For the first time in more than one hundred years, the number of young adults (age twenty-five to thirty-four) who have never married has surpassed those who are. Of course, many of the unmarrieds are living with a partner without ceremony or license. The past taboo against that, at least for them, is ancient history.
And the divorce rate is declining. Is this good news or simply a reflection of the reality that fewer people are getting married?
And why should they?
Friends of mine have posed that question, not just young people but some in their middle years and even beyond and who are in committed relationships. I tell them about the legal protections afforded those who marry, and they listen, but they really want to talk about the more intangible benefits, or deficits, of marriage. They are wondering whether it will strengthen their treasured relationship or put it at risk? Will their bond become a bind?
Since I married over sixty years ago, this question never surfaced for me. But if urged to express an opinion, I opt for marriage, knowing well that it is my personal experience that leads me there. But I do wonder if it’s simply an outdated romantic concept on my part.
A vivid memory: Just a year or so after we married, I walked alone across campus in a wintry drizzle. Len had been remote for a few days and I, only twenty-one years old, assumed it was because he was unhappy with me. I was flooded with dread, not for the loss of our love, but rather wondering how I could possibly tell my parents if our marriage should fail. By evening, all was well again.
In the years when our children were young, even if Len and I were out of sync and one of us sometimes dejected, the thought of divorce was kept completely at bay. But the decades when our kids were in their teens, the 1960s and 1970s, the shifts in social conventions were profound, seismic. Casual sexual intimacy was becoming the norm, monogamy in marriage was called into question, and the divorce rate soaring. At some moments I mused that our marriage might feel like a cage, but was that very cage not also the structure that roused us to do the work to weather changing times?
Then after our last chick left the nest, we had twenty-seven years together. Would we have found a way to continue to support our ever-evolving relationship, if we had not been married? How can I really know? Happily, the love, joyous times and determination were always greater than the angst, and we kept our balance.
I’ve asked friends in their fifties and sixties, some married, others not, why they chose the path they did.
Said one: “We gave it serious thought and at first planned to marry, but in the end we knew that even though our love and trust was complete, trying to jointly manage some aspects of our lives as a married couple could cause serious conflict. Now, sixteen years later, the vows we exchanged over the kitchen table are just as enduring as if they were recorded at the courthouse.”
Said another: “We knew we wanted to openly declare our love and commitment to each other and celebrate that with our friends. Marriage was the right answer for us, and we never considered another course.”
Said another: “Wonderfully happy in my relationship, I agonized over the decision to marry, knowing I would first have to shake off the wrongheaded model of marriage handed down to me by my father. I finally did.”
My generation had no such choice. If we wanted to be together, it was either marriage or scandal. Now the boomers are well into their middle years. Having come of age during the sexual revolution, encouraged by many a pied piper to openly defy parental values, even the vast majority who reentered the mainstream likely feel free to shape their love relationships to their own design.
I suspect for many women, perhaps most, the evolutionary pull for the protected nest and gravity’s pull of aging gives the formality of marriage a certain import. And I suspect for many men, perhaps most, settling down and resisting the evolutionary pull to impregnate far and wide, actually offers greater freedom to relax and focus on a satisfying union.
Those who advocate for a return to family values as strictly defined in years past may rail at the erosion of the marriage rules, but the genie of free choice is smiling and will not likely slide back into the bottle.
………………………………………………………………………………………..and, an additional note: