Out Of Wedlock

Q&A

A Hopkins sociologist and authority on marriage says that statistics showing declining numbers of married people do not tell the whole story of a still-thriving institution

Q&a--andrew Cherlin

January 28, 2007|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun Staff

The news that over half of the women in the United States are not living with their spouse made the headlines. What has happened to the institution of marriage?

According to Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at the Johns Hopkins University, a lot has happened to marriage over a long period of time that has led to these statistics.

But interestingly, he finds that, if anything, the prestige of the institution has actually increased, even as examples of marriages deemed successful in previous generations - long and stable - have grown scarcer.

Census bureau figures show that of the 117 million women age 16 and up, 63 million are married. But when you subtract the 3.1 million who are legally separated and an additional 2.4 million who are not living with their husbands for one reason or another, you come up with 51 percent of women living single.

"I think this is a turning point of sorts in the long trend we have seen since the 1960s of marriage becoming a less important part of family life," Cherlin says of that statistic. "But it is not fading away."

Cherlin arrived at Hopkins 30 years ago intending to focus on problems in urban areas.

"I started looking at families and cities and that led to a close examination of how the American family is changing," he says.

A graduate of Yale with a doctorate from the University of California, Los Angeles, Cherlin has written three books on marriage and divorce and authored a standard textbook in the field, Public and Private Families: An Introduction, now in its fourth edition.

Cherlin says his own history - married, divorced, a decade as a single father of two, a second marriage - is illustrative of the changes in this venerable institution during the last few decades. So why is it that more women are living without spouses than with them? What's happened to marriage?

While it is true that people are spending more of their lives outside of marriage than ever, it is also true that 80 to 90 percent of all Americans will marry at some point in their lives.

One of the main reasons you see more women living without spouses is simply because we are living longer than we used to. There are many more elderly widows than was the case a half century ago. So, part of what is driving these statistics is not what young people are doing, it is how long widows are living after their spouse's death.

The bottom line is that people are spending more time outside of marriage for a variety of reasons: They are marrying later, they are living with someone without marrying them, they are breaking up marriages if they are unhappy, and when their spouses die, the surviving partner is living longer. You put all of those together and you get close to 50 percent of women unmarried. So is marriage less important than it used to be?

I don't think so. Marriage is still highly valued and important to people so they now take their time in doing it. And they feel justified, if they are not satisfied in a marriage, with leaving it.

Marriage is an important symbol to people of achieving a successful life. More than ever, they want their marriage to be a celebration. They want a big church or synagogue wedding. They want to show others that they have made it as adults.

When people get married these days, they tell sociologists like me that they do not want to "go downtown" for their wedding, they don't want to get married by some justice of the peace. They want that celebration for family and friends, a public announcement.

As an important symbol, marriage is prestigious, something to feel proud of, something the couple is doing even though they don't feel they have to be married, even though if they feel unhappy in a marriage they can leave it.

So I think Americans value marriage quite highly. They also value their own personal satisfaction. Sometimes those two can come into conflict. Is this a different role than marriage used to have in people's lives?

Marriage is less important economically than it used to be. It is now more of an achievement, showing people that you have made it. It used to be the case that it was hard to survive as an adult unless you were married. A single parent on a farm, whether male or female, was in big trouble.

A hundred or even 50 years ago, you needed to be married to have a decent standard of living. Now, marriage is more of a choice, not an economic necessity. It is still the case that dual-earner married couples are the wealthiest, but it is still possible to be unmarried and have a good standard of living.

In the 1950s, half of all women married as teenagers. It was something they did quickly and once married, they stayed married. People took a different view of marriage. They took pride in playing the roles of breadwinner and homemaker, of being a good husband or wife, and were less oriented toward their own individual satisfaction. That made it easier for them to stay together.

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