The Corner

Is Marriage Just Evolving?

Are the headlines right? Do Americans really think marriage is becoming obsolete? And does this trend simply show how the concept of family is evolving to include many different arrangements?

According to the Time/Pew poll results released last week, 39 percent of Americans do indeed believe marriage is becoming obsolete, and this belief is more common among the less-educated. Among those with college degrees (who make up only about 30 percent of the population), only 27 percent agree that marriage is becoming obsolete. Among those with “some college,” 41 percent agree. Among those with a high-school degree or less, 45 percent agree.

More education corresponds to higher pay, so it’s no surprise that the same trend appears with income. Among those making $75,000 or more, only 30 percent agree that marriage is becoming obsolete. Among those making $30,000 or less, 48 percent agree.

Age also makes a difference: Agreement is most common in the 18–29 cohort (44 percent).

In other words, the people who think marriage is becoming obsolete are not liberal professors at Ivy League schools. Instead, think of a twenty-something Joe the Plumber.

A couple of popular explanations for the trend:

1) More Americans today lack the financial stability to attain marriage.

2) Americans are more tolerant and realize that there are many different family forms out there.

3) Americans don’t value marriage as much anymore.

While the answer may lie in some combination of these explanations, another possibility — often overlooked — is that while non-college-educated Americans value the idea of marriage, they lack confidence in the institution of marriage to secure the love and commitment that they prize so much. Why? Because they have seen it fail so often. In our interviews with working-class young people in Ohio this summer, the one statistic that everyone had heard was that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. Many had seen that stat reflected in reality.

One working-class young man whose mother is in her third marriage explains that while “I like the thought of [marriage] . . . I feel like you shouldn’t have to put it in paper.” It’s not that he doesn’t want to get married — he is engaged, and prizes marriage for the companionship it provides. But at the same time, he wonders why he has to formalize the relationship. After all, he asks, “What good ever comes from contracts really? You get screwed in the long run.”

When many Americans survey the relationship landscape in their friends’ and families’ lives, they wonder whether marriage really provides any more stability than a live-in relationship. To some, marriage doesn’t seem worth the risk of an expensive and drawn out divorce. Perhaps Middle Americans are less confident in marriage than their more affluent peers not because they’ve discovered the felicity of a better-functioning family form — but because they have experienced more heartache, more divorce, more fatherlessness, more relationship turnover.

As one young working-class woman who was raised by a single mother explains, “It’s hard on the kids being tossed back and forth. It’s hard for kids to have to ask, ‘Which one of my dads?’ Your heart just breaks when you hear it. Where’s their identity? What do they call home? It just seems like it’s a lot for a small child to handle.” That is what the “changing family” looks like.

“Sociologists tend to believe the answers lie outside marriage,” Time journalist Belinda Luscombe noted in her article about the poll results. She continued:

[Marriage historian Stephanie] Coontz thinks that if we changed our assumptions about alternative family arrangements and our respect for them, people would be more responsible about them. “We haven’t raised our expectations of how unmarried parents will react to each other. We haven’t raised our expectations of divorce or singlehood,” she says. “It should not be that within marriage you owe everything and without marriage you don’t owe anything. When we expect responsible behavior outside as well as inside marriage, we actually reduce the temptation to evade or escape marriage.”

But are we really prepared to say that this loss of confidence in marriage — which plagues the non-college-educated while leaving the college-educated relatively unscathed — is just another step in the evolution of the family?

– David and Amber Lapp are co-investigators of the Love and Marriage in Middle America project, sponsored by the Institute for American Values. They blog at FamilyScholars.org.

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