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Are unmarried men and women really happy?

There are as many reasons for the plummeting remarriage rate as there are men and women choosing to stay single, but demographers and sociologists agree that there is an overriding explanation, and it contradicts the mildewed stereotype about women desperate to tie the knot and men itching for adventure. These experts say that increasingly it is women who now look skeptically at marriage, often viewing it as a bad bargain if they have gained financial and sexual independence.

“Women are learning to be self-sufficient and they are choosing singleness rather than losing their independence,” said Barbara Foley Wilson, a demographer at the National Center for Health Statistics. “It’s hard for men to remarry when women aren’t interested.”

Frances Goldscheider, a sociology professor at Brown University who is editor of Demography magazine, called women’s growing lack of interest in marriage “the real revolution” of the last 20 years.

“Unmarried women do well if they have enough money,” Ms. Gold scheider said. “They can support themselves in reasonable style. They don’t define themselves around men. And they do well socially because they have friends and bonding skills.” Unwilling Converts

But the men, in large measure, are a different story, unwilling converts to single life. “Unmarried men are not able to put together lives that sustain them,” Ms. Goldscheider said of the worst cases. “Even when they have enough money, they can’t cope. As you grow older, being part of a social network is more important than occupational success and men’s social lives have always been created by women.”

The view of experts like Ms. Wilson and Ms. Goldscheider was corroborated by two dozen interviews across the country with divorced men and women in this age group.

The women, with a few exceptions, viewed marriage as a vise, solitary life as an unexpected pleasure and relationships with men as better in small doses. The men, overwhelmingly, suffered for want of regular companionship and the amenities of domestic life.

Typical among the women was Marlene Jones, a 49-year-old department head at a Northern California company. Ms. Jones took great pleasure after divorcing her husband in eating popcorn for dinner rather than cooking and in wearing the White Diamonds perfume she loved rather than the Chanel No. 5 that he insisted on.

“I could do anything I wanted for the first time in my life,” she said.

Or Judith A. Yaskin, a 50-year-old Superior Court Judge in New Jersey, who asks no one’s permission before spending $200 for supplies for her rose garden. Recently, Judge Yaskin recalled, she overheard a man at the nursery say he was grateful he was not her husband. Not as grateful as she was, Ms. Yaskin said, dryly.

The complaint among women is that marriage forced them to “knuckle under,”in the words of Liz Lockwood, a 57-year-old teacher of gifted children in Stamford, Conn. Now that she has learned to manage her finances and handle an electric drill, Ms. Lockwood said she “would find it very hard not to wear the pants in the family.”

The men were at least ambivalent about remarriage, and more often enthusiastic. Take Bruce Layton, a 45-year-old policy analyst at the General Accounting Office in Washington. Mr. Layton does not fit the stereotype of the nerdy, miserable bachelor. He lives comfortably in a house that he owns in Bethesda, Md., and serves as president of the community association, a post usually filled by a family man.

But Mr. Layton fondly recalls having a wife to “keep the social life running” and tend to “certain little touches” that make a house a home. He clings to the “romantic notion” of “building a future,” two by two. ‘I’m Lonesome’>

Then there is Ray Rupp, a 55-year-old millwright in Flat Rock, Mich., who said, “I’m lonesome; there’s no getting around it.” Mr. Rupp said he longed for the days when his wife mended his pants and packed his lunch before he left for the 5 P.M. to 3 A.M. shift at the Detroit Edison power plant.

Mr. Rupp doubts that “the women of the 90’s” would look after him so well. “Some of these women, it’s an ego trip for them. It’s hooray for me and the heck with the other guy. They don’t know how to share. Fine and dandy. Let them do their own thing.”

It is impossible to know with certainty whether these women are as happy as they report, or the men as blue. But studies of the mortality, well-being and attitudes of divorced people indicate that women with adequate incomes fare much better than men.

One such study, Ms. Goldscheider said, showed divorced men with three to four times the mortality rate of their married peers, while divorced and married women were roughly equivalent. And the causes of death among divorced men are often stress related, like drinking, suicide or accidents, said Walter Gove, a professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University.

In a recent paper presented at the American Sociology Association, Mr. Gove reported that a substantial majority of divorced men and women said the wife had instigated the divorce. In interviews, the men told Mr. Gove that the divorce had caused them to question their worth and competence.

By contrast, the women were not troubled by such “symbolic issues,” Mr. Gove said. Their concerns were pragmatic: finances, relocation, making unfamiliar decisions. If the women could solve these problems, he said, they adjusted nicely, citing a new “sense of freedom” as the big plus. The only women to consistently report unhappiness after divorce were young mothers, Mr. Gove said, who tend to be poor and overwhelmed.

While marriage was nearly universal in the flush, hopeful years after World War II, there was a high proportion of single people in the 1930’s and 1940’s. But they were often considered misfits and failures.

The current generation of middle-aged singles, by contrast, is the first to own their homes and integrate into neighborhoods once the preserve of mom, dad, the kids and the station wagon. And in general, those who mimic the domestic lives of their married contemporaries seem the happiest, not those who settle in urban, high-rise singles ghettos.

That difference was most notable among men. After his first divorce, Jim Ferreira, a 55-year-old history professor at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, chose an apartment in the student quarter, but went house hunting after his second. He says he is much more content this time around.

He proudly describes the drapes, which he chose himself, and his Chinese paintings, which his ex-wife hated. “I had always allowed women to define the nature of the home,” Mr. Ferreira said. “I didn’t care about the rugs on the floor and now I’m out buying them.”

For some of the women, a house in the suburbs was part of the divorce settlement and for others a matter of choice, although a difficult one until the late 1970’s because of the scarcity of banks willing to give mortgages to single women. Either way, they often found themselves outcasts in neighborhoods that were the preserve, until recently, of tradtional families.

Judge Yaskin was a pioneer in this regard, buying a house in suburban Philadelphia after her divorce in 1972, when she was just 29. The little town of Haddonfield, N.J., was very much a two-by-two kind of place. The only single women in her neighborhood were sisters in their 20’s who lived with their parents and an elderly spinster. The neighbors were curious.

Now, with a home in Lawrenceville, N.J., Judge Yaskin, a former Environmental Protection Commissioner under Gov. Jim Florio, has the benefit of 20 years of social change and the proximity of Princeton University, with its cultural advantages and less hidebound population.

Judge Yaskin predicts that the independence and happiness she found after divorce will be available to younger women within marriage because their relationships are more egalitarian. Women her age, she said, fled their marriages because neither the drudgery nor the caring were really shared.

“We got stuck in a transition and transitions are always awkward,” she said. “I think the younger generation is clearly approaching relationships differently and won’t feel the need to live in splendid isolation."(


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