The new Pew Research Center data on marriage is discouraging, though hardly surprising. Four out of ten Americans believe marriage is becoming “obsolete.” The share of Americans that are married has shrunk, the share that’s cohabiting is up, and the share of American homes with kids in them is on the decline. I could go on.
However, most young Americans—and certainly the vast majority of Christians—still want to marry, and they don’t want to settle. But when I study how young Americans form their romantic relationships, Christians included, I’ve come to the conclusion that while lots of them may want to marry, they just won’t get there from here. There are emerging barriers that are making marriage rarer.
Marriage isn’t gone. It’s not obsolete. And it’s certainly not unwanted. But it is becoming more unusual. Why? A more thorough answer will have to wait, but two ideas deserve our attention.
First, we fail to recognize that there is both a sex market out there and a marriage market, and they don’t overlap nearly so neatly as they used to. Many young adults are content to remain in the sex market for years. For this group, marriage can wait. Now is the time for having a little fun. Indeed, to marry means giving up experiencing sex with other people, and settling on only one. How to choose?
Others—especially but not exclusively Christians—are only in the marriage market. Since what they hope for—chastity in a spouse—is becoming increasingly rare, the average Christian is spending more time on the marriage market (and making more sexual compromises along the way) than in previous generations. A recent study estimate suggests that the average evangelical marries somewhere around age 26 or 27, not much younger than the national average. But as I’ve noted elsewhere, steering clear of sex during this most fertile and virile period of the life course is both difficult and increasingly uncommon. Some of the blame lies not with their flight from marriage, but their simple delay of it. But as they delay it, their attitudes are changing. Many young adult Christians are making their peace with premarital sex—some because they wish to, others because they feel they have little choice.
[Read Mark Regnerus’s controversial 2009 article, “Say Yes. What Are You Waiting For?” in The Washington Post.]
Second, the rising age at marriage is due not simply to Americans’ disinterest in it, but also to some major changes in American life. Men—the gender that typically pops the question—are struggling economically more than ever. The kind of work that many men could earn a good living at and support a family has disappeared, having either fled the country or been replaced by automated technologies. For example, General Motors doesn’t need as much skilled labor today as they once did. Women, on the other hand, are emerging as success stories economically and educationally. The economy favors them. But their romantic relationships are increasingly foundering or never even materializing. Why? Because women no longer need men in order to live successful lives. They want men and marriage. But they don’t need them.
It’s what sociologists call an unintended consequence: when women no longer need men, the way romantic relationships are conducted will change. And change they have, as I describe in Premarital Sex in America (Oxford, 2011). In the end, many young Americans—indeed most—will still find their meandering way to the altar, but fewer than ever before.
Watch Mark Regnerus’s talk at Q Chicago on “Saving Marriage Before It Starts:”
What do you think about the reasons given above for why marriage is becoming less common? In your opinion, how important are recent economic trends to this discussion?
Editor’s Note: The artwork above is “The Lovers” by Rene Magritte (1928). It is currently on display at the Modern Museum of Art and expressed a sense of both intimacy mixed with isolation. Learn more here.