Asking More From Matrimony
By Douglas J. Besharov
This article originally appeared in The New York Times, July 14, 1999.
In 1986, a much-discussed study contended that a woman over 40 had
a less than 1 percent chance of getting married -- or, in the words of Newsweek,
she was more likely to be "killed by a terrorist."
It was a vivid phrase but an inaccurate one, it turned out. Other
researchers quickly corrected the study. Women were getting married, they were
just getting married later.
Now comes a new study from the National Marriage Project at
Rutgers University claiming that the marriage rate has declined by roughly 43
percent since 1960. According to this report, the marriage rate of single women
15 years old and older declined to 49.7 per thousand in 1996, from 87.5 per
thousand in 1960.
Once again, the demise of marriage is being exaggerated. How? Age
15 is the wrong cut-off for comparing marriage rates in 1960 and 1996, because
people now just don't wed at such an early age. Since 1960, the median age of
women getting married for the first time has increased by four and a half years,
to 24.8 from 20.3.
To measure marriage rates accurately, most demographers today
calculate the percentage of women who are "ever married." Assuming that one
should not count teen-agers because so few marry, in 1960 the proportion of
women 20 and older who had ever been married was 90 percent. Thirty-six years
later the proportion of women who were then or had at one time been married
stood at 83 percent -- only about 8 percent lower.
That's the statistic for women who get married. What about staying
married? Here, the situation has worsened. Divorce rates rose sharply through
the 60's and 70's. Although divorce is down slightly since its 1980 peak, about
1 marriage in 3 still fails. Moreover, remarriage after divorce or a spouse's
death is way down, partly because the stigma attached to cohabitation has been
substantially reduced and partly because more women can survive financially on
To measure these combined trends, demographers calculate the
percentage of women "currently married." Here, by my calculations, we can see a
big change. If one accounts for later marriages and longer life spans by
counting only those Americans between the ages of 20 and 74 (after age 74, too
many husbands are dying to get a fair count of marriage), only 64 percent of
women were currently married as of 1996, versus 76 percent in 1960.
Yes, marriage bonds are weaker than ever. And people now divorce
for what, to many, seem like insubstantial reasons. Out-of-wedlock birth rates
remain high, and cohabitation rates continue to climb. But this does not mean
that young people have rejected marriage. If anything, they want more from
marriage than ever before.
These days, young people tend to marry later, after they have
completed their education and have a better idea of who they are. Because they
have seen so much divorce, many want to be very sure before making such a big
decision. Studies show they want marriage to be a partnership, with equality
between men and women, and to be emotionally satisfying in ways never dreamed of
by their parents, let alone grandparents. And they think that a bad marriage is
worse than no marriage -- so they are more willing to divorce even if they have
young children. Young women are also less willing to wed just because they are
One does not have to sympathize with all these lofty aspirations
(or ignore their inconsistencies) to recognize that young people aren't giving
up on marriage; they are just modernizing it.
So, instead of exaggerating the death of marriage, and instead of
making obsolete assumptions about when young people should marry, we should try
to understand this seismic change in their behavior and attitudes.
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