Barely half of US adults are currently married, a record low, and the continuing downward trend will result in less than half being married in just a few years, according to a study released Wednesday by the Pew Research Institute.
While the study did not examine reasons for the trend, several sociologists, cultural anthropologists, and others caution against judging the statistics superficially. They agree with the findings that many, non-romantic factors are at work – from economics to education and expanding the definition of marriage to merely delaying it – but say it would be incorrect to conclude that the institution is completely on the rocks.
Others say the decline of two-parent families with stable relationships bodes ill because it leads children to perform poorly at school, enter lives of drugs and crime, and have trouble with relationships throughout life.
“The Pew data provoke alarmist reactions among the family-values crowd who conclude erroneously that marriage is imperiled,” says Dr. Ben Agger, director of the Center for Theory at the University of Texas, Arlington‘s Sociology department.
What is happening in American households, he says, is that people are delaying marriage until their mid- to late-20s, and there are increasing numbers of elderly people, especially women, who live alone because their spouses have died.
“People delay marriage because they are getting educated and establishing careers and economic independence,” he says. “These facts alone drive down the marriage rate. But they should not lead to the conclusion that people don’t want to get married or actually get married. They do.”
Other key findings from the Pew study include:
• The decline in the number of newly married adults – from 4.4 million in 2009 to 4.2 million in 2010 – was shared by all age groups but was especially sharp for the youngest adults.
• The decline in the proportion of currently married adults is most dramatic for the young. Only 9 percent of adults ages 18-24 were married in 2010, compared with 45 percent in 1960.
• The proportions currently married diverge notably by racial and ethnic group. More than half (55 percent) of whites are married, a decline from 74 percent in 1960. Among Hispanics 48 percent are married, compared with 72 percent in 1960. Among blacks, only 31 percent are married, compared with 61 percent in 1960.
Shmuley Boteach, a rabbi and television host and author of several books about marriage, says the trend is very troubling. He says it might be the outgrowth of much that is wrong with a capitalist, materialistic society.
“When you look at everything that is being discussed in the political/public sector, you find no one talking about the disintegration of the American family. Nobody cares, and yet, it affects everything,” he says.
“All the research shows that when kids are not raised in stable homes with two parents who dote on them – one as disciplinarian, one as nurturer – that the child develops imbalances that he tries to fulfil for the rest of his life.”
The pursuit of faster, bigger cars and larger homes is an outgrowth of this, as is the vicarious fame coveted by those who watch reality shows, Rabbi Boteach maintains.
He would like American politicians to begin putting family issues back in the forefront of discussion with such ideas as tax credits for marriage counseling.
Author and parenting specialist Stacey Nelkin says the statistics show less a rejection of husband-and-wife relations than a dramatic change in women’s choices about education and independence.
“In the 1960s, women saw their goals as finding a man to make them financially secure, having children, and being a housewife,” she says. “Now they are on career tracks to go to college, get degrees, and have careers. Getting married is just one of several options for them.”
And Galena Rhodes, senior researcher at the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, sees a very positive trend in young people waiting to get their act together before making the crucial decision to get married.
That there is a “rise in those young people who want to get more education and find the right partner to settle down with is a very encouraging piece of good news for this institution,” she says. She says the young people have looked at the growing number of divorces and don’t want to go down that road.
“The fact that kids do best when they grow up with both married parents is one of the strongest findings of psychology,” she says.
She would like to see relationship counseling be an education staple for youth well ahead of getting married. “Part of the reason that fewer are married is that they are waiting longer for the right reasons.”