Susan Brown, left, and Wendy Manning are co-directors of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at BGSU.
Fewer American women are marrying and when they do they are considerably older than in the past, according to a new Bowling Green State University study.
The research shows that the marriage rate has declined by nearly 60 percent since 1970, a time associated with numerous social upheavals, including the women’s movement.
Susan Brown and Wendy Manning, co-directors of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at BGSU, note that the findings in “Marriage: More than a Century of Change” show that the rate of marriage is lower than it has been in about a century: There are 31.1 marriages for every 1,000 unmarried women, compared to 92.3 in 1920.
“Some decline isn’t always marriage forgone, but a delay in marriage,” Ms. Manning said. “We have some of the highest ages of first marriages in the United States.”
First marriages now occur at about age 27 for women and almost 29 for men. The delay is partly the result of the desire for solid economic footing first, and given the current economy, it takes longer to reach that goal.
“People with higher levels of education always waited longer to get married,” Ms. Manning said. “People with lower levels of education are now waiting longer to get married. In the 1950s, people married in their 20s and got economic footing after they got married.
“That pattern, or idea, of the Leave it to Beaver family doesn’t really exist anymore. It’s not a very viable option for very many people anymore because it takes so much more to maintain a middle class lifestyle; the middle class requires two wage earners,” she said. “It’s women and men who are waiting to tie the knot. Now, you almost have to have a proven track record and stable position with strong economic prospects before you get married.”
Indeed, relaxed social mores allow for ease to test the waters, and because more couples live together there is a decline in marriages.
“We do have some people doing research on the fear of divorce and that’s why people say they want to live with someone, to make sure they don’t get divorced. People take longer to commit to marriages but don’t take longer to commit to living together,” Ms. Manning said.
“Serial cohabitation” or the “relationship-go-round,” where couples enter and leave relationships, adds to the marriage decline. In those cases, she said couples may be seeking greater personal fulfillment or are hoping to be a good match with someone “before they commit to the long run.”
Ms. Brown offers an explanation for the increase in the proportion of women who are separated or divorced, which today is 15 percent while in 1920 it was 1 percent.
“The high rates of divorce in the U.S. reflect the individualized meaning of marriage in contemporary society. Marriage is about personal happiness and self-fulfillment. If we aren’t deriving individual satisfaction in our marriage, then divorce is viewed as an acceptable alternative,” she said.
So being “in love” does not solely make marriage work for couples today.
“Love is a fragile basis for marriage,” Ms. Brown added. “Also, we have a high bar for what it means to be a good spouse. For men, it’s no longer enough to be a good economic provider. Now, you have to be an active father and share housework. Similarly, it is no longer enough for women to be housewives and mothers. They also are increasingly expected to be equal contributors to the family economically.”
And while remarriage is not out of the question for the divorced, separated, or widowed, Ms. Brown said it is less common because of the wide range of choices today.
“Many of the benefits of marriage can be obtained through cohabitation. Couples can live together and bear and rear children outside the confines of legal marriage. Still others choose to remain single,” Ms. Brown said. “Marriage is no longer compulsory like it was in the 1950s.”
A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services grant supported the project. Researchers used data for it from the National Vital Statistics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Census Bureau.
Contact Rose Russell at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6178,