Marriage in the United States has fundamentally changed in the last century. In general, women have much greater legal and economic power in marriages than decades ago, and while women found it difficult to file for divorce, they are now twice as likely to do so than men. Additionally, gay marriage has been legal in all 50 states since 2015.
However, other aspects of marriage in the United States have remained remarkably unchanged. As Brookings Institution researcher and journalist Richard Reeves points out, a college-educated woman today is just as likely to marry as her mother, and slightly more likely to stay married.
But that's not true for Americans at the bottom end of the socioeconomic scale. As Reeves states in this Big Think video, it's important for all people to have strong, meaningful relationships, whether they're related to marriage or not. The question is what is the best way to ensure that as many people as possible are able to build these relationships.
RICARDO REEVES:There was a general decline in marriage, but behind that general decline lies a more interesting story. I think it's important that we try to understand why people get married in the first place. For some people, of course, it's a religious thing, it's a covenant relationship. I think for many more people there is an economic component. Obviously there is the camaraderie and love. You fall in love and want to spend the rest of your life with someone, so there is a romantic element to marriage. And another reason was because they got pregnant, the so-called “shotgun wedding”. There was a feeling that if you bring a new life into the world, you should do it within marriage. And there's probably a bit of a status signal at times, and that may be more true today than in the past, that being married is a way of signaling success and status within a society. And so, there is a mixture of reasons between religion, romance, economics and status that have traditionally led people to get married.
The old model of marriage was an economic necessity for women, especially if they wanted children; to be with a man who would be the provider. And obviously that has changed a lot now. And for the man, it was a way to bond with the children. If he wanted to have children, he had to do it with a woman. She would raise the children, but if she did, he would have to take care of them too. And then there was this complementarity with this traditional vision of marriage, which of course was based on a very profound inequality between men and women. That was a driving force: the women's movement, including people like Gloria Steinem, who said it was about making marriage a choice, not a necessity, and really freeing women from the economic slavery of, as they say, marriage. And fortunately, this inequality was successfully overcome by the women's movement.
GLORIA STEIN (1970):"We must all stand up together and say no more."
REEVES:The very institution of marriage, central to human societies, has fundamentally changed. He is one who adheres to very egalitarian principles; Women have enormous outlet power. I think it's important to know that women are twice as likely to file for divorce as men. So women are using the power to get out of the marriage, they're no longer stuck in bad marriages while you're raising the kids," that's out the window as well. And so, the role of men in marriage and what it means Being "married", to use a somewhat ugly social scientific term, is very different for men today than it used to be, and women are looking for something much more than just a paycheck, it's a bit like the kaleidoscope has been would have shaken, and the bosses are heaven". It is still not entirely clear. You see that lesbian and gay couples can decide to get married. Within a few years of the Supreme Court's decision, we have seen that a majority of three out of five lesbian and gay couples have chosen to marry. They see a wide class gap widening: fewer low-income and working-class Americans are choosing to enter the institution.
My colleague Isabel Sawhill calls what we have: "One of the most important class divisions in American society." No one expected that it would be the Americans with the most choice and wealth, and especially the American women with the most choice and wealth, who would continue to marry and stay married. There's a very slight drop for those with, say, a four-year college degree, but a really big drop for those with less education. The typical American college woman is about as likely to marry as her mother, and if anything, she is more likely to stay married than her mother. So there really hasn't been much of a decline in marriage in the upper echelons of American society. Meanwhile, significant falls further down.
One of the other big changes was a significant change in the age of first marriage now closer to 30. And I think of my parents who got married at 21 and met at 17, which is quite normal. And in fact, until 1970, most college-going women in the United States were still going to college, which of course was a minority, but most of them were married within a year of graduating college. . This is a world that is very difficult to understand now; where men and women enter the labor market, achieve economic success, establish themselves. In a way, you do all that first and then you get married. And so marriage has become more like the cornerstone. More and more, the wedding is a sign of all that has led to the ceremony, rather than the beginning of a journey. It is also the end of a journey towards a position where people feel they can get married now.
We can't tell a single story about marriage in America like we could 40 years ago. We must tell different stories based on class, race, and geography. We've seen this real marital divide open up in Americans, they now see marriage much less often as something you have to do to be a whole person or have a good life. Only 1 in 10 Americans today believe that being married is important to living a fulfilling life. That's a big cultural shift. I think what we can say for sure is that the model of marriage based on the economic interdependence of women and men is completely out of date.
Well, I think we've created models of the family that are much more equal and much fairer, but maybe not as stable in many cases. And the challenge we all face is finding ways to bring more stability to our family lives without sacrificing the goal of equality that has animated the movement for the past 50 years. I think what we should look at is how we have strong relationships where people can raise children well. And if marriage is involved, then great. But there are also alternative models around civil unions, etc. What matters is parenthood. What matters is how we raise our children. And I think it's entirely possible to imagine a renewed future for marriage, based on equality between men and women but with a shared commitment to children, but I think we have to create that. If the marriage is to survive, it will be on a new model, not a restoration of the old model.