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A pedestal too high: Is marriage too good for people?

Published: Saturday, July 20 2013 12:30 p.m. MDT

A silhouette wedding portrait.

Duane Brayboy, "AfroDad" via flickr

Ciara Vesey is an enthusiastic and newly minted lawyer in Iowa who has no plans on getting married anytime soon, thank you very much.

"It just comes down to time," she says. "I don't have the time to get to know someone for a year. Then get engaged. It's a 3-year process. I have to build my career."

Vesey, 26, comes from a large family. Her parents have been married for more than 30 years. Ditto her grandparents. Her dad is even a pastor, and preaches the importance of marriage from the pulpit. Her three older brothers (ages 37, 36 and 35) all went to college and got married right after graduation.

But she and her four younger siblings are different. While they also went to college, none of them are married. "Obviously some kind of shift is going on here," Vesey said.

It's a dramatic shift that is changing the makeup of families across the country. Americans are less likely to marry today than at any time over the past four decades, according to the 2012 State of our Unions report from the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. The annual number of new marriages per 1,000 unmarried adult women declined more than 50 percent from 1970 to 2010. The total number of marriages dropped from 2.45 million in 1990 to 2.11 million in 2010.

Often, the trends seem contradictory. In a poll by the Pew Research Center, for example, 44 percent of millennials say the "institution of marriage is becoming obsolete," yet 70 percent of millennials who are single say they eventually want to get married.

These trends have far-reaching implications affecting the economic and personal well-being of whole classes and segments of society. A study by sociologist Daniel T. Lichter (now at Cornell University) found that for the few unwed mothers who do eventually get and stay married, marriage confers large economic benefits.

Studies show there may be a relationship between marriage and how much people earn, how well their children do in school, their health and even their happiness. For example, 2010 Census data shows that more than 27 percent of children from single-parent families live in poverty, while the percentage of married couple families that live in poverty is just 6.2 percent.

"Marriage is doing reasonably well among Americans who have a college degree and a decent income," says W. Bradford Wilcox, associate professor of sociology and director of the National Marriage Project. "Marriage is in a marked retreat among Americans who don't have a college degree and don't have a strong economic foundation."

Capstone or launching pad?

Wilcox says economics plays a big part in when people get married. "Today, people look at marriage as something to do after all their major ducks are in a row," he says.

This means education, a steady job and even maturity and experience.

But the experiences many young people have today include difficulty finding stable employment.

"Forty or 50 years ago," Wilcox says, "marriage was seen as the launching pad for adulthood. Now people look to marriage as a capstone."

Add to this "capstone" ideal another ideal. "Our public language talks about marriage as something where you find your 'soul mate,'" Wilcox says.

Alan J. Hawkins, a professor of family life at BYU and author of "The Forever Initiative," says that in many ways, the newer generation has more respect and admiration for the institution of marriage and a good healthy relationship than his own generation had three or four decades ago.

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