The End of Marriage

I recently finished reading Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert, a mere 11 months after it came out – a true feat for me.  It was hardly what I’d expected, an interesting read, and possibly not the best idea for someone so neutral on marriage to be reading.  I felt myself saying, “Yes! I agree – exactly how I feel”, and then she’d turn the tables and play devil’s advocate.  The point of her research is to convince herself that marriage is not all bad, and, just because it’s being forced upon her, it does not mean the end of the world.  What I didn’t expect was an in-depth look at the history of marriage in the Western world.

While reading about the expectations of women around the world in different cultures to get married, the history of marriage since the time of Christ, and the marriage imbalance between men and women, I came across a study done by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values called the State of Our Unions 2010.  Yes, my eyes were peeled for any information on marriage in America.

I started reading through this report to find that it was pointing out obvious information; nothing seemed like news.  I also noticed a slight bias, which was confirmed upon reading about the organizations.  Both groups’ missions involve increasing marriage quality and stability.  A noble and worthy cause, to be sure.  But I have to question it, since there have always been single parent homes, throughout history.  Society continues to function, and children grow up – and not as many as the report would lead you to believe are in such dire situations during their teens or later in life.

Both Gilbert and the State of Our Unions point out what is needed to have the best shot at a stable and lasting marriage: finish college, get a graduate or professional degree, wait as long as possible to get married.  What the State of Our Unions does not point out, that Gilbert found in research, was that not having kids contributed greatly to the lasting success of marriage.  Apparently, some kids don’t just give their parents gray hair.  While these findings are interesting, how realistic are they?  Well, the more educated you are, the longer you are likely to wait to get married, and the longer you wait to have children.

Is it a shock then that finances are not an issue for such couples?  The more educated you are, the better the job and pay, and the further you move up the career ladder while waiting all that time to get married. You are financially in a better position to get married and have a family than if you were married at 20, with or without a college degree.

Gilbert was the one to point out the “benefits” to a healthy and lasting marriage if children were not in the picture – it is a benefit for her – as she and her fiance had not planned to have any.  Gilbert is looking at the potential success for anyone in marriage, though.  The folks from the National Marriage Project and the Center for Marriage and Families were looking specifically at the middle class – during a recession, where they are being squeezed the most, and wondering why there seems to be a growing apathy to marriage.

I disagree.  I don’t see it as a growing apathy (my personal views aside).  I think it has more to do with the cost of a wedding — if you want to have kids right away, that is another huge added cost early in a marriage, with an uncertain job market and shaky economy.  I’d wait too!  The report looks at couples living together that are not married and seems shocked by the numbers.  I was shocked too – its lower that I’d expected.  Partly for the same reasons many couples hold off on getting married in a rough economy, many find it cheaper to combine households and expenses and live together, especially in expensive places like DC.

So here’re the numbers: the percentage of women ages 25-44 that have ever “cohabitated” (their word choice – not mine) is 50% from 2006-2008 for highly educated (defined as a college graduate).  In the same category and time frame: women defined as moderately educated (graduated high school or completed GED) was 68%, and least educated (did not complete high school) was 75%.  I would have thought they’d be higher.  Though I also got the impression those writing the report were not fans of cohabitation without marriage – partly due to the choice of cohabitation over other word options.

The point the report brings up repeatedly is that marriage in “Middle America” is a dying institution.  There is a general retreat from institutions.  I disagree.

As I read more of Committed, I found the Gilbert disagrees as well.  As an institution, marriage is always changing, within society, including the purpose of marriage.   Marriage and family was initially a safety mechanism. So few people in the world, and everyone being so far spread, you needed people around to help keep everyone protected and fed – large families living in one place were the solution.  Later in history, the purpose was to tie together land, titles and business.  Today it is a “delivery device for ultimate bliss” as Gilbert puts it – or at least we have that expectation.

It is evolving as time moves on – and while more people may be putting off marriage in the last 4 years or so, and more people may be “cohabitating” (there has to be a better word for it), the institution is not dying, and people are not running from it.  We can look at how marriage has changed just within the past 50-60 years, by the divorce rate, for one, and by civil rights changes in terms of whom a person can marry.  You can see the change over thousands of years based on the changing over between religious and state institutions, who have the power to make it official.  I wonder how it will change next, and when.  There have been some rapid changes in recent history – will there be anymore in our lifetime, beyond seeing gay marriage legal in every state?

Originally appeared on Fem2.0


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