Who Needs Marriage? A Changing Institution

The state of marriage is shifting in unexpected ways. A TIME/Pew special report shows how income, age and experience alter our chances of wedded bliss

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Horacio Salinas for TIME

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We've seen the rise of a $40 billion-plus wedding industry, flames fanned by dating sites, and reality shows playing the soul-mate game — alongside the rise of the prenup, the postnup and, most recently, divorce insurance. We care about marriage so much that one of the fiercest political and legal fights in years is being waged over whom the state permits to get married. We've seen a former head of state's child (Chelsea Clinton) marry after living with her boyfriend and a potential head of state's child (Bristol Palin) have a child before leaving home.

So, as we circle back around to witness another royal engagement, where are we on the marriage question? Less wedded to it. The Pew survey reveals that nearly 40% of us think marriage is obsolete. This doesn't mean, though, that we're pessimistic about the future of the American family; we have more faith in the family than we do in the nation's education system or its economy. We're just more flexible about how family gets defined.

Even more surprising: overwhelmingly, Americans still venerate marriage enough to want to try it. About 70% of us have been married at least once, according to the 2010 Census. The Pew poll found that although 44% of Americans under 30 believe marriage is heading for extinction, only 5% of those in that age group do not want to get married. Sociologists note that Americans have a rate of marriage — and of remarriage — among the highest in the Western world. (In between is a divorce rate higher than that of most countries in the European Union.) We spill copious amounts of ink and spend copious amounts of money being anxious about marriage, both collectively and individually. We view the state of our families as a symbol of the state of our nation, and we treat marriage as a personal project, something we work at and try to perfect. "Getting married is a way to show family and friends that you have a successful personal life," says Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University and the author of The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today. "It's like the ultimate merit badge."

But if marriage is no longer obligatory or even — in certain cases — helpful, then what is it for? It's impossible to address that question without first answering another: Who is marriage for?

The New Marriage Gap
To begin to answer that question, it might be useful to take a look at the brief but illustrative marriage of golfer Greg Norman and tennis star Chris Evert, who married in June 2008 and divorced 15 months later. From all reports, their union had many of the classic hallmarks of modern partnerships. The bride and groom had roughly equal success in their careers. Being wealthy, sporty and blond, they had similar interests. She was older than he, and they'd had other relationships before. (She'd had two previous spouses and he one.) Plus, they'd known each other a while, since Evert's newly minted ex-husband, Andy Mill, was Norman's best friend.

Apart from the interest the union generated in the tabloids, this is typical of the way many marriages start. Modern brides and grooms tend to be older and more similar. In particular, Americans are increasingly marrying people who are on the same socioeconomic and educational level. Fifty years ago, doctors commonly proposed to nurses and businessmen to their secretaries. Even 25 years ago, a professional golfer might marry, say, a flight attendant. Now doctors tend to cleave unto other doctors, and executives hope to be part of a power couple.

The change is mostly a numbers game. Since more women than men have graduated from college for several decades, it's more likely than it used to be that a male college graduate will meet, fall in love with, wed and share the salary of a woman with a degree. Women's advances in education have roughly paralleled the growth of the knowledge economy, so the slice of the family bacon she brings home will be substantial.

Women's rising earning power doesn't affect simply who cooks that bacon, although the reapportioning of household labor is a significant issue and means married people need deft negotiation skills. Well-off women don't need to stay in a marriage that doesn't make them happy; two-thirds of all divorces, it's estimated, are initiated by wives. And not just the Sandra Bullock types who have been treated shabbily and have many other fish on their line but also Tipper Gore types whose kids have left home and who don't necessarily expect to remarry but are putting on their walking boots anyway.

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