The Unspun Truth About Marriage in the U.S.

June 25, 2013

It’s very difficult to get accurate information about marriage trends in America today. Or at least to get it free of political spin.

In one camp we have feminists exhorting women to prioritize career and delay marriage well into their 30s. They want you to Lean In and preferably skip the babymaking altogether. They’re invested in a narrative that says alternative family arrangements, e.g. “friend families,” are every bit as personally rewarding and beneficial to society as traditional families. They’re not worried about the future of marriage, and they welcome new role definitions.

In the other camp we have social conservatives who believe “the earlier, the better” when it comes to marriage. They don’t see  any value in education for females, who should instead be focusing on fulfilling traditional housewifely duties. They view marriage as being in serious trouble, with rates rapidly declining and the wrong people reproducing.

MRAs are also in the “marriage is dead” camp, being invested in the idea of a marriage strike as a rebuttal to feminism. They exude a sort of sadistic glee when the data is spun as indicating declining male interest in marriage.

Who’s right?

Stephanie Coontz’ latest article, The Distestablishment of Marriagesummarizes much of the data and research of recent years. Her citations, along with other recent findings, support the narrative that marriage rates are not declining (much). Rather, people are postponing marriage, viewing it as a “capstone of adulthood” rather than a launch into adulthood. This means that overall, people will spend fewer years of their lives being married, assuming static life expectancy. Whether you think that is a good or bad thing depends on your point of view. However, I find little support for the claims that men (or women) are reluctant to marry. 

Here are the facts, unspun:

The Marriage Rate Data

Coontz highlights the research of sociologist Philip Cohen, who has noted that the marriage rate has declined 66% (!!!) since 1950. Cohen compares the number of marriages each year in the U.S. per 1,000 unmarried women. In 1950, there were 90 marriages per year, but by 2011 the number had dropped to 31. At the present rate of decline, according to Cohen, no women will be getting married in the year 2043.

Coontz points out that the marriage rate automatically falls as the average age of marriage increases. In 1960, the majority of women were married before the age of 21. Today the average female age at marriage is 27. The table below shows the dramatic shift toward more 30-something marriages occurring during the past 50 years.

% Married after 30FemalesMales


In terms of marital longevity, the optimal age for women to marry is 25, which decreases the risk of divorce by 24% compared to women 18 or less.

According to Andrew Cherlin, a professor at Johns Hopkins and author of The Marriage Go-Round, the CDC’s National Survey of Family Growth reflects the postponement:

 % Married, 15-44


The decline may have stopped in recent decades, Mr. Cherlin said, as lifetime marriage rates have changed little since the 1990s.

The figure of 4 in 10 women currently married may seem stark, demographers say, but it is simply a reflection of the fact that women are marrying later in the age spectrum. 

…The story, Mr. Cherlin said, is more about postponement than abandonment. Marriage has declined precipitously among young women, both college graduates and women with less education. But most women do eventually marry.

According to the report, 82 percent of women who ended their formal education after graduating from high school will marry by the age of 40. Among women with a college degree the figure is 89 percent.

Female Education and Income

Increasingly, people marry assortatively with respect to education. There are three primary reasons for this:

  1. Individuals often prefer to associate with equally educated partners.
  2. Educational expansion increases contact opportunities for equally educated men and women at an age when young people start to look for partners and form couples.
  3. Women’s changing economic role in dual-earner societies increases the importance of women’s education and labor force attachment.

Until the 1970s, college educated and high earning women were less likely to marry. Today, women born in 1960 or later are as likely to marry and much less likely to divorce.

Young adults with greater earning potential, who can afford the capstone celebration, are still marrying in large numbers, while those with poorer economic prospects are holding off. According to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research, 88 percent of 35- to 44-year-old women with four-year college degrees have married, compared with 79 percent of those without high-school diplomas.

In addition, education is highly correlated with marital success. Consider the four subgroups at the greatest risk for divorce, according to Coontz:

  1. Poor minority women
  2. Women who have given birth OOW
  3. Women raised by a single parent
  4. Women with a history of numerous sex partners

Less educated women are far more likely to be in these subgroups. For example, only 8% of college educated women give birth outside of marriage, while 57% of less educated women do. 

Based on the frequent alarmist articles I read re the rise of single mothers, I was stunned to see Cherlin point out that nearly all OOW births in the U.S. are to cohabitating couples:. 

Young adults without college degrees are increasingly likely to put off marriage and have their first children in cohabiting relationships, sometimes years before they marry. Nearly all of the increase in childbearing outside of marriage in the last two decades is from births to cohabiting couples, most without college degrees, rather than to single mothers.

Coontz points out the for most of the 20th century, cohabitation predicted divorce. However, since 1996 no correlation is evident, and cohabiting with definite plans to marry decreases divorce rates, compared to direct entry into marriage. 

In addition, education predicts female fidelity, according to the National Marriage Project:

 Marital Infidelity
HS or some college19%
HS dropout21%


According to sociologist Leslie McCall, income homogamy is also becoming more prevalent (emphasis hers):

As the marriage rates of most women declined, the average marriage rate of women with high pay increased  — from 58 percent in 1980 to 64 percent in 2010.  The most economically successful women are now more likely to be married than are other women, whereas the reverse was true in 1970.

Second, top-earning women often form dual-income households with top-earning men. So high-earning women and high-earning men double their earnings advantage when they marry, while the lower the earnings of a woman, the more likely she is, if she is married at all, to be with a low-earning man. The rise of income homogamy in marriage reinforces the widening gap in earnings.

Coontz believes that increasingly, men seek a spouse who will “pull her weight” financially. Economist Gary Burtless of The Brookings Institution does not believe that male preferences have changed, but that the environmental incentives have:

The tendency of like to marry like has remained roughly unchanged over time. What have changed are the labor-market opportunities and behavior of women.

In fact, Millennial men and women expect virtually the same things from men and women in marriage:

good spouse


According to Pew, Millennials still value marriage highly:

Even though their generation has been slow to marry and have children, most Millennials look forward to doing both. Among 18- to 29-year-olds who are not currently married and have no children, 70% say they want to marry and 74% say they want to have children. Among those who have never married and have no children, 66% want to marry and 73% want to have children.

(Note: Millennials are currently only age 8-28. There is little data on actual marriage among this generation. Additionally, the Millennial data is not segregated by education.)

Of course, none of this data says anything about whether you will marry, when you might do so, or with whom. My biggest concern is not decreasing interest in marriage, which I suspect will thrive, albeit in changed form. I’m more worried about the lopsided sex ratio in college. That’s going to result in a shortage of “marriageable” men, ready to set that capstone on adulthood. 

The optimal strategy for women who wish to marry well in their mid- to late 20s and stay that way is clear.

  • Earn a college degree in a subject with concrete, marketable skills.
  • Avoid incurring debt.
  • Say no to casual sex.
  • Dedicate yourself to the search for a life partner in your early 20s at the latest.
  • Filter husband prospects aggressively for character, intelligence and drive, as well as the explicit desire to marry.

 So few women are smart and strategic about marriage that simply following these five rules will put you way ahead of the competition.