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Interview: Pamela Paul discusses singledom
Veils, flowers, music, bills ― chances are, someone close to you is having a June wedding. But Morning Edition will spend Tuesdays this month examining singleness. Americans are living longer, marrying later and outliving spouses for more years thanks to medical advances. So NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg decided to walk down the aisle of the unmarried where ‘I do’ is not necessarily the goal.
Susan Stamberg (reporting). Bridget Jones is not alone in her fear of aloneness. Her biological clock is ticking. She’s on the wrong side of 30 and still not married. Lots of us are alone a lot. The year 2000 census found 82 million unmarried Americans. Of those, some 20 million were divorced, 13 1/2 million were widowed, and more than 48 million had never married. Over at American Demographics magazine, editor Pamela Paul finds these figures sobering but misleading.
Ms. Pamela Paul (Editor, American Demographics Magazine). Women still get married at an average age of 25 in this country; men get married at 27. Now that’s only three years older than they did in 1890. And I think sometimes, there’s a misperception that people are getting married a lot later because among certain demographics, among sort of older, more urban, more educated people, they’re putting marriage off longer. But the vast majority of Americans continue to get married at a fairly early age.
Stamberg. But still, in certain circles anyway, single has become the new norm. So is there a way to see it as not simply a holding pattern but something of value in and of itself?
Ms. Paul. Well, I think it should be seen as something more than a holding pattern because we do know, for example, that the later you wait to get married, the more likely your marriage is to last. And so if people really regarded that period of dating as a time for self-exploration, I think that they would have a lot better time before they get married.
Stamberg. But you’re thinking still about marriage as the norm and this extended period of time as not the norm just a way to get your chops in shape for when you get married.
Ms. Paul. Right. There’s very little attitude of being single for single’s sake. Most people think of singledom as a stage that is a step towards marriage, the same way that people think of cohabitation and living together before marriage generally as a testing ground and not an end in and of itself.
Stamberg.There’s certainly a stigma to being single.
Ms. Paul. Absolutely. And one of the greatest misperceptions, I think, about our culture is that, you know, a lot of cultural critics will say, `Oh, it’s such an anti-marriage culture, and marriage is so disparaged.’ And the opposite is the case. I mean, all of these single TV shows and single books really are marriage bibles. I mean, if you look at Bridget Jones’s Diary or Ally McBeal, all of those women really wanted to get married. And then when you even look at something like Seinfeld, which is about urban singles, I mean, these people are depicted as downright neurotic.
Stamberg.It’s interesting, though, that this pull to marriage, this ultimate wish not to be single really still exists because so many of the reasons for marriage itself have changed. You know, you don’t have to get married to survive in North Dakota anymore as the pioneer. You don’t have to get married to have a sex life. I mean, there’s much more sexual freedom these days. There are reliable contraceptives so you don’t have to marry to make babies. Roles have changed so that women run corporations, men cook great dinners, and yet here marriage remains the expected state.
Ms. Paul. Definitely. I mean, it’s so interesting. Marriage has really gone from being a job for women – and that was really how you got your economic security – to being a choice. And yet, the overwhelming majority of women still say they want to get married. If you look at public opinion polls, 90 percent of high school seniors say they want to get married; 50 percent of high school seniors say they want to get married within five years which is pretty surprising.
Stamberg.I find as an old married lady, 40 years, that this is all very encouraging. I must say it’s sort of sweet, isn’t it, this poll to coupleness.
Ms. Paul. Right. And I think what you’re seeing with Generation X is a kind of neo-traditionalism because on the one hand, there is this longing for these traditional institutions. And that, I think, in large part is a reaction against the baby boomers who were the ultimate rebels. They rebelled against every formal institution. Gen Xers, by no means, want to revert back to traditional roles within marriage. I mean, they’re not looking for the homemaker mother and the breadwinner husband. And men, as much as women, don’t want that. In fact, men very much want their wives to work. They want their wives to have independent lives, and they no longer want the responsibility of carrying the economic burden on their own.
Stamberg.What would it take to erase the stigma, to get us thinking in new ways about this state of singledom?
Ms. Paul. I think that if there was more of a realistic discussion about marriage in this country, about what marriage can and cannot offer, then I think that people would really accept the state of singlehood much more for what it is. And what it really is, is a time for yourself. It’s a time to figure out who you are, where you stand in your world and what you want in another person. And to jump into marriage before you’ve established all that, I can tell from my own experience and from the experience of other divorcees I’ve talked to, is a huge mistake. Even if they don’t get married until the age of 32, given the life expectancy today, they’re still going to have 50 years of marriage. So there’s no rush.
a) Why has being single become the new norm?
b) Is modern culture really anti-marriage?
c) What are the advantages and disadvantages of marriage and singledom?
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