Magazine article USA TODAY

The State of Our Unions. (Life in America)

Magazine article USA TODAY

The State of Our Unions. (Life in America)

Article excerpt

EACH YEAR, the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University publishes an assessment of the health of marriage and marital relationships in America entitled "The State of Our Unions." It is based on a thorough review and evaluation of the latest statistics and research findings about marriage, family, and courtship trends, plus our own special surveys. For this year's report, we commissioned the Gallup Organization to do a national representative telephone survey of people in their 20s; 1,003 men and women were interviewed. The kinds of questions to which we sought answers included: Are young adults interested in getting married? What traits are they looking for in a marriage partner? How do their attitudes about marriage differ from those of their parents? Here are our findings:

Americans haven't given up on marriage as a cherished ideal. Indeed, most continue to prize and value it as an important life goal, and the vast majority (an estimated 85%) will marry at least once in a lifetime. Almost all couples enter marriage with a strong desire and determination for a lifelong, loving partnership, and this desire may even be increasing among the young. Since the 1980s, the percentage of high school seniors who say that having a good marriage is extremely important to them as a life goal has gone up, though only slightly.

Nevertheless, in recent decades, Americans have become less likely to marry. This is indicated by a marriage-rate decline of more than one-third between 1970 and the mid 1990s. The number of marriages per 1,000 unmarried women 15 and over was 76.5 in 1970, dropping to 49.7 in 1996. This is due partly to the delaying of first marriages until older ages, as the median age at first marriage went from 20 for females and 23 for males in 1960 to about 25 and 27, respectively, today. Other factors accounting for the decline of the marriage rate are the growth of living together outside of marriage and small decreases in the tendency of people ever to marry and of divorced persons to remarry.

Moreover, when men and women do marry, they are entering a union that looks very different from the one that their parents or grandparents did. We have identified five areas in which major changes have occurred:

As a couples relationship, marriages today are more likely to be broken by divorce than by death. Americans may marry, but they have a hard time achieving successful marriages. Although the divorce rate has dropped slightly since the early 1980s, when it was close to 50% of all marriages, it remains between 40 and 45%.

Divorce has become a pervasive reality in the lives of today's young people, as well as an ever-present theme in the books, music, and movies of the youth culture. The specter of divorce is widespread, with more than half of the twentysomethings interviewed in our Gallup survey agreeing that "one sees so few good or happy marriages today that one questions it as a way of life." Among single young adults, the same percentage said that one of their biggest concerns about marriage is "the possibility that it will end in divorce."

As a rite of passage, marriage is losing much of its social importance and ritual significance. It is no longer the standard pathway from adolescence to adulthood for young adults. It is far less likely than in the past to be closely associated with the timing of the first sexual intercourse for young women, and less likely to be the first living together union for young couples. Over half of all first marriages today are preceded by unmarried cohabitation, compared to virtually none early in the 20th century. Young adults are postponing marriage until their middle to late 20s, and most women as well as men have established themselves in jobs and careers before they marry. They spend a long period as never-married, but sexually active, singles in a new stage of life we have described as one of "sex without strings, relationships without rings. …

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