Fisher: What's new with the American family?

By Patty Fisher
San Jose Mercury News, April 12, 2010

What's tougher on a teenager: being raised by a single parent or changing schools in the middle of the year?

Among women older than 40, who is more likely to be married: college grads or those who didn't finish high school?

Which couples older than 50 have the best sex lives?

I found the answers to these and other scintillating questions in "Unconventional Wisdom" from the Council on Contemporary Families, a Chicago think tank. Each year, the council surveys prominent researchers and pulls together their most startling new findings on marriage, sexuality and child-rearing trends.

Here are some fun facts from this year's version, released last week:

Women are more likely than men to say they "need" orgasm to enjoy sex.

Gay and lesbian couples don't fight over who does the laundry or takes out the trash as much as straight couples do.

Men are more bothered by work-family conflicts than women are.

Stephanie Coontz, co-chair of the council, says the report sheds new light on today's American families.

Marriage after 40?

Take, for example, two bits of conventional wisdom about marriage: Women older than 40 can't find husbands, and young women snag all the rich, old guys. There's some truth to both, but it's complicated.

According to a Wharton study, women college grads are more likely to be married after age 40 than less-educated women. That's because they wait longer to marry, but are less likely to get divorced.

"There has been a lot of talk that educated women shouldn't wait to marry or it will be too late," Coontz said. "But it turns out that waiting isn't necessarily bad. Every year a woman delays marriage right up until her early 30s decreases the risk of divorce."

As for "sugar daddies," it turns out that older men don't need money and flashy cars to win babes. A Stanford University study found that regardless of a man's wealth, the older he is when he marries, the bigger the age gap between him and his bride. Yes, single boomer women, those young things are stealing your men.

Woe to the new kid

The report has some fascinating insights for parents. Want to really screw up your kid? Change schools after the school year begins. It's rough academically and socially.

"By the middle of the year, the social groups in middle and high school are set," Coontz said. "The only groups recruiting new members are the anti-social ones."

One study found that kids got through a divorce better if their parents were civil to each other. On the other hand, arguing in front of the kids isn't necessarily bad. According to another study, kids who never saw mom and dad argue grew up without knowing how to resolve conflicts, and had no idea how to deal with self-centered, argumentative spouses.

The report, which you can read at www.contemporaryfamilies.org , shows that as family dynamics change, as more young people hook up or shack up rather than tie the knot, we need new ways to promote healthy relationships.

"It's not about what kind of family you wish people were living in," Coontz said, "but what we know about how people live, and how we can help them."

Oops. I almost forgot to give you the answer to Question No. 3: Among couples older than 50, those who report the most satisfying sex lives are Hispanics.

¡Vivan los abuelos!

Contact Patty Fisher at pfisher@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5852.

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