Marriage is on the decline. That’s not breaking news, but a new report from the Pew Research Center sheds new light on the magnitude of the drop. In nearly three decades, the number of Americans between the ages of 25 and 54 who are married dropped from over two-thirds to roughly half. Four in 10 (38 percent) of this age group are now living “unpartnered” according to Pew’s analysis of the American Community Survey. But it’s not just fewer people getting married – we're also spending less of our lives being married. People are marrying later, and staying married for a shorter amount of time.
This trend has generated considerable concern. The list of purported advantages of marriage is long. A heap of academic work suggests that marriage reduces loneliness, improves mental health, provides greater financial stability, and increases longevity. What’s more, Brad Wilcox, the Director of the Institute for Family Studies, says the happiness gap between married and unmarried people is growing larger.
But things might not be quite so dire.
First, if marriage is so critical to our wellbeing, why have overall feelings of happiness remained relatively stable while the marriage rate has plummeted? According to Gallup, feelings of personal happiness have barely budged since the late 1940s. This suggests that in our personal lives we’re feeling as content today as we ever were.
One explanation for the discrepancy is that marriage is not causing happiness, but instead is simply associated with it. Social science researchers have produced a mountain of scholarship on marriage, yet much of this work relies on simple associations, says Peter McGraw, a behavioral economist, and producer of the podcast Solo, The single person’s guide to a remarkable life. “If you look at the longitudinal research the story is very different,” McGraw says. “The people who get married and stay married are happier prior to becoming married.”
This raises an interesting problem: People are not randomly assigned to get married. And being married is correlated with a lot of other important characteristics, such as age, race, educational background, personality type, and even religious beliefs. It’s not practical or often possible to account for all the ways that married and unmarried people are different.
Another potential problem is that marriage studies often exclude the formerly married. If we’re trying to assess the lifetime benefit of joining the institution, it would make sense to count all the people who ever took part in it. But for now, much of the work selects only on currently successful marriages. In doing so, we’re only accounting for a subset of this larger population and providing an incomplete picture of the overall marriage effect.
Finally, research on marriage may not account for the negative aspects of marital life. Social scientists spend a lot of time worrying about loneliness and for good reason. It can take a serious toll on our emotional wellbeing and personal health. But what about the opposite? For many Americans, the pandemic exacerbated a very real problem: not having enough time for yourself, a concept referred to as aloneliness. Married women with young children are especially susceptible. In a 2020 survey, 79 percent of married mothers reported feeling that they did not have enough time to themselves. Single women were far less likely to report this experience.
The balance of research seems to show marriage provides measurable health and social benefits even if it includes a sprinkling of caveats and exceptions. For instance, some research has shown marriage benefits men more than women, which might explain why women initiate nearly 70 percent of divorces. My own work on social relationships is consistent with the broader research on marriage. Americans who are married feel lonely less often, have more close friends, and are at least as active in their communities as single people. The marriage effect on political participation is more ambiguous. The marital advantage is apparent in some forms of political activity, such as contacting a representative or voting, but not all. Singles are more likely to show up to a protest or rally.
Attitudes about marriage are changing rapidly. In 2006, a majority (54 percent) of Americans said it was very important for couples to get married if they plan to spend the rest of their lives together. Now, only 38 percent express this view. Does this make marriage obsolete? Hardly. And even those who would promote relationship and lifestyle alternatives to marriage are not cheering for its demise.
The argument against marriage is not really an argument at all. It is instead a claim that possibilities for a good life exist outside of marriage. In a recent interview for The Atlantic, psychologist Bella DePaulo says the one-size-fits-all narrative needs updating. “When the prevailing unquestioned narrative maintains that there is only one way to live a good and happy life, too many people end up miserable,” she says.
For many singles, societal pressure is a real concern. A 2019 Pew study found that a majority (53 percent) of young singles reported feeling societal pressure to be in a committed relationship. Nearly half said their family was putting pressure on them.
As we wrestle with an evolving understanding of social relationships and family types, it might be time to rethink what it means to live a good life. Marriage can be great, particularly if you want to raise kids, but for an increasing number of Americans, it is not a central part of their lives or even an aspiration. “Part of the solution to loneliness is about changing the social narrative—that there is not a wrong way to live,” McGraw said. Well said.