Tag Archives: Married

How Good is Being Alone?

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I was reading the review of a book the other day. All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by journalist Rebecca Traister traces the history and the changing role of single women in our history. According to the Census, there are now more single women than married. How did that happen?

The status of women, families and marriage is undergoing dramatic change in our society. Here is an interview with Traister where she points out some of the most significant demographic changes that she has written about in her book. An important fact she points out:

One of the most startling statistics is that today only 20 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 are married, and that compares to 60 percent in 1960. The other figure that I find very startling, in part because it was so resilient for so long, is the median age of first marriage for women. From the time they started recording it — which was 1890 — until 1980, that median age of first marriage for women fluctuated only between 20 and 22. … In 1990 it jumped to over 23, which is a huge jump from having been in that small range for so long. Today, for women, it is over 27. So if you’re just looking at the sort of historical picture, there’s this relatively flat line for almost 100 years and now there’s not just a jump over that line, but way over that line.

I’m a sociologist. When I see changes like this I want to know about what’s happening in other dimensions of our society. There’s an interconnection between all things. Higher levels of education for women, a transforming service/information economy, higher income equality for women, shrinking size of family, more family debt, higher levels of choice in all areas of life, exploding access to social media…phenomena like these all have an influence and even causal effect on why changes occur in marriages and families.

There’s so much changing all around us. Of course we will see effects of these changes in places like our relationships and institutions like family.

We are studying Genesis in my Sunday School class. God proclaims everything he makes to be good. Then he creates man and sees that he is alone and declares that this is not good.

Our society is now trying to figure out all sorts of ways to solve this eternal problem. Marriage used to be the best solution. Now only half of adults live with a spouse, the other  half are cohabiting, living alone or are in some other arrangement. 40% of cohabiters break up within five years.

It seems that we are trying to piece together fragments and shadows of something we know to be better. What we have ended up with are too many people alone – for whatever reason. And that is still not good.

“The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!”  -Edith Wharton

Alone in the Crowd

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“The trouble is not that I am single and likely to stay single, but that I am lonely and likely to stay lonely.”  – Charlotte Bronte

I was at the grocery store again and I couldn’t help but notice more family experiences that just made me keep thinking about it all.

  • There was that 6 year old standing by the butter yelling at the top of all of our lungs that he had “found it!” He made sure that everyone knew this three or four times. I watched as the woman who looked like she needed three naps pushed her cart toward his excited dance. I thought to myself, I hope the day never comes when they stop speaking to each other.
  • Then there’s the dad who has responsibility for his three little tiny girls walking around his ankles like kittens. He is focused on his mission, eyes searching, while they are running around and darting in front of everyone else – causing near misses and collisions right and left. He remains oblivious. His wife has obviously given just one simple directive, “don’t leave anyone behind when you come home.”
  • Watching the young (and older) couples filling their baskets together is always fun. Sometimes she is having to give a lot of directions and he is just there to do the pushing and pulling. Other couples look like they are on an adventure, planning a meal or getting their week organized. Every now and then there’s an older couple, one of them is confined to an electric cart and his/her partner is moving up and down the aisle finding the right item. They work as team to manage their life together.

I’m usually at the store by myself. It’s therapeutic. People say they see me there but I never notice, walking by, talking to myself, in my own world, watching the world around me.

The grocery store is a great place to see the American family in action. As I’m watching these people together doing the mundane tasks associated with life I think about where our society is heading. We are trending toward more fragmented families and choosing to live alone.

According to numbers from the most recent National Survey of Family Growth, more men (66%) than women (49%) agreed that it was better to get married than to go through life remaining single. Are men more frightened of loneliness? Are women less willing to settle for second or third best these days? This doesn’t mean that people are less willing to have children. The stigma of single-parenthood has dramatically declined.

This also means that half of women are willing to remain single. It’s become a more normal option to them – at least on a survey question.

The trend for many is away from marriage as a key component of the American Dream. It promises a high level of individual autonomy and control of one’s lifestyle. But there is a cost to both the individual and to our society.

I suspect that as the days go by I might see more lonely shoppers at the store and far less interaction to watch.

You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs
I look around me and I see it isn’t so
Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs
And what’s wrong with that?
Paul McCartney

What Is Linklater’s “Boyhood” About?

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“He promised us that everything would be okay. I was a child, but I knew that everything would not be okay. That did not make my father a liar. It made him my father.”  – Jonathan Safran Foer

Did you see native Houstonian Richard Linklater’s groundbreaking film Boyhood yet? If you haven’t, then go see it THEN come back to read this post…

Everyone is talking about Boyhood because the film is a “documentary” of the life of Mason Jr. as he develops from a 6 year old until he arrives at college. The film took twelve years to make because he documented the same actor (Ellar Coltrane) throughout his progression through his “boyhood.”  This is what seems so remarkable to everyone. While watching the film one is dazzled at how seamless the transformations occur as Mason grows into adulthood. Of course we have all been raised on special effects and nothing should amaze us anymore. Perhaps what makes audiences so appreciative is the fact that they are witnessing a normal human process take place right before their eyes. A process that everyone witnesses all around them every single day, but probably takes for granted.

What was amazing to me about the film was something else.  While Mason was growing up in a single-parent home (as more than 40% of American children today are) he experienced many of the problems associated with this kind of life. Ultimately, upon reaching adulthood and launching off to college, Mason seemed completely lost and lacking any sort of direction and connection to meaning. For me it was a tragic story because I read the reports and know that this movie was probably very similar to the real experience of many of today’s teens and young adults. The most bitter aspect of this tragedy is that our society seems oblivious to what’s happening to our children because of our fickle commitment to family.

  • Mason was an unplanned birth by two young parents who divorced and did not maintain a healthy communication with one another.
  • Mason’s father was eager to create a meaningful relationship with his children but his own lifestyle prevented much stability. He only made sporadic visits. His children were unable to watch him model as a parent.
  • Mason’s mother, like most single moms, worked hard to make ends meet and ultimately decided to go back to school to increase her chances of a better paying job. This meant less time with her children as they were growing up. When she was with her children, time was not spent providing order and discipline but trying to create a close friendship.
  • The family, like most single families had to move and the children had to leave friends and schools behind. This created a level of constant chaos and emotional anxiety in their lives.
  • New stepfathers and step-families were created along the way as Mason’s mother tried to provide a better life for herself and her family. This often ended up exposing her children to unhealthy relationships, more abandonment and cynicism about adults.
  • Both Mason and his sister were initiated into drug use, alcohol and sex at an early age. Their mother seemed to condone the behavior, maintaining a friendship being her ultimate goal.
  • When Mason did have experiences with adults who tried to instill in him useful social values it was typically someone who he did not respect or who sounded like a step-father from his haunted past. Mason’s own father encouraged him as a free spirit while he himself was selling his hot rod and buying a mini-van.
  • An ironic scene in the film, Mason’s mother is teaching a college course in psychology. The lecture she is giving in this scene is about British psychologist John Bowlby and his attachment theory. Infant’s healthy attachments to primary caregivers (mothers and fathers) are essential for their later emotional development.
  • The actor who played Mason Jr., Ellar Coltrane, experienced the break up of his own family while he was making this film. He reports that one of the film crew ended up teaching him how to drive when it came time to get his license. That’s an important rite of passage for a son.

For me it was a very haunting experience as the film ended with Mason walking through the Big Bend scenery at sunset. He has traveled to the end of his childhood and was just as lost as a baby would have been. He was never given the healthy grounding in reality, the basic lessons about life, the foundational experiences of love and acceptance that all children ought to have in order to make a healthy and strong start to live.

I’m not naive, I realize that teens rebel and college kids can get really flaky. That’s not what I’m talking about here. Linklater wrote a script that seemed to present Mason as a harmless, sweet, genial yet completely lost young man once he journeyed off to college. He didn’t have anything to rebel against. In the film Mason’s mother and father never really spent the consistent and constant time instilling into him by their presence and practice what it means to love and be loved.

No one has a perfect family to grow up in. That’s not the point. My large point is that we are witnessing the disintegration of the core social institution in our civilization and no one seems very bothered. Less than 20% of American households are made up of a married couple with children. No one is raising any alarms. No one is calling it what it is – The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

When the film ended I was sitting in the the theater trying to catch my breath and process what I had just witnessed. I could hear people around me standing up and clapping.

“Civilization is a race between disaster and education.”  – H.G. Wells