The Disestablishment of Marriage
By STEPHANIE COONTZ - The New York Times - June 22, 2013
AT first glance, the prognosis for marriage looks grim. Between 1950 and 2011, according to calculations by the University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen, the marriage rate fell from 90 marriages a year per 1,000 unmarried women to just 31, a stunning 66 percent decline. If such a decline continued, there would be no women getting married by 2043!
But rumors of the death of marriage are greatly exaggerated. People are not giving up on marriage. They are simply waiting longer to tie the knot. Because the rate of marriage is calculated by the percentage of adult women (over 15) who get married each year, the marriage rate automatically falls as the average age of marriage goes up. In 1960, the majority of women were already married before they could legally have a glass of Champagne at their own wedding. A woman who was still unwed at 25 had some reason to fear that she would turn into what the Japanese call “Christmas cake,” left on the shelf.
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, Professor Cohen calculates, 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. Indeed, as a voluntary relationship between two individuals, marriage comes with higher expectations of fairness, fidelity and intimacy than ever.
But marriage is no longer the central institution that organizes people’s lives. Marriage is no longer the only place where people make major life transitions and decisions, enter into commitments or incur obligations. The rising age of marriage, combined with the increase in divorce and cohabitation since the 1960s, means that Americans spend a longer period of their adult lives outside marriage than ever before.
The historian Nancy F. Cott suggests that recent changes in marriage could produce shifts similar to those that accompanied the disestablishment of religion. Most American colonies, following the British model, had an official church that bestowed special privileges on its members and penalized those who did not join it. Residents were sometimes fined or whipped if they failed to attend the established church. After the American Revolution, states repealed laws requiring people to belong to a particular church or religion to qualify for public rights. When the official churches were disestablished, new religions and sects were able to function openly and compete for followers. And the old church had to recruit members in new ways.
An analogous process is taking place with marriage. Many alternatives to traditional marriage have emerged. People feel free to shop around, experimenting with several living arrangements in succession. And when people do marry, they have different expectations and goals. In consequence, many of the “rules” we used to take for granted — about who marries, who doesn’t, what makes for a satisfactory marriage and what raises the risk of divorce — are changing.
Until the 1970s, highly educated and high-earning women were less likely to marry than their less-educated sisters. But among women born since 1960, college graduates are now as likely to marry as women with less education and much less likely to divorce.
And it’s time to call a halt to the hysteria about whether high-earning women are pricing themselves out of the marriage market. 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.
Similar changes are occurring across the developed world, even in countries with more traditional views of marriage and gender roles. The demographer Yen-Hsin Alice Cheng reports that in Taiwan, educated women are now more likely to marry than less educated women, reversing trends that were in force in the 1990s. High earnings used to reduce a Japanese woman’s chance of marrying. Today, however, such a woman is more likely to marry than her lower-income counterpart.
Until recently, women who married later than average had higher rates of divorce. Today, with every year a woman delays marriage, up to her early 30s, her chance of divorce decreases, and it does not rise again thereafter. If an American woman wanted a lasting marriage in the 1950s, she was well advised to choose a man who believed firmly in traditional values and male breadwinning. Unconventional men — think beatniks — were a bad risk. Today, however, traditionally minded men are actually more likely to divorce — or to be divorced — than their counterparts with more egalitarian ideas about gender roles.
Over the past 30 years, egalitarian values have become increasingly important to relationship success. So has sharing housework. As late as 1990, fewer than half of Americans ranked sharing chores as very important to marital success. Today 62 percent hold that view, more than the 53 percent who think an adequate income is very important or the 49 percent who cite shared religious beliefs.
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.
In fact, among the subgroups of women facing the greatest risk of divorce — poor minority women, women who have had a premarital birth or were raised in single-parent families, and women with a history of numerous sex partners — cohabitation with definite plans to marry at the outset is tied to lower levels of marital instability than direct entry into marriage. America may soon experience the transition that has already occurred in several countries, like Australia, where living together before marriage has become a protective factor against divorce for most couples.
All these changes make it an exciting time to research marriage — and a challenging time to enter it. But it’s not that we’re doing a worse job at marriage than our ancestors did. It’s that we demand different things from marriage than in the past. And marriage demands different things from us.
Stephanie Coontz, a guest columnist, teaches at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.