Marriage in the U.S. has fundamentally transformed over the past century. In general, women have far greater legal and economic power in marriages than they did just decades ago, and while it was once difficult for women to file for divorce, today women do so at twice the rate of men. What’s more, gay marriage has been legal in all 50 states since 2015.
Still, other aspects of marriage in the U.S. have remained remarkably unchanged. As journalist and Brookings Institution scholar Richard Reeves points out, a college-educated woman today is about just as likely to get married as her mother was — and even a bit more likely to stay married.
But the same is not true for Americans on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. As Reeves notes in this Big Think video, it’s important for all humans to have strong and meaningful relationships, whether within the context of marriage or not. The question is how to best ensure that the most people can build those relationships.
RICHARD REEVES: There's been a general decline in marriage - but behind that general decline is a more interesting story. I think it's important we try to understand why people do get married in the first place. For some people, of course, it's a religious matter - it's a covenantal relationship. I think for many more people there's an economic element to it. There's obviously the companionship and love. You fall in love and want to spend the rest of your life with someone, and so there's a romantic element to marriage. And another reason was because they got pregnant, the so-called, "shotgun wedding." There was a sense that if you were bringing a new life into the world, that that should be done within marriage. And there's probably a bit of status signaling to sometimes, and this may be more true today than it was in the past, that being married is a way of signaling success and status within a society. And so there's a blend of reasons between religion, romance, economics and status that have traditionally led people to the marital state.
The old model of marriage was, for the woman, it was an economic necessity particularly if she was gonna have children; to be with a man who would be the provider. And obviously that has hugely changed now. And for the man, it was a way to attach himself to children. If he was gonna have children he had to do that with a woman. She was going to raise the children, but if she was doing that, he had to provide for them too. And so there was this complementarity to that traditional view of marriage, which of course was founded on a very deep inequality between men and women. That was a driving force - the women's movement, including people, like Gloria Steinem, saying the point is to make marriage into a choice rather than a necessity, and to actually free women from the economic bondage, as they would've put it, of marriage. And that inequality is what's been successfully shattered, gladly, by the women's movement.
GLORIA STEINEM (1970): 'All of us must stand up together and say no more.'
REEVES: The very institution of marriage, which is central to human societies, has been fundamentally transformed. It's one engaged into, in very egalitarian principles; women have huge exit power. I think it's important to know that women are twice as likely as men to file for divorce. So women are using exit power from marriage, they're not stuck in bad marriages anymore de while you raise the kids," that's out of the window too. And so men's role in marriage and what it means to be "marriageable," to use a slightly ugly term from social science, is very different now for men from what it was in the past. And women are looking for something much more than just a paycheck. It's a bit like the kaleidoscope has been shaken, and the patterns haven't quite settled yet. You see lesbian and gay couples being able to opt into marriage. Within a couple of years of the Supreme Court Decision, we saw most three outta five lesbian and gay couples choosing to get married. You see a big class gap opening up: fewer working class and lower income Americans opting into the institution.
What we have is what my colleague Isabel Sawhill calls: "One of the main class fractures in American society." No one expected that it was Americans with the most choice and the most economic power, and especially the American women with the most choice and economic power, who would be the ones who were continuing to get married and stay married. There's a very slight decline for those say with four-year college degrees, but a really big decline for those with, with less education. The typical college-educated American woman is almost as likely to get married as her mother was, and if anything, a little bit more likely to stay married than her mother was. So, there really hasn't been much of a decline in marriage at all in the top ranks of American society. Meanwhile, significant declines lower down.
One of the other big changes has been a significant shift up in the age of first marriage, up to closer to 30 now. And I think about my parents who married at 21 having met at 17-pretty common. And actually as late as 1970, most women who went to college in the U.S., which was a minority of course, but most of them were married within a year of graduating college. That's a world that's very difficult to fathom now; where both men and women are entering the labor market, they're becoming economically successful, they're establishing themselves. In some ways, you do all that first, then you marry. And so, marriage has become more like the capstone. Increasingly, marriage is a signal of everything that has led up to the ceremony, rather than the beginning of a journey. It's as much the end of a journey to a position where people feel they can get married now.
We can't tell a single story about marriage in America anymore in the way we could just 40 years ago. We have to tell different stories based on class and race and geography. We've seen this real divide opening up in marriage in the U.S. Americans, now, are much less likely to see marriage as something that you have to do to to be a complete person or have a good life. Only 1 in 10 Americans now believe that it's essential to be married to have a fulfilling life. That's a huge cultural change. I think what we can safely say is that the model of marriage that was founded on economic dependency of women on men, is completely obsolete.
Now, I think we've created models of the family that are much more equal and much fairer, but maybe not quite as stable in many cases too. And the challenge we all face is to find ways to create more stability in our family life, but without sacrificing the goal of equality, which has animated the movement of the last 50 years. I think what we should be looking to is, how do we have strong relationships within which people can raise kids well? And if marriage has a part to play in that, then great. But there are alternative models around civil partnerships and so on, too. What matters is parenting. What matters is how we raise our kids. And I do think that there - it's quite possible to imagine a renewed future for marriage based around egalitarianism between men and women, but a shared commitment to kids - but I think that's for us to create. If marriage is to survive, it will be in a new model, not a restoration of the old model.