The Marriage Void

Rebecca M. Knight


When my grandmother was my age her husband was at war, and she had two small sons. She had married my grandfather right after graduating from high school, taken-as family lore has it-by his "Navy charm and handsome smile."

When my mother was my age, she was married and worked as a teacher in a small town. She wed just weeks after graduating from college.

Now I'm twenty-four. I'm not married and I'm not planning a wedding. I am the same age as they were, yet their choices -- or at least the timing of their choices-seem foreign to me.

I hope marriage and family are in my future, somewhere. But marriage is only one of many things I want to experience, like travel, social service, professional education, career growth-a piece of life but not the whole of life. Marriage is not the organizing principle of my life now, nor is it ever likely to be.

I don't say that lightly, for I know enough history to realize that mine is the first generation that actually has real choices about marriage: we are the first to be free from the parental and societal pressures that made marriage the undeniable certainty for most of my grandmother's and my mother's peers. Marriage will not define my generation of women.

Women have arranged their lives around marriage across centuries and cultures. Nearly all women married. Most did so early in their adult lives. Most stayed married until they or their spouse died. But now the old bets are off.

- The average age at marriage for women today is 24, compared to 20 in 1970.

- A larger percentage of marriages end in divorce than ever before-nearly 50 percent of first marriages, according to The Council on Families in America.

- Women now live longer lives that extend well beyond the adolescence of their children and in most cases beyond the deaths of their husbands. The life expectancy for women in the United States is 79, almost 7 years longer than men.

These changes may have accumulated gradually over the last several decades, but they represent a radical departure from what had long been regarded as the norm: that women would find most of the meaning and fulfillment in their lives in the context of marriage and family.

In some ways it is a great improvement for women to have these choices and to be free to navigate their own lives. Playwright Wendy Wasserstein, in a 1998 New York Times opinion piece, marveled that for the modern woman, "Marriage would be for love and for companionship, [not] a substitute for individual destiny."

In other ways, though, it is troublesome that nothing has come along to replace marriage as the structuring principle it once was in women's lives.

When Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique more than 30 years ago, she described a despondency that gnawed away at many married, family-centered women of the time. They were supposed to be happy, to be enjoying life's full promise, but many felt dejected and that something important was missing in their lives. Friedan called it the "problem that has no name" and inspired the years of consciousness raising through the Women's Movement that opened so many doors for young women like me.

Now I am confronting what it means to enter adulthood without the structure that early marriage once provided. In some ways our truth is as imperfect as our mothers' and grandmothers'.

Freedom is not without cost. How do I find meaning and happiness in today's world of single working moms, embittered divorcees and awkward Ally McBeals? Indeed, this is the "problem that has no name" for women of my generation.

As I now face all the options and complications of finding and starting a new job, moving to a new place, wrestling with over-zealous realtors and stingy landlords, seeking stability in the social chaos of twenty-somethings, I begin to realize how attractive it must have seemed to move from one very structured and well-defined environment (college) to another similarly well-defined (marriage).

But there was a high price to pay for the way our mothers made the transition to adult life-much too high it seems to me now. A lot of women have worked very hard to create opportunities and options for people like me that our mothers and our grandmothers didn't have. To pass those up lightly would be a terrible waste.

Maybe things won't be as easy for us, or seem so easy at the time. But we have a chance to chart our own course, to grow in strength and independence at a critical stage in our lives, and we better not blow it.

Not because we don't want good marriages and happy family lives -- many of us do. But because women today have the potential to become whole and to know ourselves before we take on the joys and responsibilities of marriage and family.

Discovering our individual destinies, developing our own competence and confidence are exactly the way we should spend our early twenties, so that when the wedding bells ring we can be the partners and parents our spouses and children deserve -- and we choose to be.


© Rebecca M. Knight


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