Newsweek, it turns out, was just kidding about the terrorists. Twenty years ago, the magazine infamously quipped that 40-year-old women who had not yet married were "more likely to be killed by a terrorist" than to ever get married. The news was considered traumatic. In 1986, a therapist told Newsweek that "everybody was talking about it and everybody was hysterical."
Now Newsweek has recanted. The chances of marrying after 40 are actually much higher than the initially reported 2.6%.
Newsweek wants to know why they were so wrong. I have a different question: Why did it matter? Even if the original statistics had been true, why should that have been a cause for trauma or hysteria? At my age (52), the chances that I will ever be a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker are surely less than 2.6%, but that awareness does not send me scurrying fretfully into the offices of a therapist. The myth about low marital odds can have the power to incite panic only if it is co-dependent on a second myth that is even more pernicious -- that life as a single person is shameful and sad.
It isn't. But Newsweek has yet to get that part of the story straight. In its pictures and in its prose, Newsweek is still peddling the myth of the poor single women, who -- even if they thought they were happy -- really did not know what true happiness was.
The morality tale of the virtuous married people and the clueless singles is unfurled through the words of a handful of women who had been interviewed as singletons for the 1986 story, and then again in 2006.
Take, for example, the story of Penny Sohn:
Then, in 1986, she was totally "focused on her career" as a director of the NJ Department of Higher Education. Friends used to comment on her glamorous life.
Now, in 2006, she is married with children. According to Newsweek, Penny now "realizes that family, not work, is what constitutes a person's real legacy." Adds Penny, "Now I really do know what I was missing."
Or consider Laurie Anderson:
Then, in 1986, she said: "I have a meaningful life with meaningful relationships."
Now she's married and she's "ecstatic" -- in fact, she wishes she'd married earlier.
Sally Jackson's life lessons are also celebrated.
Then, 20 years ago, she was described as the "President of a successful public-relations firm," and enjoying her "charming 18th-century cottage overlooking Ipswich Bay."
Now Newsweek quotes her as saying that "it is much more fun" to be married. In fact, the caption next to the picture of Sally and her husband says "pure bliss."
So, in twenty years, Newsweek has gone from terrorist sensationalism to marriage triumphalism.
The myth of marital superiority will not be lost on those who merely flip through the pages of the magazine, looking at the pictures. Five big pictures, sometimes sprawled across two pages, show women who have married. Their husbands are right there with them, as are their children, if they have any, and even a pet. There are also smaller pictures of the women and their husbands on their wedding day.
The last two pictures are of women who stayed single. They are squeezed onto one page. The bigger picture goes to the glum-faced Nancy Rigg. In a quote next to her picture, she says that even if she lives to be 100, she will still be open to the possibility of marrying. Of all people in all the pictures -- 18 of them, if you include husbands and kids -- the ever-single Nancy Riggs is the only one who is not smiling or kissing.
The other single woman posed a real problem for Newsweek. The magazine could not get Lillian Brown to bemoan her single status, nor to pine for a partner, either then or now. Instead, she talked about how happy she was with her friends, her child, her grandchild, and her life. Plus, when they took her picture, she had the audacity to smile! What was Newsweek to do?
They showed her! They literally stuck her in the basement corner. Her picture is in the very bottom of the last page of the story, right next to the binding. The important people in her life are not included. Lillian, Newsweek is telling us, is single: by definition, she is alone.
If scientific studies really did show that marriage transforms people from miserable singletons into blissfully happy couples, then Newsweek would have every right to rub it in. But they don't. On average, people who marry and stay married show a small blip in happiness around the time of the wedding, but then they go back to being about as happy as they were when they were single. As for the people who marry and then divorce, they are already becoming a little less happy as the wedding day approaches, a trend that typically does not reverse until about a year before the divorce becomes final.
In touting its marriage triumphalism, Newsweek was missing out on the better part of our adult lives. The magazine is right in claiming that most people (probably about 90%) eventually do get married. But that statistic hides a more significant one: Americans now spend more years of their adult lives single than married. People who do marry often don't get around to it for a good long while, and then, many do not stay married for long. After divorce or widowhood, remarriage (especially for women) is hardly inevitable.
Newsweek spells out its moral for us: "The real story of this anniversary is the unexpected happily-ever-afters." Newsweek was referring to the women who were single two decades ago, and now are married. I think they've still missed the real story: Often, the women who are living happily ever after are -- and always have been -- single.