World’s Strangest

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The Increasingly Rapid Decline of Marriage

All the Single Ladies,” The Atlantic’s cover story about women who choose to remain unmarried, made the rounds like wildfire. Author Kate Bolick insists that “it’s time to embrace new ideas about romance and family—and to acknowledge the end of ‘traditional’ marriage as society’s highest ideal.” Bolick’s story understandably sparked some interesting conversations. The only thing they seem to agree on is that, yes, it’s true: marriage rates are dropping precipitously.

In the 1860s nearly all women managed to get hitched. Today, with a better gender ratio, only 22% of adults aged 18-29 are married and only 44.9% of adults in all adult age groups have ever been married. The median ages for first marriages have moved way up as well–from 23 for men and 20 for women in 1960 to 28 and 26, respectively, today. Divorce is hovering at the 50% rate.

‘Major attitudinal shifts’

Bolick notes that for women, marriage is now “an option rather than a necessity,” citing a dwindling pool of educated, committed men, a new majority of women in the workplace, a tanking economy, IVF and adoption, the rise of non-traditional families and marriage arrangements, and a dissipating “spinster” stigma.

Bolick represents the intentionally single thirty- or forty-something. The newest generation eschewing nuptials is the tech-savvy and generally liberal Millennial. With education leveling the playing field, opportunities to earn something beyond the MRS might just be higher on a girl’s list of priorities. Likewise, the responsibility of career, house and family (married or not) is what Sex at Dawn co-author Christopher Ryan calls “swimming upstream.” It’s perhaps inevitable that fewer women take it on.

Today’s women are professionally and financially more established, so they should be all that more appealing to males. They are, generally, but not in a “find The One and keep her” way. Men are also opting to remain single as long as they are happy. “If you have four quality women you’re dating and they’re in a rotation, who’s going to rush into a marriage?” asks Ralph Richard Banks, author of Is Marriage for White People? In response, Rod Dreher at the American Conservative lays it out: “Throw out traditional morality for an ethic of libertinism and you get men being what biology has programmed them to be. In this way, feminism, whatever its benefits for women, has hurt them.”

Changing expectations

Dreher’s insistence that being unmarried is a ‘hurt’ to the purposely single woman is debatable. But it’s clear that the expectations of marriage have changed rapidly over the last half-century. Women are not expected to be June Cleaver, and men are not expected to shoulder the full financial burden alone. And they can even cohabitate now without the nasty rumors that haunted earlier generations.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that healthy relationships are, or the desirability of the pair bond are declining. One could argue that without the legal constraints, the odds of finding a working, healthy relationship increase. Add to this the growing presence of nontraditional family groups (friends and extended family as family) and relatively commonplace single-parent household, and what you get is a less strict idea of what normal relationships are.

In Mexico City, in a move to counter high divorce rates, lawmakers have proposed a two-year marriage license. The trial-by-marriage would give newlyweds “an easy exit strategy” by allowing them to mutually decide whether or not to renew. Whether this is better than having never married at all is a completely different debate, but points out how marriage is not what it once was.

Tradition? Buck tradition.

Marriage as we know it is a relatively new concept. It wasn’t until marriage was used to procure and maintain land-ownership that the couple was limited in breaking that bond without permission. And when your husband or wife is chosen for their respective acreages, affection is an afterthought, if a thought at all.

And yes, a certain non-zero percentage of the population is still denied marriage by (most) state laws. Typically it’s argued that this denial of rights is to protect traditional marriage, but clearly marriage before the last century and since is not what we would call “traditional.”

Bolick’s article makes several major points that aren’t included here. But given that gender parity and economic downturn and the changing boundaries of social acceptance have come together to throw a wrench in our standard American Marriage, Bolick might be onto something.

Do you think that the declining marriage rates in the US are a problem, or is it just a shift in expectations from relationships and adulthood? Or, if you prefer: Is less marriage better, or worse?


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