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First Comes Love then Comes Marriage? The Evolution of Marriage in the United States

bhealy's picture

First Comes Love then Comes Marriage?

The Evolution of Marriage in the United States




 In a recent Pew Research Center survey entitled "The Decline of Marriage and Rise of New Families," the marriage revolution over the past 50 years is examined through the responses of 2,691 surveyed adults. From the title it is clear that the view of marriage in the United States has changed dramatically over time, but it also brings into question the ways in which the definition and expectations of marriage have changed over time. A frequently contested term, often associated with religion and a preoccupation with male and female counterparts, marriage today represents a social statement, far from its roots of being a private contract. Merriam Webster defines marriage as "the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex as husband or wife in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law," but an alternate definition that is given by Merriam Webster is "the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage." While there are scores of definitions used to defend heterosexual marriage, homosexual marriage, polygamy, and virtually any other institution joining at least two people, I believe that this definition serves as a good jumping off point for examining the ways in which marriage has changed since 1960 and how alternatives to marriage are sought after more than ever.


Image 2

Image 2



In the Pew survey, the marital statuses of those surveyed recently are compared to the marital statuses of those surveyed in 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, and 2000 (See Image 2). The results representing "today" are from 2008, and indicate that 52% of those who responded identified themselves as married. In contrast, in 1960 72% declared that they were married. From 1960 to 2008 there has been a steady decline in the percentage of the population who actually marry, with 27% of those surveyed in 2008 admitting that they have never been married. This may not seem like a drastic number, especially considering that the people surveyed were above eighteen and could have still been teenagers, but in 1960 only 15% of those surveyed had never been married. The differences are extraordinary, and cause me to wonder exactly what has happened to the idea of marriage over the last fifty years. While its definition has certainly changed over time, I believe that how people view marriage has also dramatically affected the state of our relationships.

The changing definition of marriage is examined in a Time Magazine article written by Tamala M. Edwards, entitled "Who Needs a Husband?" Edwards introduces the idea that our ideals and expectations going into marriage today are vastly different from those of our mothers or our grandmothers in the last century. Edwards quotes Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, a co-director at the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, who says, "marriage is not what it used to be, getting stability or economic help. Marriage has become this spiritualized thing, with labels like 'best friend' and 'soul mate." Edwards agrees and refers to Whitehead's remarks as "lofty standards" and concludes that "the marriage pendulum has swung from the hollowly pragmatic to an unhealthy romantic ideal." Have the goals of marriage really changed over time? The independence of women over the latter part of the twentieth century, many say, is to blame. Edwards dives deeper into the "pragmatic" aspect of marriage in the past, claiming that "previous generations of women made their barter as much around the need for male protection and financial help as affection." Stephanie Coontz takes this claim that much further and outlines the evolution from women depending on men for security and benefits to depending on themselves. In the New York Times article "Taking Marriage Private," Coontz examines the role of the government in marriages over time, especially in regards to marriage licenses. In the mid-twentieth century, marriage licenses were like gold: they determined whether one's family received their health insurance benefits, they were required to disclose medical information, and enabled social security benefits to be distributed to families. Coontz states that "in the 1950s, using the marriage license as a shorthand way to distribute benefits and legal privileges made some sense because almost all adults were married. Cohabitation and single parenthood by choice were very rate." With the laws about inheritance and benefits changing, marriage became slightly less necessary, prompting a surge in single motherhood and unmarried cohabitation.

The independence many women experienced as a result of changing laws and increased security for their children has been attributed to the shockingly high divorce rates over the last fifty years. Granted, divorce wasn't an option for most people prior to this survey, but the emergence of no-fault divorces in the 1970s ushered in a steady rise in divorce rates in the United States. In "Divorce, No-Fault Style," a different New York Times article by Stephanie Coontz, divorce prior to no-fault is explained: "Before no-fault, most states required one spouse to provide evidence of the other spouse's wrongdoing (like adultery or cruelty) for a divorce to be granted, even if both partners wanted out." Once no-fault divorce was introduced, divorce rates increased steadily for many years, however Coontz explains that "the national divorce rate has fallen, from about 23 divorces per 1,000 married couples in 1979 to under 17 per 1,000 in 2005." While this may be the case, the data from the Pew Research Center indicate that divorce rates have been increasing among those they have surveyed. Nowadays, Lisa Selin Davis writes in "All But the Ring: Why Some Couples Don't Wed," "marriage can always end, and the protection it once offered offspring is now covered by child-support laws." Even over the past thirty years there has been a noticeable shift in the independence of women from men in their lives: Tamala Edwards tells the story of Barbara Baldwin, the director of Planned Parenthood in Tennessee and how "when (she) divorced her husband in 1981, she needed her father's help before anyone would give the then 29-year-old single mother a car loan and a credit card."


"The fundamental question we must ask ourselves at the beginning of the century is this: What is the purpose of marriage? Is it...simply an institution that has the capacity to increase the pleasure of the adults who enter into it? If so, we might as well hold the wake now: there probably aren't many people whose idea of 24-hour-a-day good times consists of being yoked to the same romantic partner, through bouts of stomach flu and depression, financial setbacks and emotional upsets, until after many a long decade, one or the other eventually dies."

- Caitlin Flanagan from "Is There Hope for the American Marriage?" -


Image 3

Image 3 


     The Pew Research Center survey on the decline of marriage helps open a discussion on the ways in which marriage has changed, from the fewer numbers of people getting married to the steady percentage of marriages that end in divorce. While a large portion of the survey's results indicate that marriage is becoming obsolete and that there are many more viable options available for women compared to the twentieth century, here is a bright spot: Out of all married individuals who participated in the Pew survey, 51% reported that their relationship with their spouse/partner is closer than that of their parents (See Image 3). 43% deduced that their marriage was about the same as their parents, and only 5% reported that their marriage was less close than their parents'. Perhaps this is a testament to how the evolution of marriage is perhaps heading in the direction of creating stronger, more fulfilling marriages- with the option of divorce on the table, with children's rights and benefits secure, maybe the marriages that weather the storm of "stomach flu and depression, financial setbacks and emotional upsets" have the potential to make it longer than their predecessors. Perhaps, through all of the marriage turmoil of the latter half of the twentieth century, marriage has been evolving into a new, albeit different, species.






Works Cited:


Coontz, Stephanie. "Divorce, No-Fault Style." New York Times. 16 June 2010. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <>.

Coontz, Stephanie. "Taking Marriage Private." New York Times. 26 June 2007. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <>.

Davis, Lisa Selin. “All But the Ring: Why Some Couples Don’t Wed.” Time Magazine. 25 May 2009. <,9171,1898346,00.html>.

Edwards, Tamala M. “Who Needs a Husband?” Time Magazine. 05 July 2007. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <,9171,997804,00.html>.

Flanagan, Caitlin. "Is There Hope for the American Marriage?" Time Magazine. 02 July 2009. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <,8599,1908243-1,00.html>.

"Marriage." Def. 1. Merriam Webster. Web. 12 Mar. 2011. <>.

The Decline of Marriage and Rise of New Families. Pew Social Trends. Pew Research Center, 18 Nov. 2010. Web. 12 Mar. 2011.



Anne Dalke's picture

Marriage, Evolving?

It's been fascinating to me to see the range of topics in "social evolution" tackled by you and your classmates this month; I certainly wasn't expecting an essay about the evolution of marriage!

What you trace here is a 50-year change: a steady decline in the percentage of the population who actually marry, along with (a probably related?) development of those marriages being closer, stronger and more fulfilling. But what makes this change "evolutionary"? In other words, what contribution might this particular account make to our larger class project of "thinking evolutionarily"?

If you want to go on thinking about these questions, here are a few suggestions. Your use of "history" puzzles me a bit this time, as it did in your last paper, which also gestured towards "earlier times" and institutional forms. On the one hand, you say that "marriage today represents a social statement, far from its roots of being a private contract"; but later you say that no-fault divorce laws played a role in a shift from economic to spiritual, from pragmatic to romantic modes of marriage. That sounds to me like a shift from social to private, not the other way around (?). Why does your account start in 1960? What of the eons of marriage before that?

I've used marriage sometimes as a topic in the core course in gender studies. If you want to keep on reading, beyond the level of work offered in the popular press, check out (for instance)
Laura Kipnis. "Adultery." Critical Inquiry 24 (Winter 1998): 289-327.
"Can Marriage be Saved? A Forum." The Nation 279:1 July 5, 2004.
Michael Warner. Chapter Two: "What's Wrong with Normal?" The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics and the Ethics of Queer Life. New York: Free Press, 1999. 41-80.
Andrew Sullivan. "What We Do" and "The Conservative Case." Same-Sex Marriage: Pro and Con, A Reader. Ed. Andrew Sullivan. New York: Vintage, 1997.