There has been a general decline in marriage over recent decades. But behind that general decline lies a more interesting story. Marriage is diversifying, with different people tying the knot for very different reasons. But marriage is also dividing, especially along class lines.
To understand these marriage patterns, it is important we try to understand why people get married in the first place. There are perhaps five main reasons to marry: God, money, love, pregnancy, or status:
For some people marriage is simply a religious matter, a covenantal relationship. Marriage is a sacrament, especially in the Christian tradition.
For many more people there’s still an economic element to getting married. (On that note, let me give an early recommendation of Melissa Kearney’s forthcoming book, The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind.)
There is obviously also companionship and love: you fall in love and want to spend the rest of your life with someone. So, for many there’s primarily a romantic element to marriage.
Another reason for getting married, much less common today than in the past, is because of an unintended pregnancy, the so-called, “shotgun wedding.” There was a sense that if you were bringing a new life into the world, then that should be done within marriage, and that remains true to some extent today.
Marriage is also a signal of status (what Andrew Cherlin calls the “trophy marriage”), and this may be more common today than in the past—being married is a way of signaling success and status within a society.
So there are now a range of reasons, including religion, romance, economics, and status, that might lead people to the marital state. But it is clear that the “standard” model of marriage as breadwinner and childrearer is passing away.
For women, the traditional model of marriage was an economic necessity particularly if she was planning to have children—to be with a man who would be the provider. Obviously, that has changed today. Women account for 40% of sole or primary breadwinners in U.S. households.
For men, marriage was a way to attach himself to children. If he was going to have children, he had to do that with a woman who would raise those children, and so he had to provide for them. So, there was a complementarity inherent in the traditional view of marriage, but which, of course, was founded on a very deep economic inequality between men and women.
That inequality was a driving force of the women’s movement, especially for people like Gloria Steinem, who said the point is to make marriage into a choice rather than a necessity, and to actually free women from the economic bondage of marriage. “Being able to support oneself allows one to choose a marriage out of love and not just economic dependence,” Steinem said in 2004. That inequality and dependence has been successfully shattered by the women’s movement.
Today, the very institution of marriage, which is central to human societies, has been fundamentally transformed. It’s an institution that is now entered into on the basis of egalitarian principles. Women have huge exit power—they are twice as likely as men to file for divorce. As a result, women are no longer stuck in bad marriages, which is a huge achievement for humanity.
But for men, of course, the old role of providing while their wives raise the children has largely gone out of the window, too. Men’s role in marriage and what it means for a man to be “marriageable,” to use a slightly ugly term from social science, is very different now from in the past. When it comes to marriage, women are increasingly looking for something more than just a paycheck.
Today, the very institution of marriage, which is central to human societies, has been fundamentally transformed. It’s an institution that is now entered into on the basis of egalitarian principles.
It’s a bit like the kaleidoscope has been shaken, and the patterns haven’t quite settled yet. You see lesbian and gay couples being able to opt into marriage. Within a couple of years of the Supreme Court decision, we saw almost 3 out of 5 lesbian and gay couples choosing to get married. You also see a big class gap opening up: fewer working-class and lower-income Americans are opting into the institution. What we now have is what my colleague Isabel Sawhill describes as “a new fault line in the American class structure.” No one expected that Americans with the most choice and the most economic power—and especially American women with the most choice and economic power—would be the ones who were continuing to get married and stay married.
There’s been a very slight decline in marriage for those with four-year college degrees, but a really big decline for those with less education. The typical college-educated American woman is almost as likely to get married as her mother was, and if anything, a little bit more likely to stay married.
One of the other big changes has been a significant rise in the age at first marriage, up to around 30. I think about my parents who married at 21, having met at 17, which was pretty common back then. Actually, as late as 1970, most women who went to college in the U.S., which was a minority of course, were married within a year of graduating. That’s a world that’s very difficult to fathom now, as both men and women now enter the labor market, become economically successful, and often establish themselves economically before getting married. Today, you do all that first, then you marry. Marriage has become more like a capstone, to use another of Andrew Cherlin’s descriptions, where marriage is a signal of everything that has led up to the ceremony, rather than the beginning of a journey.
We can no longer tell a single story about marriage in America in the way we could 40 years ago. We need to tell different stories based on class and race and geography. We’ve seen a real divide opening up in marriage in the United States.
Americans, today, are much less likely to see marriage as something that you need to do to be a complete person or have a good life. In fact, fewer than 1 in 5 Americans now believe that it’s essential to be married to have a fulfilling life. That’s a huge cultural change.
The model of marriage that was founded on economic dependency for women is completely obsolete. This is progress. But while we have created models of the family that are more equal and fair, they are often not such stable unions. The challenge we now face is to find ways to create more stability in our family life, without sacrificing the goal of equality. What we should be asking is how do we have strong relationships within which people can raise kids well? Marriage can still play a role here, of course. But there are alternative models, too. With 40% of children being born to unmarried parents, and most of those born to mothers without a college degree, there will need to be.
Because what matters above all is parenting, the way we raise our kids. It is possible to imagine a renewed future for marriage based around egalitarianism between men and women, but a shared commitment to kids. I think that’s for us to create. (That’s an argument I made in my 2014 Atlantic essay, “How to Save Marriage in America.”)
If marriage is to survive, it will be in this new model founded on shared parenting, not as a restoration of the old one based on economic inequality.
(Richard V. Reeves is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do about It (Brookings Institution Press, 2022. Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Publication: Courtesy: Brookings Institute)