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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?


You also have to consider longer life expectancy,and the fact that people up until recently did not tend to travel more than ten to twenty miles from home. In this age we meet a hell of a lot more people, and travel farther on a daily basis. Does it really make sense to choose a partner in our twenties and stay with them into our nineties? It seems like an awful lot to expect. If you never traveled far, lived in a small community, and excpected to die by the time you were sixty, choosing someone you get along with might make more sense. People have to realize that the world is changing drastically, and what once worked may not always continue to. It is not a sign of decline, just a mark of a new age.
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Also, Dreher's book, 'Crunchy Cons' is a truly great read. It's the most level-headed description of a conservative outlook on society that I've ever read.
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Funny, because I guarantee you men still want someone to wash their underwear and make their dinner. Their expectations aren't changing.
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DJ Parker,

You remind me of an episode of Family Guy, where Peter is riding on an elephant, and says "Look! I'm two symbols of the Republican party, an elephant, and a fat white man who fears change!"

We are not "slouching towards Gommorah" and it is ridiculous that you would think so. THINGS CHANGE. Just because people live their lives in a way that differs from your personal idea of values does not make them immoral, and frankly it is insulting of you to assume that. Some people marry, some don't. The majority of people who don't are NOT promiscuous, orgy seeking hedonists. You need to seriously learn about the world. The real world, not your make believe consevative authoritarian version of it.
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Just because "things change" doesn't mean that change is good for our future. We shouldn't just blindly accept that change. Isn't that what the German people did in the run up to WWII? I believe this switch from traditional marriage represents a move from individuals being concerned about what is good for the community and their family to what is good for themselves. That kind of selfish thinking will always be destructive in the long run. Our children deserve to be raised by both a mother and a father who are committed to one another. Anything short of that is denying them of a full experience. I realize that situations call for adjustments to the traditional ideal of the family, but an ideal is just that. It should be something to shoot for. When we take that goal away we become lost.
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Then isn't staying unmarried better than marrying and then divorcing (especially with children)?

I think the point of Bolick's article remains valid: for some women, marriage isn't a destination in their life's voyage.

Aside: I've always wondered about the "50% of marriages end in divorce" statistics. I mean, surveying my own circle, most of the people I know who are married stay married. But there's a small minority of those who have married and divorced several times - aren't they driving up that statistics?
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I think Rumson and Alex make good points--people do live longer and expect to know people who don't live within their immediate vicinity. The fact that we're all here discussing this speaks to that. And I do agree that remaining unmarried is a better alternative than marriage that will likely end in divorce (or worse yet, a couple or three of them) when there are kids. Though the nuclear family is ideal, people should be realistic about their relationships and what they expect of themselves and for their kids. I would prefer to see kids growing up with happy-but-unwed mothers than in a household where marital tension affects their ability to develop strong and healthy relationships in the future.

As for Bolick's points--if you're happy and don't feel that being married is something you require to maintain satisfaction with life, then why marry? Critics of her article say it's "sad" and that she's atoning for bad decisions. I disagree; I think she found what works for her and is eager to show other women in similar situations that it's ok.
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How dare you suggest that children raised in a non-traditional family are missing out on something vital? I was raised by two parents, who remained married until my father died. Sound good so far? My mother was a violent, brutal alcoholic who abused prescription drugs, and my father's only concern seemed to be hiding the family's dirty little secret this from others. My life growing up was definitely a "full experience," but not good for me or the community.

Have you ever considered how many children have suffered so their parents could maintain a false image of settled respectability for the sake of society? Who checks to see if they're faking? And what happens to the people who don't live up to your ideal vision of family life? Until your proposal takes true human nature and actual life situations into account, I'll take reality and a loving family of any configuration, thank you.
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I've been in all those situations: married, divorced, widowed, childless, single mom, nuclear family, and blended family. Being a single mom is way harder than you could ever imagine unless you've done it. But it still beats an unhappy marriage. For me, it also beats childlessness, but that varies for other people.
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We still have community property laws from the 15th century that treat women as potential indigents once removed from their original families.

That, and Alimony, Palimony, and unreasonable, unproved, unpoliced Child-Support has got to end.

Men no longer "take possession" of the woman from her family and receive a dowry for the burden.

A woman is no longer a social indigent without a husband or family or origin.

She can vote,
be educated,
own financial instruments and property,
can be considered equally in a court of law,
graduate college
and in greater numbers than men,
and [at least for now in the 20-something age bracket in NYC] also earn more than a man.

Remove the kleptocratic temptations peddled by unscrupulous lawyers who encourage unethical behavior based on emotional upset.

Not surprised people don't want to get or stay married. -Especially men.
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“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.”

Wow. What a crock of bull.

And it always goes back to the "Won't someone think of the children?!" argument. My father died when I was 9 and my younger years probably would have been better off without him. How could being raised by a hard working mother and grandmother doing the best job they could be wrong? Better to include an abusive, perverted, womanizing father figure? Excellent. I guess I'll go marry the first rich guy I see and spend my life in servitude to a man I will probably never love and raise kids I will probably care nothing about since that is what I "should" be doing according to that old fashioned mentality... Or, I could lead a fulfilling life, shared with a partner of my choice (with or without a piece of useless paper legally binding us together) and perhaps raising children if we so choose. Which sounds more enjoyable? Also, for the record, I am in a long term heterosexual relationship. I'm just tired of the "when are you two getting hitched/having kids" conversations I have every day. (We don't want to do either, thank you very much.)
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Family law is a grossly bigoted anti-male institution.

Feminists have made it much much worse over the past few decades, or so.

If I had a son, I would tell him not to marry until he was 40 or so, and then only if he wanted kids.

When a man is falsely accused of anything in this country no one cares, that is true even more so for a divorced man who aches to see his children.

Meanwhile in counties across the country, as men are being laid off from their jobs, they are being hauled off to jail or losing their driver's licenses because they can't pay their child support and the courts won't budge.

Good riddance to a feminist institution. More single women = more fun for everyone and fewer men driven into despair and poverty as their children and livelihoods are torn away from them..
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Stop equating the small percentage women who use the legal system against ex-husbands with feminism. One is the fight for equality between the sexes, one is a bad person behaving badly. If you think feminism is women trying to undermine men, you need to do a little research, and stop listening to Rush Limbaugh.
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It is wonderfully amazing how much emotion this brings up. It shows the power of Freudian / Jungian archetypes still haunting our decisions. How so much is defined by what party / group we decide to be a part of. I think the article was an analysis. Practically all of these responses seemed to be based on personal painful issues. Wow. A match thrown into a dynamite factory.
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Will L brought up an interesting thing: alimony.

I mean, I get child support - I think that's fair, but alimony seems antiquated. If we truly want equality, then that's got to go, no?
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I say we're all doomed. You hedonists and us traditionalists alike. You because society will eventually be unable to support your pursuits and us because the inherent darkness of human nature condemns our message to widespread failure. Let's just not bother each other while we slide down the drain, eh?
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A reader emailed to ask for clarification on my use of the words "traditional" and "new" in the last paragraphs of this post. To which I replied:

The definition of "new" that I use here is one which describes marriage as we are familiar with it--husband, wife, kids--defined for us by our parents and theirs in the 20th century. That is, specifically, a marriage sought on the basis of affection rather than material gain (property, wealth, nobility or familial ties), which was common in the preceding centuries. It also was meant to include only a husband and wife; as marriage transformed to the union for companionship and affection that we know now as "marriage," the commonly kept and acceptable mistress and secret lovers of past centuries became declasse and, in general, wholly prohibited. So in short, the marriage that we would now define as "traditional" is one founded on love and exclusivity, which we come to expect from a traditional marriage. Historically, neither of these things were expected or particularly valued in a marital union, as couples were aligned for the purpose of protection of land, property, wealth and bloodline.

In the last half-century, the rising acceptance of alternative marital arrangements (open or polyamorous marriage, common law, same-sex and second, third, fourth spouses) has veered strongly from what modern Americans would call "traditional."
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Alex, when you said "I get child support" that sounds like you get a check every month. When I read it again it became clear you meant you UNDERSTAND child support.

But I have never known anyone in my life that received alimony. Just child support is touchy enough.
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I read this article last week and what I gathered from it was that some women have become so entrenched in their education and careers that marriage is no longer an option for them. I felt she wrote this article to say that American women are actively pursuing PhDs instead of husbands like the women of the 40s and 50s. I also noted that the idea of having to choose between staying singled and getting married scares some women, who really do want it all but can’t make it work in our New York Minute life and the new ‘hook-up’ relationship style so many people fancy.

I’m a huge believer in marriage, traditional and non-traditional, because I think dedicating yourself to someone is important. The act of loving can make someone’s life worth living. But marriage vows have to be exchanged with sincerity, and far too often they are not. That’s why marriage is on the decline. People don’t care about each other anymore.
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My parents got divorced. Of my 2 sets of grandparents, one got divorced, and the other one probably should have.

I'm 41, never been married, and it rocks. I don't have anything against tradition, but some people just aren't made for marriage. Oh, and living with another person can be a real pain.
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I've been with my boyfriend for 8 years, neither of us wants marriage or children. I've never wanted to be married, but frankly I see spending enough money to put a down payment on a house or a car on a pageant where the most you keep from it is the cake topper, pictures, and the dress. If women in this country are looking at potential partners and seeing only gaping holes where the wallet should be, what motivation is there to marry a financial burden, especially when it is expected of the couple to marry and spend a good deal of money on it.
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"Isn't that what the German people did in the run up to WWII?" Only six comments in? NICE! It's like a slam dunk. I'm surprised you also didn't turn to the other current favorite conservative go-to, Mao.

For the record, I'm about as liberal as you can get. I've been married since 1997 and with the same person since 1992. I can't see living my life without that person. We travel together, see movies together, parent together. Marriage, at the time, in '97, was a convenient way to get gifts and she proposed to me with the following phrase: "You know, if we got married we'd get a lot of gifts like a KitchenAid mixer and kitchen stuff." :) We still use the knives, plates, and KitchenAid on a regular basis, btw.

Also for the record, I'm the guy in the relationship and I'm completely on board with cleaning, laundry, dishes, going to the grocery store, cooking, etc. (our gender roles in our relationship have always been reversed - I'm totally the Felix in the relationship) Whatever needs to be done. I work full time and my wife is an active parent for our three year old. She also works on the weekends and I take care of our kid. She also works at our kid's co-op pre-school helping teaching, planning, putting together lessons and snacks. It's a massive job that I don't envy. My work by comparison feels laid back. I work very hard to voice my appreciation on a regular basis and try to make sure she knows just how incredible of a great job she is going and how I absolutely find it harder than my job.

But traditional? Hm. Well, we're married. Um. And we're monogamous, mostly because I'm way too jealous and lazy to put the work into anything else, i.e. it's not a morality issue as much as it's a "I don't want to feel jealous." issue (or maybe, moreover, I'm too lazy to learn NOT to be jealous). We've never been to a church together for any reason since we're both non-religious (she is agnostic, I'm a sort of existential atheist). We're "traditional" I guess because we're married, and that's about it. We have close relatives that are very religious (in the South, no less), with two kids, who both think marriage is ridiculous and can't see any reason anyone would do it. We have friends here that are all but married legally speaking but found no reason to formalize it with an arcane ceremony (apparently the sway of free stuff was simply no match for the one-size-fits-all legal ramifications of a marriage for them).

It is, in the long run, a dying habit of Americans, Which is fine. As pointed out, we peasants haven't been able to get married in any genuine legal sense until very recently in human history. There's as much "sanctity" in marriage as there are pixies in Pixy Stix. Our marriage was mostly about having a single event to get our family and friends around to celebrate (and the stuff, don't forget that part) together, and that part of it I appreciated. But the marriage itself wasn't that important. Being together and being a team was what was important then and is important now.
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as long as there are women, there will be marriage. one statistic you don't see is women who wish their boyfriends would actually marry them and make that life long commitment.
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You know logic's dirty little secret? Without enough background information, operating on faulty premises, it is easy to draw perfectly logical conclusions which are nevertheless completely wrong.

I feel what DJ Parker is saying, maybe he doesn't understand it the way I do, but I certainly feel like that is an apt description. In the time after the fall of Sodom and Gommorah people were forced to consider the basis of their desires and the consequence of their actions. They then referred to the past era of lustful indulgence as "The past times of ignorance".

Now, here we are in the new millennia discussing what is the best course of action, and we all seem to be caught up on lustful desires, asserting them axiomatically as the main premise from which our logic follows. But what if this premise is wrong? What if doing what you want is not really the same as being happy, and what if doing what you want subtlely affects your wants, such that doing what you want only makes you want to do it more. Like a drug addiction.

The same can be applied to sociocultural paradigms that affect global social change. You just have to think when you haul off and beat up a pillow; is this venting my anger going to make me more prone to anger in the future? Well yes it is! And is that sleeping around going to make you more lustful? absolutely!

The awesomeness of marriage is not in being sexually satisfied or appearing good or even always getting along, the power lies in the intimacy, something that develops over time. You have to get to know someone, over a long period, such that you know all of their idiosyncracies and faults, and love them anyway.

A good scene from the movie Good Will Hunting illustrates this:

"I'd ask you about love, you'd probably quote me a sonnet. But you've never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you. Who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn't know what it's like to be her angel, to have that love for her, be there forever, through anything, through cancer. And you wouldn't know about sleeping sitting up in the hospital room for two months, holding her hand, because the doctors could see in your eyes, that the terms "visiting hours" don't apply to you. You don't know about real loss, 'cause it only occurs when you've loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you've ever dared to love anybody that much." - Sean, Good Will Hunting
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It was once said "The punishment for sin is sin itself"

The Bible reads "If any man looks at a woman with lust, he has commited a sin in his heart."

Spend some time lusting after people and pay attention to the way in which your own psychology changes. Notice how your propensity to notice visual sexual imagery increases. Notice the heightened level of arousal and importance that is continually added to the act. Now notice how empty and worthless you feel.
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How about this, my mother has been married and divorced 6 TIMES. The one before this one she divorced as he couldn't control his 18 year son, whose mother lived at the other end of the block. The current one has a 16 year old daughter who she has told "I can't be bothered to raise you, I'm too old to be a parent."

My cousin Lara has been married twice, she has three children, one she had while 18 and gave up, two from the marriage. The guy turned out to be an abusive drug addict, so she was left a single mom with a 1 and 2 year old. She got her tubes tied as she didn't want anymore children and met her next husband when her kids were 3 and 4. He knew from the start that she couldn't have anymore children, but waited till they were married for over a year (not counting the year of dating time) to divorce her for not being able to have children.
My older sister had a partial hysterectomy due to having a large cluster of cysts. She married her husband and was married for two years before their first son, who had about a 40% chance of even being conceived. 5 years pass and he wants a sibling for their son, she has 3 miscarriages while they try, the last one at second term.
My cousin Sara has three children, her husband belongs to one of the Native nations in Oklahoma. He started beating her, and her children. He came home and strangled her one night, nearly killing her. He would go back to the Res to avoid police.

In each of these occasions, aside from my mother my family turned to the larger support of extended family to help raise their children and get them through the dark times.
I think the concern shouldn't be that a woman isn't marrying a man and staying with him when he turns out to be the worst choice possible for the woman and their children, but rather that the family around that woman should be counted on to help and support the woman. You should be waving your moralistic flags and cries of the fall of humanity at the horrible people who marry and cause nothing but pain and destruction, and the families that think more of the individual units rather than the support network it should be.
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Thank God they were married and not sparing the rod to spoil the child!(sarcasm.)Let's all be sure to live our lives in another era as it's clearly a valid way to live these days.
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lol. Usually we're slipping towards Sodom, not Gomorrah. I can totally see marriage as a feminist institution. In the olden days, as this article says, most women got married, and of course most didn't work outside of the home. Men dealt with the stresses of work, and died at a much younger age.

On the face of it, it seems pretty ideal.

The idea of alimony is hilarious: after the divorce, the man still had to pay to support the woman - at least until she managed to find another man to marry and support her - degrading yes, but a pretty sweet deal. These days, child support should be all a person, male or female, gets from their ex-partner.

Funny how gays are blamed for destroying marriage, but I think the straights are doing a pretty good job of that on their own.
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Oh, another plus of the olden days, is that with arranged marriage (still around in some societies), ugly chicks don't have to worry about finding a man.
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You have to look at the reasons people are getting married:

1. Religious
2. Statement of love/commitment
3. To raise children
4. Legal (taxes/insurance/finances/medical)

A lot of people these days are not religious and do not want kids, so there is less reason to get married. I wish gay marriage and pleural marriage were legal so I could marry my 2 partners whom I love very much. None of us want kids or are religious, so it would be for reasons 2 and 4.
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I do see the point Dreher makes- look at the behavior patterns for that have become widespread in the last few decades. The societal changes in how the genders view each other (and themselves) has left a lot of men feeling quite justified in treating women like trash. And, sadly, a lot of women seem to agree with them.

Just for the record: straight, married for 24 years, and really tired of people pointing at horrible extremes and shouting "There! See!! That's why marriage/religion/etc. are bad and we should get rid of ***all*** of them!!!!!!"
I grieve for those who have been abused in spiritual or physical families, but do not believe that either one is intrinsically valueless and in need of abolition.
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I have been married to a wonderful woman for 16 years. I am grateful for the journey, and would never change it for another. According to her, she feels the same way. So marriage for me has definitely been a boon. However, if you approach it as anything less than a partnership, as teamwork, instead of a contract/obligation construct, it is doomed to fail. Who wouldn't want to find someone to share the journey with?

Now, go to it, trolls!

BTW katskratch...well said!
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katscratch makes a valid point regarding the tendency to point at extreme personal experiences and use them to dismiss the entire concept of the nuclear family. People who are, understandably, defensive of either their own efforts at single parenting, or those of their hard-working single parents, take unwarranted offense at any mention of the overwhelming evidence that children are best served when raised in the context of marriage (or at least 2 parents who behave exactly like married people). This fact does not invalidate your efforts, nor do your efforts invalidate this fact. The fact that some of us are trying really hard to make the best of a broken world doesn't mean that nearly all social ills are not at their root the product of human selfishness.
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>$9 billion in alimony paid by men to women annually?
>85% of divorced women getting custody of kids?
NOW, other groups continually lobbying against bills to end lifetime alimony, against bills to promote joint custody?

A "handful of women"?

Feminist entitlement is nothing more than sexist bigotry, and the disgusting trend has gotten worse over the years.

Let's see some articles by husbands on how they view their marriages and the institution overall. You can bet the only men allowed to voice opinions in such an article will be pro-marriage, self-effacing "feminist men".

Let's hope the women of Ms. Bolick's cohort save enough for the hysterectomies and cat food lomming large in their futures.
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Here's a side no one has thrown out there yet: What about the decent, traditional guys who WANT to get married, but can't find any women that are worth it?

I run into more and more single women who are married to their job and never have time for romance, marriage, family, etc.
If I ever meet a woman who isn't crazy and obsessed with money, I'll marry her. But apparently she isn't in America.
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Marriage is a legally binding contract. Why anyone, man or women, would want to have the law involved in their relationship is beyond me.
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Marriage is a legally binding contract, yes...until one of the members of the contract decides it shouldn't be anymore. And with the factor of infidelity, it often goes on for years being broken, and broken, and broken again. The "law" has little or nothing to do with it after you have paid your license fee, or until you want to pay for that divorce.

I think that is part of the problem. Why give any credence to marriage if that's all it is? Once a moral foundation is taken away from a social institution, the meaning fundamentally changes. As it is doing today.
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@PKS: You obviously have a gripe with the opposite sex based on your own personal experiences with specific women. Feminism is about equality, as historically women were not given the same rights as men. Women's rights are still very recent in the bigger picture of our history. This isn't a world of "us vs them", it will only appear to be that way if you want it to.
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If feminism were really about equality, feminist groups wouldn't lobby against joint custody and for lifetime alimony.

If feminism were for equality, feminists would be lobbying to recognize and resource male victims of female batterers.

I call 'em as I see 'em. Feminism in the real world is about entitlements for women at the expense of men and children, plain and simple.
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@ Ryan S--Right on.

Marriage (men and women committing to each other, having children if possible, and staying together for life) is a naturally-occurring phenomenon since the beginning of human society. It is a type of relationship, not merely a license from the state. Society has it's own best interests in mind when it attempts to encourage and support this kind of relationship by institutionalizing it. By holding this kind of relationship as the ideal (though many may not marry for good reasons), a society seeks stability and self-perpetuation. Yes, marriages can be screwed up, and well-adjusted people have arisen from other kinds of family circumstances. There is no guarantee that each particular marriage is going to be better for the people involved than remaining single would have been. The worst marriage is worse in many ways than the best alternative relationship situation. Yet no form of relationship (generally speaking) does well all the things marriage does well (when it's working right). The "traditional" family is not the only acceptable family structure, but it is still the most worthwhile ideal to strive for, and a society that wants to thrive should feel no obligation to actively encourage anything else.
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