Love on the Rocks: The Decline of Marriage

Photo via Houseplant Picture Studio
Earlier this week it was reported that the number of married people in the U.S. has nosedived--from 72% of the adult population in 1960 to just over half (51%) today. It's sad news but hardly surprising--I've even noticed the change in my Sunday paper's "Celebrations" section, which used to have enough engagement announcements and wedding photos to publish weekly. Now the frequency is more like every month.

Curiously, the TV stations that reported on this didn't offer much explanation into exactly why marriage is declining. That's where Go Retro comes in. So, here are my honest opinions on what's been going on in the past 50 years that is hindering people from walking up the aisle...let me know if you agree (or disagree.)

Women Are Less Financially Dependent Upon Men
Before the 1960s, it used to be that most women had one career path to follow, and that was homemaker. Jobs after WWII for women were limited, and that meant in order to have any kind of financial security the best bet was to find a husband and let him be the sole breadwinner for the household. Likewise, for many years men were expected to choose a wife while still young, settle down, and find a job that would provide for his wife and kids. Once women were able to enter the workforce during the 1960s, they suddenly had money to support themselves and other life options to explore early on besides getting hitched and having children. And that leads me to reason #2 why marriage is declining...

There's Less Pressure Today To Get Married
It's no longer a stigma to be single. In fact, it's OK today to be 25, 30, 40, or even in your 50s and still on the market. It used to be if you weren't married by your early 20s--especially if you were a woman--you'd be considered an old maid. Mary Tyler Moore portrayed one of the first single female characters on TV and ever since, pop culture has given us lots of single heroines. Again, since women can have a career just as lucrative as a man's, the way society viewed their purpose in life began to change. And since there's less pressure to get married at a young age, both men and women can take their time finding Mr. or Mrs. Right instead of settling for someone for the financial and emotional security. In fact, the average age that both men and women get married at has increased to record highs: 26.5 for brides (which still seems young to me!) and 28.7 for grooms. 
You Don't Have to Get Married to Have Sex Anymore
This reason is sure to cause some debate, but hear me out. Back when my mother was young (the WWII era) it seems not as many people were having sex before they got married--or at least engaged. Those who were kept it on the down low. Women who messed around with several guys were considered sluts, and most men actually didn't view them as marriage material. My mother recalls a story about one such neighborhood girl that my father knew, and he predicted that she'd have a hard time becoming a bride thanks to her wanton ways. Most young women "saved" themselves for a husband--and the soldiers returning from WWII, like my father, wanted nothing more than to get married and forget about the horrors of war.

Sex was also a taboo subject and most girls learned about it from what their girlfriends had heard or experienced. Women simply didn't know as much about sex back then as they do today--today, we have magazines, talk shows and websites at our disposal to each us about human anatomy and how to be a good lover. 

I'm not saying that people never had unmarried sex before the 1960s, but when oral contraception was introduced and sparked the sexual revolution, it definitely overturned how most young people viewed sex. During the 60s, Cosmopolitan was launched and books such as The Happy Hooker were published. The problem, however, (at least from what I've seen in the singles world) is that it's now gone too far. So many women today have no problem having sex with a man right away that it has ruined it a bit for women like me and my friends who would like to be in a committed, long-term relationship leading to marriage. From the stories I've heard from women who tried online dating, too many men expect--or at least wish for--first date sex and if a woman isn't willing to oblige, they know they won't have a hard time finding someone who will. According to the book The Good Girl Revolution by Wendy Shalit, on today's college campuses, the problem is even worse: apparently, not many young men like to date, from the info that Shalit gathered while interviewing dozens of college women at several notable campuses. It's all about hooking up for short-term satisfaction. Sure, there have always been people with this goal in mind throughout the decades, but today it seems to be at an all-time high for younger generations. Shalit also devotes a chapter in the book to the sexual revolution and why the long-lasting effects have not been good for women. The result: men today can find plenty of opportunities to find a piece of ass that don't require courting--and certainly not an engagement ring. 
You Don't Have to Be Married to Be A Parent Or to Live Together
It used to be that if an unwed woman got pregnant, she had three options: get an abortion, give the baby up for adoption, or marry the father of the child and somehow make it work. Likewise, the honorable thing for most men who had gotten a woman pregnant was to marry them, whether they loved them or not. Being an unmarried parent, particularly a mother, was frowned upon, and again, marriage offered women in this situation some financial support for them and their baby. 

Today, it's become socially acceptable to have children together and not be married. Many celebrity couples have done it, and Murphy Brown became a single mom during the course of her show (much to Dan Quayle's chagrin.) Over the past few decades, the number of couples who live together without getting married (regardless of whether they have children or not) has risen. That stigma seemed to fall away with the sexual revolution as well. Time Magazine reported in 2009 that there were 5 million unmarried couples living together in the U.S., which was eight times the amount in 1970. Needless to say, just because you're not married to someone under the same roof doesn't mean you're not devoted to them. For many couples, marriage is just a piece of paper that doesn't change their relationship and how they feel about each other. 
Photo via A Lovely Morning
A Shortage of Available Single Men
I read a statistic in AARP Magazine recently that said for every 100 single women aged 18 and older in the U.S. that there are 88 single adult men. As you get older, that ratio favors the guys even more: the ratio of single women to single men age 60+ is 100 to 83. Of course, these stats do not take into account how many single people are homosexual and gender ratios vary by geographic location but guys, I believe you have a greater pick of women to choose from. In my own social group, I've met oodles of really attractive, smart, kind women who cannot find a decent date, let alone someone who has marriage potential. 

Weddings Are Expensive
It's a minor reason for the decline in marriage for sure, but I think today's current economy is a deterrent for getting married. Weddings used to be simpler and more affordable--a church ceremony followed by a reception at the local VFW, restaurant or country club. During the 80s and 90s, around the time people started buying McMansions and charging everything to their credit cards with abandon, we started to see wedding celebrations get bigger and more lavish. There also seems to have been a serious shift from celebrating a union between too people to spoiled brides making the day all about them. Shows like Bridezilla don't help. While there are ways to have a frugal yet tasteful wedding, it could be that some couples are foregoing them all together (namely the ones for which a marriage certificate isn't that important.)

So What Does It Mean?
So what does this all mean for single women like me? These are cold, hard facts that don't show any signs of reversing anytime soon but believe it or not, I'm still optimistic. I believe in being positive and looking at the bright side of things...people are still getting married. I still believe there are quality single men looking to share their life with somebody in a committed relationship. At this point I'm still hoping to meet the love of my life, whether it leads to marriage or not. As long as I believe it's still possible...then it is.


  1. I saw this on ABC News a couple nights ago & to be honest was pretty surprised--but at the same time there's a good side to it too. Divorce rates have dropped as more people "marry smarter", and couples today seem to be much more a real partnership, what they should've always been.

    Well Pam, you've got a lot going for you and as one single person to another, I appreciate your positive attitude! :)

  2. I don't think I saw a mention of it, but also consider that many men just don't want to take on the risk of marriage. Laws do not favor men in the slightest when it comes to dissolution of the marriage, despite the fact that women are far from the helpless lasses the laws were designed to protect.

  3. Don't overlook the ubiquity of porn or the desire of most women to "marry up"--which is getting harder and harder to do when men fall behind them educationally and professionally.

  4. What a pile of horseshit! As blogs such as Chateau Heartiste and Whiskey's Place have shown over and over again, only a handful of alpha males were the beneficiaries of the sexual revolution. They got more than they could possibly handle, while the rest of us not only got nothing, but found that those who once would have been out mates were now competing with us every step of the way for jobs, and fixing the outcome in their favor with affirmative action policies.

    Thanks to feminism, I didn't get married until I was 46, and spent all too much of career unemployed. We have a 13-year old low-functioning autistic son (which is what happens when you do these things later in life), but at least he'll never be lonely.

  5. From the stories I've heard from women who tried online dating, too many men expect--or at least wish for--first date sex and if a woman isn't willing to oblige, they know they won't have a hard time finding someone who will.
    There's actually a reason for this. It's not uncommon for women to claim they want to "take it slow" and then keep dating a guy while they keep their eyes out for a "better deal".
    Most men learn that if the woman doesn't want sex right away (or after one or two dates), then she just views you as someone to date and keep them company until something better comes along.

    After being dumped a few times for no other reason than "I met someone, and you didn't think we were serious, did you?", guys will not be willing to date very long next time.

  6. Doug--I did hear about the divorce rate, but I also think it's a bit proportional: less marriages mean less divorces. Nonetheless I still remain positive.

    GMay--that is a good point. I read about the outdated alimony laws in my local paper about a year ago. There are indeed some men who get shafted post divorce and must pay crazy amounts of money, even after their ex-wives remarry. We totally need an overhaul on the divorce laws.

    Steve--I heard results of a poll recently that said most men don't have a problem marrying a woman who makes more income than they do...I'm sure some folks might disagree with that finding.

    sestamibi--not sure what part of the post you're saying is horseshit, I just stated the facts that were mentioned on every major news outlet last week. Also, if you don't think the sexual revolution was detrimental to some women then you really need to read the book I mentioned in the post, The Good Girl Revolution.

    Anonymous--I disagree. Most of the women I know are so happy to get a few dates with a good guy that they are not "keeping their options" open--namely because there's no one else around to keep in mind! I've never had that problem.

  7. Steve--I heard results of a poll recently that said most men don't have a problem marrying a woman who makes more income than they do...I'm sure some folks might disagree with that finding.

    A) I'm not sure that's true, and B) Women very much have a problem marrying men who make less than they do. For many women (be they high school grads or PhDs), status and financial security are as important or more important than love. Whenever I hear a woman whine that "all the good ones are taken," you can take it to the bank that she's not talking about character or personality.

  8. I've gone out with guys who made less than me--painters, mailmen, etc. Never had a problem with it. It's more important to me that someone is smart with their money (saving and spending habits) than making oodles of it. A guy who mows his own lawn is sexier to me than someone who hires a landscaper to do it. Would I turn down someone who is wealthy AND is a good guy that I am attracted to who has other qualities that I'm looking for? Absolutely not. However, it's never been a priority. Maybe it's different for me because I don't want kids.

    I have a friend who's a teacher who married a guy that makes less than her, and he drives a car that's about 20 years old. And she is happy.

  9. That part about marriage being just a pice of paper? BS, pure and utter BS. If it WERE just a piece of paper, then those unwed couples living together would get married.

    Lack of that paper means one thing and one thing only- one or both members of that couple are looking for an easy escape should something better come along.

    I've been married 33 years now; got hitched at age 23, my wife 21.
    HAd a woman I work with the other day exclaim, "What's wrong with me? I'm 42, and not married. I'm smart, I'm good looking..." And, as I bit my lower lip to keep from explaining to her, she's 42 and living with a guy she's NOT married to. He's getting all the benefits of marriage he wants- a live in sex partner. Without any commitments. And that's why she's not married. She's putting out, without getting a commitment in return.

    Pretty simple and easy to understand.

    Got another 26 year old I work with whose live-in has similar commitment issues- complicated by a kid between them. But slightly different problems. He's NOT interested in sex, at least, not with her. And near as she can figure or find out, with anyone else.

  10. Anonymous--I have a friend who is now married, but when her husband was her boyfriend he suggested they move in together. She said no. She wanted a ring and a commitment, and wasn't going to move in with him otherwise because she didn't want to become one of those women like the coworker you just described. By the way, when I first read that it sounded like she was whining about being single when that's not the case.

    I'm old fashioned; I would like to be married someday. It's kind of important to me. By the way, I do know a few coworkers who got engaged to partners they lived with for several years. Perhaps there were some ultimatums thrown around...

  11. Steve--for what it's worth, here's a Slate article published earlier this year about wives who earn more than their husbands:

  12. I can support the idea of expensive weddings deterring marriage with a hard number.

    My son's fiance told me this weekend that getting married in San Francisco would cost them $40,000 - for a party of eighty guests.

    They are considering New Orleans instead or just a trip to City Hall.

  13. Pam, you've really had my pot stirring thinking about marriage as we know it today. I would make a couple of points, one being that WWII was the reason women decided to work outside the home; Rosy the Riveter found out making her own money was liberating. It took a generation to take hold, but it wasn't women's lib that set women on the path, they already had a taste. Gloria Stienem (sp) gets way too much credit, most women I know from that era have great contempt for her. Secondly, I've been married for 28 years and it has sometimes been tough to stay that way, but we just kept at it. I would agree about the marriage "contract" rigged for the female side, but I've also seen marriages end where the woman walked away with nothing. I would also agree with others that women want to marry someone that is the larger earner; it was my experience in the dating world too. Not that I would have a problem with my wife earning more, but she doesn't and I don't lord it over her because she doesn't; I have a better education than she does, which segues into another comment regarding the competition with women that did not occur in the past. More women get degrees than men now and a lot of that has to do with the favoritism instilled by the learning institutions and government towards women and minorities. It just is. Anyway, I'm glad you still believe your soulmate is out there; I'm of the opinion there is someone for everyone somewhere. Your blog is one of my favorite reads, keep up the good work.

  14. What's happened is that feminist activists have changed the legal climate to the point that men are at a severe disadvantage.

    The young guys today have seen how the Boomer guys have been raked over the coals in divorce/family court and have rationally decided that it's not in their best interest to get married.

    Sadly I agree with them.

    I've been married for 23 years and it's worked out well. Having said that, if I were to find myself single, there's no way that I would get married again. The risk is far too high.

    If I had a son, I would definitely counsel him not to marry.

    You might want to search for an article written a couple of years ago called "The Misandry Bubble". It's quite an eye opener.

  15. I think you left out an important reason why marriage is on the decline. The media.
    Journalists promote the exploitation of husbands as a "good marriage". Take for example the book "Secret Lives of Wives". Ive seen it promoted on many media outlets. One of its great ideas is that wives should have boyfriends with boundaries.
    For some reason journalist think men to get whats really being promoted.
    Yet look at this post
    Clearly men get it.
    Many younger men are turning away from the whole idea of being married because of the stupidity of what the media promotes.

  16. I think it's really interesting that so far, only men have chosen to comment on this post.

    Ladies, where the heck are ya?

    For those saying that men today don't want to risk losing their shirts in divorce court, there is such a thing to prevent's called pre-nup.

  17. You've made a number of salient points Pam.

    I think one which reporting of this study has overlooked (but you've touched on) is that people are getting married later (particularly women).

    ApacheDug also raises an interesting point about people 'marrying smarter' - people who are getting (and staying) married are college educated and earning more.

    A good male friend of mine and Nicky's was single for a very long time and had pretty much sworn off love.

    Nicky gave him some good advice - work out what you are looking for in a girl including interests and hobbies and go where those women are likely to be.

    Also, don't be afraid to make the first move.

    This young man took up ballroom dancing and met his now fiance there.

    Don't give up!

    -- Nora

  18. Nora-that's very sage advice. For women, they need to go to places where the odds are in their favor as well. Over the past year I went to a classic car show and participated in a 5K; both had more men than women in attendance. I'm also going to the car expo next month, by myself.

    It's very true that people are waiting longer to get hitched--there's less pressure to marry young, so they have more time to find someone they believe they'll be happy with.

  19. Sorry I'm late in commenting....

    When I was working on my Ph.D., my marriage was going through a very rocky period. It took a lot of doing but The Mister finally was able to verbalize that he was afraid that I was going to leave him after I finished. All of his buddies were telling him that I would dump him because he "only" has an MFA. I was saddened to find out that my supportive of my desire to earn a doctorate husband was having difficulty with the idea that I had a more advanced degree than him. All of these years later, though, I'm pretty sure he knows that I'm planning on sticking around for the long haul. We also find it funny when people just assume that HE is the one with Dr. in front of his name and not me.

    We're at the tail end of the Baby Boomer generation, so it was a natural progression for us to get married (even though I was an "old maid" of almost 26 at the time because we had dated for six years through college and The Mister going to grad school). The "hook-up" mentality horrifies me and, when I taught human development, my students and I would have long discussions about the negative impact of it. They would say, "But isn't this what feminists fought for? The right to do what I want with my body?" I had a hard time explaining that I didn't bash my head against the glass ceiling just so that they could go out and **** some stranger and get some disease. I bashed my head so that they could have the same opportunities to fulfill their potential as men.

    I think marriage is an amazing and beautiful journey between two people who love each other. I highly recommend it.

  20. DrJulieAnn--beautifully said.

  21. I agree with so much of your post Pam. Women have been given different opportunities and as someone said, they are marrying smarter because they have other things going on and now have the ability to "shop around" instead of worrying over becoming a spinster after they turn 24 or something ludicrous like that. Wow, that was one long sentence! :)

    I lived with my guy for about 6 or 7 years before we got married, so I don't believe it's always a matter of the guy getting the milk so why buy the cow. For us it was a matter of how to afford it. Finally, we had a wedding with four other people. That part you wrote about McMansions and fabulous weddings is so true. Many women I know want to outdo (sp?) each other's events. Stupid.

    I love telling my friends who always brag about their 30K weddings that my dress cost $13. And the whole shebang was less than 3K, I believe. Screw it.

    Very thoughtful post, and I agree with others who said that you are right to keep positive. It will happen for you, and it will be amazing.

  22. Amanda By Night-Thanks so much, and thank you for sharing your personal experience with us about living with a significant other and getting married...proof that living with a man before marriage does not mean he'll never ask you to marry him!

    I think an awful lot of the comments here, particularly by some of the guys, came across as downright angry and dejected--seems like a lot of them have their panties in a huge wad over the fact that women have choices today.


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