Women Living without a Spouse

51% of Women Are Now Living Without
Published: January 16, 2007
For what experts say is probably the first time, more American women
are living without a husband than with one, according to a New York
Times analysis of census results.
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Ruby Washington/The New York Times
“A lot of my friends are divorced or single or living alone. I know a lot of
people in their 30s who have roommates.”
Has lived with a boyfriend twice.
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Erik S. Lesser for The New York Times
“A gentleman asked me to marry him and I said no. I told him, ‘I’m just
beginning to fly again, I’m just beginning to be me. Don’t take that
Divorced in 2005 after being married for 34 years.
In 2005, 51 percent of women said they were living without a spouse, up
from 35 percent in 1950 and 49 percent in 2000.
Coupled with the fact that in 2005 married couples became a minority of
all American households for the first time, the trend could ultimately
shape social and workplace policies, including the ways government and
employers distribute benefits.
Several factors are driving the statistical shift. At one end of the age
spectrum, women are marrying later or living with unmarried partners
more often and for longer periods. At the other end, women are living
longer as widows and, after a divorce, are more likely than men to delay
remarriage, sometimes delighting in their newfound freedom.
In addition, marriage rates among black women remain low. Only about
30 percent of black women are living with a spouse, according to the
Census Bureau, compared with about 49 percent of Hispanic women, 55
percent of non-Hispanic white women and more than 60 percent of Asian
In a relatively small number of cases, the living arrangement is
temporary, because the husbands are working out of town, are in the
military or are institutionalized. But while most women eventually marry,
the larger trend is unmistakable.
“This is yet another of the inexorable signs that there is no going back to
a world where we can assume that marriage is the main institution that
organizes people’s lives,” said Prof. Stephanie Coontz, director of public
education for the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonprofit
research group. “Most of these women will marry, or have married. But
on average, Americans now spend half their adult lives outside
Professor Coontz said this was probably unprecedented with the possible
exception of major wartime mobilizations and when black couples were
separated during slavery.
William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, a
research group in Washington, described the shift as “a clear tipping
point, reflecting the culmination of post-1960 trends associated with
greater independence and more flexible lifestyles for women.”
“For better or worse, women are less dependent on men or the institution
of marriage,” Dr. Frey said. “Younger women understand this better, and
are preparing to live longer parts of their lives alone or with nonmarried
partners. For many older boomer and senior women, the institution of
marriage did not hold the promise they might have hoped for, growing up
in an ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ era.”
Emily Zuzik, a 32-year-old musician and model who lives in the East
Village of Manhattan, said she was not surprised by the trend.
“A lot of my friends are divorced or single or living alone,” Ms. Zuzik said.
“I know a lot of people in their 30s who have roommates.”
Ms. Zuzik has lived with a boyfriend twice, once in California where the
couple registered as domestic partners to qualify for his health insurance
plan. “I don’t plan to live with anyone else again until I am married,” she
said, “and I may opt to keep a place of my own even then.”
Linda Barth, a 56-year-old magazine editor in Houston who has never
married, said, “I used to divide my women friends into single friends and
married friends. Now that doesn’t seem to be an issue.”
Sheila Jamison, who also lives in the East Village and works for a media
company, is 45 and single. She says her family believes she would have
had a better chance of finding a husband had she attended a historically
black college instead of Duke.
“Considering all the weddings I attended in the ’80s that have ended so
very, very badly, I consider myself straight up lucky,” Ms. Jamison said.
“I have not sworn off marriage, but if I do wed, it will be to have a
companion with whom I can travel and play parlor games in my old age.”
Carol Crenshaw, 57, of Roswell, Ga., was divorced in 2005 after 33 years
and says she is in no hurry to marry again.
“I’m in a place in my life where I’m comfortable,” said Ms. Crenshaw, who
has two grown sons. “I can do what I want, when I want, with whom I
want. I was a wife and a mother. I don’t feel like I need to do that again.”
Similarly, Shelley Fidler, 59, a public policy adviser at a law firm, has
sworn off marriage. She moved from rural Virginia to the vibrant Adams
Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C., when her 30-year marriage
“The benefits were completely unforeseen for me,” Ms. Fidler said, “the
free time, the amount of time I get to spend with friends, the time I have
alone, which I value tremendously, the flexibility in terms of work, travel
and cultural events.”
Among the more than 117 million women over the age of 15, according to
the marital status category in the Census Bureau’s latest American
Community Survey, 63 million are married. Of those, 3.1 million are
legally separated and 2.4 million said their husbands were not living at
home for one reason or another.
That brings the number of American women actually living with a spouse
to 57.5 million, compared with the 59.9 million who are single or whose
husbands were not living at home when the survey was taken in 2005.
Some of those situations, which the census identifies as “spouse absent”
and “other,” are temporary, and, of course, even some people who
describe themselves as separated eventually reunite with their spouses.
Over all, a larger share of men are married and living with their spouse
— about 53 percent compared with 49 percent among women.
“Since women continue to outlive men, they have reached the nonmarital
tipping point — more nonmarried than married,” Dr. Frey said. “This
suggests that most girls growing up today can look forward to spending
more of their lives outside of a traditional marriage.”
Pamela J. Smock, a researcher at the University of Michigan Population
Studies Center, agreed, saying that “changing patterns of courtship,
marriage, and that we are living longer lives all play a role.”
“Men also remarry more quickly than women after a divorce,” Ms. Smock
added, “and both are increasingly likely to cohabit rather than remarry
after a divorce.”
The proportion of married people, especially among younger age groups,
has been declining for decades. Between 1950 and 2000, the share of
women 15-to-24 who were married plummeted to 16 percent, from 42
percent. Among 25-to-34-year-olds, the proportion dropped to 58
percent, from 82 percent.
“Although we can help people ‘do’ marriage better, it is simply delusional
to construct social policy or make personal life decisions on the basis
that you can count on people spending most of their adult lives in
marriage,” said Professor Coontz, the author of “Marriage, a History: How
Love Conquered Marriage.”
Besse Gardner, 24, said she and her boyfriend met as college freshmen
and started living together last April “for all the wrong reasons” — they
found a great apartment on the beach in Los Angeles.
“We do not see living together as an end or even for the rest of our lives
— it’s just fun right now,” Ms. Gardner said. “My roommate is someone
I’d be thrilled to marry one day, but it just doesn’t make sense right
Ms. Crenshaw said that some of the women in her support group for
divorced women were miserable, but that she was surprised how happy
she was to be single again.
“That’s not how I grew up,” she said. “That’s not how society thinks. It’s a
marriage culture.”
Elissa B. Terris, 59, of Marietta, Ga., divorced in 2005 after being
married for 34 years and raising a daughter, who is now an adult.
“A gentleman asked me to marry him and I said no,” she recalled. “I told
him, ‘I’m just beginning to fly again, I’m just beginning to be me. Don’t
take that away.’ ”
“Marriage kind of aged me because there weren’t options,” Ms. Terris
said. “There was only one way to go. Now I have choices. One night I
slept on the other side of the bed, and I thought, I like this side.”
She said she was returning to college to get a master’s degree (her former
husband “didn’t want me to do that because I was more educated than
he was”), had taken photography classes and was auditioning for a play.
“Once you go through something you think will kill you and it doesn’t,”
she said, “every day is like a present.”
Ariel Sabar, Brenda Goodman and Maureen Balleza contributed reporting.