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

  • Horacio Salinas for TIME

    The wedding of the 20th century, in 1981, celebrated a marriage that turned out to be a huge bust. It ended as badly as a relationship can: scandal, divorce and, ultimately, death and worldwide weeping.

    So when the firstborn son of that union, Britain's Prince William, set in motion the wedding of this century by getting engaged to Catherine Middleton , he did things a little differently. He picked someone older than he is (by six months), who went to the same university he did and whom he'd dated for a long time. Although she is not of royal blood, she stands to become the first English Queen with a university degree, so in one fundamental way, theirs is a union of equals. In that regard, the new couple reflect the changes in the shape and nature of marriage that have been rippling throughout the Western world for the past few decades.

    In fact, statistically speaking, a young man of William's age — if not his royal English heritage — might be just as likely not to get married, yet. In 1960, the year before Princess Diana, William's mother, was born, nearly 70% of American adults were married; now only about half are. Eight times as many children are born out of wedlock. Back then, two-thirds of 20-somethings were married; in 2008 just 26% were. And college graduates are now far more likely to marry (64%) than those with no higher education (48%).

    When an institution so central to human experience suddenly changes shape in the space of a generation or two, it's worth trying to figure out why. This fall the Pew Research Center, in association with TIME, conducted a nationwide poll exploring the contours of modern marriage and the new American family, posing questions about what people want and expect out of marriage and family life, why they enter into committed relationships and what they gain from them. What we found is that marriage, whatever its social, spiritual or symbolic appeal, is in purely practical terms just not as necessary as it used to be. Neither men nor women need to be married to have sex or companionship or professional success or respect or even children — yet marriage remains revered and desired.

    And of all the transformations our family structures have undergone in the past 50 years, perhaps the most profound is the marriage differential that has opened between the rich and the poor. In 1960 the median household income of married adults was 12% higher than that of single adults, after adjusting for household size. By 2008 this gap had grown to 41%. In other words, the richer and more educated you are, the more likely you are to marry, or to be married — or, conversely, if you're married, you're more likely to be well off.

    The question of why the wealth disparity between the married and the unmarried has grown so much is related to other, broader issues about marriage: whom it best serves, how it relates to parenting and family life and how its voluntary nature changes social structures.

    The Marrying Kind
    In 1978, when the divorce rate was much higher than it is today, a TIME poll asked Americans if they thought marriage was becoming obsolete. Twenty-eight percent did.

    Since then, we've watched that famous royal marriage and the arrival of Divorce Court . We've tuned in to Family Ties (nuclear family with three kids) and Modern Family (nuclear family with three kids, plus gay uncles with an adopted Vietnamese baby and a grandfather with a Colombian second wife and dorky stepchild). We've spent time with Will and Grace, who bickered like spouses but weren't, and with the stars of Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica , who were spouses, bickered and then weren't anymore. We've seen some political marriages survive unexpectedly (Bill and Hillary Clinton) and others unpredictably falter (Al and Tipper Gore).

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