Baby boom women are revolutionizing institution of divorce

ALICE STEINBACH

December 17, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

We used to think the Beatles had it nailed down: "All you need is love," they sang. And we bought it. At least for a while.

But then a lot of us got married. We had jobs and we had kids. And after a while, it turned out love wasn't enough. Or it was too much. And then a lot of us got divorced.

We put aside the childish notion that "all you need is love" and instead we looked to the self-help books for . . . well, for self-help. We found ourselves reading about women who love too much, men who can't love enough, people who've given up on love.

And over the last several years, we found ourselves wondering how the institution of marriage would fare as the liberated baby boom generation -- with its different expectations -- began to face the long-term realities of family life.

With all the choices available to them, would they be successful at finding the "perfect" lifelong mate?

And if not, would the increased "equality" between young couples -- a hard-won legacy given to them, in large part, by feminists from the prior generation -- be enough to keep them together?

Or would this different set of rules -- including the increased ability of women to become financially independent -- work in just the opposite way?

Of course, it's far too soon to write the definitive book on this subject, but some interesting studies are emerging on marriage trends in the 30- and 40-something age group.

According to a new Census Bureau study, baby boom women are setting a divorce record. It reports that women "now between the ages of 30 and 44 are more likely to be divorced at some time in their lives than any group in American history."

And a separate Census Bureau study shows that many middle-aged women who are divorced -- especially those past their child-rearing years who are financially independent -- have little interest in remarrying.

A recent New York Times article headlined, "Divorced, Middle-Aged and Happy: Women, Especially, Adjust to the '90s" records the attitude of one such woman, 46-year-old Lynn Steinhauer, after leaving a marriage of more than 20 years:

"Now Ms. Steinhauer comes and goes as she pleases and spends the money she earns without reproach. She flings herself into work with the energy once spent nurturing and negotiating. And she prefers a weekend relationship to a full-time mate."

Also less interested in marriage nowadays, according to the article, are many never-married women. In fact, sociology professor Frances Goldscheider tells the reporter, "women's growing lack of interest in marriage is 'the real revolution' of the last 20 years." Many contemporary women, it seems, view marriage "as a vise, solitary life as an unexpected pleasure and relationships with men as better in small doses."

Still, it seems safe to assume that for better or for worse -- although maybe not until death do us part -- marriage is here to stay. Which suggests that it might be useful to speculate on the benevolent aspects of a good marriage -- which is not necessarily the same as a lifelong marriage. Surely, despite census figures and newspaper articles, marriage must offer some unique opportunity for something to happen between two people; something that cannot happen in any other relationship.

After some thought, it strikes me that marriage may offer adults a chance to find something that is quite elusive in our hectic, on-the-move, impersonal society: intimacy.

Ours is not a great time for intimacy. Ours is a time for VTC "co-dependency." Many people fear true intimacy because it requires a person to be truly vulnerable, and this is a fearsome position in which to be. We wonder: Am I lovable if I am truly vulnerable, truly myself?

But in a marriage one eventually must be truly oneself. The pretense possible in other relationships cannot be sustained within the confines of a marriage.

However, as those of us who have been married know, the path to true intimacy is not always a scenic stroll. It can be unattractive and boring. But it can also be the royal road to trust between two people.

But trust may not be enough for those women who have joined in "the real revolution" of turning their backs on marriage. They seem not to want or need intimacy.

However, for those who still seek the great satisfaction of having another person recognize their deepest, inmost self, marriage may be the court of last resort.

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