DID YOU KNOW that a majority of American women now live without husbands? I didn't either, but last week The
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."
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 get a drivers' 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 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. The Census Bureau reports that by the time they are 30 to 34, a large majority of American men and women -- 72 percent -- have been married. Among men and women ages 65 and up, 96 percent have been married. Yes, the divorce rate is high -- 17.7 per 1,000 marriages -- and many couples cohabitate without getting married. But marriage remains a key institution in American life.
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 married parents.
By even wider margins, young Americans look forward to being married. The University of Michigan's "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 a 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.