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December 8, 1994

Women over 40 are often happy alone, WPIC professor discovers

"Single women over 40 have less chance to marry than to be taken hostage by a terrorist." Shock waves of anger, despair and disillusionment swept through the ranks of women beyond the age of 40 in June 1986 when those words appeared in Newsweek magazine as part of a cover story on women and marriage.

Being over 40 and single herself, Carol Anderson, professor of psychiatry at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic (WPIC), recalls her own initial reaction to the statement: "Oh, shit!" But then Anderson began to think about her life. She loved her job as a family therapist so much that she didn't mind regularly working 14-hour days. She had a large collection of friends and had had some good relationships with men. In short, she generally was happy.

Then Anderson began to consider the lives of other single women over 40 whom she knew socially or had worked with as a counselor. Many of them also seemed to be quite happy with their lives. Something was wrong.

"What went through my mind when the story came out," she says, "was, 'Okay. Maybe the chances of a woman marrying after the age of 40 are not that great. But maybe it isn't only that she can't? Maybe she doesn't want to? Maybe she has other alternatives?'" To learn what some essentially happy single women over 40 think about their lives, Anderson joined Susan Stewart, a private practice family therapist in Greensboro, N.C., and Sona Dimidjian, a family therapist at WPIC, to begin interviewing contented widowed, divorced or never-married women between the ages of 40 and 55. For almost three years, 1990-1992, the trio continued the interviews. They eventually talked to 87 women living in or near Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., Boston, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Greensboro. The result of those interviews is their recently released book "Flying Solo: Single Women in Midlife" (W.W. Norton, $23) and some surprising findings, starting with the fact that they had no trouble whatsoever finding contented single women over the age of 40.

"That was an eye-opener in itself," says Anderson. "Because I thought we might have trouble." Another early surprise for Anderson and her colleagues was the diversity of the women they interviewed. They ran practically the entire socio-economic and educational gambit. They found happy, single women over 40 who had Ph.D.s and M.D.s, and others with high school educations. They earned salaries that ranged from well into the six figures and to less than $20,000 a year.

Anderson found the fact that some of the women made little money and were happy very startling. Before writing the book, she had assumed that happy single women over 40 would be making a lot of money. "Boy, was I thrown on my ear with that one," she says.

Some of the women interviewed for "Flying Solo" actually had had important corporate or institutional jobs and given them up to have a life they felt was not so driven.

One of the happiest women in the book made the least amount of money. She had been a tenured professor at an Eastern university and gave it up to have another child and operate a day care center.

"Flying Solo" does not use a random sample of women over 40 to make its points. Anderson is sure there are plenty of single women over age 40 who are miserable. She and her colleagues specifically sought out contented single women over 40 to try to find out why they were happy with their lives. The three researchers used a networking approach, asking women they interviewed if they knew any other women like themselves. They discovered that every one of them knew four or five other women in a similar situation.

Also, all of the women interviewed by Anderson and her colleagues were heterosexual. Lesbians, she says, are a completely different issue.

A number of the women had men in their lives with whom they had a long-term relationship, as long as 20 years. By choice, though, they didn't live with them and didn't marry them.

Other women who were not involved in a relationship said they would not mind being involved with a man. All things being equal, they would have preferred to be involved with a man, according to Anderson, but they weren't willing to invest the effort to find one.

"That surprised me," she says. "Among all those women who didn't have a man and said they wanted one, they weren't doing anything to find one. I am still not sure I understand that." Anderson thinks that maybe the way single people meet after college played a part in the decision of those women not to search for a man. The bar scene is depressing, she explains, "fix-ups" often are disasters and it is impossible to sum up a personality or life in newspaper and magazine ads. She feels that after taking those routes for a number of years those women had just given up.

A number of women also said they feared getting into a serious relationship because they felt in some ways that they themselves became less of a person when they were involved with a man.

"But mostly they just said there wasn't anyone around and they didn't want to waste time looking because the pay-offs weren't very big," Anderson says.

The woman who had been a tenured professor and gave it up to operate a day care center provides a good example. She had been married and had a child. She decided she wanted to have more children, looked into adoption and artificial insemination, and then met a man, fell in love and propositioned him. "She said, 'It's artificial insemination or you,'" Anderson says.

When the man said he didn't want to get married, the woman told him she felt the same way. Then she asked him if he would father a child with her. He agreed. They had two children together and have been successfully sharing responsibility for them over the past nine years.

Such self-assuredness was the one universal trait among the women in the book. According to Anderson, they all had an upbeat attitude toward life and had turned their backs on passivity.

"They would go after what they wanted and not care so much what people thought," she says. "They had come to grips with that and in some way had said, 'I am who I am and who cares what anyone else thinks about it.'" Anderson says that she actually thinks such an attitude is a characteristic of mid-life and not just single women at mid-life. "My co-author calls it the dawning of the great age of 'who cares and so what.'" Another important characteristic Anderson and her colleagues found was that happy, single women over 40 were well connected. They had networks of friends, family and children. They had people who helped them out when they needed help, whether it was to go to dinner, fix something around the house or go to a movie.

Anderson herself is a single parent of an adopted daughter and is quick to acknowledge that being an unmarried parent is very difficult unless a person is well to do and can hire help or has a good support network to share daily responsibilities such as car pools and baby-sitting.

Women who had been in bad marriages even said they found it a relief to be juggling their schedule for child care because at least they were no longer fighting with their husbands about what to do with the kids.

"These were not lonely women," Anderson adds. "Everyone said loneliness was going to be a big issue for single women. In the main, though, they rarely complained of loneliness. When we asked them about loneliness they would say, 'Well, yeah. I guess I am lonely on occasion.' But a few of them said, 'The loneliest I ever was in my life was when I was married and we were unhappy with one another. Two of us sitting on the couch having nothing to say to each other. That was loneliness.'" What the women in the book did when they felt lonely was to simply get up and do something. Most of them were involved in a career in one way or another.

"I think that activity, deciding what you want and doing something to get it, is absolutely crucial for happiness," says Anderson.

Why women are generally more passive than men in our culture and often do not combat loneliness with activity is difficult to say, according to Anderson. She thinks some of it might be biological, connected to the need of the species to reproduce and the need for women to care for children.

But Anderson also believes that passivity is something that is taught to women in countless ways from the time they are little girls. For instance, she points to Walt Disney's movie "Cinderella" after Cinderella is forced to go live with her wicked stepmother.

"The line that it starts with is, 'Cinderella was abused, humiliated and finally made to become a servant in her own home. But through it all she was ever gentle, ever kind,'" says Anderson. "It is like a prescription. It says you shouldn't fight back if people abuse you, just remain gentle and kind and love will come to you and you'll get the prince." As a family therapist, Anderson wondered for years why so many women she counseled were bitter. She believes now it is because they had been too passive, adapted too much and given up too much of themselves for too many years. If they had let some of their anger and disappointment out, they would not have been so nasty, she speculates.

The passivity aspect of women is troubling to men, too, she notes, because they don't know who they are relating to if a woman is always passive and never speaks out.

Along with single women, Anderson believes that "Flying Solo" can help married women. She points out that the women in the book are not super stars. They are quite ordinary and can provide role models for how married women might change to improve themselves and their marriages or even get out of a bad marriage.

"I would hope that they [married women] could read something like this early on and realize they have choices," she says.

"Flying Solo" also offers support for single women raising families. According to Anderson, the Leave It to Beaver, Donna Reed, and Ozzie and Harriet television families of the 1950s and 1960s were never a reality. Of course, there were and still are so called "traditional" families with a father, mother and children in which the mother remains at home to keep house and take care of the kids while the father goes off to work. But, Anderson adds, in real life traditional families never have measured up to those old television families.

"I think those shows were very destructive in the long run," she says. "People say, 'Weren't they wonderful models.' No. They weren't. Because they set up unrealistic expectations. Everybody walked around thinking, 'My family isn't a normal family' or 'My family isn't as good. If I could only have that.'" Families actually have come into therapy sessions with Anderson and asked her to make them like the Waltons. Such requests horrify her because the Waltons were a family that never got cross with each other or unreasonably bitchy and always had time and plenty of understanding.

When politicians talk about "traditional family values" today they are focusing on a very small percentage of families in America, according to Anderson. She says there are all types of functioning families, many of which do not involve people who are related by blood or marriage. "The important thing is that people have a responsibility to one another, care about another," she explains.

Many of the women in "Flying Solo" were very irritated about the way politicians have been using the terms "family" and "family values." She recalls women in the book telling her: "'People say I raised my kids in a broken home. I may have been a single parent, but there was nothing broken about my home. My home was strong and I taught my kids the right values.'" All of the women interviewed also said they were happy that someone was finally telling their story because they had always felt "a little weird," as if something was wrong with them, for being single, over 40 and happy.

"The story needed to be told so that women don't feel they are without a choice," Anderson says. "I am not saying being single is better than marriage. I think marriage is wonderful. There is nothing like a good marriage. But women should have a choice and know that if they are not married they can still have a good life." "Flying Solo" has not earned a Newsweek cover story or become a best-seller, but Anderson says that the publisher is very happy with sales so far. She and co-author Stewart have appeared on Today on NBC and Breakfast Time on Fox and have received a call about possibly appearing on Oprah.

–Mike Sajna

Filed under: Feature,Volume 27 Issue 8

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