Lots of folks are discussing this New York Times article; it announces that for the first time, more than half of adult American women are living without a spouse.
In 2005, 51 percent of women said they were living without a spouse, up from 35 percent in 1950 and 49 percent in 2000…
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.
Bold emphasis is mine. The evidence is clear that divorced men are more willing to remarry, and I find that fascinating. (Lord knows, I’ve contributed to that statistic!) For years, we’ve heard that marriage tends to benefit men more than women; the old saying was that single women lived longer than married women, but married men lived longer than single ones. (No doubt someone can point to census bureau statistics to tell me if that remains true in this country.) But real benefits and perceived benefits are not always the same thing, and the greater willingness of men to remarry after a divorce fascinates me.
I suspect that one reason that men are more likely to remarry is, frankly, the distribution of household labor. In a world where women are still doing the “second shift” of housework on top of their jobs, it would make sense that a newly divorced woman would be extremely reluctant to walk right back into the same sort of situation from which she just extricated herself. On the other hand, a newly single man trying to sort out the mysteries of shopping and laundry might well be eager to find a new partner to “share” the burden of keeping him dressed and fed. One would have thought we’d be past this by now, that modern egalitarian marriages would involve equal amounts of effort and labor, both in and out of the home, by both partners. But the striking statistical eagerness of divorced men to remarry, and the equally striking statistical eagerness of many divorced women not to do so, suggests that things may not have improved as much as we would like.
But I think there’s more to this than housework. I’m going to catch it from all sides for saying this, but I’m convinced that one reason that so many divorced women are so reluctant to remarry (and so many women unwilling to marry in the first place) is that frankly, marriage doesn’t seem to be a very appealing deal for most women. And one of the reasons why marriage seems unappealing is that the sacrifices of marriage are many, and the benefits increasingly few — especially considering that an extraordinary number of men may not be worth marrying!
Mind you, I’m aware that saying “more women would surely marry if more men were worth the trouble” has anti-feminist implications. I’m wary of revisiting the problematic thesis that “feminism is rooted in a profound disappointment in men.” But surely, the reluctance of so many women to marry or remarry might also have something to do with the men they are choosing not to wed! No, it’s not all about men; there are many outstanding reasons not to marry that have nothing to do with the caliber of available husbands. But surely, there are many women who are unmarried who might consider marriage if they met the right man, but for whatever reason, don’t seem to be finding him.
In a world where women have access to education and income, it’s axiomatic that men need to bring more to the table than their ability to provide. Our desirability as husbands is increasingly linked to our ability to provide enduring emotional, sexual, romantic, and spiritual satisfaction; our relational skills now matter more than our earning potential. Those of us who are fierce defenders of marriage argue that true fulfillment can be found with just one other person — but we must also accept that in our world, where increasing prosperity has made lifelong singleness or serial monogamy more feasible than ever, the case for marriage is less and less compelling. The only way to shift that, I think, is to create a world where folks see the emotional benefits of marriage as outweighing all the potential negatives. And that’s going to require some changes, and from the statistical evidence, it may mean more change on the part of men.
I’m not sure marriage is for everyone. For me, it’s a vehicle for personal transformation and growth, a crucible in which one’s own selfishness gets melted down, a refiner’s fire that purifies. I like that sort of thing, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I’ve gotten married again and again because I’m relentlessly optimistic, relentlessly hopeful, relentlessly committed to growth. And while much growth can happen in solitude, and much growth can happen in extended families and communities of friends, I am convinced that my own particular growth can best be achieved through marriage. I’m in a happy, challenging, joyous, purifying marriage today. It’s a hell of a lot of work and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
But I do note that the last I heard, none of my three ex-wives had remarried. That says something.