Every year around this time, the envelopes begin to arrive. Embossed curlicues on thick-stock, cream-colored paper ask for “the pleasure of our company” at “the union of,” “the celebration of,” or “the wedding of.” With every spring, our sighs get a little deeper as we anticipate another summer of rote ceremony, cocktail hour, and, finally, awkward dancing. Sure, some weddings are fun, but too often they’re a formulaic, overpriced, fraught rite of passage, marking entry into an institution that sociologists describe as “broken.”
Once upon a time, marriage made sense. It was how women ensured their financial security, got the fathers of their children to stick around, and gained access to a host of legal rights. But 40 years after the feminist movement established our rights in the workplace, a generation after the divorce rate peaked, and a decade after Sex and the City made singledom chic, marriage is—from a legal and practical standpoint, anyway—no longer necessary. The two of us are educated, young, urban professionals, committed to our careers, friendships, and, yes, our relationships. But we know that legally tying down those unions won’t make or break them. Women now constitute a majority of the workforce; we’re more educated, less religious, and living longer, with vacuum cleaners and washing machines to make domestic life easier. We’re also the breadwinners (or co-breadwinners) in two thirds of American families. In 2010, we know most spousal rights can be easily established outside of the law, and that Americans are cohabiting, happily, in record numbers. We have our own health care and 401(k)s and no longer need a marriage license to visit our partners in the hospital. For many of us, marriage doesn’t even mean a tax break.
The numbers are familiar but staggering: Americans have the highest divorce rate in the Western world; as many as 60 percent of men and half of women will have sex with somebody other than their spouse during their marriage. Maybe it’s a testament to American crass consumerism, but despite those odds, we still manage to idealize the ceremony itself, to the tune of $72 billion a year. Weddings are the subject of at least a dozen reality shows; a Google search for “bridezilla” turns up half a million hits; and there are four different bridal Barbies. Fifty years ago we had Grace Kelly, resplendent and demure in her high-necked lace gown. Today it’s Britney Spears in a custom-embroidered Juicy Couture tracksuit (and separated within a year, to nobody’s surprise). So when conservatives argue that same-sex couples are going to “destroy” the “sanctity” of marriage, we wonder, wait, didn’t we already do that? “Social science tells us fundamentally that this system is not working,” says Curtis Bergstrand, a sociologist at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky., who has written on marriage. Having donned our share of bridesmaid’s dresses, and toasted dozens of nuptials, we’ll take reason over romance. Happily ever after doesn’t have to include “I do.”
Before we get into specifics, a caveat: check with us again in five years. We’re in our late 20s and early 30s, right around the time when biological clocks start ticking and whispers of “Why don’t you just settle down?” get louder. (We’re looking at you, Lori Gottlieb.) So just as NEWSWEEK will never live down its (false) prediction that 40-year-old single women were more likely to be “killed by a terrorist” than to marry, we permit you, friends and readers, to mock us at our own weddings (should they happen). Current data may not yet identify our feelings as a so-called trend, but they certainly show we’re on to something: the percentage of married Americans has dropped each decade since the 1950s, and the number of unmarried-but-cohabiting partners has risen 1,000 percent over the last 40 years. At 28 for men and 26 for women, the median age at which Americans are marrying is at its highest point ever—and even higher among our cohort of urban and educated. Turns out that waiting is a good idea: for every year we put off marriage, our chances of divorce go down.
Which brings us to this question: if you’re going to wait, why do it at all? Like a fifth of young Americans, we identify as secular. We know that having children out of wedlock lost its stigma a long time ago: in 2008, 41 percent of births were to unmarried mothers, more than ever before, according to a Pew study. (Older, educated mothers make up the fastest-growing percentage of those births.) And the idea that we’d “save ourselves” for marriage? Please. As one 28-year-old man told the author of a new book on marriage: “If I had to be married to have sex, I would probably be married, as would every guy I know.” Even the legal argument for tying the knot is easily debunked. Thanks largely to the efforts of same-sex-marriage advocates, heterosexual couples have more unmarried rights to partnership now than ever. And for the rights we don’t have—well, “if you have enough money,” says Jennifer Pizer, a senior attorney at the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, “you can pay lawyers to litigate just about anything.” To put the icing on the cake, it often pays to stay single: federal law favors unmarried taxpayers in almost every case—only those whose incomes are wildly unequal get a real tax break—and under President Obama’s new health plan, low-earning single people get better subsidies to buy insurance. As Diana Furchtgott-Roth, writing for the Hudson Institute, put it, “Goodbye, marriage.” As of 2013, “unwed Americans may find it even more advantageous—financially, anyway—to stay single.”
To tell you what you already know, the American family is in the throes of change. Gone are the days of the nuclear nest; in its wake is a motley mix of single parents, same-sex couples, and, yes, unmarried monogamists. Anthropologist Helen Fisher, who studies the nature of love, might say that’s a symptom of our biology: she believes humans aren’t meant to be together forever, but in short-term, monogamous relationships of three or four years. For us, it’s not that we reject monogamy altogether—indeed, one of us is going on six years with a partner—but that the idea of marriage has become so tainted, and simultaneously so idealized, that we’re hesitant to engage in it. Boomers may have been the first children of divorce, but ours is a generation for whom multiple households were the norm. We grew up shepherded between bedrooms, minivans, and dinner tables, with stepparents, half-siblings, and highly complicated holiday schedules. You can imagine, then—amid incessant high-profile adultery scandals—that we’d be somewhat cynical about the institution. (Till death do us part, really?) “The question,” says Andrew Cherlin, the author of The Marriage-Go-Round, “is not why fewer people are getting married, but why are so many still getting married?”
The feminist argument against marriage has long been that it forces women to conform—as Gloria Steinem once put it, marriage is an arrangement “for one and a half people.” No woman we know would date a man who’d force her into the kitchen—and even Steinem eventually got hitched—but we’d be fools to think we’ve completely shed the roles associated with “husband” and “wife.” Men’s contributions to housework and child rearing may have doubled since the 1960s, yet even among dual-earning couples, women still do about two thirds of the housework. (One study even claims that the simple act of getting married creates seven hours more housework for women each week.) In the workplace, meanwhile, women who use their partner’s name are regarded as less intelligent, less competent, less ambitious, and thus less likely to be hired. We may date the most modern men in the world, but we’ve heard enough complaints to worry: if we tie the knot, does life suddenly become a maze of TV dinners, shoes up on the coffee table, and dirty dishes? “The bottom line is that men, not women, are much happier when they’re married,” says Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina who studies marriage and family.
Since the early 1900s, the driving force behind marriage, along with procreation, was that women couldn’t land well-paying jobs: we relied on our husbands to survive. As recently as 1967, two thirds of female college students (versus 5 percent of men) said they would marry somebody they didn’t love if he met their other criteria—primarily, the ability to support them financially. But today, we no longer need to “marry up”: women are more educated (we make up nearly 60 percent of college graduates) and better compensated (urban women in their 20s actually outearn their male peers). We are also the so-called entitled generation, brought up with lofty expectations of an egalitarian adulthood; told by helicopter parents and the media, from the moment we exited the womb, that we could be “whatever we wanted”—with infinite opportunities to accomplish those dreams. So you can imagine how, 25 years down the line, committing to another person—for life—would be nerve-racking. (How do you know you’ve found “the one” if you haven’t vetted all the options?) “We’ve entered the age of last-minute tickets to Moscow, test-tube children, cross-continental cubicles and encouraged paternity leaves,” write the authors of The Choice Effect, about love in an age of too many options. The result, they say, is “a generation that loves choice and hates choosing.”
Which means that when we do tie the knot, we do it for love. Young people today don’t want their parents’ marriage, says Tara Parker-Pope, the author of For Better—they want all-encompassing, head-over-heels fulfillment: a best friend, a business partner, somebody to share sex, love, and chores. In other words, a “soulmate”—which is what 94 percent of singles in their 20s describe what they look for in a partner. Yet the idea of a “soulmate” is still a pretty new concept in our romantic history—and one that’s hard to maintain. Measurements of brain activity have shown that 20 years into marriage, 90 percent of couples have lost the passion they originally felt. And while couples who marry for love are less “in love” with each passing year, one study found that those in arranged marriages grow steadily more in love as the years progress—because their expectations, say researchers, are a whole lot lower.
So while little girls may still dream of Prince Charming, they’ll be more likely to keep him if they don’t expect too much. Research shows that the more education and financial independence a woman has—in other words, the more success she has outside the home—the more likely she is to stay married. (In states where fewer wives have paid jobs, for example, divorce rates tend to be higher.) But when these egalitarian, independent couples decide not to marry at all, they lose none of that stability. Just take a look at couples in Europe: they’re happier, less religious, and more likely to believe that marriage is an outdated institution, and their divorce rate is a fraction of our own. Not being married may make it slightly easier to walk away—at least legally—but if you’ve gone to the lengths to establish a life together, is it really all that different? Studies show that never-married couples with the intention of forever are just as likely to stay together as married ones. And for all the talk of marriage being good for families, a study of the Scandinavian countries—where a majority of children are born out of wedlock—found that kids actually spend more time with their parents than American children do. Work and living habits surely factor into that reality, but the point is this: what’s good for children is stability. The decline of marriage “doesn’t have to spell catastrophe,” says Stephanie Coontz, the author of Marriage, a History. “We can make marriages better and make nonmarriages work as well.”
It may counter what we grew up thinking, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. With our life expectancy in the high 70s, the idea that we’re meant to be together forever is less realistic. As Hannah Seligson, the author of A Little Bit Married, puts it, there’s a "new weight to the words ‘I do.’ " Healthy partnerships are possible, for sure—but the permanence of marriage seems naive, almost arrogant. "Committing to one person forever is a long time," says Helen Fisher. “I wonder how many people really think about that.” If you’re anything like us, you’ll have plenty of time to do just that—while you’re sitting in the pews, at other people’s weddings.