Part 1 of 2
I just turned 33 years old. I married my husband when I was 23, which means we're approaching our 10-year anniversary. My husband was 30 when we married, which means he's approaching the big 4-0 in just a few short months. (If you know him, please remind him of this. He loves it.)
I won't bore you with all the details of how we met, but it started with a college research project I was working on. My goal was to write a journalistic research paper on why the average age of marriage was quickly on the rise. In 1990, the average age to marry was 20 for women and 23 for men. By 2010, the average age had risen to 29 for women and 30 for men. My project guidelines required me to find three unbiased interviewees. So I asked a 29-year-old barista from Starbucks, whom I barely knew, if I could ask him a few questions about his views on romantic relationships and marriage.
What I learned about my husband during that interview was he really admired marriage and saw it as a future goal. He had a history of mismatched relationships that consisted of rivaling ideals and misaligned commitments. However, he revered marriage and was consistently in pursuit of finding "the right person." This surprised me. He drove a motorcycle, had tattoos, played guitar and categorized himself as an artist. I made an unfair assumption that he was probably just "playing the field" or "having fun." To my surprise, we were married 16 months later.
According to a Pew Research study released this June, America has reached the highest number of never-married individuals on record. Currently, 25% of 40-year-olds or older have never been married. This is a significant increase from 20% in 2010, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data. With the rise in cohabitation, it's tempting to assume the majority of these individuals are living with someone. However, only 22% reported they are currently cohabiting.
While these findings alone may lead us to believe that marriage is dead in our country, there's another side to the story. This 2023 study also revealed 63% of Americans believe it is important for couples to get married if they intend to spend the rest of their lives together. A similar study released by Pew in 2014 reported only 53% of Americans felt this way, revealing a marked increase in this viewpoint over the last decade.
Here's why this matters: While fewer people are getting married overall, it's not because they don't have the desire to do so or, like my husband, revere marriage itself as a major step in commitment. In general, individuals want to be more cautious with making commitments and "test their relationship" by living together or staying together for longer lengths of time before saying "I do." Not to mention the cultural trend to obtain a degree and build a career before considering marriage at all. This isn't necessarily a negative thing, but it does play a major role in establishing priorities for how we measure "success" and "fulfillment" in life.
This theory holds true across race, ethnicity and socioeconomic divides as well. A 2021 study published by the National Library of Medicine found that low-income individuals desired marriage for themselves and saw it as a standard for living a fulfilling life. However, a multitude of factors kept them from pursuing and committing to relationships, including money problems, substance abuse and generational trauma.
While the marriage rate is certainly decreasing across our nation, I'd like to propose a different interpretation. It's not because we don't desire it; it's because we've slowly shifted its priority. While the reasons why are myriad, and every situation and relationship has its own story to tell, marriage isn't dead.
But, I would argue, it has become the houseplant in the corner we forget to care for. We know having the houseplant has many benefits for our overall health, including better air quality in our home and an overall mental health boost. But there are a million other things on our to-do lists that can keep us from prioritizing those sad, drooping leaves.
What can we do to help marriage become more of a priority again in our nation? Does it matter in the long run? In next week's column, we'll take a look at building a better understanding of commitment and the key elements of healthy relationships. We'll also take a fresh look at the influence of generational cycles.
Lauren Hall is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.