Even more surprisingly, just 51 percent of Americans were married in 2011, compared to 72 percent in 1960, according to the Pew Research Center. The truth is that most researchers predict that marriage rates will remain at a historic low in the decades ahead. According to Phillip Cohen, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland College Park, in an interview with the Huffington Post, the biggest reason why marriage rates have fallen since the 1950s and 1960s is because marriage is now seen as optional. He also noted that women are becoming more independent, and having better employment opportunities has caused them to question the necessity of marriage.
In America, divorce is becoming more closely tied with socioeconomics. USA Today has reported that just 29 percent of Americans have a bachelor's degree. Andrew Cherlin's renowned work, The Marriage-Go-Round, found that while divorce is going down for the college-educated, it's going up for those with only high school degrees. Frankly, the majority of people who read research studies about divorce and marriage are college-educated, so they can congratulate themselves on belonging to a more protected population. But shouldn't we be more concerned for the majority? And it's saddening, though not surprising, that economics create such a dividing line.
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A recent report entitled Changing Relationships in America reported that 48 percent of births in the U.S. are currently to unwed mothers. Even if the mothers are in committed relationships with the fathers of their children, the government provides no mechanism to track them. And the statistics for people who have children out of wedlock aren't good. By the time their child reaches adolescence, over 75 percent of those relationships are dissolved. Just because these relationships aren't included in divorce data doesn't mean the breakup is any less painful or disruptive for all involved — particularly the children.
As a society, there is reason to worry about the well-being of these children and the unfairness of the socioeconomic divide in divorce. Divorce statistics are very frustrating. Most people view them from a personal lens. "What are my chances of getting a divorce? What group do I fall into?" is a question most people ask themselves. And with 48 percent of births being to unmarried women, and a divorce rate that still hovers between 40 and 50 percent, it makes many wonder, "Why marry at all? Why bother?" (But answering that question will take another article.)
The recent decline in America's marriage rate may have something to do with women's tendency to fear commitment and to be paralyzed by so many options, according to Kaitlyn Cawley, editor-in-chief of Elite Daily, a Generation Y-oriented website. On a more optimistic note, Stephanie Coontz, an author and historian from Evergreen State University, writes in Marriage, A History that the longer a woman delays marriage, the lower her risks for divorce. After all, two out of three divorces are initiated by women so it makes sense that young women are smart to delay getting married until they are in their late 20s.
In her landmark book For Better, marriage researcher Tara Parker-Pope advises young adults to delay marriage until they are at least 25, when they probably have a clear sense of their goals and interests. She also speculates that couples today have higher — some might say unrealistic—expectations for marriage. However, Parker-Pope's conclusions about the state of marriage in the 21st century are optimistic. She writes, "The good news from the study of marriage is that today, far more people are succeeding at marriage than failing."
My overall impression after studying divorce rates is that there is reason to be hopeful about the institution of marriage. The optimistic version of interpreting divorce rates is that marriage is a changing institution, and that the vast majority of people still want to get married. David Lipp, an affiliate scholar from the Institute for American Values, agrees in a Huffington Post interview, concluding that most young adults still want life-long love and want to give their children a stable marriage.
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So should we fear marriage because we might be doomed to get a divorce? While my search for the answer is ongoing, I believe that those seeking marriage, especially individuals raised in divorced families, would do well to develop a healthy respect for the value of commitment. They are wise to delay marriage until their late 20's and to adopt a mindset that marriage can be rewarding but requires effort and commitment. Overall, young adults are still interested in tying the knot, and the declining divorce rate appears to be a good sign. While marriage doesn't appear to be dead, it's certainly evolving.