Is Marriage Dying Or Just Being Reborn?

Is Marriage Dying Or Just Being Reborn?

There’s been far too much blather about the death of marriage. It’s true that there a more single people than ever before. It’s true that equality in the workplace has negated the financial need for women to find husbands. It’s true that the stigma of being single has gone way down since the ’60’s.

Yet the vast majority of people eventually get married – just at a different pace than before. According to my favorite expert on this subject, Stephanie Coontz, “Today the average age of first marriage is almost 27 for women and 29 for men, and the range of ages at first marriage is much more spread out. In 1960, fewer than 8 percent of women and only 13 percent of men married for the first time at age 30 or older, compared with almost a third of all women and more than 40 percent of all men today. Most Americans still marry eventually, and they continue to hold marriage in high regard.”

There’s been far too much blather about the death of marriage.

All the talk about smart, strong, successful women pricing themselves out of the market? Also untrue. “New research by the sociologist Leslie McCall reveals that while marriage rates have fallen for most women since 1980, those for the highest earning women have increased, to 64 percent in 2010 from 58 percent in 1980. Women in the top 15 percent of earners are now more likely to be married than their lower-earning counterparts.”

It’s no surprise to me. With education and upward mobility comes self-esteem, more options, and better decision making. A woman making $100K is less likely to marry a bad man simply for stability than a woman who has no education and two kids out of wedlock.

Finally, the old statistic that living together hurts your prospects of marriage? It’s history – at least for professional women.

“Two-thirds of couples who marry today are already living together. For most of the 20th century, couples who lived together before marriage had a greater chance of divorce than those who entered directly into marriage. But when the demographer Wendy Manning and her colleagues looked at couples married since 1996, they found that this older association no longer prevailed. For couples married since the mid-1990s, cohabitation before marriage is not associated with an elevated risk of marital dissolution.”

Any suggestion that marriage is a dying institution or a recipe for failure is based on your own experience, not on the actual facts.

As always, if you don’t want to get married and you’d rather be single, that’s your business. But any suggestion that marriage is a dying institution or a recipe for failure is based on your own experience, not on the actual facts.

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  1. 91
    Tom T

    EMK comment in 94: Seems you don’t like the facts. First fact is that the op-ed was written by a man, as was the Gallup article that he links to. I have no problem with the Gallup data, I just find the guy’s opinion of the Gallup data not too compelling and I don’t care about it. Second fact, if you click through to that Gallup article, you will read these two statements, which exactly sum up the view that I have been expressing throughout this thread but that you and Karl seem to have a great deal of trouble accepting, along with the data (i.e., facts) that I offer in post 90. The two Gallup statements are (itals and boldface mine):
    1)Attitudes about marriage are important in the context of a declining marriage rate in the U.S. The Census Bureau reports that the rate of marriage is down, from 9.9 marriages per 1,000 Americans in 1987 to 6.8 in 2011. In addition, researchers at the University of Maryland found that the marriage rate per 1,000 unmarried women fell from 90 in 1950, at the height of the baby boom, to just 31 in 2011.
    2) Although most Americans are married or would like to get married, less than two-thirds consider it very or somewhat important for a couple to marry if the two want to spend the rest of their lives together or when they want to have a child together. This is down from 2006, the last time Gallup asked about the importance of marriage in this way.
    That most people get married, or want to get married, or get remarried after divorce, does not change the fact that the number of people who are single through choice (either through not marrying to begin with or through divorce), and the number of adult years that most people spend single, and the number of households headed up by single people are all rising dramatically. The rise in these stats reflects a deep change in attitudes toward marriage. Attitudes are chaning not just in the US and Europe, but even in developing countries; for instance, the UN and NGOs are looking to declare child marriages a human rights violation. A century ago the idea of a global initiative like this was unimaginable. It is only imaginable today because of the radical shift in ideas about marriage in developing countries. (In a rebuttal to Karl’s earlier point: The reason the Census collects marriage data on people 15 and up is because in some states it is legal for people to get married as young as 15 with parental consent. But you notice that in their summary of the data trends they do not include these child marriages.) 

  2. 92
    Evan Marc Katz

    Tom, that really doesn’t change anything for me. The fact that some people are choosing to be single is healthy. Many people aren’t suitable partners – especially ones who don’t believe in marriage. Still, no matter how you slice it, the vast majority of people still believe in love and marriage – which is why over 90% of people eventually marry. You can cite every stat about unmarried households and it doesn’t change my one important fact.

    Oh, and if you don’t believe in lasting love and marriage, that’s fine by me, but I’m not quite sure why you’re hanging out here. Just sayin’.


  3. 93
    Peter 61

    Tom T, so far as I know, US social security systems are as anti marriage as those in the UK.  At the point of decision, the poor lose out from marrying.  (Yes, married people aren’t so poor but is that cause or correlation?).  So conditions in 2011 are not those in 1987 far less 1950.  You would need to restrict your observations to people who do not expect to need social security (Evan’s clients) to begin to make valid comparisons.
    After 45 years, my fellow pupils who married at 16 (the girls) or 18/19 (the boys) have not appeared to make worse choices on the whole than those who married strangers later.  When you have been in the same community since birth, you tend to know a lot about people.  I wish I had had the option at the time.  Big cities are terrible places to evaluate people.

  4. 94

    @Sparkling Emerald 91.
    Thanks for sharing your opinion, your comment is very wise, as always. I have a difference in opinion, but it comes from my particular situation  and the type of pesonalities that we (I and he) have.  He is the exact opposite of passive agressive – he has a very easy time telling people what he wants and  how they need to live their life. He tells his mother how to cook, his father how to garden, and his boss how to run the company. He is well meaning, and extremely annoying. Over the years, I have learned to smile and disregard this, and do my own thing.  You could say I am the passive agressive one :-).
    I have been reading Evan’s advice and this blog for a while and I really enjoy it. I have been able to apply some of the things I read here in my own marriage, but most of all – I am quite relieved now about one of my own insecurities.
    Before coming here I had this illusion that relationships and marriage have to happen/function well spontaneously. Or, more precisely, that they happen spontaneously to other people, whereas I am always thinking – how to do this, how to do that, let me try another way to get my husband to come around to what I want him to do, no, this is not working, let me try something else… I used to see myself as unspontaneous/borderline manipulative.
    Now I see that many many people think very carefully and analitically about the state of their relationship, and the ones who do, are also doing reasonably well. 

  5. 95
    Tom T

    Karl 59: That rosy 91% figure for remarriages that you cite speaks as much to people’s delusion as it does to their desire to be married. Also acc. to the Census, 75% of second marriages end in divorce, and a whopping 90% of third marriages. So the high rate of remarriage actually contributes to the high rate of divorce in the US, not a high rate of happy marriages. This is hardly a ringing endorsement for the institution. The opposite, I would say, given the destructive impact of divorce.
    I don’t know the number of people who get married once, to each other, and stay married to each other for life, but it could not possibly be the majority of people. Most couples experience divorce either directly or by association (they get divorced or one/both are divorced), which is the tantamount to saying that most marriages are a terminal arrangement. Which also means that a lot of people spend a great deal of their adult lives being single. For most women, the majority of their lives will be spent single. I presume that both you and EMK have spent the greater part of your adult lives single, rather than married. This may also be true for your wives. Did your life suddenly become meaningful, healthier, wealthier and you suddenly became more generous, kinder, sensitive when you married? Or did you just rise up a notch because now you fit into some social order that you believe everyone envies?

    1. 95.1
      Evan Marc Katz

      @Tom “Did your life suddenly become meaningful, healthier, wealthier and you suddenly became more generous, kinder, sensitive when you married? Or did you just rise up a notch because now you fit into some social order that you believe everyone envies?”

      Actually, the former.

  6. 96
    Sparkling Emerald

    The debate here seems to be what makes marriage “dead” or “alive”.  Those in the “marriage is alive” camp point to the # of people who have been married at some point in their lives, and the “marriage is dead” camp point to the high # of divorces.
    And the stats don’t even tell the whole story.  According to any statistics I would register as “married”, since we still have not filed the divorce papers, and I know many couples who have lived in marital limbo as we have.  (One of my friends was separated for SEVEN YEARS, no papers filed, before finally divorcing)  I guess marriages such as ours technically aren’t dead, but they are certainly in a coma.
    I agree that the DESIRE for marriage is alive and well.  But LIFE-LONG marriage ?  Whole ‘nother topic.  I wanted NOTHING MORE, than a reasonably happy & content life-long marriage, and my upcoming divorce is the worst thing that has ever happened to me.  As much as I desired marriage and loathe this divorce, (and the miserable last half of the marriage)  it is doubtful that I will ever re-marry; as much as I would love to be happily married, I am not willing to risk becoming once again sadly divorced.

  7. 97
    Karmic Equation

    @Tom T

    I believe MOST never-been-married women want to get married. I would hazard a guess that a MAJORITY (probably not “most”) never-been-married men want to get married.

    Being able to STAY married is another conversation altogether.

    I know lots of folks who want to be married whom I think would make lousy marriage partners; and others who don’t ever want to marry, but would be great marriage partners.

    For all your antipathy towards marriage, you might be one of those great marriage partners should you ever decide to marry. While others who are actively looking to get married may well end up divorced sooner rather later should they succeed in getting married at all.

    The DESIRE to get married (which I think is in MOST people) doesn’t equate to their ABILITY to stay married.

    I’ve gotten lost in the debate…

    Are you saying most people DON’T WANT to get married…or are you saying most people can’t STAY married?

    I’d disagree with you on the former and agree with you on the latter. They’re separate issues.

  8. 98

    @Sparkling Emerald #100 and Karmic Equation #102: I was wondering when someone would point out that people on this thread are talking about two very different sets of data. Thank you for pointing out that dreams of marriage or even getting married is one thing, while the longevity/success rate of marriage is another.
    Polls show that people still desire to be married, and clear data indeed indicates that most people end up at some point or another in possession of a marriage certificate. Another set of data shows that the number of unmarried people is increasing, which indicate that marriages’ longevity is decreasing. So everyone is right here. People dream, people marry, and then people divorce and get married again. Lather, wash, rince, repeat.
    Instead of trying to convince one another that what we believe is right (which is pointless since everyone is right), it would be more productive to reassure people who do not want to be married that it’s perfectly okay to NOT get married, while encouraging the ones who want to get married to develop the qualities that would help them get there AND stay there once they have signed their legal documents.
    Basically, how about we focus on making marriages stronger?

  9. 99
    Peter 61

    A long time ago on another thread, I touched on the changes in marriage that triggered the rise in prosperity in Western Europe, especially around the North Sea that created the modern age.  Until the 18th Century, the proportions of never married women in Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam were 1,2 and 4 % (Ottomans) respectively.  Girls were married young 13, 15 & 17 to much older, prosperous, men often related, in polygamous marriages.  etc etc.  The EMP (European Marriage Pattern) was triggered by the Catholic Church forbidding cousin marriages and requiring consent from those marrying, at least among the lower classes.  This had all sorts of consquences such as greater autonomy and higher wages for women.  see for an introduction but there is much better material if you look.  It should be required reading for those interested in female equality and interaction with marriage.  (This one is long but much better ).  It was strongest in England and The Netherlands and is credited with the economic rise of Europe.  It took final form after the Black Death and lasted until the First World War.  Couples married late.  Women from 21 to 25, men from 25 to 30.  Age difference was larger in times of stress, narrower in times of plenty.  A large portion of the population never married and the women observably remained chaste (extremely low illegitimacy rates compared to Southern and Eastern Europe).  In England, the figure reached 25%.  In Sweden it reached 28%.  So, by no means everyone married.  Eastern Europeans married younger and had different social structures.  The US is mostly EMP but diluted by immigration from Ireland, Eastern and Southern Europe.
    After the First World War, in affected countires, brides became younger in order to try and secure a husband from the reduced pool of men (and the nuptuality rate actually went up contrary to perceptions at the time).  After the second World War in Anglo Saxon countries brides became even younger and the nuptuality rate peaked.  This pattern held in Europe until the 1960’s.  From the mid 1960’s across Western Europe, starting in Scandinavia, nuptuality declined from around 90% to 80% to be replaced by cohabitation.  Age at marriage rose to medieval levels, now exceeding 30 in Sweden.  However, long term cohabitation still begins around 25.  (So maybe Evan has a point despite my defence of the Celtic Marriage Pattern).  Since the mid 1980’s the erosion of marriage has halted and there is a slight revival, particularly in the post Protestant cultures (there are those who argue atheism is a Protestant sect).
    As observed in the discussion above.  Lifetime nuptuality for women in the USA reaches 91%.  The US has still not fully shifted to the new European pattern (which is described as the Second Demographic Transition – SDT).  Mixed ethnicity, religion and economics all slow down the US change but it is happening.  Nuptuality will decline to about 80% but life will not be celibate for about half the never married. Meanwhile, Russia is currently heading for a 1950’s pattern of early marriage, housewife, 3/4 children 1950’s pattern.  I’ve never seen so many prams on sale.

  10. 100
    Tom T

    KE and Fusee: I am not pro- or anti-marriage. The question was, Is marriage dying or being reborn? There is absolutely no question that rates of marriage are dropping the world over. For some reason this seems to bother a lot of people. I personally do not care, but I’m not going say that marriage is thriving when clearly it isn’t.
    I do happen to enoy being single. I cannot imagine that I would be happier being married. I imagine that if I get married I’ll simply remain as happy as I am. But some people are not very good at being single and don’t know how to be happy that way. So they should get married and stay married perhaps, if they need to be married to be happy. I don’t think most people are like this, however. I think if you’re unhappy marriage is not going to change that.
    That said, I believe that in general there should be greater acceptance of all lifestyle choices, and I do wish that married people were as generous toward me as I am toward them in acknowledging that any life style choice can be good for the one doing the choosing, that each person has to decide for him/herself given the broad range of opportunities and desires we’re all face with. You do have to wonder what’s really going on when people make these messianic claims about marriage, though, especially in light of all the data that shows that as currently practiced it doesn’t work for many people. This evangelical element among married people is downright peculiar, if you ask me. If something is so obviously good and beneficial people don’t need government incentives or social pressute to do it. And conversely, if it’s so exalted a state of being then people wouldn’t dump it so often.  

    1. 100.1
      Evan Marc Katz

      Tom, your post deserves further scrutiny:

      You say you are neither pro nor anti-marriage. Your posts would indicate otherwise, but I’ll take it on faith that you’re telling the truth. Guess what? I’m neither pro nor anti-marriage, either. If you’re happy being for the rest of your life, it’s no skin off my back. Really. This is one of those things that single activists feel very strongly about – that married people like me are messianic to people like you. Not true. We’re too busy with our own families to give a shit about your relationships. We just hope you’re happy, that’s all.

      I’m not bothered that you are working hard to illustrate that marriage is dying. But it seems to me that thou dost protest too much. For someone without a horse in the, race, you’ve gone a pretty long way to convince me that your horse is winning. Ultimately, I think we can both agree on a few things:

      a) Marriage is not dying as an institution – far too many people willingly choose to do it to talk about its death. Listen, I’m an atheist and while atheism is making great strides, organized religion is certainly not “dying”. Got it?
      b) Just because people get married doesn’t mean they SHOULD get married. Most people mistake chemistry for compatibility and are unable to choose good partners. That’s not the fault of “marriage”; that’s just PEOPLE.
      c) Neither of us advocate people getting married for the sake of it, or because of what society thinks. I think marriage is probably the best environment in which to raise a child, but if that’s not on your agenda, you can do whatever you want. Unless, of course, your girlfriend wants to be married and you refuse, in which case, you’ll lose your girlfriend.

      In short, I COMPLETELY accept your lifestyle and have never once argued that marriage works for all people. I have argued – and will continue to argue – with the facts on my side – that it doesn’t MATTER if marriage WORKS. People OVERWHELMINGLY want to be married. Whether YOU do or not is irrelevant to the discussion.

      Finally, I will remind you that you’re on a blog for people who want to better understand relationship dynamics that lead to marriages. So it’s not like I came into your house and told you to get married. You came into MY house and told me you didn’t believe in my relationship with my wife. I’m no messiah for marriage, but I’m VERY happily married and I’m exporting that to the millions of people who want the life that I have – not the one that you have. Nothing personal. Ya dig?

  11. 101

    Perhaps it depends on what your the definition of “dying” is.  If someone’s idea of marriage dying is that less people (albeit just slightly less) are interested in marriage, then one could make the argument that it is dying.  If one’s idea of marriage being a dying institution means that marriage as we know it has taken a significant beating (i.e., there has been a major sea-change in people’s attitudes towards marriage that have, as a result, significantly altered Americans’ desire to marry), then marriage most definitely is not dying. 

  12. 102
    Sparkling Emerald

    I think people pointing to the high divorce rate as “proof” that marriage has gone out of fashion is rather silly.  That’s like pointing to the high obesity rates and saying that being slim is going out of style.  Most people want to be slim, or at least of average build.  The weight loss, &  fitness center businesses are booming.  The fact that people very often gain back the weight they once lost, isn’t proof that they never wanted to be slim. Any more than divorce is proof that the couple never wanted to be married.  It’s just proof that getting slim and STAYING slim is a challenge. As is staying married for the long haul.   And there is a fat acceptance movement, but over all, most people want a slim or average build body.  I accept people at all weights, and since I spent most of my childhood being teased for being too skinny, and now struggle to remain average, I understand that it is not always due to lack of “will power” but many other factors come into play. So while obesity may be on the rise, it’s not because people are consiously choosing it, it is because they are struggling with it.  (I don’t think it’s a complete lack of will power, genetically modified foods, an over abundance of cheap crap food, having to work longer hours to make ends meet leaving less time for physical activities, etc) all are contributing to this obesity epidemic.
      I also accept people at all relationship phases of their lives.  I have gay friends, never married friends, still married to their high school sweet-heart friends, multiple divorced friends, married but child free by choice friends.  I don’t judge them for their life style.  Even the ones who are unhappy (example, some of my never married gfs, are sad about this)  The only judgement that comes from me, is my GF’s who claim to want to be in a real relationship, then accept crap treatment from men who won’t commit.  And usually I just ask a few questions, rather than downright judge them, questions such as, “I recall you telling me you were tired of sex without commitment, what made you change your mind ?”.  Rather than me telling them what to do, I just remind them of what they really want, and how what they are doing isn’t in align with their stated relationship goals. 

  13. 103

    Tom T
    I think if you feel preached at and uncomfortable around married people, you might want to look at why.  If you feel happy and secure in your current situation and decision to be single, there is nothing they can do to make you feel bad about it.
    I am unmarried with no children and I personally just don’t feel that way around married people.  I love my life and I only hope that other people can be as happy in theirs as I am in mine.  If someone were to try and suggest that another lifestyle choice would be better for me, I would laugh and forget about it the very next second.

  14. 104
    Tom T

    Clare: Your tone is a little preachy there. So should I feel preached at or no?  

  15. 106

    Gosh Tom, do you feel preached at by everyone? 😉

  16. 107

    Seems we’re all in agreement here that while people are rushing to get married, we’re divorcing at ever greater rates. Karmic Equation was right in 102: getting married and staying married are two completely different things.
    So I have to wonder, what is the point of asking the question “Is marriage dying or just being reborn?”  If you define marriage as “thriving” just because people want to rush into it, that doesn’t mean that overall, society is better or happier. In fact, it could be worse; bad marriages and divorces are terribly painful processes for all involved. Therefore it isn’t necessarily a good thing in itself that marriage is staying alive, whatever that means.
    Fusee was right in 103 that what’s more important is how to make marriages stronger. That means entering marital relationships with your eyes open, and once you’re in a healthy marriage, working to keep it that way through a number of kindnesses and an attitude toward commitment. Living with another person for a long time is never easy. I think too many people rush into marriage looking at only the short term and not realizing that no matter how great a partner is, living with another is always a challenge. Hence the need for an attitude toward commitment.

  17. 108

    Hello! I’ve been a reader (on and off) for quite a few years… since my divorce in 2009, actually. Well, I’ve never been a poster but for some reason, I’m compelled to say something about this.
    To start, I’m 32-years-old, atheist, college graduate (I have a Master’s), and I’m also a person who’s marriage neutral. The thing about me is I’m more on the traditional feminine personality spectrum… I’m not aggressive, and not even assertive, and although I’m somewhat smart enough to have finished a thesis in my early 20s, I’m not ambitious nor career driven. I wished I put a ton of effort into “work” to make a “name” for myself, but that’s never been who I am.
    Anyway, I was married to my college sweetheart is pretty much my male counterpart. We met when we were both 18 through a student social network. I had a cartoon picture as my profile and he had an empty profile. We chatted for a few weeks and then exchanged pictures and met after class for coffee. Who would have known that the stars from the heavens above have exploded and we both felt like we found each after seeking for the love that we wanted all along… from a silly school website.
    I had met a self-professed hermit who’s mother was quite shocked that her son suddenly went out all the time with some girl he said is named Katie. A week after we had met, he said he wanted to marry me the moment he laid eyes on me. I thought that was sweet but didn’t take it seriously. We actually did get married when we were 23.
    We were together until we were 27 and separated, and by 28, we were divorced. We didn’t have children, but we talked about and had similar mentalities about children and family life…however, the breakdown of my marriage, is rather puzzling to me even many years after the fact. We got along great, and we made decent money together, we had a little apartment and our expenses were low.  I use to think that there was something totally wrong about me and needed to find out why loving marriage dissipated. I tried to put myself out in the “dating world” and found that my sensibilities aren’t suited for the so very harsh and emotionally damaging “hookup” mentality/culture, which really disheartened me. I was shocked to meet so many bitter who only wanted to have “FWB” and I was so bewildered and withdrew from the “singles scene” because it seemed like it’s the place for people who want to be single and stay single. I’ve never been a like that, and find it distasteful for people to treat sex as casual as discarding trash. 
    I was in limbo for a few years because I couldn’t really put myself out there to date, but I couldn’t really move pass my divorce.  At the end of it, around the time I turned 31, I acquiesced I should be grateful for having a really good relationship while it lasted, and although I’ve been lonely, I’ve learned to stand on my own and appreciate my freedoms (and the heavy responsibilities that goes with that). 
    I’ve come to realize that life is meant to be lived, and too much analysis takes away the mystery and adventure, and greatest pleasures there is to be had. Sometimes things happen pretty fast, and sometimes things happen painfully slow, but I think, marriage, just like anything else in life, eventually happens to most of us. I don’t know that means marriage is on the decline or upswing, I could care less, really. All I know is, bottom-line, I have one life to live, and I’m going to strive seek out my own happiness with myself.
    I guess to say is, marriage and relationships are so very personal and individual that there’s really no point in debating over numerical statistics of why something is or isn’t. I’ve racked my brain and emotional depth to find a rational answer to my divorce and I couldn’t. Humans aren’t machines and we aren’t a formula to be sorted out and branded, nor can we be truly stratified, despite so many labels that we encounter in our everyday lives. Although there’s quantifiably a lot of us, it doesn’t mean we’re going to be programmed the same and seek out the same things at the same time. My mother told me, “No matter how screwed the life is on the societal scale, somehow life goes on and things work out. And if things didn’t work work out, life would have ceased eons ago.”
    I’d like to think my 56-year-old mother knows what she’s talking about. So, regardless of what everyone else is doing, whether marriage a trend or not, what’s important is to decide for yourself, and not get so wrapped up defending your stance. Seriously, why do you need to explain your life choices? Are you trying to change society by touting your way is better or are you disappointed that society thinks poorly of you because your decisions do not reflect what is deemed acceptable? I suppose external validation goes a long way…

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