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Why Some of Us Reject Marriage

More boomers, especially women, are treasuring our independence — even if we're in a relationship

By Jane Gross | February 25, 2013
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Jane Gross, a retired correspondent for The New York Times and the founder of its blog The New Old Age, is the author of A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents – and Ourselves (Knopf 2011, Vintage 2012).

In my 20s and 30s, every man I dated went on and on (and on and on) about wanting his space; all I wanted was joined-at-the-hip, happily-ever-after togetherness, with babies, even a mother-in-law. My younger brother's wedding was one of the most unpleasant days of my life, with the expression on my mother's face so unmistakable she might as well have been interrupting the toasts to point at me and call out, "Old maid!" or "Cat lady!" 

Back then, I was not like Bella DePaulo, the "single at heart" social psychologist who coined the terms "matromania" and "singleism" and who describes herself as living most authentically and meaningfully alone. If someone wanted to know why I wasn't married, especially as my career took off and the younger women I mentored assumed I had made some bold feminist choice, I always answered honestly: "Because nobody asked me."
 
Who Needs Marriage?

That remains true. I'm 65 now and it is still a fact that nobody has ever asked me, except now I know that this is the life I was meant to live. I, too, am single at heart. Am I selfish or independent? Happy or rationalizing? I know that I'm greedy for the quiet of my own home at the end of a long day. And I'm grateful not to have to sit through movies I don't want to see, stay at parties longer than necessary, eat at "proper" meal times, collect towels from the floor or have someone follow me from room to room, expecting me to talk when I don't feel like talking.

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Autonomy vs. intimacy and alone time vs. together time are surely part of the push-and-pull of many married people's lives. They are worthy topics for therapy, I suppose, but for me, they're beside the point. There is nobody here but me, so what difference does it make?

These days, as it happens, I'm not at all unusual. There is ample data that we boomers are going it alone in historic numbers and a good deal of anecdotal material that indicates more women our age — without a biological imperative or financial incentive to marry — are the ones saying, "I want my space."

Here's the data:
  • 1 in 3 boomers — more than 25 million people — are unmarried, and our numbers have increased steadily over the last three decades.
  • As of 2009, 58 percent of single boomers were divorced, 32 percent had never married and 10 percent were widows.
  • The divorce rate, which has stabilized in the general population, continues to rise among boomers. In 1980, 41 percent of women in our generation had been divorced at least once; as of 2009, 60 percent had been. (The rate for boomer men has also risen, but only from 52 to 57 percent.)
  • Among single boomers, 56 percent are dating or open to the idea, yet only 11 percent say they want to remarry.
  • Of Americans 50 and over, at least 2.75 million men and women are now co-habitating, up from 1.2 million in 2000.
     
Interestingly, there is emerging anecdotal evidence of a new category of boomer couples: those living apart together, or LATs. There is no reliable data on people in non-residential arrangements, but these committed couples are living contentedly in separate dwellings, not necessarily because work has forced them apart, but because they like it that way.
 
I know a bunch of LATs and LAT wannabes, myself among them. What could be better than loving and being loved by someone, but not having to debate upholstery samples or how you got that ding in the car. That's what I want — and for the guy to have grandchildren. I'd like to be an accidental grandmother, though I wonder how one explains the LAT lifestyle to a 5-year-old.
 
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LAT women love the combination of romantic attachment and lots of personal space. My college roommate, while being courted by the man who would be her second husband, joked that she wanted two houses, maybe with a tunnel. A co-worker of mine had a partner who liked his quiet life in Westchester, while she was a busy-all-the-time New York City woman, so they stayed apart and connected with each other a few times a week. Another friend, widowed young, later married someone in Baltimore who hates his job, but in this economy can't just move to New York and assume there will be work here. So they see each other on weekends. She loves it; him, less so.
 
Some women who are divorced or widowed are simply disinclined to marry again. By contrast, my widower friends tend to remarry relatively quickly. While generalizations are dangerous, more women than men seem to successfully maintain a separate society of friends. On the other hand, men largely consider their wives to be their closest friends, so it's no wonder they're eager to replace them.  
 
Is the Single Life Dangerous?

It's a common belief that being single is bad for your health. According to the signature study on the subject, conducted at Bowling Green University, unmarried people have "greater economic, health and social vulnerabilities compared to married boomers." The study concludes that the growing number of aging singles will impose "significant new challenges for institutional supports," including home-care aides, assisted-living facilities and nursing homes. Men, the study notes, are especially vulnerable without "access to reliable social supports, typically the spouse."
 
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This research, however, underestimates the value of female friendships, argues DePaulo, author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized and Ignored and Still Live Happily Ever After. Friendship, she believes, gives single women the social ties that gerontologists agree are crucial to healthy aging.
 
In and out of academia, single living is getting a lot of attention these days. There have been cover stories about single, middle-aged women in both The Atlantic and The Washington Post Sunday magazine, as well as a new book by New York University sociologist Eric Klinenberg called Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. The lead subject of the Post story, Wendy Braitman, says she never expected to be 58 and single but is "more or less OK" with it and even maintains a blog called First Person Singular: Notes From an Unmarried Life. Unmarried women, she believes, have been "envied, feared, vilified and pitied throughout history, and most of the time, misunderstood."

Whatever path we commit to in our younger days, we always reserve the right to change our minds, as one friend of mine recently did — with panache. After decades of companionship and two years of marriage, she and her husband finally decided to end their LAT relationship and move in together. For her, it was a radical step, commemorated by an "I'm Moving In With My Husband Tag Sale," in which she attempted to sell half of the antiques and other possessions that filled the loft she had lived in for 40 years before relocating to her husband's high-rise apartment.
 
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"It worked for a while," she says of her LAT marriage. "Then it stopped working. I definitely feel like I'm moving on to something positive and happy. Plus, there's a doorman and a gym."
 
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