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April 30, 2006

Married women to hubbies: Drop dead!

As if to pay husbands back for all the jokes men have made about wives, some experts are saying that women are better off when their husbands are dead.

And if you think I'm exaggerating, read this New York Times article, called "The Bell Tolls for the Future Merry Widow." The article begins by noting the actuarial trends in longevity for men, pointing out that the longevity gap between men and women has shrunk to five years. Good news, right? Wrong!

By necessity, women have gotten used to a life lived for long periods without men. They have had the advantage in life expectancy since the late 19th century, when overall longevity started to climb. More than men, women have developed strong friendships to support them in their frailest hours. They have forced doctors to pay attention to their health concerns. They no longer have to cater to men. Travel companies now cater to their interests.

"Women don't need men as much as men need women," said John Gray, the therapist and author of, most famously, "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus."
The article finds people who are willing to concede that women whose husbands live longer reap a few benefits -- like having someone around to help them when they get old, even "given the limited capacity of men." So says Ronald D. Lee, described in the article as "an economist and the director of the Center on the Economics and Demography of Aging at the University of California, Berkeley." Men also make more money, so women will be better off financially by having their hubbies around.

But when push comes to shove, the article tells us, women would be better off pushing and shoving their husbands off the train:
But men and women growing old together is not always easy.

"Men have this expectation that women should take care of them," Dr. Gray said. "And she has her own expectations, that she should be there for him."

Particularly after retirement, she is not used to having him around quite so much. "It's different taking care of him for dinner, as opposed to him being home all the time, and expecting her to make every meal," Dr. Gray said.
And this lovely little vignette:
As one Connecticut woman in her 70's was heard to retort recently when her husband asked if they were ready to move to an assisted-living facility, "You've had assisted living for 40 years."
So how does the article sum things up? Here's a hint: Guys, watch your backs.
Marriage lowers everyone's risk of death, Professor Lee said, but the benefits go mostly to men; women lower their risk only slightly by marrying. Similarly, a man's risk of death increases sharply after the death of a spouse; a wife's does only negligibly.

"Women are very helpful for men," he said. "Men are not very helpful for women as spouses."

Women not only do fine despite a spouse's death, they may even do better.

* * * * *

People have traditionally felt sorry for older widows, thinking they had so few prospects for remarrying, she said. The truth is, they may not want to remarry.

"They're the ones taking care of everyone; they've often taken care of a frail husband, and doing it again isn't necessarily appealing."

Then there are the disputes over sex. Dr. Gray said a woman's sex drive increases as she ages, while a man's declines. But then, is Viagra upsetting that balance, putting men in retirement homes permanently on the prowl?

On that count, at least, things may even out. And that may be true over all.
Heidi Hartmann, who's identified as "a labor economist and the president of the Institute for Women's Policy Research," thinks it's all a question of money: "Money attaches to the men." She adds: "Men are generally happier when they're married. The women may not be happier, but at least they've got more money."

All I can say is: "How romantic!"

Here's the problem with all of this. It involves gross generalization and works on the assumption that married people don't actually love each other, that they're in a purely pragmatic alliance in which women get money and men get care. Every single wisecrack in the article falls by the wayside when a marriage is based on love. My mother spent the last year of my father's life doing literally nothing but caring for him around the clock. If you could offer her back my father, as sick as he was in that final year, where the deal was that she had to continue to give him 24-hour care, she'd take it in a split second.