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History loves an unmarried woman

January 21, 2007|Helen Fisher | Helen Fisher, research professor in the department of anthropology at Rutgers University, is the author of "Why We Love."

ACCORDING TO a news report last week, for what is probably the first time, more American women -- 51% -- are living without a husband than with one. According to the New York Times analysis of U.S. census results, 70% of black women, 51% of Latinas, 45% of white women and 40% of women of Asian descent do not have a spouse. Husbands of some are in jail or another institution, and others have a spouse who works away from home. But the vast majority of these women are either not yet married or they are divorced or widowed.

This is, in part, good news.

Take the widows. In past decades, many of these women would have died during childbirth or in middle age because of accidents or disease. Today, many are enjoying long senior years.

These rising numbers of widows are part of a remarkable global trend -- the aging world population. A demographer once told me that we should start regarding "middle age" as up to age 85 because about 40% of those in the category of ages 75 to 84 have nothing medically wrong with them. "Drink life to the lees," Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote in his poem "Ulysses." More and more women have this opportunity.

What about young women who have not yet wed? They are part of a second dramatic global trend -- young women are entering the paid labor force in droves.

For about 10,000 years, the only career path for these women was to "marry well." They spent their short lives making candles, soap and clothing, and rearing babies to help on the farm. With the rise of modern technologies to aid housework, and the dramatic expansion of jobs in business, industry and government, women have become an integral part of the modern working world. They can forgo an early marriage to explore their minds and opportunities.

As for divorced women, many Americans still believe that spouses should endure an unhappy marriage regardless of the circumstances. The world does not agree with them. The global attitude about divorce is best summed up by the Mongols of Siberia, who say, "If two people cannot live harmoniously together, they had better live apart."

United Nations data on 130 societies indicate that in 125 of them women are gradually closing the gap with men in terms of health, education and economic power. And when a woman is economically capable of leaving an unhappy marriage, she does -- because she can.

These trends are not unprecedented. For at least 2 million years on the grasslands of Africa, females commuted to the work of gathering fruits and vegetables. From what we can deduce by studying contemporary hunting-and-gathering peoples, these ancestral females probably returned to camp with 60% to 80% of the shared evening meal. And in many respects, they were just as economically, socially and sexually powerful as males. As a result, based on studies of hunting-and-gathering communities today, these females probably mated with whom they chose -- and they left intolerable relationships to find new ones. We are returning to those ancient times.

And don't believe for a moment that the 51% of American women who live without a spouse lack love. Deep in the human brain lie three neural systems that evolved to foster reproduction: the drive for sex, the craving for romantic love and the deep desire to attach. Most of these women are either searching for or getting love from partners of their choice. The vast majority will also marry. U.N. data on 97 societies indicate that more than 90% of the women marry by age 45. But today we marry differently. Along with the rise of economically powerful women is what sociologists call the 21st century marriage: the companionate, symmetrical or peer marriage -- marriage between equals.

"Love wins; love always wins," it has been said. But throughout most of our agrarian past, love lost, at least among the upper classes. Parents may have started to arrange their children's weddings soon after the human brain began to develop about 2 million years ago. But in those few hunting-and-gathering societies that exist today, parents only arrange the first wedding of a son or daughter. Moreover, the marriage contract is flexible. If the callow newlyweds are unhappy, they pick up their few belongings and walk home. The young choose their next spouse for themselves.

But as our forebears began to settle on the land, as they acquired immovable property such as fields of wheat and sturdy homes, they needed to cement their social ties. What better way than to wed your daughter with my son? Strictly arranged marriages became a way to build one's fortune and secure one's genetic future. These marriages had to endure. Both men and women wed for life.

The widespread tradition of strictly arranged marriages began to decline with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. As men and women left the farm for factory work, they no longer needed to maintain many of their previous connections. More began to choose their own partners.

This trend continues. Today, psychologists report, about 91% of American women and 86% of American men would not marry someone unless they were in love with him or her, even if this person had every single trait they were looking for in a spouse. Zulus, Eskimos and men and women in 35 other cultures agree. Their first priority is to wed someone whom they choose for themselves -- what the Chinese call "free love."

"Marriage," Voltaire wrote, "is the only adventure open to the cowardly." Today, more women (and men) have the opportunity to enjoy this adventure -- life with someone they passionately love. Humanity is returning to patterns of romance and marriage that are highly compatible with our ancient human spirit.

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