Is Marriage Dying, Or Just Changing?

For the first time, married couples make up less than half of all American households. It's a good thing the Rapture was postponed, because right now the U.S. is engaged in a fit of hedonistic singledom!

The New York Times reports that census data released today shows married couples made up just 48% of U.S. households in 2010. That's a slight decline from 2000, and a huge drop from 1950, when 78% of households were comprised of married people. We're moving farther from the '50s social structure every year, which is a shame because those were great years. Everyone conformed to strict gender roles and we shunned anyone who stepped out of line!

As previous data shows, this shift is partly due to college-educated people marrying later, which seems to lead to more couples staying married. However, more women with only a high school degree aren't marrying, and naturally this has inspired a lot of hand-wringing. From The Times:

W. Bradford Wilcox, the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, argues that the retreat from marriage is bad for society because it means less security for children. "It's troubling because those kids are much more likely to be exposed to instability, complex family relations and poverty," he said.

Wow, someone should let these people know that a marriage license is their ticket out of a life of poverty and family turmoil! Being in a stable relationship may help people survive when they're poor and have few job options, but there are multiple factors that lead to kids growing up with "complex family relations." (Like being a Kardashian, for instance.)

In a surprisingly Cosmo-esque Reason.com article, David Harsanyi reacts to the new data by asking, "Is the institution of marriage dying out or simply readjusting?" The article is framed by a Cameron Diaz quote in Maxim and includes this paragraph:

We all know why men marry. Love, yes. I've been married to a wonderful woman for, like, 10-or maybe it's 11 or 12 (somewhere in that area)-years. But men are irresponsible and forgetful. The evolutionary need for companionship is a need to moderate childishness and bring a basic moral order to lives that would otherwise revolve around sports highlight shows. Women? Love, of course. But historically, as Diaz implies, it's also been somewhat of a necessity.

At least he's asking the right questions. Harsanyi goes on to argue that marriage is good for us:

I found studies and stories claiming that married Americans are healthier-less likely to get pneumonia or develop cancer or have heart attacks or dementia-than non-married Americans. According to other studies, married people live more content lives and are less likely to commit suicide (granted, a pretty low bar of happiness, but still) or worry. Married couples are financially better off, and their children are usually more successful.

One of the studies he's referring to actually said that being in a loving and supportive marriage is good for you. It's healthier to be single than to stay in a terrible marriage. It isn't the legal document that's making married couples thrive, it's being in a stable relationship. People naturally seek out love, companionship, and (frequently) commitment. Sometimes they choose to affirm that by getting married, but it isn't a prerequisite for benefitting from a loving relationship — just ask all those Americans happily living in sin!

While conservatives have concocted the idea that the Ozzie and Harriet mold has been handed down since Biblical times, the truth is marriage has changed tremendously over the years. There may be more "non-traditional" households in America, but that's only compared to the living arrangements we made up in the past century or so. The vast majority of people still get married at some point in their lives, and the new household data may simply reflect that people live longer, leading to more elderly singles, and that America has more immigrants, who tend to be young and single. (Take away for conservatives: In addition to Americans living like heathens, the country's overrun by immigrants.)

Ideas about when and why people should marry are evolving, but that doesn't mean we need to worry that our society is crumbling. For most people, there's something inherently appealing about marriage. Even if someday we abandon marriage licenses, the fundamental concept of people building a life together and supporting each other through good times and bad isn't going anywhere.

Married Couples Are No Longer a Majority, Census Finds [NYT]
There's Something About Marriage [Reason.com]

Earlier: Census: Fewer Early Marriages, More Long-Lasting Marriages
Marriage Is The Cure For All That Ails You

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