3Qs: Examining the changing nature of marriage

December 10, 2012 by Linda Ogbevoen
Suzanna Walters is a professor of sociology and director of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at Northeastern. Credit: Brooks Canaday

A recent report from the Pew Research Center high­lighted that 4.2 mil­lion adults were newly mar­ried in 2011, which is a decline from the 4.5 mil­lion new­ly­weds esti­mated in 2008. The esti­mates come from the Census Bureau's Amer­ican Com­mu­nity Survey, which began asking respon­dents in 2008 whether they had been mar­ried, divorced or wid­owed in the pre­vious 12 months. Here, Suzanna Wal­ters, pro­fessor of soci­ology and director of Women's, Gender and Sex­u­ality Studies Pro­gram, sug­gests pos­sible rea­sons for fewer Amer­i­cans marrying.

Barely half (51 percent) of American adults were married in 2011, according to the report data, compared with 72 percent in 1960. What might account for this decline, and what factors should be considered when determining whether the institution of marriage has changed over time?

When there is panic in the press or among politi­cians about mar­riage changing, we need to take a deep breath and remember that mar­riage is always evolving. For instance, the 72 per­cent of mar­ried Amer­i­cans in 1960 rep­re­sents a post-​​war mar­riage boom. Twenty years before that, mar­riage rates for college-​​educated women were strik­ingly low. Mar­riage rates have and always will fluctuate.

It is also impor­tant to note that the insti­tu­tion of mar­riage has never been stable in the way that is has been ide­o­log­i­cally imag­ined. His­tor­i­cally, we've seen mar­riage go from some­thing that once only prop­er­tied classes prac­ticed, to a much more demo­c­ratic affair—from polyg­a­mous to dyadic; from arranged to com­pan­ionate. Nev­er­the­less, mar­riage has been built on an edi­fice of dis­crim­i­na­tion that enforced a het­ero­sexual norm as the only route to mar­ital legality. While this is changing, the fed­eral Defense of Mar­riage Act remains in place and same-​​sex mar­riage is illegal across the majority of the United States.

Lastly, we must also con­sider that for women specif­i­cally, mar­riage has shifted from out­right own­er­ship and cover­ture, to the more "benign" inequities of the double shift—where women are expected to be equal wage earners but also to take the lion's share of domestic respon­si­bil­i­ties and tasks.

Marriage rates fell from 2008 to 2011 among all age and education groups, but particularly for less-educated Americans. What do you make of the connection between education level and marriage, and has this connection also evolved over the years?

In many ways, edu­ca­tional attain­ment in the U.S. is a stand-​​in for eco­nomic class. Mar­riage has so much to do with prop­erty rela­tion­ship even if it is also about love, or at least a dis­course of romantic attach­ment. People with less prop­erty—or few hopes of greater attain­ment in their life­times because of lower levels of edu­ca­tion—are less likely to find mar­riage to be a com­pelling con­tract in which to enter.

It is not that people with less edu­ca­tion—and there­fore lower socioe­co­nomic class status—necessarily have a lower regard for mar­riage as an insti­tu­tion. Rather, there is a sort of con­flict between the expec­ta­tions we have of mar­riage, such as home­own­er­ship, and the declining eco­nomic prospects of workers who are not col­lege edu­cated. If we believe that entering into mar­riage is pred­i­cated on being able to own a home, pay the bills, have a stable job and par­tic­i­pate in our con­sumerist economy, then many less-​​educated Amer­i­cans simply can't meet that bar. This is par­tic­u­larly true in times of eco­nomic reces­sion or depres­sion. In other words, if being a "bread­winner" is part of the mar­riage equa­tion, then it is surely less salient as an insti­tu­tion for those eco­nom­i­cally more bereft, either due to edu­ca­tional levels, racial inequal­i­ties or class stratification.

Will the decline of marriage have an effect on family life?

We shouldn't con­fuse "mar­riage" with "family." Lots of people get mar­ried, but many of them get divorced as well. Although divorce rates have declined in recent years, data shows that four out of 10 mar­riages still end in divorce. What this means is that only a small number of fam­i­lies are "nuclear"—meaning two par­ents and kids. At its height, the nuclear family only accounted for about 40 per­cent of Amer­ican fam­i­lies, and now it accounts for about 20 per­cent of them—including step­fam­i­lies. For decades now, most Amer­ican fam­i­lies have been con­structed out­side or between marriages.

In fact, I would argue that the decline of mar­riage as a sig­ni­fier of adult­hood, cit­i­zen­ship and social belonging is actu­ally a good thing. Valuing fam­i­lies of choice, indi­vidual sexual lib­erty and alter­na­tive forms of con­structing kin­ship can open up our imag­i­na­tions to cre­ative new pat­terns of care and inti­macy. To the extent that mar­riage is dethroned as the access point for such social resources as health­care and retire­ment ben­e­fits—as well as cit­i­zen­ship—our society will all better off.

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not rated yet Dec 14, 2012
Let's not fret too much about marriage passing into history. It's clear that when institutions no longer serve much use, they are discarded bit by bit and that's what we're seeing now happen with the institution of marriage. If we look to Scandinavia, where marriage rates are lowest, we also see that people are happier than in other countries.

Both women and men suffer under marriage, for different reasons, in today's urban civilization. It's just another Bronze Age custom that has aged past its sell-by date.

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