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Marriage Is Changing in the US, and Not Just for Gay Couples

marriage rates, gay marriage, marriage declining, divorce ratesBetween 1950 and 2011 the US marriage rate fell “a stunning 66 percent,” writes Stephanie Coontz in The New York Times. “If such a decline continued,” she adds, “there would be no women getting married by 2043!” One presumes there would be no men getting married either, but that’s of course if we’re only talking heterosexual marriages. Now that DOMA has been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, and new states secure marriage rights for all year after year, it’s hard to predict precisely how the US marriage rate will be affected in years to come.

But the declining marriage rate in the US doesn’t tell the whole truth about what’s going on with marriage even among straight couples. “People are not giving up on marriage,” Coontz says. “They are simply waiting longer to tie the knot. Because the rate of marriage is calculated by the percentage of adult women (over 15) who get married each year, the marriage rate automatically falls as the average age of marriage goes up. In 1960, the majority of women were already married before they could legally have a glass of Champagne at their own wedding.”

What disturbs me more than a declining marriage rate (which, truthfully, doesn’t disturb me at all) is the fact that the rate of marriage is calculated to include 15-year-old girls getting married! Especially since in most states 15 is younger than the legal age of sexual consent, and in most states teens would need permission to marry at that age. What is encouraging, however, is that studies have shown that entering a first marriage later in life produces healthy unions that are less likely to result in divorce. (It should be noted that divorce rates are at their lowest level since 1970, as well.)

Another interesting marital tidbit: In the 1960s, less-educated and poorer women were more likely to marry than wealthy, educated ones. Today, “Women in the top 15 percent of earners are now more likely to be married than their lower-earning counterparts.” That begs the question, what kind of security, if any, does marriage provide? Marriage seems to be less about providing financial security for women and more about ensuring partnership between like-minded, financially and socially stable people. But are poor women left behind to fend for themselves? And is marriage the answer to their problems?

Last summer, The New York Times published a lengthy piece about the marital divide between rich and poor, which has been widely criticized. Bryce Covert at Forbes says, “… marriage is not the all-powerful salve for poverty that some make it out to be. Public policy makes an enormous difference in improving single parents’ lives.” And the lives of poor folks without children, as well.

Finally, let’s not ignore the fact that many people of marrying age aren’t interested in marriage, period. Comedian Matt Ruby wrote in a blog post yesterday, “Why is the government involved in [marriage] at all? Could it be that the government-industrial complex thinks marriage (and home ownership too) is a good way to lock people in place and prevents uprisings so it’s decided to offer incentives that help convince people to surrender to a cultural norm that involves sacrificing freedom and participating in the charade that lifelong monogamy is natural/desirable while simultaneously ignoring the fact that marriage was actually created centuries ago as a system to bind women to men in order to guarantee paternity? Nah, that couldn’t be it.”

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