Married couples no longer make up the majority of households in America. For the first time in the history of the United States, except during periods of war, more women are living without a partner than with one, according to a New York Times analysis of the most recent census survey. In 2005, 51 percent of American women were living without a spouse, up from 35 percent in 1950 and 49 percent in 2000. And most of them seem to be satisfied with the situation.
Professor Stephanie Coontz, Director of Public Education for the non-profit research group Council on Contemporary Families says, she's not surprised at all. "This is just one more example of a very gradual change that's occurring in the United States and elsewhere," she says. "What's significant about this is that women are now postponing marriage and they are more willing and able to leave a marriage if it's not satisfactory, or even to say no to marriage entirely."
Coontz say several factors are driving the statistical shift. "Part of this is because the age of marriage is rising. As women have developed more economic and educational independence, they are more able to say no to marriage and to live a happy life outside marriage."
In her book, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, Coontz explains that although American women may be waiting longer to wed, they have favorable attitudes toward marriage. "I think that's a very quick way of summing up these changes," she says. "People are very interested in having a love relationship, but they want a love relationship based upon equality, mutual regard and common interest. They no longer need to marry for economic security or social respectability."
Jen Schefft is a single woman who has appeared on two reality TV shows about finding the perfect partner: "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette." She's also written a book for singles, Better Single than Sorry. "Women are finally realizing that you don't need a man to make you happy," she says. "I'm not against men. I love men and I want to get married, but I think women are now waiting longer to get married and making smarter choices."
Schefft says single women are role models, inspiring young women to make the right decision about marriage at the right time. "Nobody wants to feel like they are alone," she observes. "In the book I call it, 'the last woman standing,' when everybody else around you seems to be getting married and having children. I think when we have positive role models that are smart, successful, happy -- and single -- that sends a great message for women."
That's the message women seem to be getting… despite different cultural values, says Professor Coontz. "Everywhere around the world, except in Afghanistan under the Taliban, women have been pouring into the labor force," she says. "They have been increasing their representation in education. Women are now a majority of university students in many, many countries, not just in the United States. That means that they have more options than in the past. They can postpone marriage. And when they do enter marriage, they have different expectations than women who used to be forced to marry even if they are not fully in love because they needed a man to confer their legal rights, to support them economically, and give them the social respectability."
In the long run, Stephanie Coontz says, this trend could impact society in a positive way: mature, educated women who are economically independent are more likely to take their time to find the right person to marry, and raise their children in stable families that are strong and happy.