5 Surprising Facts About Modern Marriage

One of the most commonly accepted bits of marital wisdom in the United States says that half of all marriages will end in divorce. As it turns out, this unnerving little statistic hasn’t been true for decades.

The last few years have witnessed a great deal of handwringing over the supposed “death of marriage.” There are the scores of articles about millennials rejecting the institution outright; the reports of gay couples getting divorced only years after being granted the fundamental right to wed; the oft-cited statistic that half of all marriages will end in divorce or annulment. A scan of the headlines would suggest that as a society, we’re turning our back on this ancient tradition. As it turns out, the picture is much more complicated.

Here are five surprising facts about marriage today, taken from recent studies.

1. Millennials Aren’t Rejecting Marriage—They’re Delaying It

While it’s true that the overall number of people getting married has fallen over the last few decades, this has to do with couples cohabitating and delaying marriage, rather than rejecting it outright. A 2011 Pew poll found that the share of adults who have entered marriage even once has fallen from 85 percent in 1960 to 70 percent in 2013. Much of this decline can be explained by younger adults deciding to wait until later in life to tie the knot. As the Pew survey notes, “the median age at first marriage has never been higher for brides (26.5 years) and grooms (28.7).” This is not an exclusively American phenomenon. In fact, the trend has taken root in most other post-industrial societies; a United Nations report that analyzed marriage trends found that female age at first marriage rose from the 1970s to the 2000s in 75 of the 77 countries studied.

Part of this delay can be explained by the erosion of the taboo against premarital cohabitation. Economic reasons are also a factor, as young people who are still living at home or struggling to find full-time employment are much less likely to feel ready for the responsibilities of marriage. But the Pew report found that these declines have persisted through economic upswings, suggesting that the decision to delay marriage represents a fundamental reorienting of young peoples’ priorities. Rather than forgoing marriage, they are focusing on starting their careers, building up savings, or going back to school to continue their educations before compromising their life choices for somebody else.

2. When It Comes to Having Kids Before Marriage, Socioeconomic Status Is a Huge Factor

For Americans under 35, nearly half of all births now occur outside of marriage. In part, this speaks to the dissolving social stigma against having children out of wedlock, meaning couples no longer feel pressured to have shotgun weddings in the case of unplanned pregnancies. But a closer look at these numbers reveals a stark class divide between those who decide to have kids before marriage and those who do not.

An analysis by research group Child Trends found that for young women without a college degree, 55 percent of births are outside marriage, while that figure is only 9 percent for those who have at least a four-year degree. Given what we know about the strong correlation between education and income, it follows that the children of college-educated parents will already be more financially secure than those of their less educated peers. Furthermore, research indicates that unwed couples are far more likely to split up by the time their child is 5, which can lead to a range of negative impacts from academic to behavioral problems, all of which are compounded by economic insecurity.

Some conservative pundits, like the New York Post’s Ashley Maguire, see this as proof that parents owe it to their children to get married. As she wrote in a recent op-ed, “It’s plain bizarre the way Millennials seem to be outright rejecting the evidence that marriage favors them and their progeny economically.” But getting married for the economic sake of your children is an outdated—and incredibly unromantic—prospect.

Still, the stark educational and class split on this issue is striking, and has troubling long-term implications. As NPR’s Jennifer Ludden points out, “this class divide in marriage could mean even more inequality in the next generation.”

3. Divorce Rates Have Fallen, But the Myth Lives On

One of the most commonly accepted bits of marital wisdom in the United States says that half of all marriages will end in divorce. As it turns out, this unnerving little statistic hasn’t been true for decades. A recent New York Times analysis of divorce rates indicates that they peaked in the 1970s-1980s and have been steadily declining since then. The research suggests that if trends continue, only one-third of marriages will end in divorce—a significant improvement in odds.

Why this dramatic decline? For starters, the ‘70s and ‘80s were an anomaly in the history of American marriage. As droves of women entered the workforce and became financially independent from their husbands, they felt more able to leave unhappy marriages behind. “As a result,” the Times article reads, “marriage has evolved to its modern-day form, based on love and shared passions, and often two incomes and shared housekeeping duties.” Marrying later also leads to more stable relationships, as couples have often already lived together for years before tying the knot. This means that those relationships that do fail are more likely to end in a breakup rather than a divorce.

One important caveat is that the decline in divorce rates is concentrated among people with college degrees. More traditionally gendered roles in working-class families and years of lean economic times have kept divorce rates close to those of the ‘70s-‘80s peak for those with less education.

4. Growing Number of Adults Are Remarrying

Looking at the older side of the spectrum, a recent Pew survey shows that greater numbers of Americans are remarrying than ever before. This is due in large part to our longer lifespans, which increase the number of widows available to remarry and also expand the number of years we have to marry, separate and find another partner. Last year, 4 in 10 new marriages included at least one partner who had been married previously, and 2 in 10 were between partners who had both married before. Almost 42 million adults in the U.S. have been married more than once, an almost twofold increase since 1980.

Interestingly, there are striking gender differences when it comes to remarriage. Men who are divorced or widowed are far more open to remarrying than women in the same position, with 65 percent of men expressing an interest compared to 43 percent of women. As Belinda Luscombe points out at Time, this could be due to women’s economic independence, their outliving potential male suitors, or simply the fact that “they may feel disinclined to enter into another legally binding agreement to look after somebody else.”

5. Approval of Gay Marriage Is Skyrocketing

Gay marriage is now legal in 35 states, and the constitutionality of gay marriage bans is under review in several others. It seems that public opinion has finally tipped in favor of same-sex marriage as well, after hovering at around 50 percent for the last few years. At the Washington Post, Andrew Flores reviewed the results of all national surveys asking opinions on same-sex marriage to find that a full 52 percent of Americans voice support for such legislation. But this number is not only increasing, it’s accelerating. Using polling data, he tracks changes in the data over the last two decades and finds that the trend is not increasing in a stable, linear way, but has instead accelerated since the early 2000s. This would indicate that instead of 56 percent of the public supporting same-sex marriage by 2016 (the linear prediction), a more accurate prediction would be 61 percent.

Even better, research suggests that this increase in support is largely due to people changing their minds, not young liberals replacing dying generations of conservative old folks. Like the shift in attitudes that brought interracial relationships into the mainstream, mere exposure effect seems to be softening generational divides on gay marriage.

Allegra Kirkland is AlterNet’s associate managing editor. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Salon, Daily Serving and The Nation.

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