[Bella’s intro: In an email exchange, C. Riven Wood shared some of her personal experiences with me. I think she has some important insights and writes beautifully, so I asked her if I could post her essay here. Happily, she agreed.]
From the Bottom of the Heap to the Garden of Eden
By C. Riven Wood
His paintings were lauded; mine were dismissed. His opinions were sought; mine were hushed. His future was discussed and explored, every one of us wanting to support his success. My future was commanded: I was to marry and be taken care of.
All this changed in 10th grade. My history teacher introduced me to the idea that everyone deserved respect. I didn’t think about whether this included me (too hard!), but I realized it included my little sister. So, one night when I was babysitting her, I bit the bullet and treated her with respect. It was the best thing I’ve ever done. It was daring, unprecedented, and revolutionary in the hierarchy of my home (we hid the full power of it from our parents).
To a dramatically greater extent than decades ago, you get to create your own life path. Gone are the days when the standard path through adult life was to get married very young, have kids, stayed married, and have grandkids. Gone, too, are the days when people often stayed with the same company for a lifetime.
Now we can stay single or cohabit or get married or cycle through different relationship statuses over the course of our lives. We can choose to have kids or to not have kids. We can try new jobs (though sometimes by necessity rather than choice). We can pursue an education, then do something else, then go back to school again.
Or we can go straight into the workforce, skipping any higher education. (Statistically, our opportunities are more limited if that’s what we choose, but there are some who succeed spectacularly well without a college degree.)
Caryl Rivers – a notable professor, author, feminist, and cultural critic – has a problem with what the Atlantic magazine has to say about women:
“The venerable magazine regularly publishes thoughtful reporting and analysis about the Middle East, U.S. politics, the future of China, the global economy, climate change — on and on. It’s only when the publication gazes on the 50 percent of the population that is not male that it wanders off into Cloud cuckoo land.”
The first half of Rivers’ essay takes on the writings of Caitlin Flanagan who, Rivers notes, “advocates for a very retro style of marriage. She believes husbands should be in charge and women accommodating.” I love that part of the essay. It is brilliant and hilarious.
In my previous post, I promised to explain how the authors of a really terrific study seemed to miss what their own results were telling them about single life. Here are the goods:
In a 6-year study designed to test the implications of getting married (or entering a cohabiting relationship) for well-being, health, and social ties, here is what the authors found: Singles remained more connected to friends and parents than did the people who married or cohabited.
That was true during the first three years of the study, and it remained true during the next three years. Within the first three years, the people who married or cohabited did better than those who stayed single in health and well-being, but by the end of the next three years, there were no differences at all.
A just-published 6-year study of people who marry, cohabit, or stay single is one of the best of the thousands of studies on similar topics ever published. It is terrific methodologically – it is a longitudinal study, meaning that it follows the same people over time. We can see how those people change in their happiness, health, self-esteem, and relationships with other people as they cohabit or marry or stay single. It is that very rare study that acknowledges that not all serious romantic partnerships are lasting ones, and asks how people who began cohabiting or got married are faring years later, even if their romantic relationship did not last.
There was something else remarkable about the study: It punched a huge hole in the “happily ever after” myth about getting married. Especially the “ever after” part.
We know about the trajectories of happiness for German and Dutch people who get married and stay married. Longitudinal research (in which the same people are followed for years — in the German study, more than 20 years) has shown that when people marry, those who will stay married enjoy a “honeymoon effect.”
They become a bit happier around the time of the marriage, but then that happiness dissipates over time. On the average, the Germans who married and stayed married returned to the same level of happiness they experienced when they were single, and that happened within a few years. The increase in happiness lasted longer for the Dutch.
In my writings on marital status and happiness (in Singled Out and elsewhere), I’ve pointed out that those happiness studies don’t really tell us how happiness will change when you marry, because the honeymoon effect occurs only for those who stay married. Those who marry and then divorce actually become a bit less happy as their wedding day approaches and that decline continues until the year before the divorce becomes final.
Individual people approaching marriage do not know which group they will end up in – the one that stays married or the one that gets divorced. If we want to know the implications for happiness (or anything else) of getting married, we need to look at the results for everyone who marries, and not just those who stay married.
One of the big, stereotype-busting findings that has gotten a lot of attention over the past few years is that married people are in some important ways less socially connected than single people. Results from several national surveys, reported by Naomi Gerstel and Natalia Sarkisian, show that Americans who have always been single are more likely than currently married people to support, advise, visit, and stay in touch with their siblings and parents. They are also more likely to help, encourage, and socialize with friends and neighbors.
Sociologists have a name for the retreat from other people that many (though not all) married people exhibit – they call it “greedy marriage.” It is akin to what I have called “intensive coupling.” The married couple wants almost all of the attention and resources for itself. These are couples who probably view it as a threat if their partner wants to spend time with friends.
Contemporary Americans without a sense of social history or an international perspective may not realize how unusual the practice of intensive (and jealous) coupling really is. At other times and in other places, the desire to spend time with people other than your partner was in no way a negative judgment on the state of the marital relationship.
Some of my relatives are in business, and they sometimes make the argument that if restaurants are unfriendly to solo diners, that’s just business. When a person appears at a restaurant alone, why shouldn’t the establishment have a policy of seating those singletons near the swinging doors to the kitchen in the back of the restaurant, or rushing them through their meal, or discouraging them from coming to the restaurant at all?
After all, restaurants can make more money by seating two or more people at a table than just one.
That’s the caption to the picture illustrating an article I’ve been fantasizing about for more than a decade. Finally, someone has actually written it. The article is the cover story of the most recent issue of Boston Magazine, “Single by choice: Why more of us than ever before are happy to never get married.”
Reporter Janelle Nanos nails it about what living single means to those who choose that life. She debunks stereotypes, highlights all the matrimania and singlism, and shows how and why there are more and more people living their single lives fully, joyfully, and without apology.