Is marriage finally obsolete? Let’s hope so.

Cue the hand-wringing on this one:

Just over half of all adult Americans, 51 percent, are currently married, according to an analysis of U.S. census data by the Pew Research Center. The center predicts that, if current trends continue, the share of currently married adults will fall below half within a few years. In 1960, 72 percent of all adults 18 and older were married.

The analysis shows that, though the traditional marriage is giving way, other lifestyle forms – including cohabitation, single-person households and single parenthood – are growing. It found that the number of new marriages in the United States declined by 5 percent from 2009 to 2010.

It’s not just that folks aren’t getting married as much, it’s also that they’re questioning the entire institution. Thirty-nine percent of all adults and 44% of young people said they believe that marriage is “obsolete.” Twelve percent of unmarried adults said they do not want to get married, and another 27% expressed uncertainty.

Of course, folks like Rick Santorum are already taking the completely nonsensical position that gay marriage is to blame for the plummeting rates. But I’m excited by this news. Let’s start experimenting with alternative family structures, y’all! Perhaps on day soon, we’ll even successfully reclaim the word “spinster.”

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • Julia

    If half of all people are married, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to be calling marriage obsolete. I think that it’s great that cohabitation and being single are now seen as legitimate choices because they should be, but I don’t think that that means marriage isn’t a legitimate choice for some people. I’m nineteen and I would really like to get married someday, and I know a lot of people my age who feel the same way, even though we don’t think there’s anything wrong with other choices. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’m a lesbian and this is just me wanting what I can’t have; but I just don’t like feeling that the things I want out of life are all old fashioned and not legitimate choices anymore. Anyway, my point is that I think there’s a difference between obligatory marriage being obsolete and just marriage in general.

    • Jen

      I was coming over here to post a similar comment, Julia! I’m married, and it’s been a wonderful choice for me. Is it the right choice for everyone? No. Is it morally better than being single, or cohabitating, or polyamory? Absolutely not. But I don’t agree with the whole “Yay! Down with marriage!”

      • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

        Jen, you pretty much summed up my feeling on this. To which I would add if it’s so “obsolete”, why are so many of my LGBTQ friends fighting (not just in New York), for the right to have one? Or if they themselves don’t wish to marry, for others to have that right?

        I’d also say I’m disappointed that Feministing would choose to denigrate one expression of love and sexuality that some women may choose such as marriage. I certainly wouldn’t expect to find “Is polyamory/singlehood/cohabitation/insert relationship style here obsolete? Let’s hope so!” here, and this doesn’t seem much better.

    • Emily Sanford

      I agree! I think it’s great when sexist relationship models become obsolete, but I don’t like using the plain Jane, legal term “marriage” to refer to them. Marriage is simply a legal term, and then it’s what you make it. There are risks and problems that can result from partners not knowing what they’re getting into or what it is exactly that they want from it, but this holds just as true for single parents, cohabiting partners, and those in polyamorous relationships.

      I’m glad households are becoming more diverse – and personally, I think it’s better when the average age of marrying partners is on the rise – but declaring one model obsolete sounds like you respect it less than the other models. Not cool.

      P.S. To the moderators: I originally meant to “Reply” to Julia, and instead hit the “Report” button. Please ignore that!

      • lilu

        I don’t think “marriage” is simply a legal term. It is a term that carries a lot of long-standing, and very oppressive connotations. I don’t believe you can fully separate “marriage” from the tradition of a woman-as-property handed from her father to her husband. I don’t believe that you can really separate marriage on an INSTITUTIONAL level from its oppressive tendencies. Within individual partnerships, people may very well challenge the nature of the institution and carve out a space of equality. However, I don’t believe that in a legal setting, when the “nuclear family” is valued over any other type of arrangement (by privileging, for example, with tax breaks) you can really call marriage an egalitarian and unoppressive institution.

    • BalancingJane

      I completely agree, Julia. I don’t understand why the obsolescence of marriage (which I also agree these polls don’t really indicate) is something to celebrate. While I fully support recognizing other lifestyle choices as valid, I don’t understand why that needs to come at the cost of negating the validity of others. Shouldn’t the goal to be to provide options for lifestyles that are varied enough to meet the unique situations of the individuals who make them?

    • MadGastronomer

      Yes! Some of us happen to want to get married, thankyouverymuch. We just happen to want to define what that means for ourselves, other than the legal aspect. Marriage doesn’t have to be sexist, or monogamous, these days.

      Also, bring on legalization of poly marriage!

    • Brüno

      Just wait until you have accrued quite a lot of assets and have to confront yourself with “what if it ends in divorce”.

  • billy williams

    Finally someone who understands me!-I don’t get why anyone would ever want to get married–Why not just be with that person without having to go through a wedding,-What’s the difference?–Bachelor life Rules!

    • Robert

      You are a smart man. I got married when I was 21 and am now divorced. Fortunately I had nothing to lose when I got divorced but now having built up assets there is no way I would get married and lose half. For the last few years I have had the time of my life being with different women all over the world. I am not against marriage but there is really no point in it. I am glad there is less marriage because it means we are getting away from traditional crap. I am in my late twenties and run into so many women my age here in southern California who desperately want a husband. They always question why I’m not looking for something serious and say I’m immature because I don’t want a family. That tells me we still have a ways to go to make single life more acceptable for everyone. I second your last comment – Bachelor life rules!!!

  • Andrew

    Not only socially would people be questioning the institution of marriage just like more people in modern times are questioning religion and authority in general, also economic factors would give younger people less incentive to start a family. Those factors include unemployment and wage stagnation. And then those more environmentally-conscious people who don’t want children at all.

    • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

      As one half of a childfree couple I’ll bite -what does not wanting children have to do with whether or not someone wants to get married?

      • Mirm

        As part of a child free (married) hetero couple I also see no necessary relation between marriage & childbearing. Married people need not reproduce and parents need not marry. Of course, my partner and I have made marriage into a shape that fits us rather than conforming to outdated notions of what marriage means.

        Choice is good.

      • lilu

        My two cents would be that it’s because marriage was originally designed as a space in which a heterosex couple would thrive, and reproduce. Promoting the birth and raising of multiple children has definitely been part of the religious traditions of marriage.

        • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

          Someone’s religious traditions, maybe. Not ours.

          Hey, the internet was originally developed for military and government use, yet now it plays some part in various global uprisings. Just because at some point someone may have felt the point of marriage was reproduction doesn’t mean the whole human race is locked into that forever.

        • Brüno

          Most of the traditions of marriage, including the hard hand on hetersexuals (at least by the catholic church) have been a direct consequence of the plague. After the plague, due to the lack of resources, the demand supply situation was the way that farmers and other “beasts of burden” were in a position to make quite a lot of demands torwards their Lords, Kings and the owner class in general, which gave rise to the middle class. The bill of rights ratified in 1689 in England coincides with the black death.

          OC because of it the ruling class developped quite an intense hatetred for any man and woman who did not contribute to shore up the birthrates and close the supplygap, to make sure an oversupply of working hands would put the owner class in a position from which it could dictate the rules again. I would say they achieved a bit of an overkill.

          • Brüno

            I meant of course the hard hand on homosexuals by the catholic church.

  • Shahida Arabi

    Agree with the previous 2 comments. It’s one thing to celebrate alternative lifestyles, another to celebrate the destruction of marriage as an institution altogether. I am sure there are many others who find marriage is a rewarding and satisfying experience. Of course this is not to deny the reality of those who desire to but who still don’t have that legal privilege of entering such a union or the problematic aspects of marriage historically and culturally. But it is a personal choice like any other and should be respected as much as any other choice.

  • James

    Marriage isn’t going to become obsolete, and it would be sad if it did. You should be able to have whatever arrangement you want, but making a commitment to be with someone for the rest of your lives has been popular for a reason. There’s a big difference between cohabitation, and making a meaningful and public commitment to another person. Moving forward with entangled finances and the understanding that you’re in this for life is profoundly different from moving in together. Even if government and religion get out of the marriage certifying business, some people are still going to want that kind of commitment and certainty.
    Also, being married is kind of a certification of stability. It tells people that they can reasonably expect the couple to be together indefinitely, and that their union has been stress tested. If you’ve ever tried to coordinate two large groups of family and friends while fighting the efforts of the wedding industrial complex to bankrupt you; then you know what I mean by stress test.
    I totally respect those other ways to live, but I don’t think that it’s reasonable to want to want to take marriage out of the mix.

  • Heidi

    I’m curious myself what Maya meant by this post. Horay for the acceptance of alternative lifestyles, but that doesn’t mean we should cheer for the breakdown of marriage when there are people who want to define their relationship in that way.

    Personally, I respect people’s choice to get married even though I have no desire for marriage myself, as I see it as sexist, limiting, and unnecessary. But I realize not everyone sees it that way, and in particular I want GLBT people to have the same choice to marry as everyone else.

  • lilu

    I think its really important to begin questioning the institution of marriage as a privileged arrangement. I don’t believe polyamory has nearly the same respect and/or legally granted privileges that marriage does. So it is in fact a privileged institution over the wide array of different types of relationships. If we can see a day when marriage is no more privileged than polyamory, I will have no problem with it (on a legal and government level). I will, however, still probably have a problem with its terribly sexist derivations in Christianity. I see the “abolition” of marriage simply as a growing awareness amongst people (hopefully) that marriage is not the only way of having a stable relationship or raising children, nor should it be. It’s not to say that marriage should not exist anymore or it should be somehow barred. I think that it should just be treated completely equally as other relationship permutations.

    • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

      Christians weren’t and aren’t the only people who developed a rite of marriage, or similar acknowledgment of sacred/alchemical union.

  • Alexis

    I find it difficult to argue with a straight face that marriage is obsolete when it’s still tied to a host of legal privileges. As far as the governments of two countries were concerned, we had one choice if we wanted to live within 3000 miles of each other: Get married. The US does not grant partner visas to cohabiting partners at all, and the UK only does so if you have already been living together for 2 years.

  • natasha

    There’s nothing wrong with marriage in and of itself. I personally would like a way for the man I love to be legally considered my family further down the line. The important thing is making other options more acceptable, and having marriage equality.