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Freedom vs. Mr. Right

When a few of my friends got together recently — some in struggling marriages — we started talking about the good things that have happened to us because of our divorces. Overall, a lot of good had come from them, so I was originally going to blog about that, but the concept of "freedom" kept coming up.

I have often said that, too: that I love my new-found freedom. But freedom from what?

That, I think, is the $64,000 question. Or perhaps a pricier question, in light of a story this week , Men prefer being solo over a bad marriage: study, about a new book that says that men, in part, fear marrying because of what they will lose financially. "Those who are financially sound were terrified what a bad divorce could do to them," says Carl Weisman, author of "So Why Have You Never Been Married? — Ten Insights into Why He Hasn't Wed."

The main reason men are skittish about marriage, he says of the 1,533 heterosexual men he interviewed (while the gay ones are lining up to get marriage licenses; go figure!): "Men are 10 times more scared of marrying the wrong person than of never getting married at all." Weisman said his online survey found there are "three groups of bachelors — about 8 percent who never want to marry, 62 percent want to marry but of which half won't settle for anything less than perfection, and about 30 percent who are on the fence. Four out of 10 bachelors did not want children compared to three out of 10 wanting to be a father. The rest were undecided. But while 72 percent of respondents said they were not afraid of marriage, about half of them said the situation that scared them most was marrying the wrong person."

OK, but I don't think women are any less scared of marrying the "wrong" person or the financial realities of divorce; after all, women's standard of living post-divorce is much, much worse (generally) than men's. (And, look at how many of the men do not want children. I'm pretty sure many more women than "3 out of 10" want children, and perhaps that's why there are so many single mamas by choice.)

So, I think there's more at play here. First, who is a "wrong" person? Someone who seems "right" in our 20s and 30s isn't often "right" in our 40s and 50s. That doesn't make him/her "wrong," either. People and situations change over time, and some people can make those adjustments and others can't or don't want to. And many of us truly don't know what we really want when we marry in our 20s and 30s. I blogged about that in "The dad versus hubby smackdown."

Based on what my friends and I feel post-divorce, as well as recent surveys, I'd say what's underlying all of this "marriage fear" is this: freedom, or rather the fear of losing it. We want to be independent even while we seek to be interdependent. We are afraid that marriage will strip us of our freedom, whatever that is for us.

Take, for instance, an AARP survey from 2003: "Singles in their 40s, 50s and 60s say their personal freedom and independence is what they like most about being single, but it comes with the price of not having someone to do things with."

So, what do those singles say they love about flying solo?
"53 percent of those in our survey say having "more personal freedom" is the best perk of being single; 38 percent say it's having their house and things just the way they want them to be; 28 percent love not having to answer to another person."

But what that "personal freedom" is, well, I'm not so sure myself. The ability to do whatever I want when I want to? — well, as long as I take care of my kid and my dog and don't get fired from work. And isn't it interesting that many of us believe having a house and our stuff be "our way" is more important than sharing our love and life with another person? (That says a lot; to me, it seems sad.)

That's sort of what Weisman is getting at in his book. He said his research busted the notion that single men were unhappy (Hmm, I never thought they were, quite honestly): "A compelling issue was how many of them had found contentment in a never-married life. They had created lives full of careers, friends and ambitions. It was not like they walk around all day worried about not being married."

And a house that has their stuff their way, no doubt.

But that's what older women think, too. Another survey taken in 2006 of 2,500 women ages 45 and older says that "some 63 percent of single women who live alone say their older years are the time to pursue their dreams and do things they've always wanted to do. And 80 percent of single women agree that as they've gotten older, they're more free to be themselves."

When Cathy Kohler Riessman, a research professor of sociology at Boston College, talked to men and women about their divorces, both mentioned freedom, but they meant different things. For women, it meant "independence and autonomy" — they no longer had to worry about how their husbands would react to what they did and they didn't have to be responsive to a "disgruntled spouse." The men meant freedom from obligation — they felt "less confined," less claustrophobic and had fewer responsibilities. What marriage can offer that? Marriage is all about responsibilities and obligations!

So, getting back to marrying the right person, I'd say this: the right person is the one who helps expand you and who you want to help expand, who pushes you to be a better person and vice versa, and who understands that freedom within a relationship is one of the most important gifts to give yourself and your partner. Or, maybe that's just the right person for me.

But, as is frequently the case, I could be wrong.

Do you value your freedom more than a loving relationship?

What does that "freedom" mean?

Can you have freedom within a marriage?

Do we ever really know if we're marring the "wrong"or "right" person?