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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

People Now Marry Later, and Stay Married Longer

Young Americans of the 21st century are not marrying at the early age that was common just a few decades ago, according to a May 18 report from the U.S. Census Bureau.

But when people do marry, they seem to stay married longer, the report indicated. It said the number of divorces has been declining.

People who assume that divorce in America remains at the peak level reached around 1980 and that the deck is stacked against a newly married couple ever celebrating a 25th, let alone a 50th, anniversary might find the new report surprising.

I read many studies for the writing I do, and I try to keep abreast of polls on marriage, the family, culture and faith. What frequently surprises me in a new study or poll is the way it contradicts what earlier studies and polls found.

But what I consider interesting in the new Census Bureau report was how it confirmed and added substance to earlier reports that divorce today is not at peak levels and that many Americans now are entering lasting marriages.

The Census Bureau explained why it studies marriage and divorce in the first place. The way households in America function and the composition of families are influenced by marriage and by divorce, it said.

In other words, the bureau wants to know how well families in America are doing, and to know this it needs to know how the institution of marriage is faring. Of course, government agencies also rely on this information.

The assumption that “marriage is on the ropes,” to borrow words from W. Bradford Wilcox, is challenged by the Census Bureau findings. Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, has said that marriage today is “becoming more stable in America,” while divorce is on the decline.

Are the prospects for lasting marriages improving because people are marrying later, at a point when they may not only be more mature, but more secure financially? Little by little, that is what many are concluding.

The Census Bureau commented on that. It said, “As marriage rates have decreased and cohabitation has become more common, marriage has become more selective of adults who are better off socioeconomically and have more education, and divorce rates have leveled.”

That confounding contemporary phenomenon often is called the “marriage gap.” In a December 2010 report discussed on this website, the National Marriage Project expressed concern that the marriage gap means the prospects of marital success are improving for some, but not for others.

Among its other points, the Census Bureau report indicated that couples who divorce tend to do so during the first decade of marriage. Thus, it confirmed what those in the church’s pastoral ministry say often – that couples need strong support during the first years of marriage.

Few will find it surprising that the age for first marriages is rising. Just look around. How many 25 year olds do you know who are married? Most weddings I have attended the past few years have been for couples in their 30s.

“One of the most noticeable changes in marital patterns has been the increase in the age at first marriage,” the Census Bureau report said. This is reflected in the “increasing proportion of younger adults” that has not married, at least not yet.

In 1986, some 27 percent of American women across all racial groups between the ages of 25 and 29 never had married, but by 2009 that percentage had risen to nearly 47 percent, according to the report. In addition, in 2009 nearly 27 percent of women 30 to 34 years of age never had married.

The report provided a detailed overview of divorce among women. For those 30 to 34 years of age, the percentage who had ever divorced declined by more than four points between 1996 and 2009. But for women 50 or older the divorce rate rose.

So, though the percentage of women who had divorced declined among younger women, the report noted that it rose among older women because they “were the ones who were married during the time when divorce rates were increasing to their height.”

For both men and women, the percentage who ever had divorced “was highest for adults aged 50 to 69,” the report said.

Discussing the longevity of marriages, the report showed that in 2009 some “83 percent of all currently married couples had achieved at least their fifth anniversary, 55 percent had been married at least 15 years, and 35 percent had reached their 25th anniversary.” These groups could include people in second marriages.

Nothing in the Census Bureau report suggests that marriage has gotten easier or that today’s young couples will need any less support for their marriages as the years unfold. But when it comes to the prospects for marriage, the report drives home the point that we no longer are living in the 1980s or even the 1990s. Something is changing.

To read more on the divorce decline, see The Truth About Divorce Statistics.

About the author 
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.