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.”