When Lynn Steinhauer divorced a few years ago after more than two decades of marriage, she expected to feel lost and lonely. Instead, she delighted in the peaceful pleasures of an empty house and a table set for one.
Now Ms. Steinhauer eats what she wants, 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.
Ms. Steinhauer, 46, a social worker in Kalamazoo, Mich., is one of countless divorced middle-aged women, past their child-bearing and child-rearing years and established in their careers, whose indifference to remarriage is propelling a marked shift in the way Americans live.
Divorce has been rising in every age group, but the ranks of middle-aged people who have divorced have grown most rapidly. In 1970 there were not quite 1.5 million divorced and still unmarried people aged 40 to 54; in 1991 there were 6.1 million (3.6 million women and 2.5 million men). In 1970, 4.2 percent of this age group were divorced; in 1991, 13.8 percent were.
And demographers say these numbers are rising not simply because more people are divorcing but also because they're not remarrying as they used to. Between 1970 and 1988 the rate for remarriage after divorce in all age groups has dropped more than 40 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics.
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. "And 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. Goldscheider said. "They can support them
selves in reasonable style. They don't define themselves around men. And they do well socially because they have friends and bonding skills."
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 vice, 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.
The abiding complaint among women is that marriage forced them to "knuckle under," in the words of Liz Lockwood, 57, a teacher 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, 45, a 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," water the plants and tend to "certain little touches" that make a house a home. And he clings to the "romantic notion" of "building a future," two by two.