentages say that they expect to marry.
The '60s, the sexual revolution, no-fault divorce, the rise of single motherhood
there is no question that marriage has been through the wringer. Americans
have good reason to be, as Blankenhorn writes, "in the midst of what might be
called a marriage moment a time of unusual, perhaps unprecedented, national
preoccupation with the status and future of marriage." Yet for all the buffeting
our most important social institution has taken, it remains a social ideal: Boys
and girls still aspire to become husbands and wives.