The Unspun Truth About Marriage in the U.S.

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 30 Females Males
1960 8% 13%
Today 33% 40%


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
2010 40%
1995: 49%
1982: 52%


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
College 13%
HS or some college 19%
HS dropout 21%


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.


How the Ascendancy of the Alpha Female Will Impact Marriage

It’s pretty clear that the ascendancy of  the alpha female comes at the direct expense of males. When women flooded the workforce, the number of jobs did not magically increase to accomodate us. We displaced men. Regardless of how you feel about women’s rights, they changed society’s landscape dramatically and those repercussions are strongly felt today, including in the area of mating.

Look at these graphs recently published in The Atlantic:


  [Read more...]


Be a Lover Before You Are a Wife

The National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia conducted a study exploring men’s feelings about commitment and marriage. 

The men in this study express a desire to marry and have children sometime in their lives, but they are in no hurry. They enjoy their single life and they experience few of the traditional pressures from church, employers or the society that once encouraged men to marry. Moreover, the sexual revolution and the trend toward cohabitation offer them some of the benefits of marriage without its obligations. If this trend continues, it will not be good news for the many young women who hope to marry and bear children before they begin to face problems associated with declining fertility.

The top ten reasons why men won’t commit are:

  1. They can get sex without marriage more easily than in times past.
  2. They can enjoy the benefits of having a wife by cohabiting rather than marrying.
  3. They want to avoid divorce and its financial risks.
  4. They want to wait until they are older to have children.
  5. They fear that marriage will require too many changes and compromises.
  6. They are waiting for the perfect soulmate and she hasn’t yet appeared.
  7. They face few social pressures to marry.
  8. They are reluctant to marry a woman who already has children.
  9. They want to own a house before they get a wife.
  10. They want to enjoy single life as long as they can.

Let’s focus on reason #2: 

They can enjoy the benefits of having a wife by cohabiting rather than marrying.

[Read more...]


Your Chances of Divorce May Be Much Lower Than You Think

One of the most frequently cited reasons for the development and persistence of hookup culture is that young people do not trust the institution of marriage. During the 90s, when hookup culture took hold, many Gen X’ers had experienced divorce in their own families, and expressed distrust of relationships in general. So far, Millennials voice more favorable attitudes about marriage, despite a constant drumbeat of gloomy news about marriage from the media. The common myth that the overall national divorce rate is 50% is just one example. (It’s 40%, and has been declining steadily since 1980. That’s bad enough – why exaggerate?)  Additionally, the politically correct bias so prevalent in the media renders much of the coverage deceptive at best.

Though the mainstream media often covers trends in marriage and divorce as a national aggregate (see above), examining the data through a variety of lenses often yields interesting and surprising results. Due to the extreme heterogeneity of the American population, I believe that the national marriage rate, divorce rate, and first age at marriage are almost meaningless for individuals (though they may be very meaningful for economists and other folks concerned about national welfare). The real insights are revealed in looking at the data according to various subgroups, including age, race, geographic location, level of education, income and religiosity. In addition, I think it’s worthwhile to discuss trends as they pertain to my audience here at HUS. 

Regular readers know I’m kind of a data junkie, and on this rainy day I was in the mood for a bit of statistics, so I’ve taken a look at some of the data around education and geographic location. Here’s the scoop:

1. Rising age and education levels in marriage have led to a steady decrease in the divorce rate.  

The national divorce rate has dropped 27% in the last 30 years:

1980: 22.6

2009: 16.4

(Rate per 1,000 married females, aged 15+)

From The State of Our Unions, 2010:

Two probable reasons for this are an increase in the age at which people marry for the first time, and the fact that marriage is increasingly becoming the preserve of the well-educated—both situations are associated with greater marital stability.

2.  The Northeast has the lowest divorce rate in the country, while the South has the highest.


 % Marriage Divorce
U.S. 19.1 9.2
Northeast 16.0 7.2
South 20.3 10.2
Midwest 18.0 9.1
West 20.7 9.2

Source: CDC Martial Events of America, 2009.

(Rate per 1,000 population aged 15+)

Deborah Carr, a professor of sociology at Rutgers, cites three primary reasons for the high divorce rate in the South:

  • First, Southerners tend to marry young, partly due to a lower rate of college attendance.
  • Second, couples don’t usually move in together while unwed, a trend tied to religious beliefs. They often frown upon birth control, and are “more likely to have nonmarital pregnancies, which… then trigger ‘shotgun’ marriages.”
  • Third, there are simply more marriages in the South. New Jersey had the second-lowest marriage rates, just above Maine. The Census survey reported while New Jersey’s marriage rate is 14.8 for men and 13.3 for women, Georgia’s is 22.1 and 20.4, respectively.

Conversely, the higher age at marriage in the Northeast and higher college enrollment produces the opposite result. 

Higher than average divorce rates for men occurred mostly in Southern states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.
In contrast, nine states had divorce rates for men significantly below the U.S. average, ranging from 6.1 to 8.5. Of these states five were in the Northeast: Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.

Higher than average divorce rates for women included Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia.

Meanwhile, 10 states had divorce rates for women below the U.S. average, ranging from 6.0 to 8.9. Four states with below-average divorce rates for women were in the Northeast: Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.

3. Average age at first marriage varies dramatically by state.

 Age Females Males




24 26

New York

Rhode Island


28 30
U.S. 26 28


4. Education has a strong impact on attitudes about marriage.


% Agreeing HS Dropouts HS Diploma Bachelor’s Degree

“Divorce should be more difficult

to obtain.”

40 50 48
“My marriage is very happy.” 52 57 69
“I have had 3 or more sex partners.” 64 70 57
“I have cheated on my spouse.” 21 19 13

Source: CDC General Social Surveys and National Surveys of Family Growth.

5. According to the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia: 


“Your Chances of Divorce May Be Much Lower Than You Think”

The background characteristics of the people entering a marriage have major implications for their risk of divorce. Here are
some percentage point decreases in the risk of divorce or separation during the first ten years of marriage, according to various
personal and social factors:


Factors % Decrease in Risk of Divorce

Making over $50,000 annually
(vs. under $25,000)


Having graduated college
(vs. not completed high school)


Having a baby seven months or more
after marriage (vs. before marriage)

Marrying over 25 years of age (vs. under 18) 24%

Coming from an intact family of origin
(vs. divorced parents)

Religious affiliation (vs. none) 14%


Life offers no guarantees, and the marriage rate in the U.S. is declining overall. The risk of divorce is daunting to many, for good reasons. When it comes time for you to chart your own course of action, you owe it to yourself to know the facts, straight up, with no political chaser. 


The Grim Beeper

Today’s post is a Trifecta of Doom.

I. Marriage continues its steep decline.

Today’s Economix blog at the New York Times covers the latest study on marriage from the Pew Research center in Older to Wed, If They Marry at All. Using the 2010 census, researchers found that the average age at marriage has risen again, to 26.5 years for women and 28.7 years for men. This is not unique to the U.S. In the last thirty years, the average female age at first marriage has increased in 75 of 77 countries that were studied.

The number of marriages is also down significantly, down 10% in the last two years:

It’s not just a matter of delay either. Check this out:

Some have claimed the economy is the culprit but Wharton economist Justin Wolfers had this to say in 2010:

 You’ve probably heard the latest marriage narrative: With the recession upon us, young lovers can’t afford to marry.  As appealing as this story is, it has one problem: It’s not true. In fact, the marriage rate appears amazingly insensitive to the business cycle.

There is a rise in cohabitation that could well be related to the Great Recession, because couples are trying to save money by living together. Many of them eventually will marry.

The biggest drop has been in the 18-24 age group, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The mid-20s is the sweet spot for the lowest odds of divorce, according to some researchers.

Late professor Norval Glenn of UT Austin, in his published study drawing from five different American data sets,

The greatest…likelihood of being in an intact marriage of the highest quality is among those who married at age 22-25. The findings of this study do indicate that for most persons, little or nothing in the way of marital success is likely to be gained by deliberately delaying marriage beyond the midtwenties.

Paul Amato of Penn State explains further:

Once people enter their early to mid-twenties, the risk of divorce is reduced. Indeed, people who postpone marriage until their thirties face a dwindling supply of potential partners – a situation that may increase the likelihood of forming unions with partners who are not good marriage material. In other words, marrying “too late” may increase the risk of having a troubled relationship.

W. Bradford Wilcox at UVA agrees:

Couples who marry in their mid-twenties tend to do best, when you combine a consideration of quality and stability.

II. The college sex ratio predicts a dramatic erosion in marriage rates over the next generation among the educated.

At first glance, the news is less alarming for the college educated, if not for society as a whole. The share of college educated individuals currently married is 64%, down 16% from 1960. In contrast, only 47% of those with a high school education are currently married, down 35% since 1960. Marriage has been a more stable institution among the college educated population. 

That cannot last. The current sex ratio nationwide in American colleges and universities is 57% female, 43% male, and the gap is widening. This means that among today’s college graduates, 25% of women will not marry college educated men. Let me say that again.

Among today’s college graduates, 25% of women will not marry college educated men.


That estimate is actually rosy because it assumes that men will want to marry in equal numbers to women. The data was not analyzed by sex, but in an era of misandrist family law that’s a dubious claim.

Of course, women may choose to marry men with less education than themselves, but this seems unlikely to happen in large numbers for several reasons:

  • Women generally prefer men with equal or higher status.
  • Men generally prefer women with equal or lower status.
  • Society is stratified by socioeconomic status. 

III. Tick Tock Biological Clock

Despite progressive sex ed curricula in most areas of the country, adult women today are seriously misinformed about the state of their ovaries. 

During a recent story that aired on NPR one infertile woman in her early 40s couldn’t understand it. She insisted that she works out regularly, does yoga, even has a personal trainer. She eats well and is healthy. She never knew that her ovaries were becoming less productive in spite of those measures.

A recent survey found that women dramatically underestimate how much fertility declines with age. They estimated that a 30 year-old had an 80% chance of getting pregnant in one try. The real likelihood is 30%. They also thought a 40 year-old woman would have a 40% success rate, while those odds are less than 10%. 

Women are surprised to learn this information and they’re angry about it. One woman had this to say about her 10 year struggle to conceive:

 I just feel like it’s something else that they lump onto women that we have no control over. You tell us, “Oh, your fertile years rapidly decline in your mid-20s.” Well, if I’m not dating anyone, and I want to have a family, what is that information going to do for me?

Barbara Collura heads the National Infertility Association. She says the first thing women say is “Why didn’t anybody tell me this?”

Let’s be honest, women don’t want to hear that they can’t have it all. We can have a great job, we can have a master’s degree, we don’t need to worry about child-bearing because that’s something that will come. And when it doesn’t happen, women are really angry.

 So why aren’t women getting the message? How can women with master’s degrees have such a poor understanding of their own bodies? Three guesses, the first two don’t count.

“A decade ago, a campaign by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine sparked a vicious backlash. Ads on public buses in several big cities featured a baby bottle shaped like an hourglass, to warn women their time was running out. But women’s rights groups called it a scare tactic that left women feeling pressured and guilty.”

So now they’re feeling barren and depressed instead. 

The prognosis for marriage is grim. We need to take our heads out of the sand and speak the truth about this issue. It’s too late for the generation of women in their 30s and 40s today. Those of you in your 20s can have marriage and a family if you want it, but you can’t have it all. My generation of feminists lied to you about that.

You have some tough choices to make. What’s more important, career or family? When you think about graduate school, are you considering the full range of costs and benefits, including potentially delaying marriage into your 30s? Are you open to meeting your life partner in your early 20s, and filtering out men you know aren’t husband material?

There are no easy answers. The climate for marriage is hostile. If you know you want to marry and have a family, you must plan for it. Husbands and babies don’t fall from trees.