As Valentine’s Day approaches, roses and chocolates fill the stores to remind us of the importance of coupling; but few organizations are likely to be as direct with the message as National Marriage Week USA, a group that aims to promote matrimony across the country.
Its executive director gets straight to the point in a video on the group’s home-page. “Marriage pays,” she says, looking brightly at the camera. “Research shows that married individuals have far greater wealth and financial stability. They lead longer lives, have greater personal happiness and better health.”
That’s bad news for almost half of the US population, including me, who are single. According to the Pew Research Center American marriage rates are at a record low — a phenomenon that must be the inspiration for National Marriage Week, which is just a few years old. Articles about the demise of marriage have proliferated lately. A Stanford professor, Ralph Richard Banks, published a much talked about book last year called “Is Marriage for White People?”. But the trend affects many different social groups. And in fact the economic value of getting hitched is less than it used to be.
I have nothing against marriage, but I think it’s worth noting that alternatives are available, and indeed flourishing. The figures may alarm traditionalists, yet for anyone who’s lesbian, who may have chosen to have a family on her own, who’s divorced, or who has a partner and just isn’t married, there is less cause for concern. The Pew Center’s 2011 report observes that while marriage is on the wane,”Other adult living arrangements—including cohabitation, single-person households and single parenthood—have all grown more prevalent in recent decades.” It’s not that folks aren’t getting together in various scenarios; it’s just that they’re not getting married in the same numbers as before.
The psychologist Eric Klinenberg has laid out evidence to suggest that these alternatives are not so terrifying or unattractive either. The number of people who live alone has grown rapidly in recent years, both within the US and across the western world. In Manhattan, and in Washington, the occupants of nearly one in every two houses are single. Klinenberg says that wherever it is economically feasible, people tend to live alone. Rather than bewailing this shift, Klinenberg thinks of it as a benign experiment, tying the new preference in with modern values of self-actualization and independence.
Klinenberg isn’t the first to see solo living as a symbol of realizing one’s aspirations. Living alone has always held a distinct place in the feminist dream. The Best of Everything, a brilliant novel by Rona Jaffe written in the late fifties that came to define the life of a young woman in New York, begins with the career girls of that era streaming out of their apartments and into the subway on their way to work. This novel inspired many women to set up house in this city, although Jaffe later wrote that she meant it to be a cautionary tale (one character dies after becoming obsessed with her boyfriend).
A few years later in “Sex and the Single Girl” (1962) Helen Gurley Brown devoted a whole chapter to “The Apartment.” Just to make her point clear, she asserts: “If you areb to be a glamorous, sophisticated woman that exciting things happen to, you need an apartment and you need to live in it alone!” (Exclamation mark not mine).
This air of excitement — along with inverse cliche of the lonely spinster — persist around the idea of women who live alone; although Klinenberg cursorily dispenses with the second idea: “[T]hose images are dated. Now the most privileged people on earth use their resources to separate from one another, to buy privacy and personal space.”
One striking thing about the way marriage is presented on the website of the National Marriage Week is the emphasis on pragmatism and practicality. The group’s message feels singularly unemotional, and the absence of the word “love” speaks loudly from some of their PR documents. There are many reasons why fewer people are getting married; but this makes me think that something needs to change if marriage is to remain desirable. (Admittedly things are changing, with the good news of the overturning of Prop 8 in California yesterday).
Meanwhile, as someone who pays an astronomical sum to live in a tiny studio in New York, I can honestly say that I’m pleased to be part of a growing trend of fulfilled singletons. Happy Marriage Week all!