The New York Times published a very long story about a man who died totally alone in his New York apartment, undiscovered until the smell of his rotting body motivated a neighbor to call 911. Readers could not get enough of it. They flocked to it in droves, commented on it, tweeted it, and shared it.
I described the story, and what bothered me about it, elsewhere. Here I want to address a different set of questions. Why did the Times devote so much space to this particular story, and why were readers so drawn to it? Why now?
I think the publication of the story, and all the people who just couldn’t look away from it, are an indication of a deep fear of the profound social changes that have been washing over our society. There has been a stunning growth in the number of people living single. Now, nearly as many American adults are unmarried as married. There has also been an unprecedented increase in the number of people who live alone.
There are many reasons why so many people are living single. One of the most fundamental is that contemporary adults no longer need marriage the way they used to. Today’s adults can get in other ways what the generations before them used to get from marriage.
Marriage, though, still has a revered place in our society. Many want it to keep that place. How can that be accomplished? Matrimania – the over-the-top hyping of marriage and weddings and coupling – is one way. Singlism – the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against people who are single – is another. Scaring the living daylights out of people who might dare to live single and on their own (perhaps an example of singlism) is still another, and that’s what I think the New York Times story was really about. That, plus giving married people another reason to feel smug.
It is not that I think any of this is conscious or deliberate. It is an unself-conscious expression of the concerns and fears of our time.
In the opening chapter of Singled Out, I described that dynamic in more detail. Here’s some of what I said.
EXCERPTS FROM PAGES 10-13 OF SINGLED OUT:
Financial freedom – women’s, in particular – is high on the list of social changes that have empowered many single people. Although women are still paid less than men for comparable work, and far too many women and men live in poverty, there are currently sizable numbers of women who earn enough money on their own to support themselves, and maybe even some kids. They are no longer tethered to husbands for economic life support. Neither men nor women need a spouse to have sex without stigma or shame. Children born to single mothers now have the same legal rights as those born to married mothers. 18 With the advent of birth control and legalized abortion, and with progress in medical reproductive technology, women can have sex without having children, and children without having sex.
When sex, parenting, and economic viability were all wound up together in the tight knot that was marriage, the difference between single life and married life was profound…
Now, about a half-century later, the institution of marriage remains ensconced in our laws, our politics, our religions, and in our cultural imagination. But it is of little true significance as a meaningful life transition…
What could Americans do if they wanted to bring back marriage as they once knew it (or thought they did)? How could they convince single people to continue to yearn for marriage when so much of what marriage used to bring is now available outside of it? The legal, medical, and societal transformations that stripped marriage bare of what had made it so special are not likely to be reversed. Birth control is not about to be outlawed, and abortions would not disappear even if they were re-criminalized. The forward march of reproduction science will not be stopped in its tracks. Women will not ever be legislated out of the workplace. Children born to single parents will not have “illegitimate” stamped on their birth certificates ever again. How, then, can that big bold line be restored when it has already been all but erased?
There is a way. It is the most powerful way of them all. It can leap over legislation, step on science, and turn its back on the most sparkling opportunities in public and professional life. It is called mental blanketing. It is like mind control, only without the conspiratorial undertones.
At a time when marriage is so inessential, mental blanketing aims to create the unshakable belief in an entire populace that marriage is exactly what it is not: utterly and uniquely transformational. Marriage, according to the mythology generated by mental blanketing, transforms the immature single person into a mature spouse. It creates a sense of commitment, sacrifice, and selflessness where there was none before. It is the one true place where intimacy and loyalty can be nurtured and sustained. It transforms a serious sexual partnership from a try-out to the real thing. Before, you hoped you were each other’s everything; now you really are. Marriage delivers as its ultimate reward the most sought-after American prize: happiness. Not just garden-variety happiness, but deep and meaningful well-being. A sense of fulfillment that a single person cannot even fathom. Marry, the mythology promises, and you will never be lonely again.
The mythology is fueled by fear and yearning. Yearning for the riches that await you on the other side of the marital divide; fear of what will become of you if you never get there. Fear and yearning, singlism and matrimania, singles and marrieds. There are always two sides, a push and a pull. That’s what makes the mythology so powerful.
The mythology faces a daunting challenge, though: It is pure poppycock. Every inch of it is either grossly exaggerated or just plain wrong. The science is wrong, the public policy is wrong, our beliefs are woefully wrong. Mental blanketing needs to work relentlessly to keep such inconvenient truths under wraps…
END OF EXCERPT
[Notes. (1) Heard enough about dying and want to read more about innovative and fulfilling ways of living? Take a look at How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. (2) Thanks to Jeanine for the heads-up about this NY Times article.]
New York skyline photo available from Shutterstock