Asia’s lonely hearts

Had a quick scan through of the article, and while the superficial perks of singleness are real, it doesn’t address the loneliness that the article title rightly points out. Maybe that’s not the point at all :-\

Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/node/21526350

The decline of Asian marriage

Asia’s lonely hearts

Women are rejecting marriage in Asia. The social implications are serious

TWENTY years ago a debate erupted about whether there were specific “Asian values”. Most attention focused on dubious claims by autocrats that democracy was not among them. But a more intriguing, if less noticed, argument was that traditional family values were stronger in Asia than in America and Europe, and that this partly accounted for Asia’s economic success. In the words of Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister of Singapore and a keen advocate of Asian values, the Chinese family encouraged “scholarship and hard work and thrift and deferment of present enjoyment for future gain”.

On the face of it his claim appears persuasive still. In most of Asia, marriage is widespread and illegitimacy almost unknown. In contrast, half of marriages in some Western countries end in divorce, and half of all children are born outside wedlock. The recent riots across Britain, whose origins many believe lie in an absence of either parental guidance or filial respect, seem to underline a profound difference between East and West.

Yet marriage is changing fast in East, South-East and South Asia, even though each region has different traditions. The changes are different from those that took place in the West in the second half of the 20th century. Divorce, though rising in some countries, remains comparatively rare. What’s happening in Asia is a flight from marriage.

Marriage rates are falling partly because people are postponing getting hitched. Marriage ages have risen all over the world, but the increase is particularly marked in Asia. People there now marry even later than they do in the West. The mean age of marriage in the richest places—Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong—has risen sharply in the past few decades, to reach 29-30 for women and 31-33 for men.

A lot of Asians are not marrying later. They are not marrying at all. Almost a third of Japanese women in their early 30s are unmarried; probably half of those will always be. Over one-fifth of Taiwanese women in their late 30s are single; most will never marry. In some places, rates of non-marriage are especially striking: in Bangkok, 20% of 40-44-year old women are not married; in Tokyo, 21%; among university graduates of that age in Singapore, 27%. So far, the trend has not affected Asia’s two giants, China and India. But it is likely to, as the economic factors that have driven it elsewhere in Asia sweep through those two countries as well; and its consequences will be exacerbated by the sex-selective abortion practised for a generation there. By 2050, there will be 60m more men of marriageable age than women in China and India.

The joy of staying single

Women are retreating from marriage as they go into the workplace. That’s partly because, for a woman, being both employed and married is tough in Asia. Women there are the primary caregivers for husbands, children and, often, for ageing parents; and even when in full-time employment, they are expected to continue to play this role. This is true elsewhere in the world, but the burden that Asian women carry is particularly heavy. Japanese women, who typically work 40 hours a week in the office, then do, on average, another 30 hours of housework. Their husbands, on average, do three hours. And Asian women who give up work to look after children find it hard to return when the offspring are grown. Not surprisingly, Asian women have an unusually pessimistic view of marriage. According to a survey carried out this year, many fewer Japanese women felt positive about their marriage than did Japanese men, or American women or men.

At the same time as employment makes marriage tougher for women, it offers them an alternative. More women are financially independent, so more of them can pursue a single life that may appeal more than the drudgery of a traditional marriage. More education has also contributed to the decline of marriage, because Asian women with the most education have always been the most reluctant to wed—and there are now many more highly educated women.

No marriage, no babies

The flight from marriage in Asia is thus the result of the greater freedom that women enjoy these days, which is to be celebrated. But it is also creating social problems. Compared with the West, Asian countries have invested less in pensions and other forms of social protection, on the assumption that the family will look after ageing or ill relatives. That can no longer be taken for granted. The decline of marriage is also contributing to the collapse in the birth rate. Fertility in East Asia has fallen from 5.3 children per woman in the late 1960s to 1.6 now. In countries with the lowest marriage rates, the fertility rate is nearer 1.0. That is beginning to cause huge demographic problems, as populations age with startling speed. And there are other, less obvious issues. Marriage socialises men: it is associated with lower levels of testosterone and less criminal behaviour. Less marriage might mean more crime.

Can marriage be revived in Asia? Maybe, if expectations of those roles of both sexes change; but shifting traditional attitudes is hard. Governments cannot legislate away popular prejudices. They can, though, encourage change. Relaxing divorce laws might, paradoxically, boost marriage. Women who now steer clear of wedlock might be more willing to tie the knot if they know it can be untied—not just because they can get out of the marriage if it doesn’t work, but also because their freedom to leave might keep their husbands on their toes. Family law should give divorced women a more generous share of the couple’s assets. Governments should also legislate to get employers to offer both maternal and paternal leave, and provide or subsidise child care. If taking on such expenses helped promote family life, it might reduce the burden on the state of looking after the old.

Asian governments have long taken the view that the superiority of their family life was one of their big advantages over the West. That confidence is no longer warranted. They need to wake up to the huge social changes happening in their countries and think about how to cope with the consequences.

Faith, Work, & Vocation – As A Single Woman

[Original article from http://blog.tifwe.org/faith-work-vocation-as-a-single-woman/]

A 38-year old, single, Christian friend of mine recently told me that she got a promotion. The only problem, she said, is that she’d rather be a stay-at-home mom, “packing school lunches.”

This isn’t someone who’s simply dreaming about the greener grass on the other side of the hill. This is a gal who has sought to steward her talents for God’s glory, no matter her marital situation. In her mid-30s, she earned a graduate degree and is now in a job leveraging her strengths and bringing about great flourishing around her – both in and outside of work.

But the natural longing for family within many Christian women like her is there – it’s God-given. This is why stewarding your vocation as a Christian, single woman can often be very confusing. As you apply yourself on the job and advance in your career, it can feel like you’re getting further and further away from marriage and family. I’ve heard women say:

  • “I’m afraid that if I pursue my work with vigor that it will signal to God that I’m less interested in marriage and family” or,
  • “I’m afraid that my Ph.D. scares men away.”

As someone within this Christian, single female demographic, I wanted to share a few thoughts for my Christian sisters (and their supportive friends) from what I’ve learned along the way.

1.       Choose to be fully alive.

In a sermon on Christian singleness, my pastor said Christian singles have a choice to make as we wait for what we hope.  We could either keep our hearts alive to the Lord, or turn away from him and subdue or “kill” our hearts.

It’s comforting that Scripture recognizes the sometimes hard reality of life this side of heaven – that there is longing and disappointment: “hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” (Prov. 13:12).  What do women long for? While women do value significance and meaning in their work, they also long for relational intimacy.

Seeking intimacy with the Lord has sustained me in the “now, but not yet” aspect of life and God’s Kingdom. We are to be honest and pour out our hearts to the Lord (Ps. 62:8). This way we keep our heart alive and its longings close to the surface, though painful. As we open our hearts to God and his will, he can pour out his love and give us both a vision and a desire for what he is calling us to do today.

Choosing to be fully alive has a ripple effect on your relationships, family, and even your work. My friend who wants to make school lunches also happens to love what she does in the workplace. As she has kept her heart alive to God, he is using her in mighty ways and giving her satisfaction in her work, as she applies her talents and passions.

2.       Be fully female.

If you’re a single, Christian, working woman, you may feel like there’s not much that differentiates you from men. I’ve often put on one of those boring, unfeminine suits, jumped in the car, looked around and seen mostly men in cars around me, fighting their way to work.  I know what this feels like.

But God has made us uniquely male and female, in his image (Genesis 1:27).  The fact that he has you in the office and not at home nurturing children right now is not a mistake. Not only are you designed with specific talents and skills unique to you, your perspective as a woman adds value and richness to a work product that otherwise would only have a male perspective.

While women have different strengths, being fully feminine may mean letting your empathetic, nurturing side show through as you interact with colleagues and add your input to projects. God has also designed many women, like him, to be strong protectors of the weak and vulnerable.

Author Carolyn Custis James writes that the Hebrew word for “helper” (ezer), used to describe women in Genesis 2:18, can be defined as “strong helper,” even like a warrior. Without the work of women, our society would be a much different place.

3.       Know God.

When years pass and marriage still isn’t happening, some single women begin to lose enthusiasm about growing their skills on the job. They start to lose faith in God’s loving character. Jesus’ Parable of the Talents provides a poignant illustration that applies to those of us who have similarly struggled.

In this parable, we learn how important it is to put your faith in who God really is. Many people learn from this parable we are to invest and grow our talents for God, not “bury” them. This is true. But few understand how it also teaches that trusting in the true character of God compels us to serve him well. The servant who buried his talent said,

‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed.  So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. (Matt. 25:24-25)

The wicked servant buried his talent because he didn’t trust in the character of God. If we serve a God of love, who gave his one and only son on our behalf, then can’t we trust him with our hearts in our vocation?

The topic of Christian singleness and vocation, like life’s most pressing and difficult questions, deserves a rich theology. Whether we’re packing lunches or sitting at an office computer, we owe it to ourselves to wrestle with the Lord and Scripture to think theologically deep and soundly about our vocations.

***

Reflections:

I’ve put my life on hold for a man whom I thought would pursue me if I were just a bit more normal (read: docile, just as intelligent as him, not too career-minded). Well, he didn’t and he’s now happily married. I regret the wasted years waiting for him to make his move. I wish that I had worked towards graduate medical school (I’m too old for that now, but at least I’m in grad school for a Masters). So this article fully resonates with me as I try to live life to the fullest – serving in church, attending grad school, volunteering in community initiatives, caring for my parents. I’m not afraid to express my kooky personality and  idiosyncrasies. If I’m too strange for a man, too bad. Most of all, I realise how much God loves me and provides for me. As much as I’m learning very interesting things in grad school, my mind keeps going back to ‘how can I serve God with this newfound knowledge?’ I’m actually not sure, and I hope that will come with prayer.

Reflections on ‘How to Avoid Marrying the Wrong Christian’

This article on Her.meutics blog strengthened my conviction that I should not get married for the sake of getting married or because ‘he’s a nice-enough guy.’  The author quotes a recent study on why some continue to get married despite doubts:

Unfortunately, there are many Christian women (and men) who ignore their gnawing suspicions. They forge ahead into marriages they didn’t belong in. Why?

Gauvain lists four overarching reasons cited by the women in her survey: 1) “Age: The self-imposed biological clock is starting to tick a little louder.” 2) “Marriage will instantly make the relationship better.” 3) “It’s my last chance to get married and no one else will come along”; and, 4) “If it doesn’t work out I can always get a divorce.” I’d add a fifth and sixth reason that are specific to Christian men and women: 5) to legitimize sex, and 6) because of guilt associated with premarital sex or over having conceived a child out-of-wedlock.

I guess my reasons, if I do fall into the same snare, would be 1, 3 and 5.  Hey, I’m 31 this year and I would like to get married and have children, but I don’t see a potential partner in sight. I have dreams of a husband and a family, of self-actualisation being a wife and a mother, but I don’t see those hopes being fulfilled in the near future. I’ve missed the boat once, and some real-life experiences on missing the bus make me wonder if I should just hop onto the next bus that could take me somewhere. I hate the waiting, I hate the uncertainty, but most of all, I hate the lingering doubt that God is withholding something good from me.

I don’t think the stigma of being a lifelong single would be as painful a sting in my church, ’cause there are many other single sisters. But it doesn’t remove the stigma in the society at large. Nor does it remove the desires within.

Marry Him!

Original article here

***

The case for settling for Mr. Good Enough
By Lori Gottlieb
About six months after my son was born, he and I were sitting on a blanket at the park with a close friend and her daughter. It was a sunny summer weekend, and other parents and their kids picnicked nearby—mothers munching berries and lounging on the grass, fathers tossing balls with their giddy toddlers. My friend and I, who, in fits of self-empowerment, had conceived our babies with donor sperm because we hadn’t met Mr. Right yet, surveyed the idyllic scene.

“Ah, this is the dream,” I said, and we nodded in silence for a minute, then burst out laughing. In some ways, I meant it: we’d both dreamed of motherhood, and here we were, picnicking in the park with our children. But it was also decidedly not the dream. The dream, like that of our mothers and their mothers from time immemorial, was to fall in love, get married, and live happily ever after. Of course, we’d be loath to admit it in this day and age, but ask any soul-baring 40-year-old single heterosexual woman what she most longs for in life, and she probably won’t tell you it’s a better career or a smaller waistline or a bigger apartment. Most likely, she’ll say that what she really wants is a husband (and, by extension, a child).

To the outside world, of course, we still call ourselves feminists and insist—vehemently, even—that we’re independent and self-sufficient and don’t believe in any of that damsel-in-distress stuff, but in reality, we aren’t fish who can do without a bicycle, we’re women who want a traditional family. And despite growing up in an era when the centuries-old mantra to get married young was finally (and, it seemed, refreshingly) replaced by encouragement to postpone that milestone in pursuit of high ideals (education! career! but also true love!), every woman I know—no matter how successful and ambitious, how financially and emotionally secure—feels panic, occasionally coupled with desperation, if she hits 30 and finds herself unmarried.

Oh, I know—I’m guessing there are single 30-year-old women reading this right now who will be writing letters to the editor to say that the women I know aren’t widely representative, that I’ve been co-opted by the cult of the feminist backlash, and basically, that I have no idea what I’m talking about. And all I can say is, if you say you’re not worried, either you’re in denial or you’re lying. In fact, take a good look in the mirror and try to convince yourself that you’re not worried, because you’ll see how silly your face looks when you’re being disingenuous.

Whether you acknowledge it or not, there’s good reason to worry. By the time 35th-birthday-brunch celebrations roll around for still-single women, serious, irreversible life issues masquerading as “jokes” creep into public conversation: Well, I don’t feel old, but my eggs sure do! or Maybe this year I’ll marry Todd. I’m not getting any younger! The birthday girl smiles a bit too widely as she delivers these lines, and everyone laughs a little too hard for a little too long, not because we find these sentiments funny, but because we’re awkwardly acknowledging how unfunny they are. At their core, they pose one of the most complicated, painful, and pervasive dilemmas many single women are forced to grapple with nowadays: Is it better to be alone, or to settle?

My advice is this: Settle! That’s right. Don’t worry about passion or intense connection. Don’t nix a guy based on his annoying habit of yelling “Bravo!” in movie theaters. Overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics. Because if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go. Based on my observations, in fact, settling will probably make you happier in the long run, since many of those who marry with great expectations become more disillusioned with each passing year. (It’s hard to maintain that level of zing when the conversation morphs into discussions about who’s changing the diapers or balancing the checkbook.)

Obviously, I wasn’t always an advocate of settling. In fact, it took not settling to make me realize that settling is the better option, and even though settling is a rampant phenomenon, talking about it in a positive light makes people profoundly uncomfortable. Whenever I make the case for settling, people look at me with creased brows of disapproval or frowns of disappointment, the way a child might look at an older sibling who just informed her that Jerry’s Kids aren’t going to walk, even if you send them money. It’s not only politically incorrect to get behind settling, it’s downright un-American. Our culture tells us to keep our eyes on the prize (while our mothers, who know better, tell us not to be so picky), and the theme of holding out for true love (whatever that is—look at the divorce rate) permeates our collective mentality.

Even situation comedies, starting in the 1970s with The Mary Tyler Moore Show and going all the way to Friends, feature endearing single women in the dating trenches, and there’s supposed to be something romantic and even heroic about their search for true love. Of course, the crucial difference is that, whereas the earlier series begins after Mary has been jilted by her fiancé, the more modern-day Friends opens as Rachel Green leaves her nice-guy orthodontist fiancé at the altar simply because she isn’t feeling it. But either way, in episode after episode, as both women continue to be unlucky in love, settling starts to look pretty darn appealing. Mary is supposed to be contentedly independent and fulfilled by her newsroom family, but in fact her life seems lonely. Are we to assume that at the end of the series, Mary, by then in her late 30s, found her soul mate after the lights in the newsroom went out and her work family was disbanded? If her experience was anything like mine or that of my single friends, it’s unlikely.

And while Rachel and her supposed soul mate, Ross, finally get together (for the umpteenth time) in the finale of Friends, do we feel confident that she’ll be happier with Ross than she would have been had she settled down with Barry, the orthodontist, 10 years earlier? She and Ross have passion but have never had long-term stability, and the fireworks she experiences with him but not with Barry might actually turn out to be a liability, given how many times their relationship has already gone up in flames. It’s equally questionable whether Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw, who cheated on her kindhearted and generous boyfriend, Aidan, only to end up with the more exciting but self-absorbed Mr. Big, will be better off in the framework of marriage and family. (Some time after the breakup, when Carrie ran into Aidan on the street, he was carrying his infant in a Baby Björn. Can anyone imagine Mr. Big walking around with a Björn?)

When we’re holding out for deep romantic love, we have the fantasy that this level of passionate intensity will make us happier. But marrying Mr. Good Enough might be an equally viable option, especially if you’re looking for a stable, reliable life companion. Madame Bovary might not see it that way, but if she’d remained single, I’ll bet she would have been even more depressed than she was while living with her tedious but caring husband.

What I didn’t realize when I decided, in my 30s, to break up with boyfriends I might otherwise have ended up marrying, is that while settling seems like an enormous act of resignation when you’re looking at it from the vantage point of a single person, once you take the plunge and do it, you’ll probably be relatively content. It sounds obvious now, but I didn’t fully appreciate back then that what makes for a good marriage isn’t necessarily what makes for a good romantic relationship. Once you’re married, it’s not about whom you want to go on vacation with; it’s about whom you want to run a household with. Marriage isn’t a passion-fest; it’s more like a partnership formed to run a very small, mundane, and often boring nonprofit business. And I mean this in a good way.

I don’t mean to say that settling is ideal. I’m simply saying that it might have gotten an undeservedly bad rap. As the only single woman in my son’s mommy-and-me group, I used to listen each week to a litany of unrelenting complaints about people’s husbands and feel pretty good about my decision to hold out for the right guy, only to realize that these women wouldn’t trade places with me for a second, no matter how dull their marriages might be or how desperately they might long for a different husband. They, like me, would rather feel alone in a marriage than actually be alone, because they, like me, realize that marriage ultimately isn’t about cosmic connection—it’s about how having a teammate, even if he’s not the love of your life, is better than not having one at all.

The couples my friend and I saw at the park that summer were enviable but not because they seemed so in love—they were enviable because the husbands played with the kids for 20 minutes so their wives could eat lunch. In practice, my married friends with kids don’t spend that much time with their husbands anyway (between work and child care), and in many cases, their biggest complaint seems to be that they never see each other. So if you rarely see your husband—but he’s a decent guy who takes out the trash and sets up the baby gear, and he provides a second income that allows you to spend time with your child instead of working 60 hours a week to support a family on your own—how much does it matter whether the guy you marry is The One?

It’s not that I’ve become jaded to the point that I don’t believe in, or even crave, romantic connection. It’s that my understanding of it has changed. In my formative years, romance was John Cusack and Ione Skye in Say Anything. But when I think about marriage nowadays, my role models are the television characters Will and Grace, who, though Will was gay and his relationship with Grace was platonic, were one of the most romantic couples I can think of. What I long for in a marriage is that sense of having a partner in crime. Someone who knows your day-to-day trivia. Someone who both calls you on your bullshit and puts up with your quirks. So what if Will and Grace weren’t having sex with each other? How many long- married couples are having much sex anyway?

“I just want someone who’s willing to be in the trenches with me,” my single friend Jennifer told me, “and I never thought of marriage that way before.” Two of Jennifer’s friends married men who Jennifer believes aren’t even straight, and while Jennifer wouldn’t have made that choice a few years back, she wonders whether she might be capable of it in the future. “Maybe they understood something that I didn’t,” she said.

What they understood is this: as your priorities change from romance to family, the so-called “deal breakers” change. Some guys aren’t worldly, but they’d make great dads. Or you walk into a room and start talking to this person who is 5’4″ and has an unfortunate nose, but he “gets” you. My long-married friend Renée offered this dating advice to me in an e-mail:

I would say even if he’s not the love of your life, make sure he’s someone you respect intellectually, makes you laugh, appreciates you … I bet there are plenty of these men in the older, overweight, and bald category (which they all eventually become anyway).

She wasn’t joking.

A number of my single women friends admit (in hushed voices and after I swear I won’t use their real names here) that they’d readily settle now but wouldn’t have 10 years ago. They believe that part of the problem is that we grew up idealizing marriage—and that if we’d had a more realistic understanding of its cold, hard benefits, we might have done things differently. Instead, we grew up thinking that marriage meant feeling some kind of divine spark, and so we walked away from uninspiring relationships that might have made us happy in the context of a family.

All marriages, of course, involve compromise, but where’s the cutoff? Where’s the line between compromising and settling, and at what age does that line seem to fade away? Choosing to spend your life with a guy who doesn’t delight in the small things in life might be considered settling at 30, but not at 35. By 40, if you get a cold shiver down your spine at the thought of embracing a certain guy, but you enjoy his company more than anyone else’s, is that settling or making an adult compromise?

Take the date I went on last night. The guy was substantially older. He had a long history of major depression and said, in reference to the movies he was writing, “I’m fascinated by comas” and “I have a strong interest in terrorists.” He’d never been married. He was rude to the waiter. But he very much wanted a family, and he was successful, handsome, and smart. As I looked at him from across the table, I thought, Yeah, I’ll see him again. Maybe I can settle for that. But my very next thought was, Maybe I can settle for better. It’s like musical chairs—when do you take a seat, any seat, just so you’re not left standing alone?

Back when I was still convinced I’d find my soul mate, I did, although I never articulated this, have certain requirements. I thought that the person I married would have to have a sense of wonderment about the world, would be both spontaneous and grounded, and would acknowledge that life is hard but also be able to navigate its ups and downs with humor. Many of the guys I dated possessed these qualities, but if one of them lacked a certain degree of kindness, another didn’t seem emotionally stable enough, and another’s values clashed with mine. Others were sweet but so boring that I preferred reading during dinner to sitting through another tedious conversation. I also dated someone who appeared to be highly compatible with me—we had much in common, and strong physical chemistry—but while our sensibilities were similar, they proved to be a half-note off, so we never quite felt in harmony, or never viewed the world through quite the same lens.

Now, though, I realize that if I don’t want to be alone for the rest of my life, I’m at the age where I’ll likely need to settle for someone who is settling for me. What I and many women who hold out for true love forget is that we won’t always have the same appeal that we may have had in our 20s and early 30s. Having turned 40, I now have wrinkles, bags under my eyes, and hair in places I didn’t know hair could grow on women. With my nonworking life consumed by thoughts of potty training and playdates, I’ve become a far less interesting person than the one who went on hiking adventures and performed at comedy clubs. But when I chose to have a baby on my own, the plan was that I would continue to search for true connection afterward; it certainly wasn’t that I would have a baby alone only to settle later. After all, wouldn’t it have been wiser to settle for a higher caliber of “not Mr. Right” while my marital value was at its peak?

Those of us who choose not to settle in hopes of finding a soul mate later are almost like teenagers who believe they’re invulnerable to dying in a drunk-driving accident. We lose sight of our mortality. We forget that we, too, will age and become less alluring. And even if some men do find us engaging, and they’re ready to have a family, they’ll likely decide to marry someone younger with whom they can have their own biological children. Which is all the more reason to settle before settling is no longer an option.

I’ll be the first to admit that there’s something objectionable about making the case for settling, because it’s based on the premise that women’s biological clocks place them at the mercy of men, and that therefore a power dynamic dictates what should be an affair solely of the heart (not the heart and the ovaries). But I’m not the only woman who accepts settling as a valid choice—apparently so do the millions who buy bestselling relationship books that advocate settling but that, so as not to offend, simply spin the concept as a form of female empowerment.

Take, for instance, books like Men Are Like Fish: What Every Woman Needs to Know About Catching a Man or Find a Husband After 35 Using What I Learned at Harvard Business School, whose titles alone make it clear that today’s supposedly progressive bachelorettes aren’t waiting for old-fashioned true love to strike before they can get married. Instead, they’re buying dozens of proactive coaching manuals to learn how to strategically land a man. The actual man in question, though, seems so irrelevant that, to my mind, these women might as well grab a well-dressed guy off the street, drag him into the nearest bar, buy him a drink, and ask him to marry her. (Or, to retain her “power,” she should manipulate him into asking her.)

The approaches in these books may differ, but the message is the same: more important than love is marriage. To achieve that goal, women across the country are poring over guidebooks that all boil down to determining, “Does he like me?,” while completely overlooking the equally essential question, “Do I like him?” In other words, whatever compromises you have to make—including, but not limited to, pretending to be or actually becoming an entirely different person—make sure that you get some schmo to propose to you before you turn into a spinster.

Last year’s Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women makes the most blatant case for settling: if women were more willing to “think outside the box,” as one of the book’s married sources advises, many of them would be married. The author then trots out tales of professional, accomplished women happily dating a plumber, a park ranger, and an Army helicopter nurse. The moral is supposed to be “Don’t be too picky” but many of the anecdotes quote women who seem to be trying to convince not just the reader, but themselves, that they haven’t settled.

“I should be with some guy with a vast vocabulary who is very smart,” said Heather, a 30-year-old lawyer turned journalist. Instead, she’s dating an actor who didn’t finish college. “My boyfriend is fun, he’s smart, but he hasn’t gone through years of school. He wanted to pursue acting. And you can tell—he doesn’t have that background, and it never ever once bothered me. But for everyone else, [his lack of education] is what they see.” Another woman says she dates “the ‘secrets’ … guys other women don’t recognize as great.” How’s that for damning praise?

Meanwhile, in sugarcoating this message, the authors often resort to flattery, telling the reader to remember how fabulous, attractive, charming, and intelligent she is, in the hopes that she’ll project a more confident vibe on dates. In my case, though, the flattery backfired. I read these books thinking, Wait, if I’m such a great catch, why should I settle for anyone less than my equal? If I’m so fabulous, don’t I deserve true romantic connection?

Only one popular book that I can think of in the vast “find a man” genre (like most single women confounded by their singleness, I’m embarrassingly well versed) takes the opposite approach. In He’s Just Not That Into You, written by the happily married Greg Behrendt and the unhappily single Liz Tuccillo, the duo exhorts women not to settle. But the book’s format is telling: Behrendt gives perky pep talks to women unable to find a worthy match, while Tuccillo repeatedly comments on how hard it is to take her co-author’s advice, because while being with a partner who is “beneath you” (Behrendt’s term) is problematic, being single just plain “sucks” (Tuccillo’s term).

Before I got pregnant, though, I also read single-mom books such as Choosing Single Motherhood: The Thinking Woman’s Guide, whose chapter titles “Can I Afford It?” and “Dealing With the Stress” seemed like realistic antidotes to the faux-empowering man-hunting manual headings like “A Little Lingerie Can Go a Long Way.” But the book’s author, Mikki Morrissette, held out a tantalizing carrot. In her introduction, she describes having a daughter on her own; then, she writes, a few years later and five months pregnant with her son, “I met a guy I fell in love with. He and my daughter were in the delivery room when my son was born in January 2004.” Each time I read about single women having babies on their own and thriving instead of settling for Mr. Wrong and hiring a divorce lawyer, I felt all jazzed and ready to go. At the time, I truly believed, “I can have it all—a baby now, my soul mate later!”

Well … ha! Hahahaha. And ha.

Just as the relationship books fail to mention what happens after you triumphantly land a husband (you actually have to live with each other), these single-mom books fail to mention that once you have a baby alone, not only do you age about 10 years in the first 10 months, but if you don’t have time to shower, eat, urinate in a timely manner, or even leave the house except for work, where you spend every waking moment that your child is at day care, there’s very little chance that a man—much less The One—is going to knock on your door and join that party.

They also gloss over the cost of dating as a single mom: the time and money spent on online dating (because there are no single men at toddler birthday parties); the babysitter tab for all those boring blind dates; and, most frustrating, hours spent away from your beloved child. Even women who settle but end up divorced might be in a better position than those of us who became mothers on our own, because many ex-wives get both child-support payments and a free night off when the kids go to Dad’s house for a sleepover. Never-married moms don’t get the night off. At the end of the evening, we rush home to pay the babysitter, make any houseguest tiptoe around and speak in a hushed voice, then wake up at 6 a.m. at the first cries of “Mommy!”

Try bringing a guy home to that.

Settling is mostly a women’s game. Men settle far less often and, when they do, they don’t seem the least bit bothered by the fact that they’re settling.

My friend Alan, for instance, justified his choice of a “bland” wife who’s a good mom but with whom he shares little connection this way: “I think one-stop shopping is overrated. I get passion at my office with my work, or with my friends that I sometimes call or chat with—it’s not the same, and, boy, it would be exciting to have it with my spouse. But I spend more time with people at my office than I do with my spouse.”

Then there’s my friend Chris, a single 35-year-old marketing consultant who for three years dated someone he calls “the perfect woman”—a kind and beautiful surgeon. She broke off the relationship several times because, she told him with regret, she didn’t think she wanted to spend her life with him. Each time, Chris would persuade her to reconsider, until finally she called it off for good, saying that she just couldn’t marry somebody she wasn’t in love with. Chris was devastated, but now that his ex-girlfriend has reached 35, he’s suddenly hopeful about their future.

“By the time she turns 37,” Chris said confidently, “she’ll come back. And I’ll bet she’ll marry me then. I know she wants to have kids.” I asked Chris why he would want to be with a woman who wasn’t in love with him. Wouldn’t he be settling, too, by marrying someone who would be using him to have a family? Chris didn’t see it that way at all. “She’ll be settling,” Chris said cheerfully. “But not me. I get to marry the woman of my dreams. That’s not settling. That’s the fantasy.”

Chris believes that women are far too picky: everyone knows, he says, that a single middle-aged man still has appealing prospects; a single middle-aged woman likely doesn’t. And he’s right. Single women are painfully aware of this. I hear far more women than men talk about getting married as a goal to be met by a certain deadline. My friend Gabe points out that this allows men to be the true romantics; when a man breaks up with a perfectly acceptable woman because he’s “just not feeling it,” there’s none of the ambivalence a woman with a deadline feels. “Women are the least romantic,” Gabe said. “They think, ‘I can do that.’ For a lot of women, it becomes less about love and more about what they can live with.”

Not long ago, Gabe, who is 43, dated a woman he liked very much one-on-one, but he broke up with her because “she couldn’t be haimish”—comfortable—with his friends in a group setting. He has no regrets. A female friend who broke up with a guy because he “didn’t like to read” and who is now, too, a single mom (with, ironically, no time to read herself) similarly felt no regrets—at first. At the time, she couldn’t imagine settling, but here’s the Catch-22: “If I’d settled at 39,” she said, “I always would have had the fantasy that something better exists out there. Now I know better. Either way, I was screwed.”

The paradox, of course, is that the more it behooves a woman to settle, the less willing she is to settle; a woman in her mid- to late 30s is more discriminating than one in her 20s. She has friends who have known her since childhood, friends who will know her more intimately and understand her more viscerally than any man she meets in midlife. Her tastes and sense of self are more solidly formed. She says things like “He wants me to move downtown, but I love my home at the beach,” and, “But he’s just not curious,” and “Can I really spend my life with someone who’s allergic to dogs?”

I’ve been told that the reason so many women end up alone is that we have too many choices. I think it’s the opposite: we have no choice. If we could choose, we’d choose to be in a healthy marriage based on reciprocal passion and friendship. But the only choices on the table, it sometimes seems, are settle or risk being alone forever.That’s not a whole lot of choice.

Remember the movie Broadcast News? Holly Hunter’s dilemma—the choice between passion and friendship—is exactly the one many women over 30 are faced with. In the end, Holly Hunter’s character decides to wait for the right guy, but he (of course) never materializes. Meanwhile, her emotional soul mate, the Albert Brooks character, gets married (of course) and has children.

And no matter what women decide—settle or don’t settle—there’s a price to be paid, because there’s always going to be regret. Unless you meet the man of your dreams (who, by the way, doesn’t exist, precisely because you dreamed him up), there’s going to be a downside to getting married, but a possibly more profound downside to holding out for someone better.

My friend Jennifer summed it up this way: “When I used to hear women complaining bitterly about their husbands, I’d think, ‘How sad, they settled.’ Now it’s like, ‘God, that would be nice.’”

That’s why mothers tell their daughters to “keep an open mind” about the guy who spends his weekends playing Internet poker or touches your back for two minutes while watching ESPN and calls that “a massage.” The more-pertinent questions, to most concerned mothers of daughters in their 30s, have to do with whether the daughter’s boyfriend will make a good father; or, if he’s a workaholic, whether he can provide the environment for her to be a good mother. As my own mother once advised me, when I was dating a musician, “Everyone settles to some degree. You might as well settle pragmatically.”

I know all this now, and yet—here’s the problem—much as I’d like to settle, I can’t seem to do it. It’s not that I have to be dazzled by a guy anymore (though it would be nice). It’s not even that I have to think about him when he’s not around (though that would be nice, too). Nor is it that I’m unable to accept reality and make significant compromises because that’s what grown-ups do (I can and have—I had a baby on my own).

No, the problem is that the very nature of dating leaves women my age to wrestle with a completely different level of settling. It’s no longer a matter, as it was in my early 30s, of “just not feeling it,” of wanting to be in love. Consider the men whom older women I know have married in varying degrees of desperation over the past few years: a recovering alcoholic who doesn’t always go to his meetings; a trying-to-make-it-in-his-40s actor; a widower who has three nightmarish kids and who’s still actively grieving for his dead wife; and a socially awkward engineer (so socially awkward that he declined to attend his wife’s book party). It’s not that these women are crazy; it’s that the dating pool has dwindled dramatically and that, due to gender politics, the few available men tend to require far more of a concession than those who were single when we were younger. And while I have a much higher tolerance for settling than I did back then, now I have my son to consider. It’s one thing to settle for a subpar mate; it’s quite another to settle for a subpar father figure for my child. So while there’s more incentive to settle now, there’s less willingness to settle too much, because that would be a disservice to my son.

This doesn’t undermine my case for settling. Instead, it supports my argument to do it young, when settling involves constructing a family environment with a perfectly acceptable man who may not trip your romantic trigger—as opposed to doing it older, when settling involves selling your very soul in exchange for damaged goods. Admittedly, it’s a dicey case to make because, like the divorced women I know who claim they wouldn’t have done anything differently, because then they wouldn’t have Biff and Buffy, I, too, can’t imagine life without my magical son. (Although, had I had children with a Mr. Good Enough, wouldn’t I be as hopelessly in love with those children, too?) I also acknowledge the power of the grass-is-always-greener phenomenon, and allow for the possibility that my life alone is better (if far more difficult) than the life I would have in a comfortable but tepid marriage.

But then my married friends say things like, “Oh, you’re so lucky, you don’t have to negotiate with your husband about the cost of piano lessons” or “You’re so lucky, you don’t have anyone putting the kid in front of the TV and you can raise your son the way you want.” I’ll even hear things like, “You’re so lucky, you don’t have to have sex with someone you don’t want to.”

The lists go on, and each time, I say, “OK, if you’re so unhappy, and if I’m so lucky, leave your husband! In fact, send him over here!”

Not one person has taken me up on this offer.

All the Single Ladies

Original article here

***

Recent years have seen an explosion of male joblessness and a steep decline in men’s life prospects that have disrupted the “romantic market” in ways that narrow a marriage-minded woman’s options: increasingly, her choice is between deadbeats (whose numbers are rising) and playboys (whose power is growing). But this strange state of affairs also presents an opportunity: as the economy evolves, it’s time to embrace new ideas about romance and family—and to acknowledge the end of “traditional” marriage as society’s highest ideal.

By Kate Bolick

In 2001, when I was 28, I broke up with my boyfriend. Allan and I had been together for three years, and there was no good reason to end things. He was (and remains) an exceptional person, intelligent, good-looking, loyal, kind. My friends, many of whom were married or in marriage-track relationships, were bewildered. I was bewildered. To account for my behavior, all I had were two intangible yet undeniable convictions: something was missing; I wasn’t ready to settle down.The period that followed was awful. I barely ate for sobbing all the time. (A friend who suffered my company a lot that summer sent me a birthday text this past July: “A decade ago you and I were reuniting, and you were crying a lot.”) I missed Allan desperately—his calm, sure voice; the sweetly fastidious way he folded his shirts. On good days, I felt secure that I’d done the right thing. Learning to be alone would make me a better person, and eventually a better partner. On bad days, I feared I would be alone forever. Had I made the biggest mistake of my life?

Ten years later, I occasionally ask myself the same question. Today I am 39, with too many ex-boyfriends to count and, I am told, two grim-seeming options to face down: either stay single or settle for a “good enough” mate. At this point, certainly, falling in love and getting married may be less a matter of choice than a stroke of wild great luck. A decade ago, luck didn’t even cross my mind. I’d been in love before, and I’d be in love again. This wasn’t hubris so much as naïveté; I’d had serious, long-term boyfriends since my freshman year of high school, and simply couldn’t envision my life any differently.

Well, there was a lot I didn’t know 10 years ago. The decision to end a stable relationship for abstract rather than concrete reasons (“something was missing”), I see now, is in keeping with a post-Boomer ideology that values emotional fulfillment above all else. And the elevation of independence over coupling (“I wasn’t ready to settle down”) is a second-wave feminist idea I’d acquired from my mother, who had embraced it, in part, I suspect, to correct for her own choices.

I was her first and only recruit, marching off to third grade in tiny green or blue T-shirts declaring: A Woman Without a Man Is Like a Fish Without a Bicycle, or: A Woman’s Place Is in the House—and the Senate, and bellowing along to Gloria Steinem & Co.’s feminist-minded children’s album, Free to Be … You and Me (released the same year Title IX was passed, also the year of my birth). Marlo Thomas and Alan Alda’s retelling of “Atalanta,” the ancient Greek myth about a fleet-footed princess who longs to travel the world before finding her prince, became the theme song of my life. Once, in high school, driving home from a family vacation, my mother turned to my boyfriend and me cuddling in the backseat and said, “Isn’t it time you two started seeing other people?” She adored Brian—he was invited on family vacations! But my future was to be one of limitless possibilities, where getting married was something I’d do when I was ready, to a man who was in every way my equal, and she didn’t want me to get tied down just yet.

This unfettered future was the promise of my time and place. I spent many a golden afternoon at my small New England liberal-arts college debating with friends the merits of leg-shaving and whether or not we’d take our husband’s surname. (Even then, our concerns struck me as retro; hadn’t the women’s libbers tackled all this stuff already?) We took for granted that we’d spend our 20s finding ourselves, whatever that meant, and save marriage for after we’d finished graduate school and launched our careers, which of course would happen at the magical age of 30.

That we would marry, and that there would always be men we wanted to marry, we took on faith. How could we not? One of the many ways in which our lives differed from our mothers’ was in the variety of our interactions with the opposite sex. Men were our classmates and colleagues, our bosses and professors, as well as, in time, our students and employees and subordinates—an entire universe of prospective friends, boyfriends, friends with benefits, and even ex-boyfriends-turned-friends. In this brave new world, boundaries were fluid, and roles constantly changing. Allan and I had met when we worked together at a magazine in Boston (full disclosure: this one), where I was an assistant and he an editor; two years later, he quit his job to follow me to New York so that I could go to graduate school and he could focus on his writing. After the worst of our breakup, we eventually found our way to a friendship so deep and sustaining that several years ago, when he got engaged, his fiancée suggested that I help him buy his wedding suit. As he and I toured through Manhattan’s men’s-wear ateliers, we enjoyed explaining to the confused tailors and salesclerks that no, no, we weren’t getting married. Isn’t life funny that way?

I retell that moment as an aside, as if it’s a tangent to the larger story, but in a way, it is the story. In 1969, when my 25-year-old mother, a college-educated high-school teacher, married a handsome lawyer-to-be, most women her age were doing more or less the same thing. By the time she was in her mid-30s, she was raising two small children and struggling to find a satisfying career. She’d never had sex with anyone but my father. Could she have even envisioned herself on a shopping excursion with an ex-lover, never mind one who was getting married while she remained alone? And the ex-lover’s fiancée being so generous and open-minded as to suggest the shopping trip to begin with?

What my mother could envision was a future in which I made my own choices. I don’t think either of us could have predicted what happens when you multiply that sense of agency by an entire generation.

But what transpired next lay well beyond the powers of everybody’s imagination: as women have climbed ever higher, men have been falling behind. We’ve arrived at the top of the staircase, finally ready to start our lives, only to discover a cavernous room at the tail end of a party, most of the men gone already, some having never shown up—and those who remain are leering by the cheese table, or are, you know, the ones you don’t want to go out with.

In the 1990s, Stephanie Coontz, a social historian at Evergreen State College in Washington, noticed an uptick in questions from reporters and audiences asking if the institution of marriage was falling apart. She didn’t think it was, and was struck by how everyone believed in some mythical Golden Age of Marriage and saw mounting divorce rates as evidence of the dissolution of this halcyon past. She decided to write a book discrediting the notion and proving that the ways in which we think about and construct the legal union between a man and a woman have always been in flux.

What Coontz found was even more interesting than she’d originally expected. In her fascinating Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, she surveys 5,000 years of human habits, from our days as hunters and gatherers up until the present, showing our social arrangements to be more complex and varied than could ever seem possible. She’d long known that the Leave It to Beaver–style family model popular in the 1950s and ’60s had been a flash in the pan, and like a lot of historians, she couldn’t understand how people had become so attached to an idea that had developed so late and been so short-lived.

For thousands of years, marriage had been a primarily economic and political contract between two people, negotiated and policed by their families, church, and community. It took more than one person to make a farm or business thrive, and so a potential mate’s skills, resources, thrift, and industriousness were valued as highly as personality and attractiveness. This held true for all classes. In the American colonies, wealthy merchants entrusted business matters to their landlocked wives while off at sea, just as sailors, vulnerable to the unpredictability of seasonal employment, relied on their wives’ steady income as domestics in elite households. Two-income families were the norm.

Not until the 18th century did labor begin to be divided along a sharp line: wage-earning for the men and unpaid maintenance of household and children for the women. Coontz notes that as recently as the late 17th century, women’s contributions to the family economy were openly recognized, and advice books urged husbands and wives to share domestic tasks. But as labor became separated, so did our spheres of experience—the marketplace versus the home—one founded on reason and action, the other on compassion and comfort. Not until the post-war gains of the 1950s, however, were a majority of American families able to actually afford living off a single breadwinner.

All of this was intriguing, for sure—but even more surprising to Coontz was the realization that those alarmed reporters and audiences might be onto something. Coontz still didn’t think that marriage was falling apart, but she came to see that it was undergoing a transformation far more radical than anyone could have predicted, and that our current attitudes and arrangements are without precedent. “Today we are experiencing a historical revolution every bit as wrenching, far-reaching, and irreversible as the Industrial Revolution,” she wrote.

Last summer I called Coontz to talk to her about this revolution. “We are without a doubt in the midst of an extraordinary sea change,” she told me. “The transformation is momentous—immensely liberating and immensely scary. When it comes to what people actually want and expect from marriage and relationships, and how they organize their sexual and romantic lives, all the old ways have broken down.”

For starters, we keep putting marriage off. In 1960, the median age of first marriage in the U.S. was 23 for men and 20 for women; today it is 28 and 26. Today, a smaller proportion of American women in their early 30s are married than at any other point since the 1950s, if not earlier. We’re also marrying less—with a significant degree of change taking place in just the past decade and a half. In 1997, 29 percent of my Gen X cohort was married; among today’s Millennials that figure has dropped to 22 percent. (Compare that with 1960, when more than half of those ages 18 to 29 had already tied the knot.) These numbers reflect major attitudinal shifts. According to the Pew Research Center, a full 44 percent of Millennials and 43 percent of Gen Xers think that marriage is becoming obsolete.

Even more momentously, we no longer need husbands to have children, nor do we have to have children if we don’t want to. For those who want their own biological child, and haven’t found the right man, now is a good time to be alive. Biological parenthood in a nuclear family need not be the be-all and end-all of womanhood—and in fact it increasingly is not. Today 40 percent of children are born to single mothers. This isn’t to say all of these women preferred that route, but the fact that so many upper-middle-class women are choosing to travel it—and that gays and lesbians (married or single) and older women are also having children, via adoption or in vitro fertilization—has helped shrink the stigma against single motherhood. Even as single motherhood is no longer a disgrace, motherhood itself is no longer compulsory. Since 1976, the percentage of women in their early 40s who have not given birth has nearly doubled. A childless single woman of a certain age is no longer automatically perceived as a barren spinster.

Of course, between the diminishing external pressure to have children and the common misperception that our biology is ours to control, some of us don’t deal with the matter in a timely fashion. Like me, for instance. Do I want children? My answer is: I don’t know. But somewhere along the way, I decided to not let my biology dictate my romantic life. If I find someone I really like being with, and if he and I decide we want a child together, and it’s too late for me to conceive naturally, I’ll consider whatever technological aid is currently available, or adopt (and if he’s not open to adoption, he’s not the kind of man I want to be with).

Do I realize that this further narrows my pool of prospects? Yes. Just as I am fully aware that with each passing year, I become less attractive to the men in my peer group, who have plenty of younger, more fertile women to pick from. But what can I possibly do about that? Sure, my stance here could be read as a feint, or even self-deception. By blithely deeming biology a nonissue, I’m conveniently removing myself from arguably the most significant decision a woman has to make. But that’s only if you regard motherhood as the defining feature of womanhood—and I happen not to.

Foremost among the reasons for all these changes in family structure are the gains of the women’s movement. Over the past half century, women have steadily gained on—and are in some ways surpassing—men in education and employment. From 1970 (seven years after the Equal Pay Act was passed) to 2007, women’s earnings grew by 44 percent, compared with 6 percent for men. In 2008, women still earned just 77 cents to the male dollar—but that figure doesn’t account for the difference in hours worked, or the fact that women tend to choose lower-paying fields like nursing or education. A 2010 study of single, childless urban workers between the ages of 22 and 30 found that the women actually earned 8 percent more than the men. Women are also more likely than men to go to college: in 2010, 55 percent of all college graduates ages 25 to 29 were female.

By themselves, the cultural and technological advances that have made my stance on childbearing plausible would be enough to reshape our understanding of the modern family—but, unfortunately, they happen to be dovetailing with another set of developments that can be summed up as: the deterioration of the male condition. As Hanna Rosin laid out in these pages last year (“The End of Men,” July/August 2010), men have been rapidly declining—in income, in educational attainment, and in future employment prospects—relative to women. As of last year, women held 51.4 percent of all managerial and professional positions, up from 26 percent in 1980. Today women outnumber men not only in college but in graduate school; they earned 60 percent of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees awarded in 2010, and men are now more likely than women to hold only a high-school diploma.

No one has been hurt more by the arrival of the post-industrial economy than the stubbornly large pool of men without higher education. An analysis by Michael Greenstone, an economist at MIT, reveals that, after accounting for inflation, male median wages have fallen by 32 percent since their peak in 1973, once you account for the men who have stopped working altogether. The Great Recession accelerated this imbalance. Nearly three-quarters of the 7.5 million jobs lost in the depths of the recession were lost by men, making 2010 the first time in American history that women made up the majority of the workforce. Men have since then regained a small portion of the positions they’d lost—but they remain in a deep hole, and most of the jobs that are least likely ever to come back are in traditionally male-dominated sectors, like manufacturing and construction.

The implications are extraordinary. If, in all sectors of society, women are on the ascent, and if gender parity is actually within reach, this means that a marriage regime based on men’s overwhelming economic dominance may be passing into extinction. As long as women were denied the financial and educational opportunities of men, it behooved them to “marry up”—how else would they improve their lot? (As Maureen Dowd memorably put it in her 2005 book, Are Men Necessary?, “Females are still programmed to look for older men with resources, while males are still programmed to look for younger women with adoring gazes.”) Now that we can pursue our own status and security, and are therefore liberated from needing men the way we once did, we are free to like them more, or at least more idiosyncratically, which is how love ought to be, isn’t it?

My friend B., who is tall and gorgeous, jokes that she could have married an NBA player, but decided to go with the guy she can talk to all night—a graphic artist who comes up to her shoulder. C., the editorial force behind some of today’s most celebrated novels, is a modern-day Venus de Milo—with a boyfriend 14 years her junior. Then there are those women who choose to forgo men altogether. Sonia Sotomayor isn’t merely a powerful woman in a black robe—she’s also a stellar example of what it can mean to exercise authority over every single aspect of your personal life. When Gloria Steinem said, in the 1970s, “We’re becoming the men we wanted to marry,” I doubt even she realized the prescience of her words.

But while the rise of women has been good for everyone, the decline of males has obviously been bad news for men—and bad news for marriage. For all the changes the institution has undergone, American women as a whole have never been confronted with such a radically shrinking pool of what are traditionally considered to be “marriageable” men—those who are better educated and earn more than they do. So women are now contending with what we might call the new scarcity. Even as women have seen their range of options broaden in recent years—for instance, expanding the kind of men it’s culturally acceptable to be with, and making it okay not to marry at all—the new scarcity disrupts what economists call the “marriage market” in a way that in fact narrows the available choices, making a good man harder to find than ever. At the rate things are going, the next generation’s pool of good men will be significantly smaller. What does this portend for the future of the American family?

Every so often, society experiences a “crisis in gender” (as some academics have called it) that radically transforms the social landscape.

Take the years after the Civil War, when America reeled from the loss of close to 620,000 men, the majority of them from the South. An article published last year in The Journal of Southern History reported that in 1860, there were 104 marriageable white men for every 100 white women; in 1870, that number dropped to 87.5. A generation of Southern women found themselves facing a “marriage squeeze.” They could no longer assume that they would become wives and mothers—a terrifying prospect in an era when women relied on marriage for social acceptability and financial resources.

Instead, they were forced to ask themselves: Will I marry a man who has poor prospects (“marrying down,” in sociological parlance)? Will I marry a man much older, or much younger? Will I remain alone, a spinster? Diaries and letters from the period reveal a populace fraught with insecurity. As casualties mounted, expectations dropped, and women resigned themselves to lives without husbands, or simply lowered their standards. (In 1862, a Confederate nurse named Ada Bacot described in her diary the lamentable fashion “of a woman marring a man younger than herself.”) Their fears were not unfounded—the mean age at first marriage did rise—but in time, approximately 92 percent of these Southern-born white women found someone to partner with. The anxious climate, however, as well as the extremely high levels of widowhood—nearly one-third of Southern white women over the age of 40 were widows in 1880—persisted.

Or take 1940s Russia, which lost some 20 million men and 7 million women to World War II. In order to replenish the population, the state instituted an aggressive pro-natalist policy to support single mothers. Mie Nakachi, a historian at Hokkaido University, in Japan, has outlined its components: mothers were given generous subsidies and often put up in special sanatoria during pregnancy and childbirth; the state day-care system expanded to cover most children from infancy; and penalties were brandished for anyone who perpetuated the stigma against conceiving out of wedlock. In 1944, a new Family Law was passed, which essentially freed men from responsibility for illegitimate children; in effect, the state took on the role of “husband.” As a result of this policy—and of the general dearth of males—men moved at will from house to house, where they were expected to do nothing and were treated like kings; a generation of children were raised without reliable fathers, and women became the “responsible” gender. This family pattern was felt for decades after the war.

Indeed, Siberia today is suffering such an acute “man shortage” (due in part to massive rates of alcoholism) that both men and women have lobbied the Russian parliament to legalize polygamy. In 2009, The Guardian cited Russian politicians’ claims that polygamy would provide husbands for “10 million lonely women.” In endorsing polygamy, these women, particularly those in remote rural areas without running water, may be less concerned with loneliness than with something more pragmatic: help with the chores. Caroline Humphrey, a Cambridge University anthropologist who has studied the region, said women supporters believed the legalization of polygamy would be a “godsend,” giving them “rights to a man’s financial and physical support, legitimacy for their children, and rights to state benefits.”

Our own “crisis in gender” isn’t a literal imbalance—America as a whole currently enjoys a healthy population ratio of 50.8 percent females and 49.2 percent males. But our shrinking pool of traditionally “marriageable” men is dramatically changing our social landscape, and producing startling dynamics in the marriage market, in ways that aren’t immediately apparent.

In their 1983 book, Too Many Women? The Sex Ratio Question, two psychologists developed what has become known as the Guttentag-Secord theory, which holds that members of the gender in shorter supply are less dependent on their partners, because they have a greater number of alternative relationships available to them; that is, they have greater “dyadic power” than members of the sex in oversupply. How this plays out, however, varies drastically between genders.

In societies where men heavily outnumber women—in what’s known as a “high-sex-ratio society”—women are valued and treated with deference and respect and use their high dyadic power to create loving, committed bonds with their partners and raise families. Rates of illegitimacy and divorce are low. Women’s traditional roles as mothers and homemakers are held in high esteem. In such situations, however, men also use the power of their greater numbers to limit women’s economic and political strength, and female literacy and labor-force participation drop.

One might hope that in low-sex-ratio societies—where women outnumber men—women would have the social and sexual advantage. (After all, didn’t the mythical all-female nation of Amazons capture men and keep them as their sex slaves?) But that’s not what happens: instead, when confronted with a surplus of women, men become promiscuous and unwilling to commit to a monogamous relationship. (Which, I suppose, might explain the Amazons’ need to keep men in slave quarters.) In societies with too many women, the theory holds, fewer people marry, and those who do marry do so later in life. Because men take advantage of the variety of potential partners available to them, women’s traditional roles are not valued, and because these women can’t rely on their partners to stick around, more turn to extrafamilial ambitions like education and career.

In 1988, the sociologists Scott J. South and Katherine Trent set out to test the Guttentag-Secord theory by analyzing data from 117 countries. Most aspects of the theory tested out. In each country, more men meant more married women, less divorce, and fewer women in the workforce. South and Trent also found that the Guttentag-Secord dynamics were more pronounced in developed rather than developing countries. In other words—capitalist men are pigs.

I kid! And yet, as a woman who spent her early 30s actively putting off marriage, I have had ample time to investigate, if you will, the prevailing attitudes of the high-status American urban male. (Granted, given my taste for brainy, creatively ambitious men—or “scrawny nerds,” as a high-school friend describes them—my sample is skewed.) My spotty anecdotal findings have revealed that, yes, in many cases, the more successful a man is (or thinks he is), the less interested he is in commitment.Take the high-powered magazine editor who declared on our first date that he was going to spend his 30s playing the field. Or the prominent academic who announced on our fifth date that he couldn’t maintain a committed emotional relationship but was very interested in a physical one. Or the novelist who, after a month of hanging out, said he had to get back out there and tomcat around, but asked if we could keep having sex anyhow, or at least just one last time. Or the writer (yes, another one) who announced after six months together that he had to end things because he “couldn’t continue fending off all the sexual offers.” And those are just the honest ones.

To be sure, these men were the outliers—the majority of my personal experience has been with commitment-minded men with whom things just didn’t work out, for one reason or another. Indeed, another of my anecdotal-research discoveries is of what an ex calls “marriage o’clock”—when a man hits 35 and suddenly, desperately, wants a wife. I’ll never forget the post-first-date e-mail message reading: “I wanted to marry you last night, just listening to you.” Nor the 40-ish journalist who, on our second date, driving down a long country road, gripped the steering wheel and asked, “Are you The One? Are you The One?” (Can you imagine a woman getting away with this kind of behavior?) Like zealous lepidopterists, they swoop down with their butterfly nets, fingers aimed for the thorax, certain that just because they are ready for marriage and children, I must be, too.

But the non-committers are out there in growing force. If dating and mating is in fact a marketplace—and of course it is—today we’re contending with a new “dating gap,” where marriage-minded women are increasingly confronted with either deadbeats or players. For evidence, we don’t need to look to the past, or abroad—we have two examples right in front of us: the African American community, and the college campus.

In August I traveled to Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, a small, predominantly African American borough on the eastern edge of Pittsburgh. A half-century ago, it was known as “The Holy City” for its preponderance of churches. Today, the cobblestoned streets are lined with defeated clapboard houses that look as if the spirit’s been sucked right out of them.

I was there to spend the afternoon with Denean, a 34-year-old nurse who was living in one such house with three of her four children (the eldest is 19 and lived across town) and, these days, a teenage niece. Denean is pretty and slender, with a wry, deadpan humor. For 10 years she worked for a health-care company, but she was laid off in January. She is twice divorced; no two of her children share a father. In February, when she learned (on Facebook) that her second child, 15-year-old Ronicka, was pregnant, Denean slumped down on her enormous slate-gray sofa and didn’t get up for 10 hours.

“I had done everything I could to make sure she didn’t end up like me, and now this,” she told me.

It was a clear, warm day, and we were clustered on the front porch—Denean, Ronicka, and I, along with Denean’s niece, Keira, 18, and Denean’s friend Chantal, 28, a single mother whose daughter goes to day care with Denean’s youngest. The affection between these four high-spirited women was light and infectious, and they spoke knowingly about the stigmas they’re up against. “That’s right,” Denean laughed, “we’re your standard bunch of single black moms!”

Given the crisis in gender it has suffered through for the past half century, the African American population might as well be a separate nation. An astonishing 70 percent of black women are unmarried, and they are more than twice as likely as white women to remain that way. Those black women who do marry are more likely than any other group of women to “marry down.” This is often chalked up to high incarceration rates—in 2009, of the nearly 1.5 million men in prison, 39 percent were black—but it’s more than that. Across all income levels, black men have dropped far behind black women professionally and educationally; women with college degrees outnumber men 2-to-1. In August, the unemployment rate among black men age 20 or older exceeded 17 percent.

In his book, Is Marriage for White People?, Ralph Richard Banks, a law professor at Stanford, argues that the black experience of the past half century is a harbinger for society at large. “When you’re writing about black people, white people may assume it’s unconnected to them,” he told me when I got him on the phone. It might seem easy to dismiss Banks’s theory that what holds for blacks may hold for nonblacks, if only because no other group has endured such a long history of racism, and racism begets singular ills. But the reality is that what’s happened to the black family is already beginning to happen to the white family. In 1950, 64 percent of African American women were married—roughly the same percentage as white women. By 1965, African American marriage rates had declined precipitously, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan was famously declaring black families a “tangle of pathology.” Black marriage rates have fallen drastically in the years since—but then, so have white marriage rates. In 1965, when Moynihan wrote with such concern about the African American family, fewer than 25 percent of black children were born out of wedlock; in 2011, considerably more than 25 percent of white children are.

This erosion of traditional marriage and family structure has played out most dramatically among low-income groups, both black and white. According to the sociologist William Julius Wilson, inner-city black men struggled badly in the 1970s, as manufacturing plants shut down or moved to distant suburbs. These men naturally resented their downward mobility, and had trouble making the switch to service jobs requiring a very different style of self-presentation. The joblessness and economic insecurity that resulted created a host of problems, and made many men altogether unmarriable. Today, as manufacturing jobs disappear nationwide (American manufacturing shed about a third of its jobs during the first decade of this century), the same phenomenon may be under way, but on a much larger scale.

Just as the decline of marriage in the black underclass augured the decline of marriage in the white underclass, the decline of marriage in the black middle class has prefigured the decline of marriage in the white middle class. In the 1990s, the author Terry McMillan climbed the best-seller list (and box-office charts) with novels like Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back, which provided incisive glimpses of life and frustrated romance among middle-class black women, where the prospect of marrying a black man often seemed more or less hopeless. (As she writes in Waiting to Exhale: “[Successful black men have] taken these stupid statistics about us to heart and are having the time of their lives. They do not hold themselves accountable to anybody for anything, and they’re getting away with murder … They lie to us without a conscience, they fuck as many of us at a time as they want to.”) Today, with the precipitous economic and social decline of men of all races, it’s easy to see why women of any race would feel frustrated by their romantic prospects. (Is it any wonder marriage rates have fallen?) Increasingly, this extends to the upper-middle class, too: early last year, a study by the Pew Research Center reported that professionally successful, college-educated women were confronted with a shrinking pool of like-minded marriage prospects.

“If you’re a successful black man in New York City, one of the most appealing and sought-after men around, your options are plentiful,” Banks told me. “Why marry if you don’t have to?” (Or, as he quotes one black man in his book, “If you have four quality women you’re dating and they’re in a rotation, who’s going to rush into a marriage?”) Banks’s book caused a small stir by suggesting that black women should expand their choices by marrying outside their race—a choice that the women of Terry McMillan’s novels would have found at best unfortunate and at worst an abhorrent betrayal. As it happens, the father of Chantal’s child is white, and Denean has dated across the color line. But in any event, the decline in the economic prospects of white men means that marrying outside their race can expand African American women’s choices only so far. Increasingly, the new dating gap—where women are forced to choose between deadbeats and players—trumps all else, in all socioeconomic brackets.

The early 1990s witnessed the dawn of “hookup culture” at universities, as colleges stopped acting in loco parentis, and undergraduates, heady with freedom, started throwing themselves into a frenzy of one-night stands. Depending on whom you ask, this has either liberated young women from being ashamed of their sexual urges, or forced them into a promiscuity they didn’t ask for. Young men, apparently, couldn’t be happier.

According to Robert H. Frank, an economist at Cornell who has written on supply and demand in the marriage market, this shouldn’t be surprising. When the available women significantly outnumber men, which is the case on many campuses today, “courtship behavior changes in the direction of what men want,” he told me recently. If women greatly outnumber men, he says, social norms against casual sex will weaken. He qualifies this by explaining that no matter how unbalanced the overall sex ratio may become (in either direction), “there will always be specific men and women who are in high demand as romantic partners—think Penélope Cruz and George Clooney.” But even Cruz and Clooney, Frank says, will be affected by changing mores. The likelihood increases “that even a highly sought-after woman will engage in casual sex, even though she would have sufficient market power to defy prevailing norms.” If a woman with the “market power” of a Penélope Cruz is affected by this, what are the rest of us to do?Whether the sexual double standard is cultural or biological, it’s finding traction in the increasingly lopsided sexual marketplace that is the American college campus, where women outnumber men, 57 percent to 43 percent. In 2010, The New York Times ran a much-discussed article chronicling this phenomenon. “If a guy is not getting what he wants, he can quickly and abruptly go to the next one, because there are so many of us,” a University of Georgia co-ed told The Times, reporting that at college parties and bars, she will often see two guys being fawned over by six provocatively dressed women. The alternative is just to give up on dating and romance because “there are no guys,” as a University of North Carolina student put it.

Last year, a former management consultant named Susan Walsh tried to dig a little deeper. She applied what economists call the Pareto principle—the idea that for many events, roughly 20 percent of the causes create 80 percent of the effects—to the college dating market, and concluded that only 20 percent of the men (those considered to have the highest status) are having 80 percent of the sex, with only 20 percent of the women (those with the greatest sexual willingness); the remaining 80 percent, male and female, sit out the hookup dance altogether. (Surprisingly, a 2007 study commissioned by the Justice Department suggested that male virgins outnumber female virgins on campus.) As Walsh puts it, most of the leftover men are “have nots” in terms of access to sex, and most of the women—both those who are hooking up and those who are not—are “have nots” in terms of access to male attention that leads to commitment. (Of course, plenty of women are perfectly happy with casual, no-strings sex, but they are generally considered to be in the minority.) Yet the myth of everyone having sex all the time is so pervasive that it’s assumed to be true, which distorts how young men and women relate. “I think the 80/20 principle is the key to understanding the situation we find ourselves in—one in which casual sex is the cultural norm, despite the fact that most people would actually prefer something quite different,” Walsh told me.

I became aware of Walsh this past summer when I happened upon her blog, HookingUpSmart.com, and lost an evening to one of those late-night Internet binges, each link leading to the next, drawn into a boy-girl conversation to end all boy-girl conversations. A frumpy beige Web-site palette and pragmatic voice belie a refreshingly frank, at times even raunchy, dialogue; postings in the comments section can swell into the high hundreds—interestingly, the majority of them from men. I felt as if I’d stumbled into the online equivalent of a (progressive) school nurse’s office.

A Wharton M.B.A. and stay-at-home mother of two, Walsh began her career as a relationship adviser turned blogger six years ago, when her daughter, then a student at an all-girls high school, started dating. She began seeking counsel from Walsh, and liked what she heard, as did her friends when she told them; in time, the girls were regularly gathering around Walsh’s kitchen table to pick her brain. Soon enough, a childhood friend’s daughter, a sophomore at Boston University, started coming over with her friends. Walsh started thinking of these ’70s-style rap sessions as her own informal “focus groups,” the members of one still in high school, those of the other in college, but all of them having similar experiences. In 2008, after the younger group had left home, Walsh started the blog so they could all continue the conversation.

In July, I traveled to Walsh’s home, a handsome 19th-century Victorian hidden behind tall hedges in a quiet corner of Brookline, Massachusetts, to sit in on one of these informal roundtables. I came of age with hookup culture, but not of it, having continued through college my high-school habit of serial long-term relationships, and I wanted to hear from the front lines. What would these sexual buccaneers be like? Bold and provocative? Worn-out and embittered?

When Walsh opened the door, I could immediately see why young women find her so easy to talk to; her brunette bob frames bright green eyes and a warm, easy smile. Once everyone had arrived—five recent college graduates, all of them white and upper middle class, some employed and some still looking for work, all unmarried—we sat down to a dinner of chicken and salad in Walsh’s high-ceilinged, wood-paneled dining room to weigh in on one of the evening’s topics: man whores.

“How do you all feel about guys who get with a ton of girls?,” Walsh asked. “Do you think they have ‘trash dick’?” She’d run across this term on the Internet.

One of Walsh’s pet observations pertains to what she calls the “soft harem,” where high-status men (i.e., the football captain) maintain an “official” girlfriend as well as a rotating roster of neo-concubines, who service him in the barroom bathroom or wherever the beer is flowing. “There used to be more assortative mating,” she explained, “where a five would date a five. But now every woman who is a six and above wants the hottest guy on campus, and she can have him—for one night.”

As I’d expected, these denizens of hookup culture were far more sexually experienced than I’d been at their age. Some had had many partners, and they all joked easily about sexual positions and penis size (“I was like, ‘That’s a pinkie, not a penis!’”) with the offhand knowledge only familiarity can breed. Most of them said that though they’d had a lot of sex, none of it was particularly sensual or exciting. It appears that the erotic promises of the 1960s sexual revolution have run aground on the shoals of changing sex ratios, where young women and men come together in fumbling, drunken couplings fueled less by lust than by a vague sense of social conformity. (I can’t help wondering: Did this de-eroticization of sex encourage the rise of pornography? Or is it that pornography endows the inexperienced with a toolbox of socially sanctioned postures and tricks, ensuring that one can engage in what amounts to a public exchange according to a pre-approved script?) For centuries, women’s sexuality was repressed by a patriarchal marriage system; now what could be an era of heady carnal delights is stifled by a new form of male entitlement, this one fueled by demographics.Most striking to me was the innocence of these young women. Of these attractive and vivacious females, only two had ever had a “real” boyfriend—as in, a mutually exclusive and satisfying relationship rather than a series of hookups—and for all their technical know-how, they didn’t seem to be any wiser than I’d been at their age. This surprised me; I’d assumed that growing up in a jungle would give them a more matter-of-fact or at least less conventional worldview. Instead, when I asked if they wanted to get married when they grew up, and if so, at what age, to a one they answered “yes” and “27 or 28.”

“That’s only five or six years from now,” I pointed out. “Doesn’t that seem—not far off?”

They nodded.

“Take a look at me,” I said. “I’ve never been married, and I have no idea if I ever will be. There’s a good chance that this will be your reality, too. Does that freak you out?”

Again they nodded.

“I don’t think I can bear doing this for that long!” whispered one, with undisguised alarm.

I remember experiencing that same panicked exhaustion around the time I turned 36, at which point I’d been in the dating game for longer than that alarmed 22-year-old had, and I wanted out. (Is there an expiration date on the fun, running-around period of being single captured so well by movies and television?) I’d spent the past year with a handsome, commitment-minded man, and these better qualities, along with our having several interests in common, allowed me to overlook our many thundering incompatibilities. In short, I was creeping up on marriage o’clock, and I figured, Enough already—I had to make something work. When it became clear that sheer will wasn’t going to save us, I went to bed one night and had a rare dream about my (late) mother.

“Mom,” I said. “Things aren’t working out. I’m breaking up with him tomorrow.”

“Oh, honey,” she said. “I am so sorry. We were rooting for this one, weren’t we? When something doesn’t work, though, what can you do?”

This, I found irritating. “Mom. I am getting old.”

“Pwhah!” she scoffed. “You’re fine. You’ve got six more years.”

Six more years. I woke up. In six more years, I’d be 42. All this time, I’d been regarding my single life as a temporary interlude, one I had to make the most of—or swiftly terminate, depending on my mood. Without intending to, by actively rejecting our pop-culture depictions of the single woman—you know the ones—I’d been terrorizing myself with their specters. But now that 35 had come and gone, and with yet another relationship up in flames, all bets were off. It might never happen. Or maybe not until 42. Or 70, for that matter. Was that so bad? If I stopped seeing my present life as provisional, perhaps I’d be a little … happier. Perhaps I could actually get down to the business of what it means to be a real single woman.

It’s something a lot of people might want to consider, given that now, by choice or by circumstance, more and more of us (women and men), across the economic spectrum, are spending more years of our adult lives unmarried than ever before. The numbers are striking: The Census Bureau has reported that in 2010, the proportion of married households in America dropped to a record low of 48 percent. Fifty percent of the adult population is single (compared with 33 percent in 1950)—and that portion is very likely to keep growing, given the variety of factors that contribute to it. The median age for getting married has been rising, and for those who are affluent and educated, that number climbs even higher. (Indeed, Stephanie Coontz told me that an educated white woman of 40 is more than twice as likely to marry in the next decade as a less educated woman of the same age.) Last year, nearly twice as many single women bought homes as did single men. And yet, what are our ideas about single people? Perverted misanthropes, crazy cat ladies, dating-obsessed shoe shoppers, etc.—all of them some form of terribly lonely. (In her 2008 memoir, Epilogue, a 70-something Anne Roiphe muses: “There are millions of women who live alone in America. Some of them are widows. Some of them are divorced and between connections, some of them are odd, loners who prefer to keep their habits undisturbed.” That’s a pretty good representation of her generation’s notions of unmarried women.)

Famous Bolick family story: When I was a little girl, my mother and I went for a walk and ran into her friend Regina. They talked for a few minutes, caught up. I gleaned from their conversation that Regina wasn’t married, and as soon as we made our goodbyes, I bombarded my mother with questions. “No husband? How could that be? She’s a grown-up! Grown-ups have husbands!” My mother explained that not all grown-ups get married. “Then who opens the pickle jar?” (I was 5.)

Thus began my lifelong fascination with the idea of the single woman. There was my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Connors, who was, I believe, a former nun, or seemed like one. There was the director of my middle-school gifted-and-talented program, who struck me as wonderfully remote and original. (Was she a lesbian?) There was a college poetry professor, a brilliant single woman in her 40s who had never been married, rather glamorously, I thought. Once, I told her I wanted to be just like her. “Good God,” she said. “I’ve made a mess of my life. Don’t look to me.” Why did they all seem so mysterious, even marginalized?

Back when I believed my mother had a happy marriage—and she did for quite a long time, really—she surprised me by confiding that one of the most blissful moments of her life had been when she was 21, driving down the highway in her VW Beetle, with nowhere to go except wherever she wanted to be. “I had my own car, my own job, all the clothes I wanted,” she remembered wistfully. Why couldn’t she have had more of that?

When I embarked on my own sojourn as a single woman in New York City—talk about a timeworn cliché!—it wasn’t dating I was after. I was seeking something more vague and, in my mind, more noble, having to do with finding my own way, and independence. And I found all that. Early on, I sometimes ached, watching so many friends pair off—and without a doubt there has been loneliness. At times I’ve envied my married friends for being able to rely on a spouse to help make difficult decisions, or even just to carry the bills for a couple of months. And yet I’m perhaps inordinately proud that I’ve never depended on anyone to pay my way (today that strikes me as a quaint achievement, but there you have it). Once, when my father consoled me, with the best of intentions, for being so unlucky in love, I bristled. I’d gotten to know so many interesting men, and experienced so much. Wasn’t that a form of luck?

All of which is to say that the single woman is very rarely seen for who she is—whatever that might be—by others, or even by the single woman herself, so thoroughly do most of us internalize the stigmas that surround our status.

Bella DePaulo, a Harvard-trained social psychologist who is now a visiting professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, is America’s foremost thinker and writer on the single experience. In 2005, she coined the word singlism, in an article she published in Psychological Inquiry. Intending a parallel with terms like racism and sexism, DePaulo says singlism is “the stigmatizing of adults who are single [and] includes negative stereotyping of singles and discrimination against singles.” In her 2006 book, Singled Out, she argues that the complexities of modern life, and the fragility of the institution of marriage, have inspired an unprecedented glorification of coupling. (Laura Kipnis, the author of Against Love, has called this “the tyranny of two.”) This marriage myth—“matrimania,” DePaulo calls it—proclaims that the only route to happiness is finding and keeping one all-purpose, all-important partner who can meet our every emotional and social need. Those who don’t have this are pitied. Those who don’t want it are seen as threatening. Singlism, therefore, “serves to maintain cultural beliefs about marriage by derogating those whose lives challenge those beliefs.”

In July, I visited DePaulo in the improbably named Summerland, California, which, as one might hope, is a charming outpost overlooking a glorious stretch of the Pacific Ocean. DePaulo, a warm, curious woman in her late 50s, describes herself as “single at heart”—meaning that she’s always been single and always will be, and that’s just the way she wants it. Over lunch at a seafood restaurant, she discussed how the cultural fixation on the couple blinds us to the full web of relationships that sustain us on a daily basis. We are far more than whom we are (or aren’t) married to: we are also friends, grandparents, colleagues, cousins, and so on. To ignore the depth and complexities of these networks is to limit the full range of our emotional experiences.

Personally, I’ve been wondering if we might be witnessing the rise of the aunt, based on the simple fact that my brother’s two small daughters have brought me emotional rewards I never could have anticipated. I have always been very close with my family, but welcoming my nieces into the world has reminded me anew of what a gift it is to care deeply, even helplessly, about another. There are many ways to know love in this world.

This is not to question romantic love itself. Rather, we could stand to examine the ways in which we think about love; and the changing face of marriage is giving us a chance to do this. “Love comes from the motor of the mind, the wanting part that craves that piece of chocolate, or a work promotion,” Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and perhaps this country’s leading scholar of love, told me. That we want is enduring; what we want changes as culture does.

Our cultural fixation on the couple is actually a relatively recent development. Though “pair-bonding” has been around for 3.5 million years, according to Helen Fisher, the hunters and gatherers evolved in egalitarian groups, with men and women sharing the labor equally. Both left the camp in the morning; both returned at day’s end with their bounty. Children were raised collaboratively. As a result, women and men were sexually and socially more or less equals; divorce (or its institution-of-marriage-preceding equivalent) was common. Indeed, Fisher sees the contemporary trend for marriage between equals as us “moving forward into deep history”—back to the social and sexual relationships of millions of years ago.

It wasn’t until we moved to farms, and became an agrarian economy centered on property, that the married couple became the central unit of production. As Stephanie Coontz explains, by the Middle Ages, the combination of the couple’s economic interdependence and the Catholic Church’s success in limiting divorce had created the tradition of getting married to one person and staying that way until death do us part. It was in our personal and collective best interest that the marriage remain intact if we wanted to keep the farm afloat.

That said, being too emotionally attached to one’s spouse was discouraged; neighbors, family, and friends were valued just as highly in terms of practical and emotional support. Even servants and apprentices shared the family table, and sometimes slept in the same room with the couple who headed the household, Coontz notes. Until the mid-19th century, the word love was used to describe neighborly and familial feelings more often than to describe those felt toward a mate, and same-sex friendships were conducted with what we moderns would consider a romantic intensity. When honeymoons first started, in the 19th century, the newlyweds brought friends and family along for the fun.

But as the 19th century progressed, and especially with the sexualization of marriage in the early 20th century, these older social ties were drastically devalued in order to strengthen the bond between the husband and wife—with contradictory results. As Coontz told me, “When a couple’s relationship is strong, a marriage can be more fulfilling than ever. But by overloading marriage with more demands than any one individual can possibly meet, we unduly strain it, and have fewer emotional systems to fall back on if the marriage falters.”

Some even believe that the pair bond, far from strengthening communities (which is both the prevailing view of social science and a central tenet of social conservatism), weakens them, the idea being that a married couple becomes too consumed with its own tiny nation of two to pay much heed to anyone else. In 2006, the sociologists Naomi Gerstel and Natalia Sarkisian published a paper concluding that unlike singles, married couples spend less time keeping in touch with and visiting their friends and extended family, and are less likely to provide them with emotional and practical support. They call these “greedy marriages.” I can see how couples today might be driven to form such isolated nations—it’s not easy in this age of dual-career families and hyper-parenting to keep the wheels turning, never mind having to maintain outside relationships as well. And yet we continue to rank this arrangement above all else!

Now that women are financially independent, and marriage is an option rather than a necessity, we are free to pursue what the British sociologist Anthony Giddens termed the “pure relationship,” in which intimacy is sought in and of itself and not solely for reproduction. (If I may quote the eminently quotable Gloria Steinem again: “I can’t mate in captivity.”) Certainly, in a world where women can create their own social standing, concepts like “marrying up” and “marrying down” evaporate—to the point where the importance of conventional criteria such as age and height, Coontz says, has fallen to an all-time low (no pun intended) in the United States.

Everywhere I turn, I see couples upending existing norms and power structures, whether it’s women choosing to be with much younger men, or men choosing to be with women more financially successful than they are (or both at once). My friend M., a successful filmmaker, fell in love with her dog walker, a man 12 years her junior; they stayed together for three years, and are best friends today. As with many such relationships, I didn’t even know about their age difference until I became a member of their not-so-secret society. At a rooftop party last September, a man 11 years my junior asked me out for dinner; I didn’t take him seriously for one second—and then the next thing I knew, we were driving to his parents’ house for Christmas. (When I mentioned what I considered to be this scandalous age difference to the actress Julianne Moore after a newspaper interview that had turned chatty and intimate, she e-mailed me to say, “In terms of scandalously young—I have been with my 9-years-younger husband for 15 years now—so there you go!”) The same goes for couples where the woman is taller. Dalton Conley, the dean for the social sciences at New York University, recently analyzed data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics and found a 40 percent increase, between 1986 and 2003, in men who are shorter than their wives. (Most research confirms casual observation: when it comes to judging a prospective mate on the basis of looks, women are the more lenient gender.)

Perhaps true to conservative fears, the rise of gay marriage has helped heterosexuals think more creatively about their own conventions. News stories about polyamory, “ethical nonmonogamy,” and the like pop up with increasing frequency. Gay men have traditionally had a more permissive attitude toward infidelity; how will this influence the straight world? Coontz points out that two of the hallmarks of contemporary marriage are demands for monogamy on an equal basis, and candor. “Throughout history, there was a fairly high tolerance of [men’s] extramarital flings, with women expected to look the other way,” she said. “Now we have to ask: Can we be more monogamous? Or understand that flings happen?” (She’s also noticed that an unexpected consequence of people’s marrying later is that they skip right over the cheating years.) If we’re ready to rethink, as individuals, the ways in which we structure our arrangements, are we ready to do this as a society?

In her new book, Unhitched, Judith Stacey, a sociologist at NYU, surveys a variety of unconventional arrangements, from gay parenthood to polygamy to—in a mesmerizing case study—the Mosuo people of southwest China, who eschew marriage and visit their lovers only under cover of night. “The sooner and better our society comes to terms with the inescapable variety of intimacy and kinship in the modern world, the fewer unhappy families it will generate,” she writes.

The matrilineal Mosuo are worth pausing on, as a reminder of how complex family systems can be, and how rigid ours are—and also as an example of women’s innate libidinousness, which is routinely squelched by patriarchal systems, as Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá point out in their own analysis of the Mosuo in their 2010 book, Sex at Dawn. For centuries, the Mosuo have lived in households that revolve around the women: the mothers preside over their children and grandchildren, and brothers take paternal responsibility for their sisters’ offspring.

Sexual relations are kept separate from family. At night, a Mosuo woman invites her lover to visit her babahuago (flower room); the assignation is called sese (walking). If she’d prefer he not sleep over, he’ll retire to an outer building (never home to his sisters). She can take another lover that night, or a different one the next, or sleep every single night with the same man for the rest of her life—there are no expectations or rules. As Cai Hua, a Chinese anthropologist, explains, these relationships, which are known as açia, are founded on each individual’s autonomy, and last only as long as each person is in the other’s company. Every goodbye is taken to be the end of the açia relationship, even if it resumes the following night. “There is no concept of açia that applies to the future,” Hua says.

America has a rich history of its own sexually alternative utopias, from the 19th-century Oneida Community (which encouraged postmenopausal women to introduce teenage males to sex) to the celibate Shakers, but real change can seldom take hold when economic forces remain static. The extraordinary economic flux we’re in is what makes this current moment so distinctive.

In the months leading to my breakup with Allan, my problem, as I saw it, lay in wanting two incompatible states of being—autonomy and intimacy—and this struck me as selfish and juvenile; part of growing up, I knew, was making trade-offs. I was too ashamed to confide in anyone, and as far as I could tell, mine was an alien predicament anyhow; apparently women everywhere wanted exactly what I possessed: a good man; a marriage-in-the-making; a “we.”

So I started searching out stories about those who had gone off-script with unconventional arrangements. I had to page back through an entire century, down past the riot grrrls, then the women’s libbers, then the flappers, before I found people who talked about love in a way I could relate to: the free-thinking adventurers of early-1900s Greenwich Village. Susan Glaspell, Neith Boyce, Edna St. Vincent Millay—they investigated the limits and possibilities of intimacy with a naive audacity, and a touching decorum, that I found familiar and comforting. I am not a bold person. To read their essays and poems was to perform a shy ideological striptease to the sweetly insistent warble of a gramophone.

“We are not designed, as a species, to raise children in nuclear families,” Christopher Ryan, one of the Sex at Dawn co-authors, told me over the telephone late last summer. Women who try to be “supermoms,” whether single or married, holding down a career and running a household simultaneously, are “swimming upstream.” Could we have a modernization of the Mosuo, Ryan mused, with several women and their children living together—perhaps in one of the nation’s many foreclosed and abandoned McMansions—bonding, sharing expenses, having a higher quality of life? “In every society where women have power—whether humans or primates—the key is female bonding,” he added.

Certainly letting men off the hook isn’t progress. But as we talked, I couldn’t help thinking about the women in Wilkinsburg—an inadvertent all-female coalition—and how in spite of it all, they derived so much happiness from each other’s company. That underprivileged communities are often forced into matrilineal arrangements in the absence of reliable males has been well documented (by the University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, among others), and I am not in any way romanticizing these circumstances. Nor am I arguing that we should discourage marriage—it’s a tried-and-true model for raising successful children in a modern economy. (Evidence suggests that American children who grow up amidst the disorder that is common to single-parent homes tend to struggle.) But we would do well to study, and to endorse, alternative family arrangements that might provide strength and stability to children as they grow up. I am curious to know what could happen if these de facto female support systems of the sort I saw in Wilkinsburg were recognized as an adaptive response, even an evolutionary stage, that women could be proud to build and maintain.

I definitely noticed an increase in my own contentment when I began to develop and pay more attention to friendships with women who, like me, have never been married. Their worldviews feel relaxingly familiar, and give me the space to sort through my own ambivalence. That’s an abstract benefit. More concretely, there’s what my brother terms our “immigrant bucket brigade”—my peer group’s habit of jumping to the ready to help each other with matters practical and emotional. This isn’t to say that my married friends aren’t as supportive—some of my best friends are married!—it’s just that, with families of their own, they can’t be as available.

Indeed, my single friends housed me as I flew around the world to research this article; by the end, I had my own little (unwritten) monograph on the very rich lives of the modern-day single woman. Deb gave me the use of her handsome mid-century apartment in Chelsea when she vacated town for a meditation retreat; Courtney bequeathed her charming Brooklyn aerie while she traveled alone through Italy; Catherine put me up at her rambling Cape Cod summer house; when my weekend at Maria’s place on Shelter Island unexpectedly ballooned into two weeks, she set me up in my own little writing room; when a different Courtney needed to be nursed through an operation, I stayed for four days to write paragraphs between changing bandages.

The sense of community we create for one another puts me in mind of the 19th-century availability of single-sex hotels and boarding houses, which were a necessity when women were discouraged from living alone, and then became an albatross when they finally weren’t. So last year, inspired by visions of New York’s “women only” Barbizon Hotel in its heyday, I persuaded my childhood friend Willamain to take over the newly available apartment in my building in Brooklyn Heights. We’ve known each other since we were 5, and I thought it would be a great comfort to us both to spend our single lives just a little less atomized. It’s worked. These days, I think of us as a mini-neo-single-sex residential hotel of two. We collect one another’s mail when necessary, share kitchenware, tend to one another when sick, fall into long conversations when we least expect it—all the benefits of dorm living, without the gross bathrooms.

Could we create something bigger, and more intentional? In August, I flew to Amsterdam to visit an iconic medieval bastion of single-sex living. The Begijnhof was founded in the mid-12th century as a religious all-female collective devoted to taking care of the sick. The women were not nuns, but nor were they married, and they were free to cancel their vows and leave at any time. Over the ensuing centuries, very little has changed. Today the religious trappings are gone (though there is an active chapel on site), and to be accepted, an applicant must be female and between the ages of 30 and 65, and commit to living alone. The institution is beloved by the Dutch, and gaining entry isn’t easy. The waiting list is as long as the turnover is low.

I’d heard about the Begijnhof through a friend, who once knew an American woman who lived there, named Ellen. I contacted an old boyfriend who now lives in Amsterdam to see if he knew anything about it (thank you, Facebook), and he put me in touch with an American friend who has lived there for 12 years: the very same Ellen.

The Begijnhof is big—106 apartments in all—but even so, I nearly pedaled right past it on my rented bicycle, hidden as it is in plain sight: a walled enclosure in the middle of the city, set a meter lower than its surroundings. Throngs of tourists sped past toward the adjacent shopping district. In the wall is a heavy, rounded wood door. I pulled it open and walked through.

Inside was an enchanted garden: a modest courtyard surrounded by classic Dutch houses of all different widths and heights. Roses and hydrangea lined walkways and peeked through gates. The sounds of the city were indiscernible. As I climbed the narrow, twisting stairs to Ellen’s sun-filled garret, she leaned over the railing in welcome—white hair cut in a bob, smiling red-painted lips. A writer and producer of avant-garde radio programs, Ellen, 60, has a chic, minimal style that carries over into her little two-floor apartment, which can’t be more than 300 square feet. Neat and efficient in the way of a ship, the place has large windows overlooking the courtyard and rooftops below. To be there is like being held in a nest.

We drank tea and talked, and Ellen rolled her own cigarettes and smoked thoughtfully. She talked about how the Dutch don’t regard being single as peculiar in any way—people are as they are. She feels blessed to live at the Begijnhof and doesn’t ever want to leave. Save for one or two friends on the premises, socially she holds herself aloof; she has no interest in being ensnared by the gossip on which a few of the residents thrive—but she loves knowing that they’re there. Ellen has a partner, but since he’s not allowed to spend the night, they split time between her place and his nearby home. “If you want to live here, you have to adjust, and you have to be creative,” Ellen said. (When I asked her if starting a relationship was a difficult decision after so many years of pleasurable solitude, she looked at me meaningfully and said, “It wasn’t a choice—it was a certainty.”)

When an American woman gives you a tour of her house, she leads you through all the rooms. Instead, this expat showed me her favorite window views: from her desk, from her (single) bed, from her reading chair. As I perched for a moment in each spot, trying her life on for size, I thought about the years I’d spent struggling against the four walls of my apartment, and I wondered what my mother’s life would have been like had she lived and divorced my father. A room of one’s own, for each of us. A place where single women can live and thrive as themselves.

Why ‘All the Single Ladies’ Shouldn’t Give Up on Marriage

Original article here

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Frustrations with men and the institution are real, but shouldn’t obscure our hope in what God is doing.
Jennifer A. Marshall | posted 11/21/2011 09:41AM

In a fawn-colored silk dress and up-do, a contemplative young woman sips champagne while a bridal bouquet flies over her head. As other never-married wedding-goers readily will detect, she’s scrupulously ignoring this ritual reminder of an unrealized longing for marriage.

This is the photograph of Kate Bolick, 39, that runs alongside her cover story, “All the Single Ladies,” in the November edition of The Atlantic. Beginning with that picture, her piece captures the anxiety of many single women as the age of first marriage continues to climb.

Those who always expected to be married by now are wondering whether to keep hoping for marriage, how to find fulfillment without it, and why relationships with men these days can be so frustrating. Rather than pointing to answers for these important questions, however, Bolick’s article leads to a dead end of further disappointment and confusion.

The author is one of countless women who have struggled with the unexpected in-between of prolonged singleness. “If I stopped seeing my present life as provisional,” she writes, “perhaps I’d be a little … happier.” (The ellipsis is hers.)

Bolick seems to have resolved the sense of being betwixt-and-between by demoting marriage. In her book, marriage should no longer enjoy pride of place as the basic building block of society and the relationship that harmonizes the needs of men, women, and children like no other.

In other words, if experience doesn’t match up to the ideal, toss out the ideal.

But should we give up on an ideal just because it hasn’t worked out for us personally? That might make sense if marriage were an ideal simply because the majority, the powerful, or forces such as evolution or economics made it so. The unique status of marriage, however, is timeless. God ordained it as the basic institution for ordering human relations.

To esteem that ideal is not to dismiss singleness as second rate. Kate Bolick’s hunch is right: Our current status isn’t “provisional.” We’ll gain a better perspective on our circumstances, though, not by downgrading marriage, but by taking a higher view of what God is doing both now and in the long run. Amid the tension between circumstances today and longings unfulfilled, joy can come only from the confidence that a purposeful Author has a grand design for our lives.

Bolick writes that she aspired to wed but “spent her early 30s actively putting off marriage.” Now a magazine editor as well as a writer, she walked away from a serious relationship in her late 20s after struggling with “wanting two incompatible states of being—autonomy and intimacy.”

The quest for independence is no doubt a result of the prevailing feminist winds that carried along today’s 30-somethings as we grew up amid “The Girl Project.” That’s the moniker Barbara Dafoe Whitehead gave the “you-go-girl” era ushered in by the 1972 enactment of Title IX, the federal law mandating gender equity in education.

From Little League in the 1970s to the Citadel in the ’90s, feminists have been beating down doors on behalf of girls ever since. A generation of girls happily proceeded to more and more educational and vocational achievements.

Meanwhile, it’s been “a bad time to be a boy in America,” as Christina Hoff Sommers wrote in “The War Against Boys,” a May 2000 cover story for the very same Atlantic. With all the focus on girls, she argued, we were overlooking a crisis emerging among boys.

Fast-forward 10 years to “The End of Men,” Hanna Rosin’s Atlantic cover story (July/August 2010) documenting the declining circumstances of men. Her research showed men lagging behind women in a variety of education and employment indicators.

More troubling is an identity crisis that leaves men asking, “What does it mean to be a man today?” as William J. Bennett writes in his newly published The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood.

Along with the sexual revolution, these cultural changes have made male-female relationships—fraught since the beginning of time—even more complicated. The path to marriage is much more difficult to discern, and clearing the way will take serious effort.

For one thing, we need male leaders to address the real challenges facing men today. It’s heartening to hear—to pull examples from just the past few days—voices like Bennett’s and Kevin DeYoung’s engaging that dialogue.

For our part as single women, we help shape the climate in which that conversation takes place. If delayed marriage tempts us to give up on the ideal and unmet expectations challenge our sense of fulfillment, frustrations with men tempt us to retrench in the storied battle between the sexes. Antagonism expressed in power struggle for too long has been the default perspective.

Our Christian brothers are our co-heirs of the kingdom as well as co-victims of the chaos after feminism, the sexual revolution, and all the other changes of recent decades. We all are confused, carry baggage, and make missteps.

That calls for a charitable spirit and mutual respect. Rather than viewing the opposite sex through the fog of cultural stereotypes, we need to appreciate one another for the unique individuals God has made us to be.

Whether in friendships or romantic relationships, our goal should be to help the other pursue the personal callings God has given each of us. All the while, our shared first call is to glorify and enjoy He who is the Bright Morning Star, still fixed amid our perfect storm of cultural change.

5 Signs Waiting Has Weakened Your Faith by Paul David Tripp

This is for those of us who are waiting.

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5 Signs Waiting Has Weakened Your Faith

When God asks you to wait, what happens to your spiritual muscles? While you wait, do your spiritual muscles grow bigger and stronger, or do they become flaccid and atrophied? Waiting for the Lord isn’t about God forgetting you, forsaking you, abandoning the ministry he’s called you to, or being unfaithful to his promises. It’s actually God giving you time to consider his glory, grow stronger in faith, and grow in courage for ministry. Remember, waiting isn’t just about what you’re hoping for at the end of the wait, but also about what you’ll become as you wait.

So waiting always presents us with a spiritual choice-point. Will I allow myself to question God’s goodness and progressively grow weaker in faith, or will I embrace the opportunity of faith that God is giving me and build my spiritual, pastoral, ministry muscles?

It’s so easy to unknowingly revisit your belief system when you’re not sure what God is doing. It’s so easy to give way to doubt when you’re being called to wait. It’s so easy to forsake good spiritual and ministry habits and to take up habits of “unfaith” that weaken the muscles of the heart. Let me suggest some habits of “unfaith” that weaken us during waiting.

1. Giving way to doubt. There’s a fine line between the struggle to wait and giving way to doubt. When you’re called to wait you’re being called to do something that wasn’t part of your personal or ministry plan.Therefore you struggle to see it as good. Because you and I are typically convinced that what we wanted was right and good, it doesn’t seem loving that we’re being asked to wait. You can see how tempting it is then to begin to question God’s wisdom, goodness, and love. Don’t be naive: there is much doubt that visits people in ministry.

2. Giving way to anger. It’s easy to look around and begin to think that the bad guys are being blessed and the good guys are getting hammered (see Psalm 73). There will be times when it simply doesn’t seem right that you have to wait for something that seems so obviously good to you. It’s tempting in your anger to give way to thinking you’re smarter than God, that you’d be a better sovereign than the Sovereign. It all begins to feel like you’re being wronged, and when it does, it seems right to be angry.

As a result, it’s important to understand that your anger isn’t so much about people and circumstances. No, you’re angry with the One who’s in control of those people and those circumstances. You’re actually giving way to thinking that you’ve been wronged by him. I’ve been amazed over the years at how many pastors needed to confess to me that they were more than disappointed with their ministry life, they were angry with God.

3. Giving way to discouragement. This is where I begin to let my heart run away with the “If only_____,” the “What if_____,” and the “What will happen if____.” I begin to give my mind to thinking about what will happen to me and my ministry if my request isn’t answered soon, or what in the world will happen if it’s not answered at all. This kind of meditation makes me feel that my life or ministry is out of control, when they are actually under perfectly wise and loving control. Rather than my heart being filled with joy, my heart gets flooded with worry and dread. Worry and dread are not the seedbed of hopeful, courageous, persevering ministry. So I spend my free mental time considering my dark future, with all the resulting discouragement that will always follow.

4. Giving way to envy. When I am waiting, it’s tempting to look over the fence and long for the ministry life of someone who doesn’t appear to have been called to wait. It’s easy to take on an “I wish I was that guy” way of living. You can’t give way to envy without questioning God’s wisdom, faithfulness, and love. Here’s the logic: if God really loves you as much as he loves that other guy, you would have what the other guys has. Envy is about feeling forgotten and forsaken, coupled with a craving to have what your neighbor enjoys. This is deadly, because you don’t tend to run to someone for help if you’ve come to doubt him.

5. Giving way to inactivity. The result of giving way to all of these things is inactivity. If God isn’t as good and wise as I once thought he was, if he withholds good things from his children, and if he plays favorites, then why would I continue to serve him? Maybe you don’t consciously think these things, but you begin to stand with many pastors who’ve lost both their joy in and also motivation for ministry. Maybe this isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing after all; maybe I’ve been kidding myself.

Sadly, this is the course that many people, even those in ministry, take as they wait. Rather than growing in faith, their motivation for daily pursuing God is destroyed by doubt, anger, discouragement, and envy. So the muscles of faith necessary for productive people-helping, God-honoring ministry, that were once robust and strong, now atrophy and grow weak.

In reality, waiting points us to God’s goodness. He’s wise and loving. His timing is always right, and his focus isn’t so much on what you’ll experience and enjoy, but on what you’ll become. He’s committed to using every tool at his disposal to rescue you from you, to shape you into the likeness of his Son, and to hone you for the work to which he’s called you. Waiting is one of his primary shaping tools.

Habits of Faith

So how do you build your spiritual muscles during the wait? You must commit yourself to resist those habits of “unfaith,” and with discipline pursue a rigorous routine of spiritual exercise. You must run to your Savior of grace, knowing his grace never gives up even though your often tempted to.

Here are the things that he’s designed for you that will build the muscles of your heart and strengthen your resolve: the regular devotional study of his Word, consistent and candid fellowship, looking for God’s glory in Creation every day, putting yourself under excellent preaching and teaching of Scripture (even preachers need to be regularly taught), investing your quiet mental time in meditating on the goodness of God (for example, as you are going off to sleep), reading excellent Christian books, and spending ample time in prayer. All of these things will result in spiritual strength and vitality.

Do these things seem obvious to you? You would be surprised how many pastors have confessed to me a lack of good spiritual habits. It is sad to think of how many pastors live in functional isolation, not putting their hearts in places where they can be watched, warned, protected, and nourished. Without daily meditating on God’s glory and grace, all you’re left to meditate on are the struggles within you and the problems outside you. No wonder our pastoral muscles grow weak.

Is God, in grace, asking you to wait? If so, what’s happening to your muscles while you wait?

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