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Old 11-22-2010, 07:38 PM   #1
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Is marriage becoming obsolete?

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Is marriage becoming obsolete?

By Stephanie Coontz, Special to CNN

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
40 percent of adults in study say marriage becoming obsolete, yet most say they want to marry
Stephanie Coontz asks, why the disconnect?
She cites changed gender roles, raised expectations for financial stability in marriage
Coontz: Widening economic gap in U.S. is reflected in marriage gap

(CNN) -- According to a TIME/Pew research poll released last week, 40 percent of Americans believe that marriage is becoming obsolete, up from just 28 percent in 1978.

In that same poll, only one in four unmarried Americans say they do not want to get married. And among currently married men and women, 80 percent say their marriage is as close as or closer than their parents' marriage.

These seemingly contradictory responses reflect the public's recognition of a new and complex reality. On the one hand, marriage as a voluntary relationship based on love and commitment is held in higher regard than ever, with more people saying that love is essential to marriage (Consider that in 1967, two-thirds of college women said they'd consider marrying a man they didn't love if he met other criteria, such as offering respectability and financial security.)

But as an institution that regulates people's lives, marriage is no longer the social and economic necessity it once was. People can construct successful lives outside marriage in ways that would have been very difficult to manage 50 years ago, and they have a far greater range of choices about whether to marry, when to marry, and how to organize their marriages.

This often makes them more cautious in committing to marriage and more picky about their partners than people were in the past.

In the 1950s, when half of all American women were already married in their teens, marriage was an almost mandatory first step toward adulthood. It was considered the best way to make a man grow up, and in an economy where steady jobs and rising real wages were widely available, that often worked.

For a woman, marriage was deemed the best investment she could make in her future, and in a world where even college-educated women earned less than men with a only a high school education, that often worked for her too.

Marriage was also supposed to be the only context in which people could regularly have sex or raise children. Divorced or unmarried men were routinely judged less qualified for bank loans or job promotions, sexually active single women were stigmatized, and out-of-wedlock children had few legal rights.

Today, however, there are plenty of other ways to grow up, seek financial independence, and meet one's needs for companionship and sex. So what might have seemed a "good enough" reason to enter marriage in the past no longer seems sufficient to many people.

Marriage has become another step, perhaps even the final rather than the first step, in the transition to adulthood -- something many people will not even consider until they are very sure they are capable of taking their relationship to a higher plane.

Couples increasingly want to be certain, before they marry, that they can pay their bills, that neither party is burdened by debt, that each has a secure job or a set of skills attesting to their employability. Many are also conscious that as rigid gender roles erode, marriage demands more negotiation and relationship skills than in the past.

They often want firsthand experience with how their partner will behave in an intimate relationship, which is why the majority of new marriages come after a period of cohabitation, according to census figures.

These higher expectations are good news for many marriages. People who can meet the high bar that most Americans now feel is appropriate for the transition to marriage -- people who delay marriage to get an education, who have accumulated a nest egg or established themselves in a secure line of work -- typically have higher quality marriages than other Americans, research shows, and their divorce rates have been falling for the past 25 years.

But these higher expectations pose difficulties for individuals with fewer interpersonal and material resources. Over the past 30 years, job opportunities and real wages have declined substantially for poorly educated men, making them less attractive marriage partners for women. When such men do find stable employment, they often tend to be more interested in a woman with good earnings prospects than someone they have to rescue from poverty.

Today, several studies have shown, economic instability is now more closely associated with marital distress than it used to be.

If a low-income woman finds a stable, employed partner, she will likely be better off by marrying. But if the man she marries loses his job or is less committed and responsible than she had hoped, she may end up worse off than before -- having to support a man who can't or won't pull his own weight.

So the widening economic gap between haves and have-nots that America has experienced in recent decades is increasingly reflected in a widening marriage gap as well. Today two-thirds of people with a college degree are married, compared with less than half of those with a high school degree or less.

Those who begin married life with the most emotional and material advantages reap the greatest gains in those same areas from marriage. The very people who would benefit most from having a reliable long-term partner are the ones least likely to be able to find such a partner or sustain such a relationship.

This is a troubling trend that deserves attention from policy-makers. But the problem does not lie in a lack of family values. The poor value marriage just as highly as anyone else, and they may value children even more. Unfortunately, they are now less and less likely to believe they will be able to live up to the high expectations of modern partnerships, even if they are in love.

There is no easy fix for this problem. But the good news is that families still matter to Americans, including those who are not married.

According to the Pew poll, 76 percent of Americans say family is the most important, meaningful part of their life. Seventy-five percent say they are "very satisfied" with their family life. And 85 percent say that the family they live in today, whatever its form, is as close as or closer than the family in which they grew up. We have a lot of challenges ahead of us, but that's comforting news.


Editor's note: Stephanie Coontz teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and is director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families. Her latest book, "A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s," will be published in January by Basic Books.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephanie Coontz.
http://www.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/11/2...ex.html?hpt=C1
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Old 11-22-2010, 08:37 PM   #2
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Interesting that they say the well off are more likely to marry. From what I've seen, it's the poor who get married more out of necessity and old fashioned tradition. The more 'affluent' I know are less likely to marry and merge their money and stuff for possible split up later. Maybe they are only counting the ones who are currently not married, and some of the lower income people had been in the past but were now living together in fear of making another mistake.
Overall I do agree marriage is becoming obsolete. Ironic when nobody wants to get married the gays still do and people won't let them.
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Old 11-22-2010, 11:40 PM   #3
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Obsolete probably isn't the right word...usually that implies replacement by some particular alternative that most find superior, and none seems to have emerged at this point, statistically speaking. It's more that it's no longer the taken-for-granted adult destiny it once was.

Personally, I'm a lot more concerned about the fact that 25% (and counting) of American children are being raised by single parents, and about the general decline in community ties (which IMO makes everyone more vulnerable, but especially children of poor, minority single parents), than I am about whether adults pursue their needs for intimacy in marital form, per se.

BTW, here's the full report (first page of 6): The Decline of Marriage And Rise of New Families | Pew Social & Demographic Trends
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Old 11-22-2010, 11:47 PM   #4
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I can't speak for others. I married. Simply because, I wanted to. I am still with my husband of almost twenty eight years. Commitment and family are very important to me.
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Old 11-22-2010, 11:58 PM   #5
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I think the title's sort of misleading. Judging from the way I read that article, it doesn't sound like marriage is becoming "obsolete", rather more that it's just going through another change in the way it's done, just like it has every other time throughout history.

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Divorced or unmarried men were routinely judged less qualified for bank loans or job promotions
I honestly didn't know this. Wow. Rigid much? I mean, I guess I can understand in a way being cautious about working with divorced people, because of the money they rack up dealing with the divorce itself (which can put them in debt), but still...to assume you're automatically less qualified for such things simply because you're divorced or not married isn't fair. But then again, given the time period that was happening in, guess it shouldn't be much of a surprise.

On the one hand I like that people are starting to be more careful about what they're looking for when it comes to entering into a marriage. This isn't a decision to take lightly, and it's good that people are starting to focus more on making sure their personal stuff is all together before bringing someone else into the picture and possibly burdening them with their issues, or vice versa. And if you and your partner are both looking for the same things in terms of stability, that could bode well for your life together and for any future family you may have.

On the other hand, however, you can plan all you want, and sometimes things still fall apart, so it's hard to always say, "Well, I'm not getting married until x, y, and z happens." If your criteria is TOO strict, either your expectations are unrealistically high or you're using that as a means to hide your own fears/worries about marriage. That's my theory, anyway.

As for the issue of the poorer people not being able to live up to the expectations about marriage nowadays, well, the only expectations you should have to worry about are the ones you've set for yourself, or the expectations of your intended. Everyone's views on the subject are different. I do feel, though, that ultimately the best barometer to whether or not you should marry is how much you love each other and if you can imagine yourselves being together for the rest of your lives. I think that has to be in place first, because once that's established, a couple can be able to navigate all the tough issues-financial, educational, etc.-a lot better together.

Also, to Butterscotch's point about gay marriage.

Angela
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Old 11-23-2010, 12:24 PM   #6
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Interesting that they say the well off are more likely to marry. From what I've seen, it's the poor who get married more out of necessity and old fashioned tradition. The more 'affluent' I know are less likely to marry and merge their money and stuff for possible split up later. Maybe they are only counting the ones who are currently not married, and some of the lower income people had been in the past but were now living together in fear of making another mistake.
Overall I do agree marriage is becoming obsolete. Ironic when nobody wants to get married the gays still do and people won't let them.
I agree, it is ironic. I have no problem with any couple who wants to get married. Gay or straight.
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Old 11-23-2010, 12:51 PM   #7
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According to the Pew poll, 76 percent of Americans say family is the most important, meaningful part of their life. Seventy-five percent say they are "very satisfied" with their family life. And 85 percent say that the family they live in today, whatever its form, is as close as or closer than the family in which they grew up. We have a lot of challenges ahead of us, but that's comforting news.
This statistic seems to minimize whatever shock value the MSM is trying to exploit from the study.

If anything, I think the article is more telling about the growing gap between the classes -- and the cost of the stress of survival if you're poor -- than it does about the state of marriage.
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Old 11-23-2010, 04:41 PM   #8
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In a personal sense, my partner and I certainly consider marriage obsolete and irrelevant (though I agree the title is a bit misleading). As atheists, we have no religious reason to marry. Neither of us have cultural traditions that make a marriage appealling. Australia offers de facto couples the same rights as married couples, so we don't even have any compelling legal or financial reason to marry. To us, it's just a meaningless piece of paper accompanied by a pointless and financially onerous ceremony. I emphasise to us; if other people find personal significance in marriage, cool, but it's an irrelevancy and an archaic social tradition as far as our own relationship goes.

It's funny - with just one exception, all the couples in my immediate family that have managed to stay together for more than two decades have never married.

I'd like to make a couple of direct comments on the article too:

Quote:
Marriage has become another step, perhaps even the final rather than the first step, in the transition to adulthood -- something many people will not even consider until they are very sure they are capable of taking their relationship to a higher plane.

Couples increasingly want to be certain, before they marry, that they can pay their bills, that neither party is burdened by debt, that each has a secure job or a set of skills attesting to their employability.
I find the very idea insulting that marriage is, in any way or form, a step in the transition to adulthood or a means to take a relationship to a higher plane. I am less of an adult or have a lesser relationship because my partner and I see no significance in a piece of paper? Come on now.

And, uh, I think de facto couples want to be just as certain of their financial security as married couples.
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Old 11-23-2010, 05:51 PM   #9
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Marriage has nothing to do with any sort of affirmation of "adulthood". That's a very archaic notion.
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Old 11-23-2010, 06:25 PM   #10
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I find the very idea insulting that marriage is, in any way or form, a step in the transition to adulthood or a means to take a relationship to a higher plane. I am less of an adult or have a lesser relationship because my partner and I see no significance in a piece of paper? Come on now.
I'm not sure why it's insulting to say that there's a significant difference between two people who are casually (or even not-casually) dating, and two people who have made a legal commitment to each other.

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And, uh, I think de facto couples want to be just as certain of their financial security as married couples.
Don't disagree, but married couples whose finances are commingled have a trickier challenge than those who don't, and I'm going to take a wild guess and say that married couples have a greater tendency to pool their money than those who aren't.

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Marriage has nothing to do with any sort of affirmation of "adulthood". That's a very archaic notion.
Marriage, more often than not, usually leads to children, so I'm not sure it's archaic. When I was single, I only had to look out for and take care of myself. When I got married, I had to look out and take care of someone else. That's a responsibility that's only grown with children. I do think there is a certain maturity that only comes with and as a result of marriage. It is, after all, why we let adults get married, but not children.
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Old 11-23-2010, 06:46 PM   #11
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I'm not sure why it's insulting to say that there's a significant difference between two people who are casually (or even not-casually) dating, and two people who have made a legal commitment to each other.
Put aside casual dating, the couples who live together in common-law relationships have, de facto, made those same legal commitments to each other.
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Old 11-23-2010, 06:51 PM   #12
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Marriage, more often than not, usually leads to children, so I'm not sure it's archaic. When I was single, I only had to look out for and take care of myself. When I got married, I had to look out and take care of someone else. That's a responsibility that's only grown with children. I do think there is a certain maturity that only comes with and as a result of marriage. It is, after all, why we let adults get married, but not children.
Well that's your experience and that's great. But I know for sure that there are plenty of selfish and immature spouses and parents. Marriage or parenthood do not automatically lead to maturity, selflessness, or a sense of responsibility. If it did well there would be more successful and long lasting marriages (with less infidelity), and better parenting.
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Old 11-23-2010, 06:54 PM   #13
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When I was single, I only had to look out for and take care of myself. When I got married, I had to look out and take care of someone else.
Except that you conveniently omit a wide range of relationships between those two extremes.

And I am sure that you are smart enough to know that you don't need to have a marriage certificate and a ring to look out for and take care of someone else (whatever that means for you).
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Old 11-23-2010, 08:18 PM   #14
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Except that you conveniently omit a wide range of relationships between those two extremes.
Not conveniently avoiding anything -- however, only one type of relationship carries an explicit legal obligation, complete with legal ramifications if one party is unable to meet (or wishes to get out of) said obligations.

Marriages, like automobiles, guns, and machinery, are licensed -- presumably, to try to ensure a certain degree of responsibility on the part of those who want to enter into said institution. And the fact that so many people try to avoid it (or get out of it) could be seen as a sign of its importance.
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Old 11-23-2010, 10:36 PM   #15
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Not conveniently avoiding anything -- however, only one type of relationship carries an explicit legal obligation, complete with legal ramifications if one party is unable to meet (or wishes to get out of) said obligations.
You clearly didn't read the part of his post where he got rights equal to marriage without actually marrying.
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